Saturday, August 8, 2015


                                           CHAPTER   TWENTY-FIVE

                         IN    WILDNESS
                    IS   THE   PRESERVATION                                             OF  THE   WORLD


                   Oil Painting by William T. Richards

In an essay entitled “Walking”, Henry David Thoreau wrote:  “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Today, we live in a world that disdains wilderness.  In less than 300 years, colonization of the eastern half of North America has reduced forest cover by over fifty percent.  The loss and degradation of habitat has resulted in the extinction of thousands of animal and plant species.  Our rivers and streams have suffered from pollution, erosion and silting.  Our springs and aquafers are drying up.   
Native Americans believed that the land and all of its resources belonged to everyone.  They believed in the sacred power of nature.  They respected the animals, the fish and the forests and for thousands of years they lived on this continent while preserving wilderness.  Unfortunately, our American history is a sordid tale:  the “divine rights of kings” allowed the New World to be conquered and its land to be seized, and then granted in vast tracts to the nobility.  Indian tribes were slain, decimated by disease and driven from their homes.  Our founding fathers, while setting a new nation on an admirable course in terms of personal freedom and liberty, failed to plan for the protection of resources.  There were no limits on the abuse of land and water, no laws to prevent exploitation and greed. 

Then, when Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, the nation was made aware of the need for wilderness conservation.  He said:  “The rights of the public to natural resources outweigh private  
 rights and must be given first consideration.”  The power of eminent domain allowed him to create five national parks, four game refuges and fifty-one bird sanctuaries.  He established the National Forest Service and passed the National Monuments Act.  If our founding fathers had understood the importance of conservation when the nation was born, or if Teddy had been around back then, this land would be a better land.  If the new nation had listened to Native Americans, a lot more of the land would belong to all of its citizens. 

 The founding fathers might have decreed that wilderness would exist along the banks of all of our rivers and streams, in perpetuity.  A set-back of 500 or 1,000 feet from the banks of those streams might have been declared park land, free of cultivation, wild, belonging to all of us.  Think of the implications for the health of those waters, the reduced erosion and silting.  Imagine the amount of habitat for plants and animals in those millions of acres of public lands. 

Naturally, this takes me back to Kinniconick and especially the sixty wooded acres I called “Shabomekaw”.  For almost a mile, the stream flowed through wilderness.  The wildlife, tree and plant species there were extraordinary.  Eastern Ruffed Grouse drummed in the spring.  Fox squirrels, big red furry animals, were in the trees.  Flying squirrels nested in a tree near the cabin.  Fox barked in the night.  Whippoorwills and owls serenaded in the clearing.  Tree frogs and bull frogs were in abundance.  In the Spring of one year, hundreds of spring peepers, tiny frogs measuring less than two inches, and famous for their high-pitched mating calls, gathered on the gravel beach down at the Swirl-hole.

Recently a viewer of this blog contacted me to discuss salamanders.  He is doing some scientific research on the species and read about Kinniconick, once a mother-lode for hunters of mud puppies and hellbenders.  I replied to his email with this story:

“Sometime in the 1960s a group of Procter and Gamble friends were at the cabin and one of them had a weekend place on the Little Miami, where he loved to set trot-lines (something I had never tried). He proceeded to set one across the Swirl Hole, the deep pool below the cabin.  Next morning we ran the line and a salamander-type creature had been hooked.  No one in the group, including myself, had ever seen a specimen like it.  It was about 18 or 20 inches long, had small foot-like appendages, was mottled brown and gray as I recall.”

The creature was a hellbender.  It is one of several giant salamanders that began to appear in Asia and North America over 60 million years ago.  Think about it:  a living fossil that began to live in Kinniconick from the earliest days of the stream’s existence, two or three million years ago.

Some research on the internet informed me that this species was always rare because it requires clean, moving water and rocky-river-bottoms.  The Kinniconick that I love was just such a stream, but inevitably water quality and habitat were affected by development and siltation.  My new-found correspondent told me that the hellbender is close to extinction.

The extinction of species is a monumental tragedy when man-made events are the cause of those extinctions.  Natural extinctions have occurred since the beginning of time but in the last few hundred years the rate of die-off has accelerated and experts estimate that extinctions are now between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than in past aeons.  

The Center for Biological Diversity has written this about the extinction crisis:  “It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century……99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, the introduction of exotic species and global warming.”  Amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals, plants and reptiles, all are endangered.  Like the “canary in the coal mine” each of them tells us to change our ways, believe that climate change is real, support efforts to cut carbon and toxic emissions and save essential habitat.

Thoreau was aware in 1851 that dark forces were at work even then.  He was able to foresee the effects of over-population and unfettered capitalism and the disappearing wilderness.  He may even have predicted the mass extinction that threatens us today.  These are some of the words he wrote in “Walden”: 

“Not till we are lost……not till we have lost the world….do we begin to find ourselves.”