What makes us human, what makes us good? | Guest Column

  • Tue Feb 28th, 2017 7:00am
  • Life

By Kimberly Mayer

San Juan Island

I am walking in the woods alongside the sea pondering these questions: what makes us human, and what makes us good? And the answer, it seems to me, is the extent to which we are connected to, and value, wildlife.

Consider the whales in the sea and the trees in the forest. Consider the elephants if you please.

Strong mother-child bonds characterize the Orcas whale as well as the elephant. Offspring often stay with their mothers for life. And upon death, Orcas keep vigil, actively mourning the passing of one of their own.

“They’re not killer whales, they’re lovers,” writes reporter Hayley Day in “Wired for orca love,” published in the Feb. 8 edition of The Journal and Feb. 14 online.

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research in FridayHarbor suggests in that article, “They may be a superior species actually. They’ve certainly been around longer than us. They may think ‘those monkeys’ on the beach have almost whale-like intelligence.”

Or not.

Turning now to the trees, I am realizing from the beautiful little book I am reading, “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben, that the forest is another remarkable social network. Trees too are social beings, and a solitary planted tree would be hard-pressed to enjoy the benefits of those in the forest. Growing near each other, like families, trees support each other, share nutrients, and care for their sick and elderly. They communicate through both roots and leaves, warn each other of dangers — such as insect infestations, and accommodate for one another’s growth rather than crowd each other out. Together in a forest, trees create a hospitable climate that one tree alone would be incapable of achieving.

My woods here is full of deer, but continents away from the Puget Sound elephants tell a remarkably similar story to the trees and the whales. Elephants also form close family bonds particularly between mother and offspring, and live in a complex, matriarchal, social structure. Elephants greet one another, work in teams, and exhibit emotions such as crying at birth and death. They grieve, bury their dead, and frequently return to revisit the body. Elephants care for each other’s orphaned offspring, sharing food when it is scarce. Capable of enormous empathy, elephants do not do well in isolation.

Whales, trees, or elephants, there is resistance in numbers. We must remember this.

Only four weeks into the Trump Administration and the future for wildlife — wild animals, fauna, flora, mammals, fish and birds — looks bleak. And with it, would go our humanity.

Climate change is locked in denial by the very man chosen now to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt fired off multiple lawsuits against the EPA on behalf of oil, gas, and coal industries. Long an adversary against regulation to control pollution, can’t you hear them all laughing in the fossil-fuel board rooms now?

What did the American people expect? A developer looks at a forest and sees a golf course, hotels, casinos. He sees trees for cutting down. To him, an ocean is for skimming his yacht across. His sons trophy hunt in Africa, like Colonialists out of the 19th century.

And we, the monkeys on the beach, are rendered less healthy, less humane and less human for this.