My friend Sue frequently sends me photos of cute animals (her idea, not mine). Recently, she’s sent me shots of the National Zoo’s new baby porcupine named — wait for it — Quilliam.
I get a kick out of those pictures; after all, porcupines are weird and wonderful and make very cute noises when they eat.
But this video.
What is it that makes me watch this over and over and over again?
Is it the way the coyote seems to ask the badger, “You coming?”
Or the way the coyote reacts to the badger’s decision to come: “YIPPEE!!”
Or the badger picking his way carefully down the bank?
Or the badger’s white behind, waddling into the darkness?
I live with a wildlife biologist, so I know better than to anthropomorphize these critters. But I also know that animals feel things, and I defy you to tell me these animals aren’t connected to each other. They look like friends, out of the pages of a children’s book… except that that’s a real culvert.
Maybe it’s just that they hunt together, and the coyote is really hungry and excited to have the badger’s help. That’s not a letdown for me. I’m captivated by the idea that these guys figured out that they have complementary skills, to the extent that it’s worth it for the coyote to wait for the other guy. It makes me wonder what other interesting relationships come about in the wild, and whether such connections are old and deeply natural, or new, forced by the encroachment of humans.
And that’s why I keep watching the video — wonder.
This world is so full, not just of beauty, but of whole realms of function and interconnection that we don’t know and aren’t equipped to understand. I will never know how monarch butterflies convey to each other how to migrate, when one migration takes six generations. I will never know why orioles choose to nest in palm trees. I will never see through the eyes of a housefly, or know how it feels to spin a web.
And I might go years without even contemplating those gaps in my knowledge. In addition to the limited capacities of our brains, our antiseptic isolation from Nature robs humans of the ability to see reality clearly and fully. We may understand our dependence on the natural world, but we never fully grasp it, and our circumstances conspire to make it far too easy for us to push away the truth of our impact on it. If you are thinking about picking up the kids, or the inconveniently scheduled doctor’s appointment, or the absence of a dinner plan for tonight, it can be just too much to listen to the canvasser or caller who is reminding you of the big problems that our way of living is inflicting on our natural world.
Wonder, however, captured in a night video or on a mountaintop or even in the local park, imprints itself on our psyche and becomes embedded in our imagination. The awareness of what we don’t know begins to shape us, if we let it, and our sense of ourselves in the world.
Advocates for the environment spend a lot of time reminding people about the necessity of clean air, clean water and open spaces – the immediate, granular, in-your-daily-life reasons people should throw their support behind the preservation of the natural world. I’ve done it my whole career. But it’s important that I also remember, as often as possible, to call on wonder.
How do we do that? It can be awkward to write or even talk about the miracle of the environment, because it’s impossible to accurately describe … so we have to make do with words like “grandeur” and “intricate” and “unfathomable.” But awe is a primal emotion, tied to the ancient human awareness of our smallness in the universe, and it can’t be evoked by words — at least, not by our “advocate” words.
But there are two things we can do. First, we can fight like hell to protect the avenues through which wonder enters our lives — the national parks, the face of a mountain lion, the night sky. Second, we can stop to notice when wonder enters our lives, and then share it — not just as organizers, but as participants in the dance of life on this awesome planet.
Which is just what the Peninsula Open Space Trust did when they accidentally captured a video of a coyote and a badger on a night jaunt through a culvert in the southern Santa Cruz mountains last week. And here I sit, over and over again, amazed.
Managing Director, Frontier Group; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
Susan Rakov is the Director of Frontier Group, The Public Interest Network's research and policy development center. Frontier Group’s work informs public debate about degradations to the environment and public health, threats to consumer rights and democracy, and the available routes to a better future. Susan lives with her family in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she is an advocate for public education and an amateur singer/songwriter.