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Past and Future Yellowstones: Finding Our Way in Wonderland

This short book is an expanded version of Paul's 2014 Wallace Stegner Lecture, delivered on March 26, 2014 at the Nineteenth Annual Symposium of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, at the University of Utah. Drawing on historical perspectives, personal excursions, and decades of professional research and work in the field, Paul illuminates many of the possible truths embedded in the natural and cultural reality that is Yellowstone National Park. By varying the scale of observation from a single encounter between a cow elk and a grizzly bear to the sweeping forces of evolution, Paul celebrates the park's history and future as a laboratory of ideas. It is, as he states, a place with "layers of meaning waiting to be explored and . . . many possible truths to be weighed."

Past and Future Yellowstones describes how national parks allow for the study of ecological processes even amidst civilization's increasing influence. Wildness becomes more important as it becomes harder to protect, and the uncertainties inherent in wild landscapes, and in the unfolding idea of Yellowstone as a place and idea, empower scholarly and popular dialogues about the human place in nature. This book is an invitation to all readers to participate in the great "Yellowstone conversation."

Excerpt from Past and Future Yellowstones:

Time was when the people who saw the lives of each individual wild animal in the most personal of terms seemed to occupy the moral high ground. After all, they were displaying the greatest sympathy for their fellow creatures, taking each lost baby bird and road-killed squirrel to heart like the death of a friend. The apparent heartlessness of other people, who placed some emotional distance or intellectual exercise between themselves and what Henry Beston called the "other nations," seemed cold, almost barbaric.

But the growing sophistication of our ecological awareness has redrawn this moral and ethical battlefield. New values, new beauties, have emerged. There are, indeed, ways to engage such scenes from other distances.

If you watch not the moment but the season, and see the entire elk herd straggle and pause for calving as they pursue the spring greenup across a wilderness landscape, you witness a wonder-filled natural pageant.

And if you stand back even further, you can re-imagine the scene in terms of almost incomprehensible complexity—the interweavings of life and place not through a season but over decades, centuries, millennia. And from that distance, you witness yet another dance, perhaps the most elegant of all, as a place reshapes its inhabitants again and again and again—a dance whose rhythms you may only faintly discern when a single bear kills a single elk on a single day.

But there are yet other distances to be considered here. Century after century, as we have wondered and theorized over nature's spectacles, we have invariably put them to work in our hearts and our souls. In nature's doings we have found proof of God and proof of the needlessness of God—proof of the universe's perfect independence from any purpose, and proof of the universe's perfect sense—proof of our species' own innate centrality to all things, and proof of our species' utter meaninglessness. In the same natural scene we have at times found beauty, at other times evil. One generation's wasteland is the next generation's sublime. Nature is nothing if not malleable to our personal needs, and each of us will generally find what we are looking for out there.

But the important thing about nature, in fact the reason that wildness works for us at all, is that nature simply does not care what we find. Our experience, if it teaches us anything, teaches us that nature doesn't have a lot of use for answers, either about how it works or how we should feel about it. The answers are up to us.

The idea of Yellowstone is, like nature itself, a work in progress, a vast coming-to-terms that is all the more exciting and fulfilling for its daunting uncertainties. I love the learning that goes on out there, but I also have a hunch that we need the uncertainty just as much. It keeps us on our toes. Luckily, Yellowstone is very good at uncertainty.

I went to my hill to watch for elk who watched for bears because I did want to understand, but even more because what I found up there was perfect and beautiful and very powerful, and because it thrilled me to be drawn so irresistibly into the presence of such wildness. It would have been foolish to demand that my experiences settle anything, but somehow they always helped. Maybe that's asking enough.