It Began with a Question

Cover photo by Blair Speed

Most works of writing begin with a question. How do we make sense of death? What are the limits of love? What events shape the character and why? 

While these questions emerged as focal points in my book overtime, the initial question I began with centered on humans’ (general) relationship to nature. Precisely, to what extent are humans separate from the wild world? Does a divide between the animal kingdom and humans actually exist, or is this separation a human construct in itself? 

These questions may seem philosophical, but I find them to involve all the humanities: biology, chemistry, psychology, art…and so on.

Clearly humans evolved in ways radically divergent from other mammals. We are one of a few species able to survive in all biomes. Our technological creations far surpass any inventions employed by primates. (Pretty sure chimps don’t log onto Facebook.) From the cars we drive to the planes we fly, we are, no doubt, exceptional to the larger animal kingdom.  

While our physical differences appear obvious, intangibles blur the line. Elephants mourn the dead. Dolphins have sex for fun. Whales speak in dialects. Gorillas wage war, wolf packs create peace treaties. Grief, pleasure, language, hate, reconciliation: these human experiences may be our most primal characteristics.

When considering our relationship to the larger world, we’re asked to clarify our definitions of natural and human, wild and domestic. Beavers construct dams, creating floodplains out of meadows. Why is the manufacture of a reservoir considered unnatural? The extent of our ability to alter landscapes seems to mark the division between habitat alteration and something—different. Something human.

Our impact grows in proportion to our brains. Humans’ complex languages afford the proliferation of knowledge across time and space. We build upon our advances: wheels into planes, planes into spaceships. Simultaneously, our genius extends lifespans while threatening the lifespan of our species at large. Of most species, for that matter. 

Or should I write, if mass extinction matters?

We circle back to the human-nature divide, asking ourselves if climate change is as wild as fire. I believe the ecological crisis, wrought by our decisions and consequential actions, (not necessarily in ill-will, I’d like to emphasize), is a natural progression of being a wild creature. But as animals, perhaps above all else, we have the drive to survive. This may be our saving grace.  

Human extinction doesn’t yet pose an immediate threat. What, then, is the extent of our care for the species facing extinction now? How far are we able to lean into ecological limits? Are we willing to alter our habits in order to preserve habitats apart from human infrastructures?

While an undercurrent of dread and grief stirs as I write this, I’m more exploratory than nihilistic. The finger-pointing and shaming rhetoric of environmental writing has never resonated with me. Yes, I deeply care about our animal kin and the struggles they face with human expansion; but I find myself more and more curious about the why of our current reality.

February marks the five-year anniversary of beginning work on my book. I recently discovered, while reading an old journal of mine, the idea for the trilogy emerged more than a year earlier, on the 2012 winter solstice. I was in graduate school, struggling with the emotional weight of the ecological crisis.

I wrote down, what would it look like to live as a wild human? And so it began.