Trail: The view from the top of the food chain (column)
Writers on the Range
Today I hiked along a forest trail near my home. Squirrels scolded, a raven croaked. I moved steadily on. Startled at my approach, a deer bounded away, labored up the loose soil of the steep little canyon, and disappeared. I barely paused. There was nothing there for me to fear, nothing for me to attend other than what I chose.
Such as this late afternoon light, striking golden against the eastern slope of the canyon, bringing the polished trunks of the madrones to a fine glow. I stop to savor the aesthetic thrill of a harmonious landscape. How wonderful to be carefree in nature!
Around the end of a log hops a small bird. It does not react to my motionless form, less than 20 feet away. I cautiously raise binoculars to satisfy my curiosity, and see it is a young hermit thrush in ragged late-summer plumage, its patchy face wearing the naïve and slightly desperate expression of a college freshman trying to make his way across an unfamiliar campus.
Obscurely moved by the bird, I impulsively decide to renounce, for this one encounter, my position as the dominant species. I will wait, motionless and silent, for the thrush to do what it wishes until it leaves the scene on its own terms, and in its own time. It is 5:59 p.m.
White, male, American, and by any rational standard rich, I perch atop a global pinnacle of privilege. It is both very comfortable and very uncomfortable, though mostly comfortable. The privilege I enjoy, though, is just in relation to my fellow humans. Beyond white privilege, male privilege, or the privilege inherent in being born in America, is an even deeper and less acknowledged boon — human privilege.
The thrush hops about in the scurf of Douglas-fir needles and dust at the edge of the trail, scratching with both feet and twice lunging forward to seize something I can’t see. At 6:04, it crosses the path, and settles beneath that arching cover of a snowberry bush. It fluffs its feathers for comfort and falls into motionlessness. The canyon is silent, but for a slight trickle of water from the drying creek and the soughing of wind through the trees. Time passes.
At 6:08, the thrush gives a small shake and leaps up into the snowberry. It gives its first call, a single chup, and then at 6:10 flies back to the path, where it resumes its quiet foraging. It finds nothing, and at 6:12 flies about 20 feet upslope into a small dogwood, where it gives a series of calls, accompanied by wing-flips. I risk a look with my binoculars; the thrush shows no reaction to my slight movement, but continues to call and flip his wings. The motions resemble food begging by a fledgling. Perhaps this youth, hungry and alone, is calling to his parents, nowhere to be found.
At 6:14, the thrush flies to the path behind me, less than 15 feet away. It shows no awareness of my presence, and after a minute of foraging, flies out of sight down the creek. For 16 minutes, I had put aside human privilege. It felt like a long time. It wasn’t. But it gave me a more intimate encounter with another species than I have had for a very long time.
Years ago, I lived in the South American rainforest, doing graduate research. The remote reserve was still home to all its wild beasts, including jaguars. Attacks by jaguars on humans are almost unheard-of, and yet jaguars are definitely capable of killing a person. I encountered the animals eight times. One of those encounters was face-to-face. For those few seconds I lived utterly without human privilege, forever changing my place in the world.
Most of us have never lived in a landscape with large predators. Most have never experienced nature as anything worse than an inconvenient blizzard, a drought that killed the landscaping, a windstorm that knocked out the power. We have lived like kings, and like kings, we never questioned the justice of our privileges.
Monarchies are overthrown, and empires fall. No single species can forever appropriate all the resources of the world for its own. It is likely that climate chaos, acting through epidemics, agricultural collapse, or migration-fueled wars, will end human privilege, if not planetary domination, by the end of this century.
As individuals, there is only so much we can do to prepare.
But here’s one thing I’m going to try — to practice living without human privilege for a few minutes a week. Let the world be. Watch what happens. Repeat.
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives and writes in Oregon.
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