“Ooh, I want to feed them all, they’re so cute!” said the woman jumping over the fallen spruce trees set up as a barricade. Behind the tangle of horizontal limbs a Yellowstone National Park elk sat eyeing the gathered crowd with a regal expression. Its majestic antlers framed out from the crown of its head like a cloud of errant thorns. Its shoulders rose above most of the heads around it. Cameras clicked and people whispered, gawking at the creature. A few walked boldly closer to the elk’s family roving nearby, and they in return backed away. The seated elk remained, however, its head lowered, its defiant eyes watchful. “Isn’t it so adorable?” cooed the lady approaching closer. I caught the elk’s glance and saluted before walking away. From a distance the scene looked as if a mob were gathered before a trapped beast, waiting to pounce on it. Or perhaps the throng were subjects in front of the stag king. I could not decide which.
Life at Yellowstone seems to be an eternal tug-of-war between primitive nature and the human need to be master. The surreal landscape makes one yearn to touch, pet, and nuzzle everything. It is easy to be fooled into thinking this terrain is a preserved vault rather than a microcosm of our intrepid world. The spasmodic geysers, like Old Faithful, appear to effervesce in heavenly delight, but they spout brimstone. The luminous peacock tinted sulfur pools seem to swallow every shadow, but their illimitable depths are churning cauldrons. Mud puddles boil, creeks hiss, and gushing waterfalls rage through the canyons. Ferocity duels with surreal splendor, but it feels easy to ignore the former while admiring the latter.
I become obsessed with the roaming bison herds. The gentle bovine creatures with their liquid eyes and scraggly haunches have captured my devotion. I rise with the sun each day and go in search of them. I study them from various viewpoints, hoping to know the secrets they hide within their long forgotten memories. I overlook them from the heights of Druid’s Peak as their minuscule dots range along the prairie. I observe them eating breakfast, their breaths snorting in trembling puffs that mingle with the steam from the hot springs. I encounter them in pairs huddled on a hillock. I listen to their hooves describe circles in the tufted grass upon the shores of Lamar River. I even surprise one in its solitary revels of a pine grove. I become comfortable in their presence, edging nearer and nearer to them with each meeting. I come upon a pack crossing a hiking trail. A sound startles them and all stampede across the path. The stupendous sound of their panic scares my complacence. Their raw energy is a reminder that my soft mass of flesh and bone is no match to their two-thousand pound (907 kilograms) bulwark of muscle.
Yellowstone proudly displays nature’s power, it is a place where I cannot ignore the fierceness of the wilderness. Ensconced in progress I forget the potency of the elements: the ravaging storm, the destructive earthquake, and the predator’s strength. Technology and modern society have developed a hubris within me, a false sense of invulnerability. Even when I hike the woods or climb a mountain I tend to observe in my surroundings the serenity I seek. I choose to pay attention to the unruffled demeanor of the universe not its tumultuous workings. Yellowstone rouses me from this deceptive slumber. Earth’s brawn is flexed in this environment, its ability to wreak havoc exposed. Its balletic dance upon the precipice a pageant for all visitors. I have been infatuated with the great outdoors for a long while. I have paid homage to its harmonious composure and thought of it as a friendly companion. I have not given its savagery any contemplation.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming remains a rare part of our planet where nature dominates. We have conquered so much terra firma, molded it into the misshapen image of our desires, that it is becoming impossible to see its real personality. We want to safe keep our home, but on our own terms. We wish to protect the environment, but subject to our will. We need the remote rapids of Yellowstone to remind us that not everything requires our meddling. We need the chaotic Yellowstone caldera to show us our true place in the cosmos. We need the hulking hordes of bison to teach us that freedom does not come with cages or fences. As long as there are places like Yellowstone National Park in this world, where the panoply of imperious animals is allowed to ramble undisturbed, there is a chance we can learn the meaning of the word “wild.”
Yellowstone National Park remains the last stronghold for free ranging genetically pure American bison (Bison bison). With the reintroduction of the northwestern wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis), the park is now home to one of the best megafauna habitats. The balance, however, is always tenuous as cattle ranchers fear the bison and elk for disease transmission and many visitors continue to view the park’s wildlife as pets. The instability of geothermal features provides some measure of protection to the animals, but close encounters with humans and restriction of movement will debilitate the fraught equilibrium of this domain.
Any encounters with wildlife you want to share with us? Thoughts on how Yellowstone NP rangers can make relations between human visitors and the untamed animals better? Let us know in the comments section.