In Search of Nature and a Cup of Strong Coffee

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By Jack Phillips

First light comes late to central Alberta. I had arrived at the Calgary Zoo before dawn on a cold October morning with enough time before class for a hike to the coffee shop. I was there to teach tree ecology to provincial arborists, and my search for coffee put me on a dark, winding path. The zoo was designed according to biomes, and the Canadian Rockies section included steep inclines, boulders and a native arboretum. One could catch glimpses of bison and grizzlies through groves of aspen and pine. The designed sense of nature was enhanced that morning by the concealment of enclosures and the fact that the zoo was not yet open and the lights were off.

I rounded a curve and stopped dead in my tracks. A wolf stood in my path a few meters ahead—ears up, body stiff, gaze fixed on my intrusion. I had seen wild wolves in Alaska but never in a threatening posture just a few bounds away. Except for my pounding heart, I was frozen by Wolf’s stare. I eventually regained my senses and remembered that the path turned sharply just before a thin fence. Even with the realization that I was perfectly safe—Wolf in a cage of concrete and steel and me in my cage of modernity—I felt a primal connection in the space between us. The setting was artificial, but the fear and fascination were real.

Across the distance of evolution and culture, how had these mixed feelings of affinity and dread survived? After all, I was looking for a barista, and Wolf was waiting for a zookeeper with breakfast. My role that day was to teach “the nature of tree care” to colleagues who, like me, loved nature but were increasingly alienated from it. Wolf’s role that day was to entertain schoolchildren and serve as a metaphor for essays like this one. And yet, staring at each other on our designated slabs of concrete, we shared a common pulse and past.

The abiding sense of connection that humans feel with wild creatures can create a range of feelings between affection and fear, but is above all else resilient. Perhaps it is because wild encounters quicken our hearts and make us feel alive. That’s what Henry David Thoreau believed as he wrote “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” But Wolf in a cage is not wild. In fact, my life was closer to being wild—I had to find my own food, had freedom of movement and had to fight for survival in Calgary’s oil-boom traffic. Wolf, by contrast, was a zookeeper’s pet with better access to health care than most Americans. In a sense, Wolf and I shared the same cage—deprived of the life that Thoreau described.

But there is a cure. In Walking, Thoreau prescribed “an infusion of hemlock-spruce or arbor-vitae in our tea” followed by a saunter in the woods. (Back home in Nebraska, I preferred oak with my morning brew.) For Thoreau, sauntering wasn’t just walking slowly but walking with reverence, as though on a pilgrimage. His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, taught that a saunter in the woods can restore youth at any age and cure the afflictions of modernity. Maybe we need fewer wolves in cages and more pilgrims in the woods.

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