two wild horses nuzzle

Ours is a time of great spiritual hunger.
People are thirsting for the sacred, the mysterious, the mystical.
They are looking for more than a good job, a full closet,
and a balanced checkbook.

—John Michael Talbot


The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss once suggested: “Animals are good to think with.” He made the comment after a career spent considering the norms, roles, and values of the groups native to central and southern America. In truth, on every continent, and all through time, animals have filled roles in our thoughts, our folklore and our rituals. Among the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest, raven, eagle, and orca appear in stories as characters. In the contemporary United States, children nestle down at night with Teddy bears, under dangly bee mobiles and next to shelves lined with horse figurines. Parents read stories to children with animals embedded into scripts, real or imaginary: the Lorax, Curious George, and the Cat in the Hat. Two years ago, I sent my sister a paperback version of the children’s classic, Frog and Toad are Friends, so she could read it to my niece. Now my niece reads on her own, so I sent a copy of Black Beauty, the well-known story of perseverance narrated by a horse.

Today, as in the past, we task each group, and generation, with creating a setting that allows children to build the skills and attitudes they’ll need when they become adults. Despite iPads, nuclear power plants, and widespread urbanization, the human enterprise remains mostly unchanged. We use stories about forests, animals, prairies, and skies to orient the young to the workings of the world. We introduce good and evil. We teach lessons about character, strength, and compassion. In the words of the novelist Ursula LeGuin, “Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people.”

We tell young people stories about animals and the places where they live, and in so doing, we grind and shape the lens that they look through. We work to create in youth an “environmental imagination,” a vision and framework that guides them toward a way of seeing the world and their relationship to the places where they live. Over time, our imaginations shape our consciousness. In the minds of adults, our imaginations and the views that flow from them provide texture to daily life. Then, of course, our day-to-day activities go on to shape the contents of the air we breathe, the quality of our waterways, the number and type of animals with whom we share our lives—even the look of the landscape itself.

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But something happens in between a youth spent listening to stories about animals and adulthood. We send young kids to school. During our education, we learn that our futures require us to fulfill roles in the economy. For at least twelve years we please our teachers. In so doing, we learn how we might one day please a boss. We learn to sit quietly, listen, stand patiently, wait, do homework, and meet deadlines. We learn that each state in the union is endowed with its own set of resources and industries. In the East, we learn that mountain tops, if removed properly, reveal seams of sought-after coal. On the coasts, fishermen can trawl the ocean bottoms for a bounty of lobster. On the prairies of the West, cattlemen range their herds of black Angus and Herefords. Through the institution of education, we learn to see the world, and our role in this life, from the standpoint of economics.

The United States is a new nation. We’re relatively young compared to the cultures of Asia or Africa. When European settlers landed on the east coast of North America, they brought an expansionist frame of mind. White Europeans removed or displaced native people and animals wherever they conflicted with the landscapes they imagined as ideal. In the East, the transformation meant the clearing of forests to make room for new cropland. In the Midwest, it involved the development of factories, and in the basins between the peaks and ranges of the West, ranchers saw large swaths of grass as a means to provide forage for cows and calves.

Our tendency toward expansion fueled the physical transformation of North America, and by the late twentieth century, through the workings of the global marketplace, the transformation of the Earth. Stocks of cod and tuna dropped to dangerously low levels. People suffer the effects of poor air quality in cities around the globe, the chemicals of agriculture poison stores of freshwater, and the threat of rising seas loom over people living near coastlines. If that wasn’t enough, life scientists predict a spike in extinctions to correspond with climate change, our desire for goods, and the loss of habitat that accompanies a lust for real estate.

In many ways, the prairies of the West foretold the changes that would happen on a wider scale. As settlers and cattlemen approached the short-grass prairie, Eskimo curlews became extinct along with Audubon bighorns, Merriam’s elk, and plains-adapted grizzly bears. Today, we find prairie dogs present on two percent of the range they occupied prior to our division of the West into U.S. states. Black-tailed prairie dog numbers dipped so low at the end of the twentieth century, biologists requested that politicians place them on the endangered species list. We rounded up more than two million wild horses and then sold them to meat packers who disassembled them and ground them into dog food. In the words of Dan Flores, a Montana-based historian, “I still wonder at the mindset of it all, that mode of thinking that leads so thoughtlessly to extinguishing from the world the very elements that lend it beauty, grace, romance, and richness.”

The pace of change moved quick across the prairie and over the continent. In the span of two generations, trees fell, cities rose, and rivers found themselves impounded behind the walls of dams. Here in the twenty-first century, however, we stand in a position that differs from that of our predecessors. The trajectory of U.S. history is less than linear. Barring any unforeseen move to colonize other nations, or another planet, we possess all of the land mass that we can. Out of necessity, as Americans, we find our thoughts moving from expansion to the question of what comes next. Speaking from the year 1990, in his volume, The Experience of Place, Tony Hiss suggested, “In the next 100 years or so, America will essentially complete itself.”

In spite of immigration, the size of the U.S. population grows at a slow pace. Demographers predict a point, within this century, when the U.S. population will likely begin to recede. The Baby Boom generation is growing old. An increasing number of couples make the choice to forego the business of raising kids. The economy will keep changing and expanding, but when analysts that work for the International Monetary Fund imagine the future, they picture modest rates of growth. With our cities and infrastructures bending under the weight of time, and the rabid transformation of the North American landscape awfully close to complete, we find ourselves in a predicament. We are an aging group of people, looking for ways to live well in a wounded world that we helped to create.

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During the last half of the twentieth century, the population of rural counties in the West began to shrink. It turns out that agribusinesses only provide a small number of job opportunities, and modest wages for their employees. Predictably, young people raised in farm and ranching towns began to move to cities to look for new lives and careers. As a result of the decline in rural communities, and a well-documented tendency for cattle to overgraze and damage public land, two New Jersey-based academics, Frank and Deborah Popper, made a suggestion. From the halls of Rutgers University, they proposed that we take back parts of the public property that we lease to agribusinesses. They called the new region they envisioned, the “Buffalo Commons.” They advised Federal officials, state governments, and county commissioners to identify suitable corridors, and then release bison back onto the prairies of the West. For years, they received death threats through the mail and over the telephone.

Of course, the Poppers only pointed out the obvious. Beef production on public land is a dubious undertaking. We offer grazing leases to a small group of agribusinesses at a rate so low it’s widely thought of as a giveaway. The arrangement allows a small number of ranching enterprises to support themselves. In exchange, we permit cows to devour and trample the vegetation on public property. We let cattle foul our waterways with urine and feces, and we grant agribusiness people permission to shoot, trap or poison any living thing that is not a cow or clump of grass. To a growing number of ecologists and commentators on public land, these patterns raise questions about what the American people lose as a result of the bargain that we’ve struck with the private parties we allow to ranch on the regions that we possess, together, as a nation.

In other countries, citizens and governments have cooperated to transform public land that has been stripped of wildlife into places where people can put themselves into contact with trees, grasses, and animals. In cultures around the world, individuals and organizations are moving to create preserves where untamed beasts can thrive. In countries across the globe, people describe the process as “rewilding.” In places where nations take steps to rewild a landscape, horses often appear at the center of the effort.

In Mongolia, for example, a team of biologists worked to re-establish herds of Prezewalski’s horses—a species once thought extinct. Their family tree has roots that extend back to the first group of equines that crossed from their birthplace in North America, across the Bering land bridge, to what is now Siberia. The Mongolian word for the animal is takhi, which translates as “spirit” or “worthy of worship.”

In 1965, the entire population of takhi on Earth included 134 horses held mostly in European zoos. With the help of researchers from the Smithsonian, by 1990, the population had swelled to roughly one thousand. In the decade that followed, the nation of Mongolia underwent a transition toward democracy. Newly elected officials let the “spirit” of the nation loose upon the land, ending a century-long absence. Five previous generations could only read about takhi in books or hear about them in stories, but today, groups of children visit reserves to view and study bands of wild horses.

Similarly, in 1968, conservationists and government agents in the Netherlands collaborated to create a fifteen-thousand-acre reserve for mammals, birds, and plants. They call the region the Oostvaardersplassen. A German magazine described the reserve as “the Serengeti behind the dikes.” Under its initial plan, the Dutch reclaimed the land from the sea to provide new space for manufacturing, but something changed before they deeded the land to businesses. They decided to take part in a social movement: “Rewilding Europe.” They committed to building a home for animals that were once removed or driven close to extinction.

With the help of American biologists, a team assessed the capacity of the space to provide habitat. The group settled on an initial release of 1000 wild horses, long since missing from the Dutch landscape. They also released a group of bovines called Heck cows. Heck cattle share ancestry with aurochs, the wild predecessors of today’s livestock. Not long after the large animals began to graze the grass of the reserve, foxes, muskrats, and red deer arrived on their own. Then attendants began to record sightings of eagles, goshawks, kestrels, kingfishers, and a rare example of a black buzzard. Today, travelers pay a forty-dollar fee to take a tour of the Oostvaardersplassen.

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I applaud the rewilding efforts that have taken place in Europe and Asia. The work is right and good, but I’m a pragmatist. I am reluctant to suggest a widespread plan to rewild a large portion of the United States. I enjoy my life too much to court any death threats, and I am also skeptical about plans to return the Earth or big parts of it to a state that existed prior to the industrial revolution. I am afraid that we would find the move to turn back the clock a challenge. Pure buffalo, with no domestic cow genes, are extremely rare. The passenger pigeon went extinct. Plus, over time we changed things in ways that I appreciate. I like the brown trout from Germany that swim in Rocky Mountain streams, for example. I am also fond of the ring-necked pheasants we imported from Asia. Of course, in North America, any honest attempt to rewild the place would require us to return large tracts of land to Native people. Personally, I could support that move, but it’s easy to imagine the opposition.

The conservationist Bill McKibben may have said it best when he explained, “We’re not going to get back the planet we used to have.” He’s right of course, but when he made the point, he did not do so as a way to signal regret. Neither our personal happiness or the health of the planet depend on our ability to return parts of our habitat to an historic state—not when the present is full of beauty and the future still holds potential. At the moment, we have a policy on the books that protects wild horses in 270 herd management areas across ten U.S. states. I would feel glad if we just upheld the law.
wild mustangs in field with mountains in background

The policy contains a key flaw, however. The Federal Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act grants the Bureau of Land Management the sole authority to determine the number of mustangs we allow on public property. That’s a lot of power to place in the hands of the BLM. For each Wild Horse Herd Management Area or HMA, the agency sets what they call an Appropriate Management Level, under the acronym AML. The AML represents the official number of mustangs that can roam free on the land we set aside for them. In the time since the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, the BLM has determined “zero” to be the appropriate number of mustangs in forty percent of the wild horse habitats that we originally protected at the Federal level. In each case where the BLM “zeroed out” a group of mustangs, private herds of cattle graze—hard at work—chewing the landscape.

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In the U.S., today, cultural forces encourage us to find a lane on what sociologists describe as a “work-to-spend” treadmill. We work fifty out of fifty-two weeks a year so we can live in admirable houses and fill them with objects that other members of society approve. Wild mustangs are the perfect creatures to help relieve us from a one-dimensional world view, where everyone and everything is a product to buy or sell. The western artist, Frederic Remington, always fond of the mustang as a subject, once described the wild horse as a “living protest against utilitarianism.” Similarly, in Cowboy Ethics, an ode to the principles that helped to forge the west side of the nation, James P. Owen cites a cherished American value: “… some things aren’t for sale.”

Travelers bring money with them when they visit states with bands of wild horses, and research suggests that they spend ample amounts while they’re away from home. Outside of the revenue generated through tourism, however, mustangs serve no economic purpose. When herds of wild horses numbered in the millions, we harvested them as meat products. Today, ten states host herds that number in the hundreds or thousands, and if we harvested them with any kind of intent, they’d vanish within a week or two. In our culture, we do not hunt horses. We don’t eat them, they no longer pull our plows, and they are too expensive for most of us to own and keep. In other words, they fall outside our normal obsession with economics. They are the perfect beasts to help us make our flat lives three dimensional.

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We are storytelling creatures. We capture and manage our existence through the process of crafting narratives. We set our life stories in a place and then we look for ways to add meaning. We incorporate events that help us to recollect: where we came from, who we are, and the directions that we hope to go. Encounters with raw landscapes and creatures that exist outside of society give us occasion to pause and add memorable chapters to the stories that we tell and retell to confirm our own identities. Such encounters also provide us with a way to measure ourselves against the world. They give us the chance to compare ourselves to other forms of life. It’s educational. When we put ourselves in a position where our lives press up against others, we make judgments. By comparison—do we like what we see?

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau took part in a failed bid to climb Mount Kahtadin, the highest peak in the state of Maine. Midway through the endeavor, heavy fog clouded the route. It made the woods impassable. The weather turned the party back before they made it to the summit. On the descent, Thoreau found himself attempting to navigate a forest of brambles dark enough to limit his vision. To describe the occasion, he wrote:

This was the earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wasteland. It was Matter, vast, terrific … rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we?

Who, indeed. What have we become? These are questions of considerable size. Most of the time, they are too big. They’re not the sort of topics we can give thought to when we are caught in the whorl of daily life.

The American sociologist C. Wright Mills described each of our days as an array of traps. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills explained how the demands of making a living and raising a family present us with a rapidly unfolding series of distractions. Monday through Friday, commitments unspool in front of us. They hold us down in the tumult. Even Thoreau admitted, in an essay about walking in the woods, he found it difficult to “shake off the village.” It’s tough to find time or a way to ponder the question of who we are with any rigor. It is hard to carve enough space out of busy lives to analyze the forces that work on us—shaping our traits and desires. Most of the time we’re forced to simply chisel at our to-do lists. Thoreau discovered that exceptional moments give us the power to transcend the more mundane aspects of life. The Hermit of Walden understood how the raw experience of nature can lift us to a place where we can look back and make judgements with respect to the character of our existence.

We give Thoreau and his colleague, Ralph Waldo Emerson, credit for launching what we call the transcendental movement of the nineteenth century. It is fair to say that transcendentalism is a uniquely American, and uniquely historic approach to life and philosophy, but the human compulsion to transcend is timeless. I would argue that the act of breaking through the ceiling of daily life has roots in tribal arrangements where shamanism and ritual dance released people from the bonds of day-to-day expectations. From shamanism all the way to Starbucks and mall-shopping for electronics, we have been looking for a means to give ourselves a lift. In a passage from his title The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, the theologian Belden Lane tells us, “We never tire of the effort to … possess ideal states of consciousness.”

An unfenced swath of prairie graced by the hoof beats of wild horses acts like a ladder leading to transcendence. Wild mustangs remind us that this country of ours is still wild, and thus we are at least a little wild, too. We’re something other than just workers. We are more than individuals pursuing our self-interest. We are a people who, as a nation, made it official policy to protect something big, untamed, and beautiful.

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In the nineteenth century, at a time when we were first beginning to conceive national parks like Yosemite, John Muir observed, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that … wildness is a necessity.” From his place in the past, Muir had no way to confirm the profound accuracy of his observation. Perhaps, if he was alive today, it would not surprise Muir to see more than three quarters of a million people passing through the gates of Yellowstone National Park every month, from May to September. He saw the future. As a native of the Midwest, Muir bore witness to the march of agriculture and industry across the heart of the continent. He watched as our enterprises plowed grasses and logged forests. Rather than take part in the taming of nature in the middle of the nation, Muir headed west. Then from his home at the base of the Sierra Range, he began to use his vision and a pen to harvest the best crops left in North America—beauty and wildness.

Of course, we depend on farms and factories. In the end, however, they do not provide enough. In Wilderness Sojourn, David Douglas said it better than I could when he described the best crop or product that a place can offer its people: “silence and solitude, a sense of awe and gratitude, able to be harvested by anyone who visits.” In the portions of our country looked after by the Bureau of Land Management we find opportunities to hear silence and experience solitude. Sprinkled throughout the West, set on tracts of BLM land, we also find Wild Horse Herd Management Areas, and here we add the chance to feel both gratitude and awe. None of us will ever make a living by staring at families of mustangs, but as long as wild horses roam the grasslands of this continent, I expect they will continue to help us complete our lives.