Monday, June 18, 2012

The River of No Return

In central Idaho is the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states - Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Some two million acres of pristine, perfect wild.

A young couple, one a biologist who used to trap, collar and track wolves, spend a year on their "honeymoon" in this naturally enriched place.

Their hopes are to capture footage of wolves while enduring what the native wildlife endure.

You can watch it for free, which is great.

My favorite part of the film is when an injured elk is seen limping slowly away from a pack of wolves. As dusk descends, it seems self-evident that this elk - seemingly alone in the world - will become a meal for the wolves.

But just as the wolves crest of the ridge, just as all hope seems lost, a friend appears. Another female elk positions herself between the wolves and the injured animal. Both survive the night, because one individual chose to be selfless in the face of an almighty apex predator, like the wolf.

Rarely are the animals seen as "prey" profiled or observed in as much detail as those labeled "predators". And I used to be okay with this. As a child, I loved documentaries about cheetahs and african wild dogs and hyenas. Wolves and leopards and lions. They all seemed so amazing.

My consciousness shifted when I stopped seeing "prey" animals as food. Soon it became difficult to watch the natural event of wolf chasing deer, cheetah loping gracefully after an equally lithe gazelle. I started to wonder about the behavior and intricate family lives of the wild buffalo and the powerful snow-colored rabbits.

Which is why I was not surprised to see one elk defending another. Compassion and friendship are not so unique. They are no less likely to be seen as selfishness and callous disregard.

I should make clear that I do not love the elk more than I love the wolf. I appreciate both and understand the complex environment in which they reside. The natural cycle of life and death, as painful as it is for me to observe, is not weighed down by my ethical concerns. It treks forth as it should, and I appreciate that.

I don't have any interest in becoming closer to nature the way this couple did, but I appreciate the harsh and unrelenting beauty they shared with the world.

If video does now show up, you can see it here.

Watch River of No Return on PBS. See more from Nature.

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