Every August I head out to Montana to visit my mom, and spend at least one day in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
The Lamar Valley is located between Roosevelt and the northeast entrance to the park in Cooke City, Montana. Nicknamed America’s Serengeti, the Lamar is the place to see bison, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, pronghorns, otters, big horn sheep, osprey, bald eagles, and the occasional coyote.
On previous visits I’ve seen a grizzly bear on a kill, black bears trolling the Lamar River, and even a wolf trying to distract a grizzly bear who was feeding on a carcass (while the rest of the wolf pack lay waiting in the tall grass). I’ve seen osprey, pronghorns, and a lone coyote. And always there in Lamar Valley are the bison, hundreds of bison.
This year I was fortunate enough to witness a herd of pronghorns moving through the valley amongst the bison. I stood in the tall grass breathing the animals. It was an amazing sight; the largest north American land animal grazing near the fastest north American land animal.
I bent down and scooped up a hand-full of earth: limestone and loam. It smelled rich, almost sweet, with the deep underlying tones of ancient sediment and rock. And then I had an epiphany, standing among those achingly tall grasses and weeds with a handful of dirt in my hand and the bison and pronghorns grazing in front of me. There is a Lamar Valley in every backyard. There is a Yellowstone Park in every pasture, every woodland, every stream. And because we don’t envision Yellowstone in any place except Yellowstone National Park, we don’t treat our backyard with the same respect, the same reverence.
Imagine that a preying mantis was to our eyes as magnificent as a bison. That a sparrow as wondrous as an eagle. That dandelions were just as important as prairie grass.
That we differentiate Yellowstone from our own back yards or front lawns is a kind of disconnection; when in truth, the ecology of our backyards is as important as the ecology of Yellowstone.
Perhaps it is our perception of wild nature versus tamed nature, but the fact is, no matter how many chemicals we pour on lawns, we only temporarily halt the will of seeds, with wild nature encroaches again on us in no time. In the meantime, those collective chemical cocktails kill soil microorganisms, are being carried by rainwater to our neighbors’ yards, the woods, the streams; the chemicals get picked up by dog paws, cat claws, bird beaks, bees, and butterflies.
I do not understand why lawns and pastures cannot be dotted with dandelions and be considered as beautiful as the Lamar Valley. I do not understand why the microbes in the soil are not as important to us as a moose or a muskrat. All of us mammals are made up of more microbes than we are of genomes.
Yellowstone and the other national parks may stand out in our minds because of their beauty and the protection we have given them. When we appreciate the beauty of the essential wild in our own backyards and farms, then we will protect and respect our micro ecosystems as much as we protect and respect our national parks? And who knows, maybe we will then be able to respect our fellow humans too.