accidental education

It’s just below the Marge Simpson tree, heading to the right … from the green area to the sagey area.

This was the kind of guidance we were relaying to one another as we pointed four spotting scopes across the expanse of the Lamar Valley, an early morning in Yellowstone National Park. An hour earlier, I’d loaded myself into the back of a mini school bus driven by Brad, our wildlife biologist teaching this course for the Yellowstone Association. My family, spending the week with me while I was taking this course, trailed behind the bus from our cabin in Mammoth Hot Springs. We’d started before the sun and now had made our way to this overlook to start peering across the vista with expectant, concentrated eyes.

Bison, many of the same individuals that we had squeezed the bus between on our way to this outlook, were meandering across the valley directly in front of us. The males bellowed in a way that no other beast could, sounding like a sputtering engine with added phlegm and vitriol. “Charismatic megafauna,” as Brad described them, we had been fascinated with these from the very onset of our visit to Yellowstone, but now our gaze and search opted for things far more distant and solitary. We were looking for the wolf he’d just spotted. Increasing the intrigue and the urgency, this wolf was escorting a grizzly bear. Just behind the knoll upon which the “Marge Simpson tree” stood — a landmark that resembled the hairstyle of the animated character — we’d end up seeing two different wolves emerge, and finally a wolf pup. We knew where they were, and throughout the morning it was just a matter of waiting and then making obscure references to landmarks that were all similarly grassy, green, sagey, and the like.

Earlier, en route to this spot, we’d seen the moose in the marshy area below the road. A mother chewed on some greens as her son emerge from some trees and later followed her across the marsh. Coincidentally, the call of a roadside blackbird alerted us, Brad especially, to the fact that something else was there. Our guide spoke softly as his gaze strayed from the moose and towards whatever the bird was trying to tell the world about. A fox slowly emerged from the thick grass and covertly made its way across the paved road. Along with the rest of us, Brad was enthused and we were all feeling triumphant even before we’d gotten the chance to see a wolf and grizzly having a neighborly interaction.

Yellowstone is an accident, I’ve decided. The entire prospect of this space, the magma pushing up the thin crust, the geological features giving rise to the remoteness, the ridiculous landscape giving rise to our awe and fascination and the preservation of it all. And then the series of give and take that created this giant compromise

….to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

as stated in the Organic Act of 1916. To me, there’s an implicit piece embedded in the directives “conserve,” “provide for the enjoyment,” and “leave unimpaired.” The mission of the Park seems, at its heart, to be to educate. It’s an educational accident, much like the accident of coming across the moose, the fox, the wolf, and the bear. It was all the makings of a Disney cartoon, expect in real life, in the early morning hours, the chill, the murkiness of consciousness. The difference is that you can’t predict what will happen next, and it’s not going to all happen on a small screen in front of you. That’s the challenge and the great joy in it.

I set aside the afternoon to compile notes in the Map Room of the Mammoth Springs Hotel. Behind me was the namesake of the space, a giant wall map made entirely of different cuts of inlaid wood, different grains and species representing each different state and national park (as of 1937). That’s a kind of deliberate education. Inlaying wood to designate the boundaries and create a massive display preserved for the good part of a century — this must be planful and deliberate. You don’t happen upon it. It is there in a reliable way, with a specific purpose.

The bulk of our place-based education is in stark contrast. Brad drives the bus and occasionally apologizes for jumping all over the place in his narration (though not his driving). He describes our trip as the land underneath and the scenery around dictate. We need to get a background on the bison controversies, but we should also understand the scale and depth of Yellowstone Lake as we pass by; we should know why the Pronghorn is urinating as we’ve caught him in the moment; we should ask the question about the elk herd as we pass through the elk herd. There’s a moment that can’t be passed by. We take them as they come, because they are, after all, only moments, and we don’t get them back.

The wildlife sitings were no different. The night before we’d been given a presentation about how the natural world reveals hidden parts of the surroundings. Ravens will follow a wolf in a hunt and a group of elk will all point toward a threat. The grizzly bear off in the distance wasn’t simply heading over the hill to see what he could see. He was being escorted by the wolf, away from the pack with young pups. At the same time, the grizzly was himself directed towards another hillside where a bison carcass lay. There was a story transpiring right in front of us, and we had to jump into the script right in the middle of the plot. There are no rewind or view-later options.

The spontaneity of this trip is what caught me off guard; and it’s also what made the tour meaningful. We had to be in the right place at the right time, in a space that had been set aside, and in a geological and ecological setting that made it all possible. The rest of it was left to chance, with the right guide, a spotting scope, and the zeal to get up early in the morning.