High Country News ruminates on god, spirituality, wolves, bison and wild morality

I first heard of High Country News this past year from the copies stacked in the conference room of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks journalism department, which is where I taught this past year.

For starters I was delighted to find a publication that covered the Rocky Mountain West, in any way, shape or form. It’s based in western Colorado (Paonia, to be exact) and covers environmental, land use and public lands issues.

So I was interested in a recent piece on HCN’s site that is an author interview: “Can studying morality help Yellowstone’s wolves and bison?” There’s a photo of a wolf with the caption: "Majestic spiritual icon, or religious abomination? Depends whom you ask."

Here are some excerpts from a discussion with sociologist Justin Farrell:

HCN: It seems like wolves epitomize the “what is wildlife good for” debate. Some outsiders assume that the people who hate wolves hate them for economic reasons -- they’re ranchers and hunters who are worried about livestock and game. But you say people seem morally opposed to wolves. What’s the source of that opposition? 
JF: One of the primary feelings I heard is that individual rights are being infringed upon by the federal government. The reintroduced wolves came from Canada, so there’s also the fact that people see the wolf as an “immigrant” -- a word that brings up a lot of connotations right now. The wolf links to all sorts of other issues in American politics that go well beyond the Yellowstone area.
HCN: People often oppose wolves in religious terms, too -- it’s an animal that symbolizes man losing dominion over the earth.
JF: People have this sense of a natural hierarchy with god at the top, then humans, then other animals. Still, that wasn’t the strongest cultural dimension I found. In fact, the pro-wolf movement had a much stronger religious dimension. You hear this notion that by reintroducing the wolf, you create a wholeness that goes beyond ecology. The language isn’t overtly Christian, but it kind of follows the Christian narrative about the fall and then redemption. The fall would be what humans did to the wolves earlier, by exterminating them from the area, but now redemption is possible, and we’ve got to seize this opportunity.
I also noticed that people were much more spiritual when they lived further away from the park. Those people tend to idealize the wolf more, maybe because they’re not as connected to the on-the-ground difficulties of dealing with the animal.

Am not sure what’s up with the use of “god” instead of “God” in the Q&A and I don’t think it was a typo, so if HCN wants to reach out to the religious folks and normal news consumers, they might want to bone up on Associated Press style.

Still, it’s nice to see a secular publication try to bring spirituality into their mix. The article goes on to discuss buffalo and how animal rights activists are hesitant to bring up morality.

JF: I call it religious muting. Out in the field, when they’re near the buffalo, they talk in overtly religious terms. But when you get back to camp, they’re much more “rational” -- they sterilize any sort of religious motivation. This is part of a larger trend in the U.S. of moving toward identifying as spiritual rather than religious, or being uncomfortable with religion because it’s come to be associated with the Christian right or extremism.

In the same issue, HCN also ran a piece about Catholics in the West responding to the pope’s call for climate change activism.

Well, some Catholics. The article only gave one example of a Catholic group in Phoenix being all that inspired. An editorial also talked about Francis’ message “resonating through the West’s Catholic communities” but didn’t substantiate, with real quotes and facts, what appears to be wishful thinking on the part of the editor.

Although we've covered religion and the environment stories in the past, it's not a topic that's been explored a whole lot. I applaud any publication that makes a stab at it and hope more articles are yet to come.

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