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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

History of Wolves, Kids, and Wetlands

Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. - Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves
I feel like 80% of the books I read have a blurb about "coming of age" on their back, and still I don't know what it means. My guess is that any book that features a teen but isn't for teenagers qualifies. If I were forced to come up with a definition, I'd guess that it means the point when a human being makes the transition from thinking that the world is a relatively safe and wholesome place to finding out that oh my gosh it is not. Please do not force me to make this or any other decision my life is stressful enough as it is.

I think about this a bunch because I have a 15 year old and my guess is that some of the messed up garbage I read in these books have happened to him or someone he knows personally and that's maybe the scariest thing I've thought about in my adult life. It's even worse thinking that it's probably similar for my 11 year old and maybe even my 9 year old. My kids live a pretty sheltered life; they don't watch a lot of TV, don't have phones or social media, and even PG-13 movies and T-rated video games are screened by one or both of their parents before our kids see them. I'm not saying that's the only way to raise kids, just how we do. I remember being in 4th grade and having kids tell me plot points from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies that gave me nightmares but they seemed fine about it and probably aren't serial killers (probably).

Recently I helped in my daughter's 6th grade classroom during a party, and was reminded again at how vastly different the backgrounds are for various kids and how bananas it is that we put them all in the same room and expect them to behave the same. Class sizes are large in Utah, with an average of 25 per class in elementary schools compared to a national average of 16. In my kids' school, it's even higher than that. Child Protective Services estimates that the rate of child neglect or abuse is 9.2 in 1,000, which translates roughly to one kid for every one hundred. In my kids' school, that's one per grade.

And those are only the reported cases. It's estimated that one in four kids goes through some form of maltreatment in their life. Of those, 78% is neglect, 18% physical abuse, and 9% sexual abuse. If you're reading this and like me were lucky enough to not experience any of that but still thought that school was hard and sometimes terrifying, just imagine what it's like for a kid who is hungry, afraid, or emotionally traumatized. I honestly can't. 

What I've learned is that you can't just look at a kid and know that he or she is going through something that even us adults wouldn't be able to handle. I knew kids in high school who came from rich families and dressed like the only clothes they had were found in Eddie Vedder's dumpster. I also knew kids who were scrupulously clean and only wore designer clothes who sometimes didn't see their parents for days and ate cold spaghettios for dinner some nights and nothing others.

When I volunteer at the domestic violence shelter, a lot of the time I'm playing with kids. That sounds tough, but it isn't. It's actually super fun. Most of the time you'd never know that they'd been exposed to abuse of some kind; they're just regular kids. Some of them look unkempt and have messy hair (like my kids sometimes), and sometimes they look really skinny, but others look like they are always either on their way to or from a photo shoot for a sponsored post on a mommy blogger's Instagram. Sometimes they might be clingy or grumpy or whatever, but guess what? So are mine. I'd be willing to bet that unless they are licensed therapists, anyone who claims they can tell a child is in an abusive relationship just by looking at them has probably sent at least a thousand dollars to a Craigslist scammer at some point, too.

We complain a lot about kids growing up too fast and a lot of us parents spend much of their time trying to preserve the innocence of our young kids. Most of us have spent some time looking through pictures of our children, starting with when they were babies up until whatever age they are now, and watched their smiles fade over time. When they were toddlers everything was a delight and they laughed and laughed and the only time they cried was because their little cheeks hurt sometimes from smiling too much. They seem so sad now, we think. The light in their eyes is faded. Their shoulders sag from the combined weight of too much homework in their backpacks and the knowledge that the only time people care about fairness anymore is when billionaires expect something in return for their campaign contributions.

I wonder if the tragedy is two-fold for us. Like, on the one hand it's so sad to watch these little happy monsters whose sole existence is filled with joy while reality dawns on them. But also we're faced with the knowledge that we couldn't fix it. We're the adults now and it's still not safe out there and it feels even less safe sometimes and that's happening on our watch.

That's depressing as crap. But this wouldn't be the HBC if we stopped there. The good part is that you and I still experience joy on the regular. Somehow in spite of all the headlines and horrible stories we read here in Howie's Book Club of which you are a member just for reading (you're welcome), we still experience awe and wonder and intense love and super funny memes. Sometimes my cheeks still hurt from smiling too much, like both times I've watched Thor: Ragnarok.
As a habitat biologist, one of my main goals for ecosystems is resilience. A resilient ecosystem is one that can be flooded, burned, dried, buried in snow, or any other number of natural disasters and still thrive. Healthy environments are, by definition, resilient. It's why sometimes you might go hiking with me and remark on how beautiful it is and get a lecture in return about how precarious that beauty is. "Don't fall in love with those trees," I might say. "If this place burns once you'll never see them again." It's one reason people don't invite me to go hiking with them (the other is my motto that when it comes to hiking short, there's no such thing as too short). 

This is why there's such a premium placed on wetlands. One reason we think wetlands are so important is that they act as filters for polluted water before they go into larger water bodies. They also soak up floodwater like sponges, preventing damage to the surrounding areas. Americans used to call them "swamps," and converted them to farmland. Now a city in Illinois is engineering wetlands instead of spending millions on constructing and maintaining water treatment plants, because wetlands manage themselves.

Nature is like that. Many times when things are out of whack environmentally it's because we removed a part. Aldo Leopold said, "To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of the intelligent tinkerer." We get rid of wolves and we have too many elk; we drain the swamps and get fish-killing algae; you take the Jedi out of Rogue One and get... the best Star Wars movie in almost 40 years. OK, that last one doesn't work, but you get my point. The point is that human beings are animals and we're part of nature, even if your clever fashionista friend on Instagram insists that the only outdoors she's interested is the one opposite the "in" door at REI. We are the result of the same evolutionary pathway that created wetlands, aspen stands, poisonous snakes, and frickin' cheetahs. Our history is littered with war, disaster, and famine and our ancestors survived and passed the best on to us. Each one of us is built to weather the worst there is; it's all written there in our code.

A professor and a journalist tried to figure out why human beings laugh, and in their research found that there are two kinds of laughter. One is the spontaneous kind that happens whether we want it to or not, like if someone farts while saying a prayer. The other is social, and evolved in primates later:

This sort of laughter was a signal that things at the moment were OK, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to socialize. “What the humor is indexing and the laughter is signaling is, ‘this is an opportunity for learning,’” Gervais told us. “It signals this is a non-serious novelty, and recruits others to play and explore cognitively, emotionally and socially with the implications of this novelty.”
 What that article tells us is that we've been laughing for somewhere between two and four million years. You guys, that's a shload of memes.
By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world. They were the best kinds of quacks, if that’s what you wanted—pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.
That's the kind of thing you'll read in Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves, which is a mesmerizing story about the year that changed 14-year-old Madeline's life. She goes by Linda most of the time. Or commie. Sometimes freak. This might surprise you at this point, but she's kind of an outcast. She grew up in a collectivist cult/commune started by her parents, but by the time we meet her it has been disbanded so now it's just her and her mom and dad in a cabin with no plumbing or electricity on the shore of a Minnesota lake popular for its walleye fishing. She's the extreme version of a free-range kid.

Madeline's coming of age story isn't the traditional one. She doesn't fall in love with a boy or have an adventure with her friends during her last year of high school and reflect on the bitter sweetness of growing up. Instead, she witnesses what she considers "one of the best accounts of the origin of human evil." I can almost guarantee that it's not what you think. Of the various profoundly flawed individuals in her life, herself included, there is no sneering villain. Instead, it's humans doing what they think is the best for themselves who hurt each other the worst.  

At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him.
Madeline befriends Patra, a young mother from across the lake and her young son Paul and ingratiates herself in what seems like a very normal family. Patra's husband is finishing up a manuscript in another state, so she's grateful for the responsible teen who teaches Paul about Minnesota life in the woods and on the lake. There's a new teacher in school who fascinates Madeline, and a beautiful, broken girl named Lily in her class. All this is set against the backdrop of a lake community in flux from the sleepy cluster of houses that explodes with tourists to a permanent luxury community; something the adult Madeline no longer recognizes. 

We are treated with periodic flashes forward of her as an adult, sometimes not recognizing the young girl and her decisions that year. Other times she reflects on how it impacted her life later.
Later, I could get that drizzle feeling just about any time I saw a kid on a swing. The hopelessness of it—the forward excitement, the midflight return. The futile belief that the next time around, the next flight forward, you wouldn’t get dragged back again. You wouldn’t have to start over, and over.
Throughout History of Wolves, characters find themselves in impossible situations and sometimes do drastic and awful things to escape them. With the exception of one, they are survivors all. But their survival can sometimes come at deep costs to themselves and others.

It's a fascinating book that stuck with me. It makes me think of the little town it's based in. From a short-term perspective, the housing boom around the formerly near-pristine lake will be devastating to the local environment. From the long-term, though, I think nature wins. It might take a hundred or thousands of years, but it always does. Like children still laughing while playing a game during a class party when home is at best empty and at worst violent, it survives.