Maintain a healthy respect for nature

We make a mistake by letting politics affect our view of nature. Anyone who spends time in the great outdoors, hiking, breathing wild air, fishing, hunting or writing songs can appreciate the effort we must take to preserve the environment.

A conservation officer told me every town in Indiana has a story about someone spotting a mountain lion. The public is enchanted by the idea that such predators may lurk somewhere in the distance.

My cousin, Dennis, kept wolves and a variety of big cats in west Terre Haute. The African lions could drag a cow carcass across the ground as if it were a 10-pound bag of onions on a waxed floor.

I arranged to meet the chief wildlife investigator of the Pacific Northwest on an uninhabited mountain where the bear, the mountain lion and the elk roam free. His name, too, was Dennis, and he agreed to meet with me because a mutual friend said I was serious.

Dennis had lost faith in journalists after an hour-long appearance on national television. The show sensationalized his work and ignored the heart of it — respect for nature.

His attitude was that humans don’t have to figure everything out about nature. The closer you move in to take a look, the more damage you can cause by an unjustifiable appetite to be “scientific.”

Dennis was himself a man of the wilds. In the jungles of Central America he had taught U.S. soldiers how to survive and maneuver in difficult territory. He was not afraid of nature, not afraid of bears, lions, snakes, coyotes or hunger. He could get by without disturbing the creatures that enter the imagination and folklore of Hoosier towns.

But we have destroyed much of the outdoors little by little. We’ve altered it even by getting close to it, which isn’t all bad. We change each other in a similar way. The problem lies in our carelessness and lack of foresight.

I wanted to know what Dennis thought about the calls he had received from dispatch to investigate frightful sightings by the local residents. His five investigations over the years produced the most interesting collection of evidence of a large creature able to walk on two feet at will.

A university scientist analyzed the hair that Dennis collected from tree limbs and fences as the animal wandered through rural properties. Dennis showed me the castings he had made of the footprints in different locations.

I turned our meeting into a documentary for a product I sell to schools that offer Spanish to kindergarten to eighth-grade students. I don’t use the lessons for activism, but some adults think Dennis’ work is nonsense. They say Bigfoot is a hoax. They say the Indiana cougar sightings are a hoax.

They miss the whole point. Dennis never cared whether his investigations proved anything specific. He was just doing his job. As a man of the wilds, he knew many secrets most people never realize. He believed that nature is as honestly mysterious as we allow it to be and that mysteries are lost as humans move in to evaluate them.

One hour away on a logging road of another mountain, 300 feet in front me, I saw a pitch-black, 100-pound wild cat. It could drag you through a Washington or Indiana forest all by itself. I watched that lion, and it watched me until it confidently slipped into the thick woods, where it continued monitoring my movement.

I didn’t walk that road again. How exhilarating to know that an unexpected encounter with something so untamed and so powerful could still happen … at a distance.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com.