3. To Live in the Wilderness as a Wild Creature Myself: Paul Errington (1902–1962)
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72 3 To Live in the Wilderness as a Wild Creature Myself Paul Errington (1902–1962) This is the testimony of the marsh: Life directs all its power to one end and that is to continue to be.  — ​Kathleen Dean Moore, Holdfast Accounts of landscape change in the Upper Midwest by pioneering ecolo­ gist Paul Errington can be read as capsule environmental histories, yet also represent a cautionary tale: how unchecked development had rapidly stripped so many verdant wetlands of their especially rich biodiversity. Along with other wildlife biologists in the vanguard of ecological thought at its inception during the first half of the twentieth century, he helped to fashion a vision of conservation, particularly in response to the ongoing transformation of prairies for agricultural use.1 What seems prescient is his recognition that he had been privileged to glimpse as a young man a level of abundance as fleeting as it was extraordinary, and as awe inspiring to him as the natural bounty of North America had been to the first generations of Europeans to explore and colonize the continent. He grasped that he was witnessing an epic and possibly irrevocable loss of wildlife throughout much of the region spanning grasslands across the Great Plains. Such destruction exacted a monumental cost for humanity as well, since the solitude, solace, and meaning natural landscapes can provide us would be lost to posterity. “Wilderness and what it stands for,” he declared, “could mean still more in terms of human tranquility and reflection in an era of artificiality and unrest,” an increasingly poignant admonition since it was written in the 1950s.2 Of Men and Marshes, Errington’s best-­ known and most compelling work for general readers, is rooted in an ecologist’s deep regard for the 73 To Live in the Wilderness: Paul Errington workings of nature. Not only had he observed abundance preceding precipitous decline, he appreciated the magnitude of what was at stake environmentally in the long run, making Marshes “at once history and prophesy.” 3 Based on his extensive experience as a field biologist studying the dynamics of the region’s wildlife populations, he advocated preserving the integrity of verdant wetland ecosystems. The volume represented at once a culmination of his career as a scientist and an important departure in extending his reflections as a wildlife biologist by staunchly advocating conservation. “What has counted most to me in wilderness values,” he declared in the posthumously published Of Wilderness and Wolves, “has been the living and non-­ living constituents of a given tract of wilderness.” 4 While he was writing generations before the idea of wilderness became contested, his work clearly anticipated many of the issues still debated today. In later years especially, he championed preservation of wildlife and wetland habitat with an ever greater sense of urgency, understanding that the survival of certain species hung in the balance. By the end of his career, Errington had visited, observed, and ­ studied wetlands throughout North America, including in states as far flung as Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah, as well as several provinces in Canada. Even places as austere as the Dakota Badlands had moved him to “a reverence for the antiquity and integrity of life.” 5 As a Guggenheim Fellow in the late 1950s, he became acquainted with glaciated landscapes of ­ Scandinavian nations, including Denmark, Finland, Norway, and above all Sweden. Still, his overall understanding of ecological processes and theories about interdependence  — ​ especially relationships between predator and prey  — ​were grounded in a lifelong exposure to landscape change, particularly in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Accordingly, his work as a field biologist was primarily devoted to mammals that inhabit marshes of the Upper Midwest. His six books provide intimate depictions of the behavior of a wide variety of wetland species, which ultimately led him to question (as Aldo Leopold did) the conventional wisdom about the ecological role of predation and the efficacy of predator control. Federal and state policies promoting eradi­ cation, he realized, were predicated on flawed assumptions about the effect of predation on wildlife populations and typically overlooked the ecological impact of landscape change on habitat. At a time when the extermination of major predators such as wolves was standard operating procedure among wildlife managers, he sought to elucidate critical interrelationships between members of wetland communities as well as complex webs of 74 Ecological Essayists­ interdependence among species. Moreover, he understood that predator and prey that share habitat may in fact have...


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