Where the Wild Things Aren’t

In the 1990s the ecosystem in Yellowstone National park was in trouble. The elk and deer population were ballooning out of control. There was only one functioning beaver colony in the whole park. The willow, aspen and cottonwood trees were stunted and dwindling in the valleys. Small prey were scarce because of denuded vegetation so the hawks and weasels left to find food elsewhere. With the wild grasses and sapling trees grazed heavily every year, the riverbanks and watersheds became unstable, the water growing straighter and faster as they carved through the loose earth. Fish populations, acclimated to warmer meandering water, started to collapse. This national treasure of parkland was slowly turning from wilderness to wasteland. 

Ecosystems are unimaginably complex things. Every piece of the cycle is important, but some affect the natural process of the others in more significant ways—known as a ‘keystone species’—and removing one can have drastic consequences on the entirety of the surrounding terrain. Historically, Yellowstone had a healthy population of wolves, but they were hunted out of existence by 1930 and the park ecosystem skewed in the favour of the prey. In a desperate attempt to right that wrong, the wolves were reintroduced in 1995. After a 70-year reprieve, the lazy ungulates suddenly had to be more alert, moving to safer and more remote places to graze, allowing the valley bottoms to regenerate. In a cascade of ecological healing, this one small change in behaviour slowed the rivers back down and brought balance back to the ecosystem in a handful of years. 

The internal lives of humans are tiny microcosms of the natural world: when we get out of balance, it affects us in unexpected ways. If we push things down, they invariably pop somewhere else. For artists, the thing that gives us a unique perspective on our lives is an ability to watch the gears turning on this complex machine. For us it’s not always about finding balance, but about watching the teetering back and forth and wondering at the complexity of the mechanism. Our work is often an attempt to explain those machinations to the outside world. 

But what happens when we get too far out of balance and lose our grasp on those inner workings? Literally nothing. The most well-known version of this ‘nothing’ is called writer’s block. Personally, I had never really experienced it—there’s so many interesting things to make and learn! But in March of 2020 I put down my paint brush and no matter how I focused, berated myself, inspired myself, I just couldn’t pick it up again. 2020 had hunted my internal wolves out of existence. But almost exactly one year into the blockage, just as suddenly as the inspiration left, I started painting again. 

I keep asking myself what changed, but I can’t figure it out. Maybe it was the sun melting the snow away. Perhaps the hopeful tone of our Public Health Team helped. Most likely I’ll never know, but the wolves came back. How fragile are we? We like to think of our ecosystems, both internal and external, as robust things, but 2020 has taught us that we are vulnerable. Something as small as a microbe can upset the balance of the entire planet. 

What I do know is that I’m enjoying the fresh creativity because if nothing else, I’ve learned to not take it for granted—I now know it can all disappear in a puff of smoke. During the drought I kept busy. I tried to breathe. I kept exploring the wall and eventually it came down. 

We are fragile, but we are also very resilient, growing back quickly when missing elements are restored. During this strange year many of my artists friends were like the elk in Yellowstone Park: growing and producing at an unprecedented pace. Others were like me: withering and wishing for the return of my wolves. One variable sending us off-kilter in unexpected ways.  

We are all intimately connected with the world—seen and unseen—around us. This past year has changed us in ways we are just starting to grasp. As we start to collectively sway back into equilibrium, we should take a moment to note the things that we lost, and the things that we learned. How do we prevent our ecosystems from getting out of balance in the future? What are our keystone species? What have we done with our wolves?