Paul Andersen: Biophilia on the Frying Pan
Spring is a wildlife bonanza on the Frying Pan Road. Flashing my lights in warning that a new attraction is around the curve is wearing out my brights.
Bighorn rams provide an amazing show-stopper that halts cars in the middle of the road. These placid, full-curled hunks strut along the road like they own it. They pose on cliff faces and perch on narrow ledges, their buff colored hulks in stark contrast to the iron red rock.
Rams posture before comely ewes with flagrant displays of head-butting, testicular-enhanced bravado. Their antics say one thing only — babe, it’s time to propagate! All other suitors, butt out!
Last week, I came around a corner and braked for a car stopped in my lane. A middle-aged couple had left their vehicle and were walking slowly toward several picturesque rams, as if hypnotized into gape-mouthed stares by these magnificent and rather human-looking creatures. These rams were grandstanding, and they knew it.
Their allure is irresistible, even when you’ve seen their act a hundred times as most Frying Pan residents have. Even the most complacent resident has to admire these beautiful, powerful, perfectly adapted creatures.
If it’s not bighorns, then its herds of deer, flocks of turkeys, roadside geese or the pair of bald eagles building their nest in the top branches of a cottonwood and outfishing the fly fishermen who whip the water with steel imitations of eagle talons. Above my home, a pair of red-tails screech, ravens perform aerial acrobatics, songbirds trill.
We humans love iconic animals that symbolize the glories of nature, especially in life-affirming springtime. Scientist and author E. O. Wilson calls this love of life “biophilia,” which he describes as an innate human attraction to the force of life.
Bighorn rams engender this emotional response because they are somewhat rare, possess majestic qualities and are easy to approach. On the Frying Pan, you can look directly into their big, almond-shaped eyes from your car window.
There is a similar fascination with bears treed in Aspen to which tourists flock as if they’re at a petting zoo. It’s the same with polar bears, which appear as the most cuddly, soft, warm animal in the world. They would make great pets if they wouldn’t excise your prefrontal cortex with one paw swipe.
Warm, furry animals elicit a strong biophilia response because we want to feel close to them, protect them, admire them in their natural habitat. Seeing a bighorn ram or a bear in the wild is so much more intimate than staring at one in a cage at the zoo, and so much more humane.
Biophilia describes communion with wildlife. But what of the larger sense of nature that encompasses the less-than-majestic species? Does anybody love ants? Does anybody love plants? The answer is yes.
E.O. Wilson has made a life study of ants. A biology student friend of mine is in love with plants, many of which are imperiled. In her dissertation she describes “plant blindness,” meaning “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.”
In Colorado, wildflowers are a major attraction, but the lesser plants seldom touch us despite their crucial role in the holistic health of the biota. Most of these plants, she writes, are seen as inferior to animals, “leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”
Plant conservation, she writes, receives less than 5% of the total funding for species recovery from federal and state agencies. Colorado, despite its appeal as a wildflower mecca, is behind the conservation curve.
Colorado ranks eighth in the nation in the percentage (11.6%) of plant species at risk of extinction, she explains, and 75% of the state’s imperiled species are plants. As a result, Colorado’s native flora is subject to decline or being irreplaceably lost.
Botanic gardens may become the arcs to save plant species. A recent New York Times article described gardens as medicinal simply by exposure to plants. Biophilia is a survival trait, and it should go far beyond the Frying Pan.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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