2014 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Lara Palmquist

Lara Palmquist graduated with a BA in American Studies and Biology from St. Olaf College in 2013. Along with a group of students, she is a co-founder of the St. Olaf environmental education program “SustainAbilities,” which encourages sustainable living and behavior on the college campus. The program was conceptualized and guided by the late Dr. Jim Farrell, who continues to inspire Lara’s environmentalism and writing.


Lara is currently living in Northfield, Minnesota, and interning at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Most recently, her fiction was a finalist in the Tethered By Letters Spring Writing Contest, and she is the recipient of a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship for graduate studies in 2014-2015. She continues to find inspiration in the observant and powerful writing of Annie Dilliard, Barbara Kingsolver, and Paul Gruchow, whose essays she first read while conducting research in the Boundary Waters at the Coe College Field Station in 2012.

The Wildlife of All Things

By Lara Palmquist

In Memory of Jim Farrell

Tell me, what else should I have done?/ Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver                                  

             On brisk mornings in Minnesota fog often shimmers above the grass, cooling the ground with thick folds of water molecules until they evaporate into sunbaked oblivion. By afternoon the land along the Canon River will again appear golden and open—a vista of potential that forever fills me with a complicated sense of mystery and belonging. Yet it is this early blanket of fog that most captivates my mind, shifting my perspectives and inviting me to consider the world anew. In obscuring my dominant sense of sight, the fog reveals my own fragile dependencies. Shrouded in billows of vapor, my eyes are opened. At last I am witness to the ancient, intricate web of connections of which I am but a part.

Just over 200,000 years ago—a fragment of time in evolutionary history—wilderness was dark and undiscovered, a pulsing, crawling, tumbling world of brutal existence, paralyzing fear, and expansive possibility. Back then, humans were stalked, scattered, and most importantly surrounded—part of a sophisticated balance of ecological existence. Our own ancestors spent their days up to their elbows in this world, painstakingly working their way through the mysteries of the earth in close interaction with other species.

This is the ecological context in which humans existed for millennia, and this is the landscape in which our current biology evolved.  It is a history that still determinedly clings to us, revealing itself in the form of bodies that ache from hours spent sitting, minds that wither without access to the outdoors, and a spirit that, if allowed, seems to be ever-searching for a connection to what came before us, listening to the whispers of the wilderness of our past.

The evolutionary timescale does not keep pace with the modern world. As humans developed agriculture, technology, and advanced medical treatments in rapid succession, as we disconnected ourselves from nature in unprecedented ways, our biology stood still in shocked surprise.  We now live in a world where solitude is cherished, independence is valued, and wilderness—true, teeming, seething wilderness—is known only through deliberate noticing, or dreams.

Humans were not made to dream alone. We evolved sleeping under a blanket of studded stars, or in huts crowded with the deep breaths of several bodies diligently maintaining the rhythms of life, leaving minds to rise and frolic during the evening hours. We slept on the ground— softened by vegetation we would have named and intimately known—while insects scuttled across our skin, fungus grew in the gaps between our toes, and parasites traveled up and down our bodies in a migration of miracles.

Thinking of this ancient life produces a curious pain of nostalgia for something I have never known. What was it like to see a night sky free of any light pollution, to experience the true contrast of thousands of tiny shards of sun blinking in the black of the unknown? At night I look to the sky and strain my eyes ever wider, hoping to experience what early humans once knew. Yet the haze of humanity routinely blocks my view. In these moments I close my eyes and relish the vision of the clear night sky in my imagination. There I can find the impenetrable blanket of utmost darkness, but the beautiful contrast of the stars is still lost.

Humans once embraced night as a celebration of life and revelry. Today, we attempt to master its darkness. At present, 75 percent of the world’s population has never seen the majesty and wonder of the star-strewn Milky Way—following a power blackout that snuffed the lights in New York City, citizens gazed upward in awe at the cosmic spectacle above their heads. Some even called the emergency services to report smoke, when they were really only seeing the starry smudge of their own universe for the first time. The sight serves as a humbling reminder of human fragility. Of the stars visible to the naked eye, 84 are known to host an exo-planet. But in the entire known universe only one remains habitable to life: Earth. The answer to our diminishing wilderness and eagerness for discovery isn’t found among the stars. It is here, in the miraculous way the bugs in my own backyard move objects three times their size, sap flows from the sugar maples each spring, or blind bats navigate using echolocation. Look closely, and the world offers enough material to satisfy a sense of wonder for a several lifetimes.

Humans carry an innate longing for discovery, for wilderness, for escape. Escape from what? I want to go back to where the wild things were, to feel the surge of adrenaline as the hairs on the back of my neck stand in attention, waving me down, warning me that something, somewhere, is watching, waiting, watching, waiting for how long? I wish we were all still in-tune to that sense of urgency, that ability to put a finger on approaching danger. It’s out there, if we pay attention. Not in the old form of predators, but in ourselves and our individualized tendencies. Even our ignorance has its own claws that cut deep. Safety is still in numbers: we need to work together, and respect the connections that bind all things.

I want to go back to cherishing my dependency on others, to honoring my reliance on the earth. I want to use my senses fully. I want to feel thirst so badly that I can smell water when it’s near. Some days I hold a glass of the life-giving liquid close to my nose and breathe deep, deeper still, sucking hope, frustration, and fear down into my lungs. My water is void of color, empty. I give it a dissatisfied swirl and set the glass down. I still smell nothing. Or perhaps it’s just that I’ve forgotten how, now that searching for water is no longer necessary.

Humans are animals. Our hands and feet are claws made for clinging to branches, our forward-facing eyes suggest our skills as predators, and our bodies are built for strength and speed.  My domesticated dwarf rabbit recognizes this better than myself.  He allows me to hold him and stoke his ears as I marvel at his lightweight body, constructed for the lithe momentum of a prey animal with huge furry back feet that can serve as springboards at a second’s notice.  Most days we coexist in comfortable company as he weaves between my feet, inviting me to play and leaving me in shaking fascination that this small breath of life, with an intuition and a mind of his own, chooses me, me, to greet in the mornings with bright eyes and a flip of his cotton ball tail.

Yet there have been times where my rabbit, for no reason he cares to share, has fled my company with earnestness unlike I have ever witnessed in a domestic dog or cat, predators in their own right. On these occasions my rabbit reverts to the mentality of an animal of prey. He becomes a gray ball of fear, zigzagging blindly, searching for the darkest, deepest den in which to hide from me—the only other animal in the room.

I find him there, in his hiding place, with a look of terror in his eyes and a tiny heart pounding at an aching rate of 325 beats per minute. I want to comfort him, yet know that I cannot look him directly in the face, for this is the behavior of a predator.  Instead I settle in to wait, to watch him eventually emerge, his ears swirling in every direction as he struggles to overcome a biological instinct that is out of context in this man-made world.

Humans are animals, and as animals, we are subject to the same patterns of evolution as the rest of the mighty kingdom. As we change the world at unfathomable rates, it would be foolish to think that we are not also setting the stage to change ourselves. Research has yet to show what happens when we kill off the bacteria in our guts, the predators in our lives, the mutualistic pollinators in our world. That, in a sense, is an experiment currently underway. Evolution is always at work.  Meet Homo sapiens sapiens, the species retrospectively wise, the species that caused its own demise. Only the fossils will remain.  For the first time in the entire evolutionary history of humans, children have a shorter life expectancy than that of their parents. Is this the way the world will end? Not with a bang but a whimper.  And so I say: Let me die caught in the gripping jaws of a predator, mired and left to starve in a bottomless bog, or swathed in a strong wind and tossed off a mountain.  Let me grow up forever. Don’t ask me to die surrounded by doctors and machines that feed me only filtered water, filtered food, filtered air.

I am not an island.  I am an animal, one of more than we will ever know.  As I walk through the morning fog in Minnesota I am surrounded by a symphony of species, each working toward the same mission of survival, a key ingredient of which is coexistence.  Pick any organism on Earth and as much of its biology is defined by how it interacts with other species as it is influenced by the basics of living, breathing, eating, and reproducing. Even now more than one trillion microbial cells surf through my system—a hundredfold more than my own human cells.

My walk is fueled by the energy provided by other species, of plants that were pollinated by tiny insects with mouthparts and morphology that make them a perfect pair.  Those plants themselves were then provided for by the insects and the earthworms in the soil—turning, moving, creating an entire city beneath my feet, consuming up to a third of their body weight in dirt a day. It makes me wonder why I don’t feel a more perceptible drop beneath my feet at any given moment. Perhaps I’m just not paying attention.

Today, morning yawns across the grass in five hundred shades of gold, dripping down the sides of my favorite oak tree and bathing the world in the richness of the sun. In a world so centered on power, on wealth, on triumph, I wonder at our lack of interest in the great golden globe. Have we not already claimed this planet as our own? Do we not think that the sun, too, was made for our taking?

As the golden colors gain strength, the pool of fog in the field wanes in equal proportion. Slowly the water molecules dissipate. Some cling as dewy drops to long blades of grass, becoming tiny worlds that reflect the vibrancy of the one we inhabit. Others rise and expand, dancing through the troposphere, the stratosphere, morphing into prayers.

The crow’s cackle announces the day, his voice twittering at speeds and volumes mine will never know. What makes me place myself above this animal? What makes me think my own pale, plucked body is any better than his, covered in sleek black feathers that flash blue, then purple, then gold. Stay in the tree, I tell him. Spread your wings. Just don’t ever come down, down where I kneel before you.

As I let my gaze roam upward to the smallest branches of the tree I notice how the sun plays along its smallest twigs. It illuminates them, turning them into wishbones glowing despite the daylight. They are everywhere, these opportunities for wishes, these possibilities for dreams. But I know the rules of the game—I know I can’t wish alone.

I believe in the power of community, and I believe in the power of change. I believe that there is time yet to realize our own insignificance, to appreciate our dependency, and to recognize that to survive we must first learn to coexist. Yet I also believe we cannot go at it alone. We are animals: animals among animals with animals inside us, outside us, feeding us, feeding on us, supporting us, depending upon us as we depend upon them. Our ancestors knew this, our biology still does.

In the morning fog dances in the field, holding fragments of shared hopes and imaginings. Tell me, it whispers. What will you do with your one precious, wildlife?