PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — Our dog Fargo is good at finding remnants in the woods. With a perpetual smile on his face, he brings back a bone too wide for his mouth. We try to entice him to drop his prize with treats that by the look in his eye he judges not to be an equitable exchange. Like any aspiring predator, he’s proud of his prize.
The woods fill with the signs of life-and-death struggles. Coyotes prowl the hills for food above our house, interjecting a forlorn howl into the night sky when they sit down for a meal of some less fortunate creature. Smaller trees look barren of growth having lost the battle for light to towering trees reaching for the sun. Graveyards of toppled trees, decomposing remains and fallen leaves litter the forest floor with not so much as a grave marker for their ended lives.
Humans, of course, are no stranger in this battle for supremacy. Wars rage the world wide, with unspeakable atrocities that have little parallel in nature. Competition for primacy reigns in business, culture and sports. And oh yes, politics. Having survived our battles of the midterms, we return to our lairs to lick our wounds or admire our prizes.
Much of this we rationalize with the one-liner, “survival of the fittest!” – the iconic platitude offered with an exclamation point by combatants to refute any dissent. We see media stars, sports icons and politicians celebrating their “survival” over their rivals with a dance in the end zone.
Except the originator of “survival of the fittest” did not mean that we need to vanquish our opponents and dance on their graves to survive. Biologist Herbert Spencer coined the phrase after reading Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” using the term to describe Darwin’s concept of “natural selection,” the ability of a species to adapt to its environment.
Social Darwinists and societal combatants have stolen the phrase to justify take-no-prisoners politics, economics and even racist policies, a more sinister interpretation that glorifies competition over cooperation and favors aggression over adaptation.
To be sure, competition is part of survival. Even Fargo, the gentlest of creatures, resorts to instincts when in pursuit of smaller critters and spares no leniency when, on rare occasion, he actually catches them.
But adaptation through symbiotic relationships is more complex, and just as important.
The Northern Monkshood, a purple-colored member of the buttercup family native to the Driftless Area, possesses a hood-shaped flower adopted for bumble bee pollination, a relationship benefiting both species.
Birds and squirrels find shelter in trees that in return use their occupants to distribute their seeds.
Farmers feed and shelter farm animals in exchange for food and raw materials for clothing.
Cooperation between species is beneficial to our well-being. Cooperation within our species is critical to our survival.
Author Don De Lillo, in his dystopian book, “Zero K,” about death and the violence of culture, turns to nature for a glimpse of hope. His protagonist observes a boy on a crosstown bus looking at the setting sun and “finding the purist astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.”
Fargo and I feel the touch of earth and sun on our hike as the day in late fall approaches end. Fluorescent yellow leaves illuminate the woods, offering a bit of flamboyance to their death throes. Baron trees silhouetted against the horizon raise their limbs in praise. A quarter-faced moon looks down on this tranquil scene. The open sky makes for a big room. Big enough for all of us.
The setting sun, rising moon and cathedraled sky offer a sanctuary to celebrate the day in transition, a place to escape the day’s turmoil and discover the equitable society we seek. Nature is indiscriminate in its application of competition and cooperation. Yet we have a choice. We might bury our pride rather than our bone, and choose wisely.