This story was originally featured in the Cape Cod Times Matters of Faith on August 5th, 2018. The original can be found here.
I have heard this story before, but somehow I never tire of it. It is a story about nature and change. It is a story about revitalization and new life. It is a story about the interconnected web of things. It is as old as time and as new as modern scientific research.
It was January 1995 when a group of naturalists tried an experiment and no one knew what to expect. They brought eight gray wolves down from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, to set them free in Yellowstone National Park. Now there had been no wolves in Yellowstone for 70 years; the last ones were hunted to extinction back in 1926. But no one expected to see things change so dramatically in that vast landscape, which covers almost 3,500 square miles. In 1996, park officials brought 31 more wolves to the park. The results were a cascade of ecological changes that no one saw coming.
The wolves hunted the elk and changed their grazing patterns. The elk had been keeping the willow and aspen trees from growing in the riverbeds. Suddenly, the willow trees began to thrive. Birds returned to the trees, and some rivers actually changed course. Beavers came and their dams stabilized the seasonal water runoff and evened out the water table. Fish populations thrived in the deeper river pools. Somehow the way the wolves killed elk in winter provided carrion for eagles, coyotes, ravens, wolverines, lynx and even bears when they came out of hibernation.
Forty wolves revived the ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park. How is it even possible for such a small group of animals to make such a ripple effect in the whole natural habitat and in dozens of other species of plants and animals?
The story reminds us that we are part of a cosmic design that is vast, completely interdependent and largely beyond our grasp. It is like there is this overarching natural unconscious that always has the last word, in much the same ways as our own unconscious mind is so much more powerful than we can imagine.
What are the lessons here for us today? The story of the wolves teaches us that we are all connected. We see it in the international trade debates. It is not all that easy to single out a list of commodities for sanctions without bringing down a cascade of economic repercussions. The wolves also teach us that no one is expendable. Everyone is needed. When we exclude groups of people or write off cultures or nations we tilt the human landscape precariously and make our communities so much less than God intended.
But, by the same token, the wolves remind us we can become agents of change. We can make seemingly small changes in our families that have amazing ripple effects. We can host a new gathering in some strategic moment that fosters connections that blossom over time. As a society we can make interventions with mothers or children who are at risk that improve conditions for generations of people. We can reach across racial divides or welcome neighbors who are different and see communities reinvent themselves. We all have the ability to do what the wolves did so beautifully - to restore life to its fullest potential.
At the beginning of time God created this world to be resilient. We just need to remember that we are part of this organic whole ourselves, take courage and find some gentle ways to usher in new life.
The Rev. Susan Cartmell is the pastor of Pilgrim Church in Harwich Port. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.