Of Horses And History: 17 Years, Almost To The Minute…

Seventeen years ago, almost to the minute as I am writing this, I was having a Motel 6 breakfast in a small town on the Wyoming / Montana border with my friend and cameraman Norris, getting ready to spend the day filming a segment about a wild horse round-up forNational Geographic. The radio signal in our SUV began to fade as we drove into the Pryor Mountains — no match for a terrain where all the news that really matters is etched into the landscape. We heard something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, then static.

A half hour later we arrived at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) round-up site where we quickly learned that the US — hard though it was to believe — was under attack. Nobody knew how many planes-turned-bombs might still be in the air, but a federal “no fly” order meant that there would be no round-up that day. The helicopters used to drive horses scattered among sky-kissed pastures and remote canyons in a large, dusty corral had been grounded.

I climbed up on a ridge to catch a cell signal to call my editor atBusinessWeek. It was chaos in the newsroom. Looking south from the magazine’s 43rd floor Midtown office, the attack played out in real time.

Seventeen years ago, almost to the minute, three planeloads of terrified passengers were about to disintegrate out of existence. The elegant twin towers of the World Trade Center — which in the more innocent time of a few minutes earlier had been famous mostly forPhilippe Petit’s dare devil high wire walk and the movie Trading Places — would collapse into a smoldering mass of rubble. Many people died instantly from the impact. More were flattened when the buildings’ concrete floors pancaked. Seventeen years later people are still dying from exposure to the toxic dust.

With commercial flights cancelled for days, Norris and I stayed in the mountains where we met Ginger Kathrens — the Jane Goodall of horses — a filmmaker who had followed the Pryor herd for years, producing a remarkable series of documentaries for PBS. We went up to the high meadows and pastures where young horses danced in the warm September sun, mares grazed in bliss and stallions were always on the alert, mostly to protect their families from other stallions.

Somewhere far beyond the horizon the world had changed for the worse, but as far as we could see, it was sky and grass and mountains and horses.

•••••••••••••••••

Horses evolved in North America, with a history that stretches back 55 million years and spans dozens of species. About 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene they were gone. No one knows exactly what happened, but most likely there were several overlapping causes, including habitats altered by climate change and hunting by humans. Still, enough horses had managed over the years to trot themselves across an ephemeral land bridge from Alaska to Siberia to ensure the survival of the equid lineage.

In the 1500s, horses sailed back to the Americas with Spanish explorers. The descendants of those horses became popular among Crow Indians and the Pryor mustangs are mixed breed descendants of the Crow horses.

The horses thrived in what was in a sense their ancestral home range, surviving brutal winters, scorching summers and lots of bears, wolves and cougars. Cattlemen proved a far more dangerous foe, demanding round-ups to cull herds so that there would be more water and grass for their livestock grazing on public lands.The Trump administration wanted to add slaughter and butchering to the mix, but so far the horse meat option has been kept at bay.

•••••••••••••••••••••••

Seventeen years after 9/11, the bigger threat to the Pryor mustangs’ survival is also a threat to ours: a climate so radically deformed and fouled by fossil fuel pollution that global weather has become increasingly extreme: record-breaking floods, droughts, blizzards, heatwaves, cold snaps and all the trouble that comes with them — property and infrastructure damage, crop losses, disease, death.

Seventeen years after 9/11, the top headline in the New York Times this morning wasn’t about 9/11, but rather about President Trump’s latest move to roll back emission standards, this time for methane, a greenhouse gas with 30 times the potency of CO2.

Scroll down the front page for a story that underscores the breathtaking recklessness of such action: the mandatory evacuation of a million people living in the bull’s eye of Hurricane Florence. It is still two days from landfall, but insurance companies already estimate the damage could cost them as much as $20 billion.

Climate change set the stage for this disaster by making the development of a vast expanse of warm Atlantic Ocean water much more likely. This is what fuels the fury of Florence. Meanwhile melting glaciers are raising sea levels making storm surges that much worse. By the time all is said and done, rainfall measured in feet will have caused catastrophic flooding and left a legacy of cascading disaster.

The Administration’s disdain for science and common sense is just as dangerous, deadly and depraved as turning an airplane into missile of mass destruction.According to the government’s own statistics, rolling back pollution restrictions on coal-burning power plants will lead to 1,400 premature deaths — deaths that come with a great deal of suffering. In addition there will be “…15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days.” 
 
As a species we know better.The climate is changing pretty much as predicted. If we don’t start to do better soon, Homo sapiens sapiens’ successor will surely be known as Homo sapiens stultus.

Seventeen years from now, we’ll know.

•••••••••••••••••

RELATED:

Like what you read? Give j.a.ginsburg a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.