It is not often I get to encounter a fellow Dayton, so when I heard about a new documentary called Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde, I was suitably intrigued. The film was to be screened on Saturday, February 8 at the Princeton Public Library, as part of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF). I did some preliminary investigation and found that Dayton was an aging cowboy and conservationist, whose most recent project was a wild horse sanctuary in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As a budding outdoorsman myself, I wanted to learn more about this free-spirited octogenarian; I wanted to understand an existence dedicated to the wellbeing of wildlife, so that I might have some inspiration for my own.
There is an old adage quoted in the film: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” This seems true enough to me, and it certainly helps explain the case of Dayton. At the age of 13, he ran away from his home in Michigan to work with horses on his uncle’s ranch in Oregon. He’d never been on a horse, but it was love at first ride; he says he spent more time on a horse than off. Even into his ninth decade he continued to ride on occasion, although he needed a stepladder to mount.
His relationship with the equine is not, however, a picture-perfect love story: he has never had much money, he is allergic to the animal, and, much more tragically, his daughter was killed by a horse in an unfortunate accident. But Dayton’s broken heart remained utterly faithful to the mustang’s cause. At the age of 62, troubled by the noble beast’s fading place in the landscape of the American West, he left his wife and surviving family for the Black Hills.
The majority of the film chronicles Dayton’s efforts to resuscitate the wild horse, but we also see the human cost of Dayton’s dedication; he readily admits he could have been a better family man. And yet there is something so pure and sincere in his love of wildlife that it is impossible not to, in turn, love Dayton. He is certainly unorthodox, and the scientific community is uncomfortable with his more hands-on conservation techniques, but he has a record of success. Most memorable is the story of Sandy, an endangered sandhill crane that Dayton raised from the egg as part of his family, and successfully prepared to be reintroduced into the wild. Say what you will, but his motives are wholesome and he gets results.
Dayton must have inherited this passion from his wheelchair-bound father. Dayton tells of a day his father, home alone, saw a snake outside approaching a bird’s nest. He wheeled to the door, opened it, and threw his body in front of the snake to protect the birds. Dayton found him later in the day still lying on the ground, a little bloody and in need of aid but absent of regrets. The snake had been scared away, and the birds were safe.
Maybe this sounds crazy on paper, but to hear the story straight from Dayton’s mouth moved me almost to tears. Such an authentic display of altruism cannot help but make an impact. Dayton shares his father’s convictions, and we naturally tend to root for him.
The last section of the documentary focuses on an ongoing battle over land rights in the Black Hills. An energy company wants to drill for uranium, while Dayton and the Lakota Sioux with whom he shares the land are committed to protecting the wilderness. The Sioux are some of Dayton’s closest friends, and they bond over their intense and spiritual feelings towards the land, considering it to be a living thing in its own right. In calling for help against the uranium miners the film sheds any tenuous claim on objectivity, but it is hard to fault the filmmakers. There is something powerfully empathetic about a grown man who is not afraid to look directly into a camera and profess a supreme love of horses.
My own inclination sides with Dayton, but over the years I’ve justified my personal environmentalism with facts, data, graphs, utilitarian calculations, and philosophical theories. Dayton Hyde, on the other hand, doesn’t even consider himself an environmentalist: he fights for nature simply because he cares for it, and treats its value as self-evident. I am beginning to suspect that his approach has a certain knack for winning hearts and minds, perhaps through its radical honesty. I know that at the end of the day, my passion for the environment has very little to do with charts and studies. My passion comes from the unique and overpowering transcendence I feel in the great outdoors, and the fact that, to me, nature is freaking cool.
I am reminded of a section from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I hope you will allow me to quote: “Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged.”
If you’ve ever watched a political debate (or heck, even just witnessed two people communicating), some aspect of these words must hit home. What sets Dayton apart is that he is unafraid to “name what [he] love[s],” and that it is an unselfish and universal love. One might not share Dayton’s feelings, but there is no rational point on which to attack him. Everything comes directly from his land ethic.
If Levin is to be believed, Dayton’s tactic (if such genuine candor can be called a tactic) might be the only useful approach: “[Levin] had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.”
This is not meant to say that the “logical subtleties” and “reasonings” that support my own beliefs are invalid; they are a part of the story that should not be ignored. In fact, one does not need to love horses to rationalize that they should be protected. But if these “logical subtleties” are the only focus, something valuable is getting lost.
Case in point: two days after I saw Running Wild, Senator Ted Cruz gave a speech on energy in which he declared, “There are considerable natural resources on Indian lands, [yet] many Native Americans, tragically, live in crushing poverty…The resources are right there to improve their standard of living.”
I do not doubt that Ted believes he is trying to help, and—ignoring for a moment historical evidence to the contrary—one can perhaps imagine a scenario in which oil money might provide some small financial windfall to some small portion of American Indians, while further impoverishing none.
There would still be a very real cost. Obviously I cannot speak for all Native Americans, but we can use the Lakota Sioux as an example. In the real-life case of the uranium miners, economic considerations are utterly irrelevant to the Sioux: what they esteem is the land itself, unmolested. I hope Ted Cruz can try to understand that even if we accept his dubious premise that native tribes would profit monetarily from resource extraction, their main concern is not always for capital accumulation. To many, exploiting the land would be like selling out a family member, or a god.
So I ask you, not just Ted Cruz but everyone, to consider the way you might love Jesus, or a sports team, or chocolate, or a fetus; can you imagine that the my love for wilderness might be something at least as magical? Can you understand why the complete disregard our current power structures show toward ecological devastation might be frustrating? Can you understand why some Daytons (both Hyde and Martindale) might make that love the driving force of a lifetime?
Sitting there at the PEFF, this understanding seemed the most obvious thing in the world. In the Q&A that followed the screening, the packed room showed nothing but respect for director Suzanne Mitchell and (in a surprise appearance via Google video chat) Dayton himself. Dayton was embraced as a hero and received multiple rounds of applause, as well as multiple offers to help protect the horses from the uranium miners.
Yet I could not help but wonder if the older folk in the audience felt jealous of Dayton. He had dropped everything to restart his life on multiple occasions, from his teens into old age. Perhaps these others wished they too had the ardor, the ambition, the zeal to follow their hearts towards something fulfilling and philanthropic, to try to leave some last positive imprint on this Earth. But here they are, stuck in a New Jersey suburb, lives ticking away with relatively little change.
And, well, here we are. As we might remember from Triangle’s annual frosh week show, “Princeton is just like an old folk’s home;” suddenly these words don’t sound so innocent. We are given so much to do here that it’s easy to be complacent, follow the most well-worn track, stumble into a lifestyle that destroys the forest for the trees. All the details we learn at Princeton can be wonderful, but are useless if we only apply them toward a specific pathway that we had no say in creating. Dayton O. Hyde is a case study in ignoring that pathway, in unself-conscious originality, in having the stubborn independence not just to do something but to be something worthy of love.