In the time after, the buffalo come home. At first only a few, shaking snow off their shoulders as they pass from mountain to plain. Big bulls sweep away snowpack from the soft grass beneath; big cows attend to and protect their young. The young themselves delight, like the young everywhere, in the newness of everything they see, smell, taste, touch, and feel.
In the time after, wolves follow the buffalo, as do mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, northern pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, and tundra swans. Prairie dogs come home, bringing with them the rain, and bringing with them ferrets, foxes, hawks, eagles, snakes, and badgers. With all of these come meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. With all of these come the tall and short grasses. With these come the prairies.
In the time after, the salmon come home, swimming over broken dams to forests who have never forgotten the feeling of millions of fish turning their rivers black and roiling, filling the rivers so full that sunlight does not reach the bottom of even shallow streams. In the time after, the forests remember a feeling they’ve never forgotten, of embracing these fish that are as much a part of these forests as are cedars and spruce and bobcats and bears.
In the time after, the beavers come home, bringing with them caddisflies and dragonflies, bringing with them ponds and pools and wetlands, bringing home frogs, newts, and fish. Beavers build and build, and restore and restore, working hard to unmake the damage that was done, and to remake forests and rivers and streams and marshes into who they once were, into who they need to be, into who they will be again..
In the time after, plants save the world.
In the time after, the oceans are filled with fish, with forests of kelp and communities of coral. In the time after, the air is full with the steamy breath of whales, and the shores are laden with the hard shells and patient, ageless eyes of sea turtles. Seals haul out on sea ice, and polar bears hunt them.
In the time after, buffalo bring back prairies by being buffalo, and prairies bring back buffalo by being prairies. Salmon bring back forests by being salmon, and forests bring back salmon by being forests. Cell by cell, leaf by leaf, limb by limb, prairie and forest and marsh and ocean; they bring the carbon home, burying it in the ground, holding it in their bodies. They do what they have done before and what they will do again.
The time after is a time of magic. Not the magic of parlor tricks, not the magic of smoke and mirrors, distractions that point one’s attention away from the real action. No, this magic is the real action. This magic is the embodied intelligence of the world and its members. This magic is the rough skin of sharks without which they would not swim so fast, so powerfully. This magic is the long tongues of butterflies and the flowers who welcome them. This magic is the brilliance of fruits and berries who grow to be eaten by those who then distribute their seeds along with the nutrients necessary for new growth. This magic is the work of fungi who join trees and mammals and bacteria to create a forest. This magic is the billions of beings in a handful of soil. This magic is the billions of beings who live inside you, who make it possible for you to live.
In the time before, the world was resilient, beautiful, and strong. It happened through the magic of blood flowing through capillaries, and the magic of tiny seeds turning into giant redwoods, and the magic of long relationships between rivers and mountains, and the magic of complex dances between all members of natural communities. It took life and death, and the gifts of the dead, forfeited to the living, to make the world strong.
In the time after, this is understood.
In the time after, there is sorrow for those who did not make it: passenger pigeons, great auks, dodos, striped rocksnails, Charles Island tortoises, Steller’s sea cows, Darling Downs hopping mice, Guam flying foxes, Saudi gazelle, sea mink, Caspian tigers, quaggas, laughing owls, St. Helena olives, Cape Verde giant skinks, silver trout, Galapagos amaranths.
But in those humans and non-humans who survive, there is another feeling, emerging from below and beyond and around and through this sorrow. In the time after, those still alive begin to feel something almost none have felt before, something that everyone felt long, long ago. What those who come in the time after feel is a sense of realistic optimism, a sense that things will turn out all right, a sense that life, which so desperately wants to continue, will endure, will thrive.
We, living now, in the time before, have choices. We can remember what it is to be animals on this planet and remember and understand what it is to live and die such that our lives and deaths help make the world stronger. We can live and die such that we make possible a time after where life flourishes, where buffalo can come home, and the same for salmon and prairie dogs and prairies and forests and carbon and rivers and mountains.