Eagle’s Playground

copyright Peggy Christian

Yesterday I was out in the backwoods, trudging through the weed tangled snow when I heard the unmistakable cry of an eagle.  It came from over my right shoulder and sailed into view on level with the tops of the cottonwoods.  It circled around, dipped and bobbed as if it were riding a raft on an invisible river current.  Landing on a nearby branch, it cocked its head toward the pond, then leaped off, throwing itself back into the updraft.  No wing beats, but it rode higher and higher, then circled back and came swooping down until the wind picked it up again.   I stood riveted, realizing the eagle was not hunting, but simply playing.  The body memory of flying from my dreams sent me sailing with him.  As I became absorbed in the sky, imagining myself into his flight, my camera hung forgotten around my neck.  A hundred great shots that I didn’t get of the eagle.

But if I had been trying to capture the moment, I don’t think I would have lost myself in that feeling of soaring so completely that when at last the eagle disappeared and I turned to go, I was surprised by the awkward weight of my boots as they pulled me back to earth.

Gary Snyder says: “To see a wren in a bush, call it ‘wren,’ and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing.  To see a bird, and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel ‘wren’–that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world.”

I think this is true sometimes of photographing birds as well.  We “capture” the bird in a picture, but in so doing, we end up with the viewfinder, and that intent to come away with something tangible, coming between us and the experience.  This was not a moment captured but a moment lived.

New Language, New Way of Thinking

A friend asked me today, “Why a nature blog?  You are neither a scientist nor a professional environmentalist.  Why write about nature when there are already so many outstanding nature writers out there?”  And I had to pause for a moment and really consider her question.  Because it begs deeper reflection.  Why write at all?  In a world overflowing with at-your-fingertips information on any subject imaginable, why write about your own individual experiences, ideas and ruminations?  The blogosphere is already crowded with thousands of people chronicling everything in their lives from their adventures in travel and in the kitchen to the wonders of the landscapes they live in.  And in the face of climate change, fracking, species extinction, overpopulation, urban sprawl, etc.,etc.,etc. is it enough to simply satisfy my human need  to, as Dinty Moore says, “not just live year to year but to capture a bit of that life, to produce an enduring record of our better thoughts?”   In the face of global crises it does seem self-indulgent and rather ineffectual to write about my own small piece of Montana and what I experience there.

But then I recently happened to pick up The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner and in this wildly provocative book (pun intended) he suggested a possible answer.  He has a chapter on how the economists and economic language have co-opted our thinking about everything–turning the natural world and all living things into commodities and requiring everything and even everyone to be reduced to commensurate units, with money being the value of these units.

Being a linguist, I know how the language we use shapes our worldview, and I was intrigued by his argument that, “If we find we live in a moral vacuum, and if we believe this is due in part to economic language, then we are obligated to create alternatives to economic language…Enmerson started the tradition by dumping his Unitarian vocabulary and writing “Nature” in language that restored nature’s sacredness.  Thoreau altered that vocabulary further and captured our imagination.  The process continues with the labor of poets, deep ecologists, and naturalists.”

Perhaps the more blogs that work to restore the sacredness of nature, that explore our inter-relatedness and interdependence by giving us a new language and a new way of thinking, the more our consciousness will change.

As for what value a singe person’s voice has, I think back to my morning walk.  I had started the morning by reading Rick Bass’s The Wild Marsh and in the chapter on February he talks about the way the “wonderful bare ground” first appears at the base of the largest  trees and how the darkened trunks of those trees absorb the sunlight during the day.  “The absorbed heat in those blackened trunks radiates slowly back out across the snow, warmest on the west side, which is the part of the tree trunk that received the last and most intense heat of the day.”

Trudging through the tired snow, not only was I delighted to notice he was right, the bare earth was showing on the west side of the ponderosas, but then I began to notice as well that the cottonwood leaves sitting on top of the crust had begun to melt down, embossing the snow with leaf prints.  And in the pond the pine needles and leaves had melted their way through the ice, cutting it into a delicate filigree  The same principle had to be at work here.  It was that little thrill of discovery, of extending what I’d learned from reading Bass’s experience and finding my own example.  I have walked these winter woods for decades and never taken particular notice of this phenomena.  But now I see it everywhere.  And so perhaps, something you read in this blog will lead you to your own epiphany.

Books I Love: The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner and The Wild Marsh by Rick Bass

Story Bones

copyright Peggy Christian

Come to the window and listen. All is dark and silent outside as I open it to let in the night air. The neighbor’s yippy dog has been called inside to his bed. Even the kids down the road have used up all their fireworks from New Year’s. With the lights from the houses turned off and the emptiness of the road, can you feel that sudden shift in the silence? The wind dies down and even the cottonwoods are mute. And then, low and expectant comes ” hoo-hoodoo-hoooo-hoo” from deep in the backwoods. And an echoing answer near the pond. The two great horned owls call back and forth to each other across the river bottom. It sounds as if the first owl is near the old tree-house.

There once was another owl there who used to roost on the top of the ladder, swooping menacingly toward anyone who ventured too near. He left my boys a rich cache of owl pellets on the ground below. One of our favorite activities was to collect them and then pick them apart, separating out and sorting the skulls and scapulas, the leg bones and back bones of the owl’s latest meal. Each pellet told a story of a mouse or vole or small bird suddenly being overshadowed by the owl’s silent wings, the grip of fierce talons and another successful hunt for the owl.

I read my children Leslie Marmon Silko’s story “The Skeleton Fixer” from her book Storyteller. In it, Old Man Badger goes out each day into the desert and collects bones. Then he brings them home, painstakingly reassembles them and breathes life into the skeleton of whatever he has put together. I would like to do the same for you. I will go out into the backwoods and beyond, collect the bones of observation and experience and put them together on the pages of this blog. Then you, my reader will breathe the life of you own insights into them, bringing them alive in you mind’s eye. As Old Man Badger says, “It is surprising sometimes how these things turn out.” We might find ourselves with a deadly snake ready to strike with nature’s destructive force. Or we might discover a hawk who’s wings of flight lift us above our everyday lives.

Even the owls are silent now. The nearly full moon casts pale shadows on the snowless ground. The great horned owls here usually don’t start nesting until February. Can it be that our unseasonably warm winter has stirred their desires so early? Or were they simply calling out to see who might be there? I hope that you will call out as well, sharing your own experiences, so that together we might create a web of connections that just might catch some of the wisdom inherent in the natural world.

To find out more about owl pellets go to: www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Physiology&title…

If you don’t live near owl roosting places you can order owl pellets to dissect from a number of biology supply companies on the internet.