The Call of the Wild

“Talk of mysteries—Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?                                                                                                                           H.D. Thoreau

The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?

I look up from my list of have tos and must dos and watch what’s happening out the window. The antics of a squirrel as it leaps from the bouncing wand of the thinnest branch tips to the birdfeeder. Then a doe, unexpected in my garden, chewing the remains of the cabbage. A glance out the kitchen window reveals the two rabbits that have taken up residence in our mower shed, grazing on the still green grass. One is a deer brown, streaked and splotched with black, giving it a certain derelict air. The other a russet beauty with black tipped ears. With the relentless chores pulling at me to get something accomplished, I almost turn my back on these calls from the wild—but no—not this time.

I don boots and jacket and head to the backwoods. Rather than take my usual circuit, starting with the pond, I wind around the other way, following the rusty, tawny path of leaf litter. A red-tail circles overhead, checking me out. I watch his loops and dives and something flutters to my feet—a long thin feather striped cream and umber.

I make my way into the cushiony moss meadow, which I sometimes refer to as the dying place, since there have been several deer carcasses, and mounds of dove feathers from the hawk’s successful hunts. And yes, gleaming white against the incongruously spring green moss is the jawbone of faun.

Looking toward the river my eye is caught by the sun gold light shimmering on the hills through the cottonwood trunks, pressed between the steely blue of the far mountains and the river. With my eyes fixed on those two colors that speak November, I don’t notice the tips of the antlers sticking above the dry grass not 20’ in front of me. Not until the buck jerks awake, clearly as startled by my presence as I am by his. He rises, stands for just a moment before gracefully leaping the fence. He looks back at me as if to say, “Don’t you wish you could do that?” and then saunters away, secure in the knowledge I can’t.

The hawk circles overhead again. By the time I push my way through the willows to the water, the buck is nowhere to be seen. A heron startles off the bank across the water, it’s pterodactyl form outlined against the pinkening clouds

I find a perfect oval wishing rock, bigger than my palm, with a wide white band of quartz encircling it. As I am contemplating what to wish for, a splash erupts from the river right in front of me. Confused, I glance up to see the ring of water spreading from the center toward the spit where I stand. I look back down at my hand, which still holds the wishing rock. I scan the riverbank looking for someone else, but I am alone.

And then, downstream a small dark brown nose pops out of the water, then a little round head, a V of wake streaming behind. It must hear my delighted gasp, because its body humps up out current and its tail whacks the water , making another resounding splash as it dives below the surface. Walking downriver I watch as it rises and slaps, each time getting more distant until I can no longer see or hear it.

I could however hear the cacophonous sound of a huge flock of geese, doing their calligraphic flight formations, long stings of them flying back and forth, as if stitching the clouds together into a story.

This. This is what I want. This time to “daily be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!” Time to answer the call of the wild, and to stitch my experiences together with writing and photography.

I grasp the wishing rock in my hand, but instead of a wish, I whisper a commitment to myself. To take the freedom I now have from being the center of other people’s lives, and to become the center of my own life. To make my art, not something I do only in stolen moments, but the real focus of everything.

I throw the wishing rock far out to the center of the current and watch as it creates silvery rings which spread in all directions.

Reflections on the Election

reflections-1The morning after the election was a heartbreaking, confusing time for me.  It was not just that my candidate had lost–that had happened before–or that the president elect would not agree with me on the issues that I consider most important.  It was not even the possibility that this man might lead the country into another catastrophic war.  That too had happened before.  No–what devastated me was the fact that I could not understand how the electorate could vote for someone who so clearly had no moral or ethical center.  Did that mean that half the country also lacks a moral and ethical center?

Needing some way to wrap my mind around this post-truth, post-values world, I turned to one of my favorite poems–one that has given me solace in the past during troubled times. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

I headed out to the pond in the backwoods.  Seating myself under the great cottonwood, I stared up into its now bare branches.  The red-tail hawk, who had raised a chick in the massive nest over my head was circling high in the sky , scanning the world below.  His shrieking kee-ree sounded like the cry my heart was making.  Because this time, I didn’t feel the peace of wild things.  I felt fear.  Fear for the wild things of which I am an integral part.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, after an unseasonably warm October, after the warmest year on record–again.  The mountains were still bare of snow.  The aspen trees, just weeks after loosing their autumn leaves were beginning to bud out, the furry white tips of the catkins emerging from their brown winter casings.  What would happen when the frost finally did come?  The pond was shrunk down, leaving a bathtub ring of decaying leaves on its shore.  Through the silvery trunks of the cottonwoods I could see the reddened pine needles of another beetle-killed ponderosa,  Our warmer winters are a boon for the pine bark beetles who are decimating our western forests and have created a fifth season–fire season, when massive forest fires eat millions of acres every year.

I thought about our next president for whom reality is a TV show, thought about him sitting in his gilded Trump tower and wondered if he was so cut off from the natural world that he couldn’t see what was happening–that he could really believe that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax, not the gravest threat to our future and the most pressing and dangerous issue.  This was not a problem you could wall out.

I thought about the people who voted for him.  I knew several people who were “unfriending” anyone who had supported Trump.  But I realized that reacting from fear, anger and hate was exactly what his supporters had done.  They saw the problems in the world–terrorism and an economy that was all about the bottom line and not about the workers, where everyone was nothing more than a consumer and their way of life was threatened by so many global issues too complex to understand–they saw those problems as overwhelming and unsolvable.  And it made the them afraid. Trump told them that he could solve those problems.  And they wanted so badly for someone to step up and do just that that they gave him their votes–and their futures.

What I realized was that they weren’t that much different from me.  I too saw the problems in the world–most particularly Climate Change as overwhelming and unsolvable and I felt defenseless in the face of global powers who were refusing to confront the reality of the situation.  I have let myself get distracted by other things, I have stopped paying the deep attention that is necessary for any relationship, and that includes my relationship with the natural world. And so I have sat back and waited for someone else to fix it.  I need to react, not out of fear, but out of my own moral center.

From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: page 469

“The times call for integrity, which is the consistency of belief and action.  The times call for the courage to refute our own bad arguments and call ourselves on our own bad faith.  We are called to live lives we believe in–even if a life of integrity is very different, let us suppose radically different from how we live now.  Knowledge imposes responsibility.  Knowledge of a coming threat requires action to avert it.  There is no way around it, if our lives are to be worthy of our view of ourselves as moral beings.  How to begin?  Maybe with four lists.  List 1: These are the things I value most in my life…List 2: These are the things I do that are supportive of those values.  List 3: These are the things I do that are destructive of those values.  List 4: These are the things I am going to do differently.  From now on. No matter what.”

List 1: A healthy, life affirming relationship with the natural world.  

List 2: I can begin by paying attention.  By speaking out in defense of what I love. Recommitting to this blog is part of that.  Supporting those who are working to change the way we relate to the natural world is another.

List 3: Waiting for someone else to solve the problems while I remain quiet and afraid is destructive to my values and ultimately to my spirit.

List 4: This is a start.  I will recommit to the things I already do, like trying my best to eat locally, to be conscious of how my decisions affect the rest of my community and the world, to an ethical relationship to money and how my spending and my investments support or hurt the natural world.  But this is only a start.  One person may not make a difference in the bigger picture, but “each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.” Michael P. Nelson

 

Too Close for Comfort

 

chicken feathers       Opening the back door it immediately felt as if something was off.  I was late putting the chickens in their coop. In the dark, if not for the moon, I wouldn’t have seen that the gate to their pen was already closed.  They had been roaming the backyard freely and the gate was always held open with a bungee cord, but the cord dangled uselessly from the chicken wire.  How could the gate have shut on it’s own?  Then I remembered my husband had mowed the lawn.  He must have forgotten to reopen it after he passed.  I knew the chickens wouldn’t have been able to get into the coop to roost, but I headed toward it anyway, hoping to find them milling around outside.

 

No sign of the chickens.  I called to them, rustling the bag of scratch feed, but the yard was eerily still.  I searched the grove of ponderosas in the back corner  where the chickens liked to browse in tall grass, but that too was empty.  Still calling chick, chick, chick I turned toward the bush where they took their dust baths.

 

A ferocious snarling erupted from the dark cover of the snowberry bushes crowding the back fence–a deep guttural snarling, as if the creature were tearing something apart.  My eyes scanned the woods, looking for any sign of movement or even the glow of eyes, but a cloud had crossed the moon and the bushes disappeared into black shadow.  I waited, heard the snarl again–close, much too loud to be a raccoon.  Definitely not the canine sound of a fox or coyote.  Too cat like.

 

We have never seen a mountain lion in our backwoods, nor any tell- tale prints in the mud or snow, but I have seen dead deer down by the river with their hair shaved off, the way a cat will do.  Could a cougar have gotten all three of my chickens?  I went to get a flashlight and when I returned I searched every nook and cranny of the yard.  At last I heard a very plaintive clucking from behind the garbage can in a corner of the garage and gate.  Pulling the can away, I found two of my chickens huddled, one on top of the other, clearly terrified of something.  They would not budge and finally I grabbed them, one under each arm, carrying the trembling birds back to the coop and locking them securely inside.  Then I went in search of Big Red.

 

The flashlight beam caught the white shine of fluff, a scattering of tail feathers on the grass.  I looked to the snarling bushes, but all was silent and still.  Clearly something had been in the yard and chased the terrified chickens.  That something must have gotten Big Red.

 

I love living on the edge of the wild.  The sound of coyotes in the backwoods lulls me to sleep and I thrill to see tracks in the forest that tell of my wild neighbors comings and goings.  But tonight a line had been crossed.  The fence, though it keeps out the deer and protects my fruit trees from their hunger, is not of course enough to keep out a mountain lion.  But there was something about the wild coming so close into my home space that discomfited me.  Though I knew it was irrational, a primal sort of fear crept into my body and made me toss and turn all night.

 

The next morning I went out to feed the chickens and there, under the apple tree, Big Red, completely tailless, scratched at the ground for worms.  Last night I must have opened the back door just in time for her to escape the cat’s jaws.  What then, had the cat been tearing apart?  Or was it simply letting me know it’s displeasure in my interruption?

 

The Woods are Coming Back to Life

dove feathersYou emerge from your house like a butterfly released from its chrysalis.  The woods are coming back to life.  Spring is in the air.

This morning you smell the sweet tang of leaf burst, the ground littered with the sticky bud casings of cottonwood trees, now shimmering lime green with new leaves.  The casings cover the ground, cling to the dangling catkins of the mountain ash, leave resin scented with sunshine on your clothes.  And too, they stick on the new green shoots of the leafy spurge, promise of a scourge of yellow weeds soon spread through the forest floor.

Pterodactyl shapes weave in and out among the treetop rookeries perched high in the cottonwood grove.  Looking overhead you see the stretch of long necks, the spread of grey blue wings as the brooding herons shift, rearrange cramped legs, turn the eggs with saber beaks and settle once again.  Head raised, you nearly stumble over scraps of longhaired hide scattered in the grass.  You find yourself standing in a deer shaped bed of sheared hair and red-specked bones.

Eurasian collared doves coo from their perches in the Ponderosas.  “Who-who, who-who, who-who will be my mate?”  The flash of their white tipped tails remind you of the flags of startled deer as they bolt for cover.  You work your way around the massive root ball and clamber over the trunk of a newly downed cottonwood. The shallow rooted trees are no match for the spring storms that race through this valley.

In the muddy bottom of a channel where spring run-off seeps into remembered pathways through the river bottom, you see the prints of coyote.  Last night you heard the wild cacophony, exuberant howling and the high-pitched yips of rambunctious pups.  Searching for more prints you find instead a great scatter of feathers under a small tree.  No flesh, no bones, only the discards of a hawk’s feast.  There, amidst the fluffy down and dove grey wings are the long tail feathers tipped in white.

Beneath the heron nests, fertilized by the white splatters from above you find a vibrant patch of yellow where, first flowers of spring, the buttercups bloom, sending out their runners in all directions.  And there, in the dappled sunshine of blossoms, a patch of sky blue, broken eggshells of herons that will never hatch, a careless scatter from the rearranging of the incubating eggs above.

A raven explodes from it’s nest, haranguing the hawk who has flown too close, cawing relentlessly as it chases the raptor through the treetops, even as the redtail circles back around toward the unprotected chicks.  The raven slices across the sky, heads off the hawk, who circles back the other way.  Around and around they go until at last the hawk perches in the top of a cottonwood snag across the meadow, watching, waiting.  And the raven returns warily to its nest, watching, waiting.

The woods are coming back to life, back to death, endlessly cycling through the lengthening days.

Our Season Between Seasons

 

wait for thaw

We have waited so long for the thaw,

but gazing into the eye of the window,

we see only the cold heart of winter.

 The sky,

storm clouds spill over mountain tops

the hillsides,

hide behind curtains of snow flurries.

the trees,

buds burst only with hoarfrost

the fields

greening grasses trapped under dirty snow.

I want to turn away

from winter’s cold shoulder,

 to pull the blinds and leave.

Instead I reach out a tentative hand

 and lift the sash, steeling myself

 against the blast of frigid wind.

In the sky

ka-ronk, ka-ronk , two geese now paired.

from the hillsides

hoo hoo hoodoo, horny great owls.

from the trees

kwik-kwik-kwikwikwikwik , laughter of mated flickers

from the fields

keeeeeeeer, a redtail hunts food for its young.

Together we stand at the window and listen.

Reflections on 2012

My last blog post for 2012.  One year of trying to capture, in words and photos, the small moments of wonder that have captivated me in the backwoods, at the homestead and beyond.  Keeping the blog has been inspiring in much the same way as keeping a field journal, with the added benefit that I have been able to share it with others and hear their own stories in response.

Whenever I go out to the woods now, I find that my experience is deepened in the recording of it.  I pause, look harder, try to note all the details so I can recreate the experience for my reader.  I make note of the weather, the feelings of cold in my bared fingers as I struggle to retrieve my camera, or the heat of the sun on the top of my head at noon-time.  I know that the heron or the squirrel are feeling that too, the heron fluffing up his down in the icy wind, or the squirrel seeking refuge from the summer’s heat in the shady, breezy crotch of the uppermost branches.

I will sniff the fissures in the ponderosa bark for the sweet vanilla scent of sap and know by the intensity whether or not the sap has started rising in the spring.  I will taste the ripening huckleberries that scent the forest in the mid-afternoons of August with their sweet baking pie smells, and pucker my lips at the bitter flavor of buffalo berries.

I listen for the sound of wings when a shadow darts across the meadow and wonder at the stealthy silence of the Great Horned Owl as he passes overhead, or thrill to the deep pulsing thrum of the heron as he heads to the river, looking for all the world like a pterodactyl with his long neck crooked in.

And I don’t just notice the blooming of a wildflower, but will look deeper at it’s leaves, maybe the small and thick skinned leaves of an alpine plant designed to conserve moisture,  hugging close to the earth before a radiant, heat producing rock.

I experience it deeply so that when I write about it in the blog I can attempt to make my reader feel, hear, see, smell and taste the wild.  And in the writing I go deeper still, finding connections and insights I would have missed had I just let the experience pass.

Finally, I have rejoiced in the feedback from you, my readers, some of you close friends who share similar experiences with me or will add to what I know with your own specialized knowledge.  Or perhaps you are someone I don’t know and you have just  stumbled across my blog and that is always a thrill, to make a connection to another curious naturalist in another part of the country or the world.  It is exciting and inspiring to share in your own beautiful poetry or stories and see your homeland  through your eyes in your creative photography.

So to all of you who have read this blog over the last year I thank you and I encourage you to comment and share over this next year so we can, as Barry Lopez says, “create an atmosphere in which the wisdom inherent in the world becomes apparent.”