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Sharing the Landscape; Can We?

13 Oct

An older draft that was never published. Oversight and all…….. it happens.

Some readers may be familiar now with the new of the deadly Grizzly encounter in Yellowstone National Park. If not, I refer readers to a post by Doug Peacock, Do Killer Grizzlies Deserve To Die? . Peackock’s  essay offers perhaps the best description of the incident.

Many questions arise from this incident: “Does the feeding of wild animals upon a human corpse fall into the category of “natural behavior”? Even if it doesn’t, should every bear who feeds upon a dead human be condemned to die? ”

There is no option in refraining from making a moral judgement in this and similar cases. If the deceased was non-human, it would have not received any attention other than a nod to the normal cycles in Nature.

But it wasn’t that way. The prey was a human, and not for the first time reaching back into the the first encounters between predator and prey. But human narratives change everything in this natural cycle. We are summarily the judge and executioner based on human morality. All of our environment now exists within this framework; the narratives are only variations based on this.

Another example is people that move into and build on land that was uninhabited before them. Then they complain and kill wild animals that roam onto their personal property, with total disregard and acknowledgement that the land they built on and live was once the home for a diversity of wildlife before them.

The title of the post above can be juxtaposed: is the Beast the bear? and other predators? Or is the Beast us, humans now in a human-dominated world?

How can we learn to co-exist with these predators (and I hate to use that term because it is fraught with moral undertones and a shadow narrative itself)…. with these animals when we increasingly fear our own shadows and species?

Am I projecting? I don’t think so. Increasing sociological and psychological investigations suggest (I carefully use that term) that the root psychology of our interactions with other species are linked to our interactions with members of our own species. And vice versa. Even the science is presented within a framework of narratives that are often embedded in moral judgement and/or politics, which includes economics.

The one trait that is innate in all creatures, including humans, is self-preservation. But so is altruism (to some extent depending on which author one reads/listens to, or depending on what one chooses to believe). Human morality adds layers and baggage on to that innateness. Other animals don’t.

I will admit that in my private opinion, which now is no longer private, I would not have killed that grizzly.

Life is messy and we make it a dramatic, sometimes chaotic baggage of snakes and worms. Life is not black and white, but is multiple shades of gray.
Regardless, it is good to have these discussions across that range.

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A planetary merry-go-round

19 Aug

It is already 95 degrees F and about 85% humidity. Rain fell just 400 feet from the window where I sit with a cold ice tea.

I just read an article taking readers back in time to the supercontinent Rodinia, then the big (and my favorite) supercontinent Pangea. Then the epoch of volcanoes, and rapidly forward to the apes walking upright on the savannahs.

And I get a feeling that I’m riding a rocking horse through time, whizzing through the birth and growth of this merry-go-round.

I’m like an alien kid, loving the ride, and hugging the realization that we humans are a speck on a golf ball whirling around a lightbulb in a giant arena of wonder.

And I feel fine.

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Nature in Photography

6 Feb

A week or so ago on FaceBook I was nominated by two friends to participate in the #challengeonnaturephotography meme. Although I rarely participate in these memes, the thought “Why not?” prompted me to give it a try. The protocol is to post a nature-themed photograph, include the hashtag, give kudos to the friend that nominated you, and then nominate another friend in the caption.

I played by the rules for three days. Then life got in the way (long days in the field), and I got lazy. I posted when I had time, dropped the official hashtag, the nominators, and ran out of FB friends to nominate. I keep my FB friends to a relatively small number (up to 50 now!), and friends who are into photography have already participated once or twice.

Now I submit a story with the photograph instead. Why? Because photography to me is a storytelling medium. Today’s photograph is a glimpse into the secret lives on the ‘little people’.

Nearly every day for three months last summer, I was privy to an entire world few of us see in depth and detail. I felt like a giant studying, learning, and enjoying a network of soil, water, plants, and insects……….at their level. Sometimes I was so giddy with childlike delight, I forgot who and what I was. And I was full of anger and intense sadness when part of this magical world was destroyed by humans. That, too, was a lesson I won’t forget.

Revealed below is a monarch butterfly larva and several cobalt blue beetles all ‘doing their thing’. They use milkweed as a common food source. Yet they tolerate each other. I have watched members of both species consume leaf material, side by side without conflict. Here, two beetles are copulating, undisturbed and unfettered. While the monarch voraciously chows down, preparing to form its chrysalis. This, however, is only one tiny window into the lives that live in the ecosystem in which I immersed myself.

Most nature photography depicts landscapes of empty agents and actors. Or portraits of animals, still and silent in pose like a person sitting for a photograph. To me this is an injustice to the inhabitants of the landscape as they live out their drama and narratives in those spaces. Few ‘nature’ photographs reveal the complex interrelationships within the landscapes and with their fellow animals. They fail to show the communities of life in places other than within our own human preconceptions and expectations. As if we strive to capture and show only a snapshot in time and space that suits what we want to see.

In addition to the beauty, the silence and solace depicted in landscape and wildlife portrait photography is a dynamic world of creatures living their lives just like we do. The drama, the beauty, the good and bad, birth and death, at every level; from micro to macro. There are stories out there that are not of our own.

And we can learn from them: About their lives, their interactions with each other and how we interact with them. We can even learn about ourselves.

Think about that the next time you are out in the natural world. Take time to observe before you press on that shutter release button. You never know what you might find.

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Fifth instar monarch larva and cobalt blue beetles on showy milkweed.

Taos, New Mexico

14 Oct

Tonight, live from Taos, it’s blues night on the air. The coyotes add their chorus, the moon sneaks a peek as a curved sliver, and stars twinkle their approval. Streets are quiet and ghosts from muddy plaster slither out to reenact their stories. The mountains hum and golden aspen leaves quake to the slow rhythm and moan of a blues guitar and voice. While the heat recedes and the cool air slides down in its place.

Yeah, this is the place. My place to be.

Urn in shadows and four centuries of adobe.

Urn in shadows and four centuries of adobe.

Where water lives

25 Sep

Sitting here in a cafe that squats amidst colorful flowers on the bank of the Selitz River, a warm glow emanates despite the ebb of rain on a metal roof. Light laughter tinkles through the hush of morning people sipping their coffee and reading papers or tapping on their mini-screens like I am now. Outside, underneath large umbrellas, a few people hunch over their cups and table, chatting to each other in soft voices muted by the rain. Conversation alternates between the rare thunder storm here on the Oregon coast and the local events and politics.

A lone fishing boat gently rocks on the dark gray river enveloped by a shade lighter gray sky. Even the trees have a gray cast on this overcast wet morning. Here, on the edge of a river and the edge of an ocean, water also falls from the sky. From a person living the last 17 years where water is so scarce and precious, this abundance almost makes water drip from my eyes.

The moisture here dictates lives, from the moss hanging off trees to the livlihoods of people that call this Home. Growing up in New England where I played in creeks and skated on frozen water, skinnydipped in lakes at midnight and dug new trenches to divert snow water runoff every spring, the arid landscape I moved to challenged my perceptions and perspectives. I learned to do without or with very little water. It became imprinted no matter if water was plentiful or not. Water and its nature taught me much, and it became a respected elder.

What has remained is the magic of water. It doesn’t breathe, cry, or feel pain. Never the less, water can shout, roar, tinkle, and purr. It may be only atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, but it gives us all life. It can carve valleys and populate as bodies. Water can move with force like oceans and rivers, or slowly wander in creeks and be sedentary like lakes. Water can’t vote, plead, or punish. but it can give birth and kill just the same.

Can we justify its abuse, overuse, or contamination because it has no mind, no heart, no voice, and no blood? Is its only merit in monetary value and human recreation? Or might there be an implicit value beyond human assignment?

Perhaps water might be a good teacher of cyclical and dynamic systems, and as a part of all changes on this blue marble in a large universe. It was here long before organized life on this planet. and will remain long after we humans are gone.

Take a walk in the rain and relish its presence. listen to its stories and take care of it as you would a cherished ancestor. Treat it kindly. And go with the flow.

Where does one organism end? The art of seeing.

31 May

It began with my father telling me as a child, “If you want to talk to an animal, you have to learn their language.” So I started to learn and talk to animals. In their language. Decades later when I was in undergraduate university struggling through chemistry class, he again helped me to understand. During a phone conversation we discussed chemical bonding, which I was having trouble grasping. Again, “Think like electrons and you will see how they attract and repel. And that will illuminate how weak or strong they are in varying conditions and in relation to their neighbors.” It started to all make sense and I ended up loving chemistry.

When water from spring thaws threatened to invade my cabin where I lived in the woods of Maine, an old-timer on the farm up the road told me to ‘think like water’ and work with it rather than against it. Every spring found me constructing meandering ditches to channel water away from the cabin foundation. It became a game and it was like dancing with old friends (yes, we even had conversations).

Another time, Larry helped me build a dormer onto a loft in the cabin for a spare bedroom. He taught me much about carpentry and literature. (I never did learn why a man with three degrees in English and literature chose to become a carpenter.) While working where the dormer walls integrated with the main roof, I asked how to prevent the roof from leaking. It was déjà vu when he replied, “Think like water and work with it.”

A few years later a local trapper mentored me on tracking animals. By this time I already began infusing into my everyday perception the phenomenology of weather, plants, and soil. The old trapper was like the Dali Llama of animals and birds. The only organism I lacked any ability to ‘think like’ was human beings. Back then I had no interest, nor patience.

It was months before I was ‘allowed’ to look at animal tracks and relate them with a species identification. My first lessons were sitting or standing still, for hours. Silent. Listening. Observing. Letting go of any obtrusive thoughts that might separate me from my surroundings. I learned to meld into the tree I sat against, to become the bush that I stood in, and to move silently. I learned to appreciate silence. Not only in the woods, but also in my own habitat. It was not unusual for me to not see or talk to another human for a week or two.

I could be ‘invisible’.

Trumpet swans and cygnets

I became highly sensitized to the weather. I could smell and feel weather changes long before they arrived. Wind patterns in the upper or lower canopies of trees informed me when storms might be coming in, and where they came from. Animal movements were also predictive.

Birds and  animals began to approach me rather than flush away. In the winter, a mink was a common visitor to the porch of the cabin. It would approach and watch me as ardently as I watched it while sitting on the outdoor steps. At one point, it would come near my feet and groom itself or eat a caught prize.

I learned patience with the changes in the natural world around me, and the creatures that shared my space. I watched their behavior and learned how they interacted with their surroundings. We all learned to inhabit the same space with a mutual respect. They observed me as much as I observed them. And it was a smooth transition to learn how to piece together the stories of their tracks and sign as much as they did the same with me. It was not uncommon for me to spot a deer or badger that had been following me as much as I had been following them.

A quarter of a century later, and many chapters of life changes, I found myself doing the same last week. Every day I drove the cramped little truck down the chunky gravel road to park the truck so that it would not block visitors or other staff on the refuge. Sitting on the tailgate, I removed my regular boots and pulled on the chest waders. The field vest was the last item; heavy, with so many filled pockets it was like a weighted vest, binoculars hanging on my chest. And then wade through the canal waters to go out into a world that few really see. By that, I mean ‘see’.

My focus was surveying vegetation in the marshes and  transition zones from wetland to dryland, even the sagebrush steppe. I searched for plants (other than grasses and sedges) that were emerging, budded, and flowering. The prize was the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). However, I also searched for plants that might serve as nectar sources for Monarch butterflies. Because of the dearth of data for Monarch butterflies, the milkweeds and nectar sources in SE Oregon, my search was wide open. I decided to document all of the forbs and shrubs that might be candidate nectar sources, as well as any milkweed plants.

Red-winged blackbird.

Over four days I covered a large field accumulating a preliminary database of plant phenology that has been missing from this part of the refuge. However, my time out in the marshes also provided an opportunity to observe a variety of  birds and mammals within their own private lives. I learned many new bird calls, observed birds interact with each other and their interactions with me. Twice I was warned away from specific locations by female northern harriers, probably too close to their nests. Other times, I watched red-winged blackbirds dive bomb the same harriers, one blackbird even riding on the back of a harrier until it was out of range.

One early morning I quietly came upon two young black-tailed bucks as they grazed grass. While I froze in place, they watched me. Our eyes met, and when I blinked, they blinked. I could see them relax, and even when I slowly moved myself several feet away, they were not perturbed.

During these days, I found myself thinking, ‘Think like a butterfly’. Or ‘Think like this plant’, and ‘Think like that/those bird(s).’ As my father and others in my past taught me, I tried to look at their world through their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and their ears. Even their roots and leaves. Our lives and being overlapped.

At times I forgot what species I was. I became a part of the whole system. I found myself adopting their same behavior when a vehicle drove down the gravel refuge road: being still and blending in. Becoming ‘invisible’.

I began to ‘see’ and become a part of them.

Where the wild things are, go I

30 May

Last week was a string of days within this:

Malheur NW Refuge and Steens Mnt.

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
– Wendell Berry

The ultimate was watching a pair of swans with four cygnets. Watching for hours the intimacy of their body language with each other, their communication and connections so basic and honest simplicity, putting all of ours at shame and bumbling inadequacy. The poetics of space and place through the eyes of six swans was an experience I won’t forget. And it makes all our human drama seem so ignorant and trivial.

I belong where the wild things are.

Trumpeter swans and cygnets

White-faced ibis and cinnamon teal on marshes on the Refuge.

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