Showing posts with label nature writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nature writing. Show all posts

May 01, 2021

3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Richard Nelson

Earlier Posts: (1) Barry Lopez (2) Pentti Linkola 

I am fudging this one just a little. The anthropologist Richard Nelson (b. 1941) actually died in November 2019, but I did not hear about it until January 2020, when an archaeologist friend sent me a link to a number of news items in his field.

Reading email on my laptop in some coffeehouse in Colorado Springs, I was skimming the news items when I read of Nelson's passing —  "having asked that he spend his final minutes, after being taken off of life support, listening to the recorded sound of ravens."

Richard Nelson recording a gray jay, up close.
(Liz McKenzie for the Rasmuson Foundation).

The type got all blurry after that, and I don't remember any of the rest.

I did not know him, never heard him speak. His radio program, Encounters, was not on any station around here to my knowledge, but you can get samples online, such as here.

The Alaska-based Rasmuson Foundation  has a good page about Nelson.

I knew him through books: he wrote a number of them, first in a more anthropological vein, such as Hunters of the Northern Forests

As his Wikipedia page puts it, "[he] moved from anthropological studies to a more literary style" with Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.

That was the book that pulled me in, with bits such as the Koyukon people telling him that it was impolite to point at a mountain. (The Koyukon speak a related language to Navajo and Apache; evidently they are the ones who said, "Fine, you go south. We like it here.")

The video above is based on that book. It is one of a series that you can find on YouTube.

He also wrote Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, among others, with its often-quoted statements that ""When it comes to deer, wildness is the greatest truth. And tameness is a tender, innocent lie." 

A reviewer on Goodreads wrote, "It's a really interesting look at people's relationships with deer from all angles (our spiritual and ecological connections with wildlife, the dilemma of controlling overabundant deer, trophy hunting, hunting deer for venison, the anti-hunting movement, etc.)."

I remember the passage about hunting blacktail deer in the coastal Alaska forest with his Border collie Keta:

Now . . . rather than staying close, Keta sidles off and lifts her nose as if there's a faint musk drifting in the breeze. She comes reluctantly when I gesture toward my heel. Taking her cue, I pause and watch ahead, then move when a sigh of wind in the trees covers the sound of our footsteps. Luckily, the ridge is well drained and densely carpeted in sphagnum moss, so it's fairly quiet going.

Keta's behavior telegraphs the scent's increasing strength: she moves forward, catches herself and looks back, falls in beside me, then shunts away to my left or right like someone pacing at a line she's been warned not to cross. She probes her nose into the breeze, occasionally reaching to the side for a stronger ribbon of scent. She hesitates and stares intently, aware that something is nearby but unable to pick it out. And most telling of all: she leans back and anxiously lifts a forepaw, possessed by her desire to charge off but yielding to the discipline she's learned, as if an inner voice were ordering her to wait.

By this time I'm convinced it must be a deer. If it were a bear, Keta would refuse to keep still and she'd woof suspiciously, deep in her throat. I edge along, furtive and stalking, as if I'd already seen the animal. At one point I even try sniffing the air, but for me there's not a hint of smell. It's strange, being completely numb to a signal that's as obvious to Keta as walking into a cloud of smoke. I stop for several minutes to study the ravel of shrubs and trees and openings ahead. But despite Keta's certainty, the place looks vacant to me.

And that passage concludes,

No scientist, no shaman, no stalker, no sentimentalist will ever understand the deer . . . and for this I am truly grateful. I am possessed by a powerful curiosity about this animal, but what I desire most is to experience and acclaim its mysteries. In our explorations of scientific and practical information about deer, we should always keep in mind what the elders and philosophers teach: that while knowledge dispels some mysteries, it deepens others.

I just wish someone had kidnapped him from the hospital to let him spend his last days with friends on that island, beneath the open sky, hearing real ravens, letting his spirit float free.

April 07, 2021

3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Pentti Linkola


Of the three writers I am discussing (Barry Lopez was the first), the deep ecologist Penti Linkola (1932–2020) is the least cuddly. In fact, he was pretty crusty. One Finnish academic described his writing as "a very Finnish and dark version of 'an inconvenient truth'" (from the title of Al Gore's environmental book).

Linkola wrote in Finnish, and the only work translated into English that I have seen is a collection of essays, Can Life Prevail? published by Arktos Media and available as a printed book, ebook, or audiobook.

In American terms, you might find in him Henry David Thoreau's skepticism about "progress," Ed Abbey's distrust of authority and "the experts," and  Wendell Berry's valuing of small-scale sustainable farming and traditional life style — plus a healthy dose of your favorite author of After the Big Collapse distopian novels.

And with Rachel Carson's eye for scientific observation and making connections.

Linkola made his living as an inshore fisherman from 1959 to 1995 — it is hard to imagine him taking orders from any boss. His father and his grandfather were both university administrators; he studied biology and worked as a research ornithologist for a time. He started a preservation organization that functions something like The Nature Conservancy. 

So, for example, his observations about the decline of bird populations in his lifetime — favoring those birds such as crows and jays that thrive in human-altered landscapes versus those that do not — or about the damage of invasive species or industrial logging are based in science and on personal observation.

In his preface, he condemns his fellow Finns' version of progress: "Finland is switching to the most horrid forms of market economy, to an uncritical worship of technology, to automation and media vapidity; with information technology pervading all human exchanges" (20). 

He refers to present-day circumstances as "Suicidal Society."

He jumps from how bureaucratic hygiene regulations damaged small fisherman like himself, who could not afford and did not want big seagoing boats with million-euro ice machines on board, and likewise damage small grocers, butchers, etc. to arguing that an ultra-clean home environment produces people with poor immune systems (in which he is far from alone).

I myself tend to dismiss all nutritional controversies — surrounding meat, vegetables, salt, butter, sugar — with one simple statement: if you don't eat, you die, and if you eat, you survive. It is enough to clarify that objects that harm teeth and internal organs, such as iron nails and glass fragments, should be avoided (25–26).
But there is one thing about Linkola that spooks mainstream environmentalists  — his politics.

He spent his life in Finland's parliamentary democracy, a center-left Scandinavian welfare state. He rejected it. 

Democracy, to Linkola, was a "suicidal" form of government, because people will always vote for the leader who promises more free stuff, "bread and circuses, regardless of the cost and consequences" (154). He adhered to principles of deep ecology:

There is nothing above the requirements of the continuity of life: all other interests fall below it. As the deep ecologist emphasises those factors beneficial to the preservation and continuation of life, his arguments will always be above all others. . . . What the deep ecologist loves is the whole. Therein lies the greatest beauty, wealth, and love. The deep ecologist does not understand the Christian-Humanist love of man, which even at its best only extends to a nation or mankind: this he sees as a form of inbreeding, egotism, masturbation (165).

Linkola was not the Unabomber. He admits that he has never dared to do more than speak, write, and peacefully demonstate. Yet he wrote, "The crippling human cover spread over the living layer of the Earth must forcibly be made lighter: breathing holes must be punctured in this blanket and the ecological footprint of man brushed away" (170, emphasis added). 

I have heard such sentiments expressed by North American enviros, when the whiskey is being passed around the campfire. But they don't put them in their grant applications, their legal filings, or their conference papers.

At times, he yearned for a something like Plato's Republic: a small-scale society led by a class of Guardians who are well-educated (and trained in the martial arts to balance mind and body), yet who live materially simply. Somehow, if the perfect Green dictator could arise, that person could supervise a "world made by hand," to borrow a post-Collapse book title.

At other times he echoes the ancient Chinese book of the Tao, the Tao Te Ching (Legge translation) — which is at base a political manual, not a self-help text:

In a little state with a small population, I would so order it, that, though there were individuals with the abilities of ten or a hundred men, there should be no employment of them . . . .

Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them; though they had buff coats and sharp weapons, they should have no occasion to don or use them. . . .

They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment.

There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any intercourse with it (Chapter 80).

That sounds like Linkola. Yet he also was quoted as saying, "If there were a button I could press, I would sacrifice myself without hesitating, if it meant millions of people would die."

It is not surprising that a resident of a Scandinavian welfare state who says that his own society is not only ecologically destructive but destructive of human health and well-being as well is not the sort who is invited to speak to the United Nations or the graduating classes at universities. At least in the abstract, he has advocated dictatorship:

Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent dictator, that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. Best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and government would prevent any economical growth.

I am reminded of the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot (1925–1998) and his war on cities in the 1970s. Not a model to follow.

Yet I can understand Linkola's call for Something Different as born from a deep love of the natural world and deep pain at its destruction. 

As with Plato 2,500 years ago, sometimes we wish for the Philosopher King who would set things right. But do we ever get one? Plato once thought that he had found such a man, but everything went sideways, and the famous Athenian philosopher had to flee for his life.

 It is not a bad thing, however, to keep his book on the shelf and to look at aspects of your life and ask, "What would Pentti think?"

Next: Richard Nelson.

March 29, 2021

3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Barry Lopez


This is the first of three linked entries. First, Barry Lopez, 1945–2020. Second, Pentti Linkola. Third, Richard Nelson.

One day in the early Eighties I was browsing in the Chinook Bookshop (1959–2004) in downtown Colorado Spriings and picked up what I thought was a work of creative nonfiction, perhaps a memoir.  I read a chapter titled "Buffalo." The last paragraph convinced me I was wrong. 

I wasn't in the habit of buying new hardback books back then, but I took this one back to the sales counter.

The book was Barry Lopez' Winter Count (1981). If I had looked at the back cover, I would have read Bill Kittredge's blurb: 

Through these elegant stories, Barry Lopez gives us over to a concrete and particular landscape which is luminously inhabited by mystery, radiant with possibilities which transcend the defeats we find for ourselves.
Wikipedia: "In a career spanning over 50 years, he visited over 80 countries, and wrote extensively about distant and exotic landscapes including the Arctic wilderness, exploring the relationship between human cultures and nature."

Of Wolves and Men (1978) made Lopez's reputation, but Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986) was even finer.  Reading it one warm early spring day, where I could bask in a folding chair next to a melting snowbank, I thought that I would have given my hand to have written anything so intriguing and well-constructed. To quote Wikipedia again,

Arctic Dreams describes five years in the Canadian Arctic, where Lopez worked as a biologist. Robert Macfarlane, reviewing the book in The Guardian, describes him as "the most important living writer about wilderness". In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani argued that Arctic Dreams "is a book about the Arctic North in the way that Moby-Dick is a novel about whales."

He also wrote what would be a graphic novel if it were fiction, but maybe it's "graphic creative nonfiction" — Apologia (1997), which is about roadkill. From the dust jacket:

"It has long been a habit of writer Barry Lopez to remove dead animals from the road. At the conclusion of a journey from Oregon to Indiana in 1989, he wrote Apologia to explore the moral and emotional upheaval he experienced dealing with the dead every day."

It's no surprise that as a young man he considered the Catholic priesthood or even monastic life. But then we would not have his books like these.

I do that too when I can safely pull off. I keep an old Army entrenching tool behind the the driver's seat. Even with that and gloves though, sometimes I have resumed my trip while realizing that my fingers smell like death.

The links in this post go to Amazon. I keep this blog ad-free, but I do have hosting bills, so any purchase from a blog link is a help. Thanks.


April 15, 2019

Ed Abbey Talks about his Park Ranger Days at Arches

Author Ed Abbey talks about his park ranger days at Arches National Monument (now national park) in the 1950s, the experience that produced his landmark book Desert Solitaire, in this 1985 short documentary.

Me, I will never forget visiting Delicate Arch early one morning in 1990, trying to get ahead of the crowd, but then the crowd arrived, and someone said, "It looks just like the [Utah] license plate!"

From Ned Judge, producer and director: "An eight minute film essay that I co-produced and directed with Ed Abbey in 1985. At the time I was working for a network magazine show. The executive producer took me to lunch one day. He told me that he was having trouble with his son who was 18. The son thought his dad was a corporate whore. He had told his father if he had any balls at all he’d put Ed Abbey on his show. That’s why the EP was talking to me. Would I see if it was possible? I had an acquaintance who knew Ed and he passed the request along. Ed responded that he’d give it a try. He signed the contract and wrote a script. We met in Moab and went out to Arches National Park to shoot some practice sessions with a home video camera. We would review them at the motel in the evening. After a day or two, Ed was feeling pretty comfortable on camera so we scheduled the shoot. We were all happy with the way it went. But then we ran head-on into [NBC] network reality. Roger Mudd, the show’s host, was extremely negative about putting an “eco-terrorist” on the show. The executive producer had no choice but to cave. So this Abbey essay was put on the shelf and never aired. Abbey died 3 years later in March 1989."

Ned Judge's more recent work includes The Medicine in Marijuana, an examination of the claims made for medical marijuana.

I can't embed the video, so watch it here.

December 16, 2018

Never Underestimate a Bolo Tie, and Other Gift Suggestions

It's time for Southern Rockies Nature Blog's seasonal gift guide.

• Booze and smoked meats are always good

• I like books. Maybe you know someone who would too. Two that caught my eye:

Lines on a Map: Unparalleled Adventures in Modern Exploration

Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture

Or how about a bolo tie? I got my first one as a college student — it's the one on the right with the green "stone," which is probably plastic, but I did not have much money then.

Like tattoos, every bolo tells a story — but you can take it off at the end of the day.

"Never Underestimate the Bolo Tie," writes someone with deep New Mexico roots.

For most of my life, I associated this unique type of neckwear with old men, New Mexican politicians, and the 1980s. Even though as an Okie the bolo tie isn’t foreign to my state, I never thought I’d personally sport one.

That all changed at my grandfather’s funeral.

When we laid him to rest, each of his grandsons who served as pallbearers sported one of Grandpa’s old bolo ties.

I picked one from his collection that stuck out to me. It’s a silver keystone with an oval piece of turquoise inlaid in it. Simple, but distinguished.

I was wearing a pair of dark jeans, cowboy boots, white shirt, and brown sport coat. It’s a getup my grandpa would have worn. Rugged, yet refined.

I put the bolo tie on and gave myself a look in the mirror. I was expecting to feel awkward and self-conscious wearing it, but to my pleasant surprise, I thought it actually looked quite sharp on me.

July 20, 2018

I Skipped National Grasslands Week — for a Reason


You probably missed this because you were watching migrating birds or something, but National Grasslands Week was June 18th-24th.

Or maybe you skipped it because the Comanche and Cimarron national grasslands are interesting country but it's just too damn hot there in June for recreation. Especially this year. (There are other national grasslands as well.)

I went to the Purgatory River dinosaur trackway that week in 2015, and while it was a good experience, I would much rather have gone in December. I have hunted in shirtsleeves on New Year's Day in southeastern Colorado.

January is also good, absent any blizzards. Or February. I used to take the nature-writing students out to Vogel Canyon (in the upper-left light-blue area on the map below) in early February.

It's a good entry point for the grasslands experience — all that aridity and melancholy and mysterious rock art.

It must have been someone sitting in an air-conditioned office who put National Grasslands Week in June. The bureaucratic mind at play.

August 23, 2017

Fighting for the Flock — The Life of Livestock Guardian Dogs

“Where the Dogs Are, the Wolves Cannot Be” (A Turkish shepherd) 

I grew up with hunting dogs, and I knew a few herding dogs. I knew about the world of little dogs riding in big motorhomes, the world of mutts who went everywhere, and the world of generic black-and-white farm collies who never sat paw in the main family house but still had full, purposeful dog lives.

But there is another dog world about which I knew little, and that is the world where dogs fight wolves.

Cat and Jim Urbigkit raise sheep on private land and public-land leases in western Wyoming. Living south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, their flocks must contend not just with “mesopredators” such as foxes and coyotes, but “apex predators” as well: wolves, black bears, and grizzlies, all enjoying some degree of legal protection. Nor do Cat and Jim wish to exterminate those wolves and grizzlies, merely to keep them off the sheep.
Rena was there to meet them when the wolves leapt into the pasture. One hundred thirty pounds of determined Akbash sheep guardian dog, she met the wolves head-on, brawling in the distance from the herd, in the darkness, in the rain. When the wolves attacked, Rena could face one, as the other attacked her rear. The wolves sunk their teeth into her haunches, nearly severing her tail at its based and biting her tender underside. Fighting for both her own life as well as the lives on her sheep, Rena battled on, keeping the wolves from reaching the herd.
Rena was the subject of her own book, The Guardian Team: On the Job With Rena and Roo, Roo being a guardian burro (effective against coyotes but not bears or wolves).

A few years ago the Urbigkits received funding from the state of Wyoming to study livestock guardian dogs in other countries, including Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Lesotho, and Central Asia — all places with long traditions of using guardian dogs in addition to herding dogs.

These dogs grow up alongside the sheep. They must guard the sheep against predators, yet not be too hostile to humans and other dogs. It is a difficult balance.

In her new book Brave and Loyal: An Illustrated Celebration of Livestock Guardian Dogs, Cat Urbigkit writes not just for the livestock producers who could use guardian dogs, but for anyone who might encounter them on the range — or for anyone who likes reading about dogs. You hear not from them, but from the herders and dog breeders (usually the same people) of Bulgaria, Turkey, etc.

She told one interviewer,
“The thing I liked most was that I got to meet Spanish mastiff dogs in Spain, and I wasn’t expecting how effective or large they are,” she says. “The dogs are very effective against wolves, and we visited ranches in central Spain that had bands of sheep living with packs of wolves on the same ranch. When you have 11 Spanish mastiff dogs with a thousand head of sheep and very few losses, that’s an amazing record.”
Finally, if you are out on the range and encounter guardian dogs, keep your distance. If you are bicycling, dismount. The dogs (and wildlife) regard a bicycle as a predator — it is quiet, fast-moving, and has big eyes in front (sunglasses, goggles, and they may react appropriately.

August 18, 2017

An Owl in a High Valley Pasture

The Wet Mountain Valley
I was dispatched yesterday to catch an injured owl at a building site near the Custer County airport, Silver West. (True fact: it has a 6,954 ft./2.1 km. paved runway, in case you need a place to land your 737 in a hurry.)

I found the site, and there under a backhoe sat a great horned owl. It looked too alert to simply walk up and grab. The "toreador" technique of tossing a blanket over it might have worked, but the blanket might well have caught on the machine. So I took the big, soft net and ambled along, checking out the owl.

No slacker, the owl made a little hopping flight, landed — and then ran like a pheasant under a barbed-wire fence. #*@$%!

The woman who had called me asked if she and her twenty-something son, who were the only people working there, could help me. I said yes, I could use your help. She fetched him from where he was running a plate compactor on the other side of the site.

I arm-signaled: "The owl is there. Go around. Pincer movement."

We crossed the fence, made our pincer, and the owl, distracted, let me come close. When it tried to fly, I swiped  with the net, not exactly catching it. But it dropped to the ground and assumed its defensive posture — on its back, talons up. An easy snatch,  and it was time for a long drive to Pueblo and the raptor center.

I do not have the veterinary diagnosis, other than that the owl was probably "young of the year." That it could still fly a little makes me hope that it had only a soft-tissue injury, but I don't know.

Without the woman and her son, I would have been pursuing that owl solo across the landscape shown above, and would I have ever captured it, both of us tired and stressed?

Right now I am reading The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks by Susan Casey,* who used to be with Outside magazine. Describing her time with shark researchers on the Farallone Islands near San Francisco, it has lots on hunting behavior, of course.

When I met the son close-up, after the owl capture, we had a brief conversation, and I thought, "I never saw this guy before, but he immediately understood through nonverbal signals what was happening and what we needed to do. Truly, humans really are pack hunters."

* Her website shows the nature writer in a little black dress, a change from the usual boonie hat-and-boots image.

March 28, 2017

A Colorado Moment and a New Book on Yellowstone Death, Nature, & Science

So I sold a pair of World War 2-vintage snowshoes on eBay and used the money to buy hemp oil (CBD) for my dog.

A Colorado moment, circa 2017.

I probably could have asked more if I could definitely have linked those 1943 snowshoes to the 10th Mountain Division — Dad did acquire them in Colorado in the 1960s — but that was just a "maybe."


What I want to read:
 
Jordon Fisher Smith, whose Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra is one of my favorite reads, has a new book out, Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature.
"Harry Walker had come to Yellowstone in 1972 in search of himself. Instead, he became a tragic symbol of poor wildlife management and the killer grizzly bear. Walker’s death prompted a fierce debate over the human role in engineering nature, with some of the biggest names in wildlife biology at the time on either side.

"While a tempest of people, places and ideas rage within the pages of Engineering Eden the author is a calm voice in the storm, letting the reader take it all in and form an opinion of their own."
In this interview with a Florida NPR station, he says,  "“I wanted the artistic form of this narrative nonfiction work to resemble the endless interconnection of nature itself. Instead of saying to my reader, ‘Okay, now watch this. I’m gonna try to really make this complex web of relationships right in front of you,’ I just did it.”

(I really dislike the phrase "find yourself" or "in search of himself," etc. You don't just find yourself out there lying on the ground out in the woods; you build yourself by what you do day to day.)

September 29, 2016

"On the Wild Edge," Nature Writer David Petersen's New Film

An article from the Durango Herald on a film about bowhunter and nature writer David Petersen, On the Wild Edge: Hunting for a Natural Life.
The film leaves out Petersen’s work as editor for Mother Earth News and his many books including Ghost Grizzlies, The Nearby Faraway: A Personal Journey Through the Heart of the West, and A Man Made of Elk. His advocacy for Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is also omitted. Instead, Christopher Daley, the film’s cinematographer, sound recorder and editor, focuses on Petersen’s version of ethical hunting during archery season in early fall.
But then they published another article about him that covered some of those things!  

You can order the DVD here.

July 03, 2016

I Miss Goth Coyote, But Her Urban Cousins Are Fine

Coyote in Douglas fir and oak brush.
This coyote turned up on a scout camera last week, which vindicated what I was thinking — that although I had not heard one for a couple years, I thought that I had seem some scat along the Forest Service road.

Their howls used to provide the soundtrack of pre-bedtime dog walk. At one time, a few years ago, there was an individual whom I named Goth Coyote, because his/her howls had extra wavers and quavers that spoke of torn lace, high-heeled boots, and heavy eye makeup.

Then it all stopped. Did someone trap them? Someone was doing some trapping, because there was the time I found four skinned carcassses in the gully on the national forest that functions as "Boneyard Gulch."

I wondered if the resent absence of coyote howling connected, alternatively, to the arrival of a couple of families in the neighborhood who embraced the whole neo-chicken-raising lifestyle, which includes the precept that Predators Must Die — also, neighbor dogs who encroach upon the Precious Fowl, even when said precious fowl are walking around on the margins of the county road.

But that is just my little area. Across North America, coyotes are expanding their territory. As Dan Flores writes in his new book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,
they have successfully urbanized: "In the Chicago metropolitan area, a whopping 61 percent of coyote pups survive to adulthood." But contrary to popular perception, they don't survive by eating Fluffy and Fido. (Of course, if opportunity presents itself, they will.) Golf course and city park geese and eggs are a favorite choice, along with urban deer and human trash.

His chapter "Bright Lights, Big City" collects a lot of research on urban populations, and some parts will surprise you. The best course, he suggests, is "to learn everything possible about living with the animals, then kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."

Meanwhile, some friends a couple of miles away have joined the chicken cult. M. and I stopped by a couple of days ago, and the husband was pouring concrete around the shed that he has converted to a chicken coop. He has built a stout wire enclosure with a concrete footing, and the top will be covered for both shade and protection from hawks. And I don't think that he is particular trigger-happy.

Our friends the wildlife rehabilitators, whose fawn enclosure would be a snack bar for coyotes and other predators, surround it with an eight-foot chain-link fence. But mountain lions and some coyotes and climb (bears prefer to smash their way in), so on top of that are three strands of barbed wire and one of electric wire. So far, so good over there.

That's what you have to do before you can "kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."

June 25, 2016

This Baby Beaver Makes Me Think of Grey Owl

Beaver kit



This is the time of year when M. and  I are back and forth to the little wildlife rehabilitation center not far away. One day last week it was to drop off cuttings of willow and lanceleaf cottonwood for the beaver they are rearing.

Gus peers into the beaver's enclosure. Is he jealous?
Gus the badger came earlier this spring. For a time he was the only animal — then came the beaver, some raccoons, a tiny bear cub, and the usual group of fawns (dropped off one of the last on yesterday, in fact).

He took time off from enlarging the den under a boulder in his enclosure to mumble at us through the fence between his home and the beaver's. Does he think that people should be bringing him treats (frozen mice) first?

I can't look at a beaver kit without thinking of Archie "Grey Owl" Belaney, though. An Englishman who re-invented himself as half-Apache, then lived among the Mohawks and married a Mohawk woman (wife #2 of three), he was born in East Sussex in 1888 and died in 1938 in Saskatchewan. He worked a number of years as a trapper, except for military service during World War One. As one biography notes,
Finally, Belaney became disgusted with the brutality involved in trapping. This disgust was triggered by the revulsion his new companion, a Mohawk woman named Gertrude Bernard, felt for the practice. When Bernard, otherwise known as Anahareo, adopted and raised a pair of beaver kittens whose mother had been killed in a trap, Belaney came to recognize that animals he had trapped for most of his life were highly intelligent and affectionate beings. After establishing a close bond with the kittens, Belaney vowed never to trap another beaver and to work to stop the wholesale slaughter of beavers.

Belaney henceforth devoted himself to writing of his experiences of the Canadian wilderness and of Native culture in order to forward his conservationist message and to provide an income to replace the one he had formerly earned by selling beaver pelts. Belaney’s vision was to establish wildlife sanctuaries throughout the North. He was also interested in prohibiting commercial traffic in animal skins to protect animal life and to prevent native culture from becoming commercialized and driven by European fashion trends. Belaney thought that Native peoples, instead of killing animals for profit, could work as conservationists and forest rangers in wildlife sanctuaries.
In his own writings Archibald Belaney presented himself as Grey Owl, a half-breed who was more Indian than white. The popularity of his writings led to extended lecture tours for Grey Owl in Britain and in North America. Grey Owl played up his Indianness for these lectures, darkening his hair and skin as was his custom and dressing in Native apparel. The Canadian woodsman, with his fringes, feathers and beads provided a thrilling sight on the streets and stages of England of the 1930s. (Although, ironically, some of Grey Owl’s Indian costume was actually bought in England, where it was sold as an exotic novelty from the colonies.) His message was thrilling to an audience jaded with and troubled by many of the traits of modern Western culture: "You are tired of civilization. I come to offer you, what? A single green leaf." 
Today, of course, he would be ripped up and hung out to dry by the Culture Police, his actual English identity spashed on websites like FakeIndians.

There were indeed some questions at the time as to how this "half-breed" could produce well-written books like The Men Of The Last Frontier, but people who wanted to believe, believed.

But his defenders can always point out that he did major work as a wildlife conservationist, both hands-on and as a writer and lecturer. (And there were few Apaches in 1920s Ontario and Manitoba to challenge his assumed identify, I suppose.) He was the first "celebrity conservationist" in Canada.

Some called him "the world's most famous Canadian." Here's a short video that mixes original footage of Grey Owl with clips from the 1999 biopic, in which he is played by Pierce Brosnan.


April 09, 2016

The Hard Work of Writing


That is to say, writing your name over and over again.

Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk, a memoir about death, nature, falconry, T. H. White, and becoming feral and then human again, which has won all sorts of prizes, labors at signing her name on dozens of shelf copies for the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver last Thursday night.

"I get absolutely off my face on Sharpie fumes," she said. "It's how I get my kicks these days."

Her column for the New York Times has ended, so I will be removing it from the blogrolls, but she explained further at dinner after the signing that she will be writing longer nature-and-culture essays for the paper.

December 29, 2015

Bear with Me — There's More

Bear enjoying late-season tomatoes.
More links that I need to clear . . . 

• "The Hermit: New Mexico's First Mountaineer" — it's a story of religion, violence, penitence, and isolation, in other words, New Mexico.

• Some birds do well in cities and suburbs. How can we help them?

• We are told the decades of forest-fire suppression has led to hotter, bigger files. But a CU study suggests that severe fires are not new on Colorado's Front Range.  

Plans to sequence the genome of the oldest dogs found in North America.

Outdoor magazine's best 25 books for well-read explorers. Old Glory, yes!

• Everyone hears about Coronado's expedition in the American southwest,  no one about Francisco Leyva de Bonilla's. Maybe that is because it was such as disaster.

• Saving a big piece of southeastern Colorado's canyon country. And a chunk of the High Plains east of Pueblo.

Why are we still talking about Chris "Supertramp" McCandless?
Twenty-three years after his death, McCandless still has people talking — debating his cause of death, condemning his choices and discussing how perhaps they, too, can leave everything behind and walk into the wild.
A "river of sheep" in northwestern Colorado. Good photos.

March 08, 2015

Women Going Feral — And Then Writing

Last fall, during a layover at Sea-Tac airport, I was checking email on my laptop when this young woman walked up and asked if she could share the table (there were too few of them).

She had two books with her — one of them was Cheryl Strayed's Wild, while the other was a novel. "I can't decide which one to read," she said.

"Read Wild," I said. "My wife loved it — I've read parts of it — it's good."

Later, M. and I saw the movie, which was overlooked in the Oscars — too odd for the judges, too many trees? — fairly faithful to the book, but with Extra Hollywood Stereotyping.*

Meanwhile, having read her former blog and her book on the cultural history of falcons, and corresponded a little, I was awaiting Helen Macdonald's memoir H is for Hawk

 I knew she could write. There had been the blog post where she described a goshawk flying through trees: ". . . the gos spooled away through the trees. He looked like a coin falling through water, flashing silver and grey. Some kind of metal. A very fierce one. Potassium, Sodium, Goshawk."

(We hates her, preciousss.)

H is for Hawk picked up a bucket of literary prizes in Britain, and reviewers on this side of the pond have been equally laudatory.  

The New Yorker gave it four pages (!!), reviewer Kathryn Schulz writing, "Books about nature, like the category 'animal,' sometimes suffer from a sin of omission: in both cases, people belong inside them but are often left out. Books about grief run the opposite risk; too much of the person can be left in, too much of the world omitted. Macdonald, who is writing both kinds of book at once, makes neither mistake."

Painted with a very, very broad structuralist brush, both books tell the same story. The writer loses a dear parent (Strayed her mother, Macdonald her father.) Both have been been drifting — both have self-destructive streaks (Strayed's more developed, perhaps) — both struggle with loneliness.

Photograph by Christina McLeish 
Both seek the wild, Strayed in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, Macdonald, the falconer and academic historian of science, in more domesticated England, in the yellow eyes and murderous flights of Mabel, a newly acquired goshawk.

Strayed, backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail, tells one of the female solo hikers whom she meets, "Honestly? I'm lonelier in my real life than I am out here. I miss my friends, of course, but it's not as if I have anybody waiting for me at home. How about you?"

Macdonald, looking at her life alone in the woods with her goshawk, feels numb: "My heart is salt."

Both must enter the woods and then follow the thread of their stories out — but how far, and for how long? 

* Strayed meets a farmer who is "working," which seems to consist of driving a tractor up and down a dirt road in the desert, no cropland in sight and nothing attached to the tractor.

May 02, 2013

"Bird Language"

A short essay on mid-twentieth-century cowboying (unexpurgated) and the languages of nature. 
As the old man sang, each new verse detailed another page of the cowboy’s improbable voyage along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas, which was a sequence of increasingly unlikely and anatomically doubtful accounts of said cowboy’s congress with a host of shady characters including a horse, a rattlesnake in a pile of sticks, and an old woman who gave him nothin’ but hell. And a social disease. If my memory serves me correctly, it concluded with several verses about his ending up in what would now be termed a “long-term relationship” with a cow, and what the cow did when she caught him “puttin’ on airs” with a buffalo who “was no better than she should be”, but by then we were laughing too hard for me to remember much of anything.
Read the rest. It does move on to birds and animals eventually!

February 10, 2013

Up the Line to Death

Years ago, I read Norman Maclean'sYoung Men and Fire (1992), which is an old man's book. He was in his eighties when he wrote it, and it is full of observations of how, for instance, some days the universe is just against you, no matter how strong and determined you may be. I copied out a few passages. (Where is that notebook?)

I remember Dad, the district ranger, indoctrinating some seasonal firefighters (no S190 class then—much more informal), telling them never to run uphill from a fire, that men died doing that. He must have been talking about Mann Gulch, still relatively fresh in the Forest Service's institutional memory, but it never came together in my mind until I read Young Men and Fire.

(I did not know until today that Canadian songwriter James Keelaghan had composed a song about it, "Cold Missouri Waters.")

More recently, having heard so much about them, I started on some of the books by John Maclean, Norman's son, beginning with the Colorado one, Fire on the Mountain (1999), since I had at least seen the location.

It's about the 1994 South Canyon (a/k/a Storm King) Fire near Glenwood Springs, where 14 firefighters died for a patch of scrub oak and PJ, thanks to various sorts of miscommunications, bad judgment, and hubris. A true tragedy as my eighth-grade English teacher defined it—when people do what they think is the right thing and bad stuff happens anyway.

John Maclean himself writes elsewhere of drama where "the sense of inevitable disaster builds until it overpowers the participants, who are swept along on a pathway to destruction. The audience watches with compassion and horror, aware of what's coming and as powerless as the actors to stop it."

The book audience is also muttering, "Get in your truck and go look at it, you idiot," and so on, but the end point is still the same.

I let a little time go by, went back to the library, and checked out The Thirtymile Fire (2007). I read a few pages and sat it down — I just was not ready to deal with another hand crew, full of confidence, setting off to fight a "minor fire" that would finish some of them.

But now I have started it, watching with compassion and horror.

Lines like this in The Thirtymile File remind me of Maclean senior: "For the Hagemeyers, the day would bring one missed portent after another, which added up to one huge miscalculation: that the natural world they counted on for spiritual solace cared in turn for them."

Eventually, I will get to the new one, The Esperanza Fire : Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57. In due time. Meanwhile (because it is set in southern California?), a movie version is in the works.

Wildfire Today

Yes, there is a literary allusion in my title. I wonder if Norman Maclean owned that book; he might well have.

February 07, 2013

Happy Ninth Blogiversary

It was nine years ago today that I made my first post on this blog, which actually began as a class blog for my nature-writing class.

That first post included a photo of yet another ex-student, Mario Medina, in his historical persona as an interpreter at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta, Colorado.

When I made the blog my own, I removed the students' content — they had long since all moved on anyway.

June 24, 2012

January 13, 2012

The Gun, by Vicki Feaver

Vicki Feaver (b. 1943) is a British poet. According to her listing in the Poetry Archive, "Feaver includes the stuff of everyday life in her poems - jam-making, gym classes, ironing - but grafts them onto the transgressive power of fairy-tale and myth."

Author's note: I lived in Brixton in central London for twenty years and though I sometimes heard gunshots I never actually saw a gun. But now living in Lanarkshire, Scotland, right in the middle of the country, I see lots of guns. Almost all the men seem to have a shotgun. And then my own husband got a shotgun and brought it into the house, and at first I felt very afraid of it and then gradually my whole attitude changed as I describe in this poem.
The Gun

Bringing a gun into a house
changes it.

You lay it on the kitchen table,
stretched out like something dead
itself: the grainy polished wood stock
jutting over the edge,
the long metal barrel
casting a grey shadow
on the green-checked cloth.

At first it's just practice:
perforating tins
dangling on orange string
from trees in the garden.
Then a rabbit shot
clean through the head.

Soon the fridge fills with creatures
that have run and flown.
Your hands reek of gun oil
and entrails. You trample
fur and feathers. There's a spring
in your step; your eyes glean
like when sex was fresh.

A gun brings a house alive.

I join in the cooking: jointing
and slicing, stirring and tasting—
excited as if the King of Death
had arrived to feast, stalking
out of winter woods,
his black mouth
sprouting golden crocuses.

from The Book of Blood (Jonathan Cape, 2006).
Listen to her read the poem.