A space for conversations in a time of global disruption
Gravel crunches underfoot as I walk with a full backpack down the high 1506 road deep in the central Oregon Cascades. Ridgeline shadows stretch across the Lookout Creek watershed in the golden light of a late-September evening. The first day of my six day outing is drawing to a close and I’m on the lookout for a camp site.
I reach a spur road on the left leading to a high elevation meteorological station. For a moment, I consider pitching my tent on a flat spot by the instrument shed, but the atmosphere doesn’t feel right. Besides, there’s no water. I move on.
Nothing promising presents itself for another mile, all the way to the upper trailhead of the Lookout Creek old growth trail. There, I leave the road behind and, only a few paces into the trees, enter another world: an old growth grove, deep-shaded and quiet save the splashing music of flowing water.
I scan the slopes, looking for a patch of open level earth among the giant fir and hemlock boles, huckleberry bushes and deadfall. As I wander along, my mind wanders back to 1990, my second summer in Oregon, when I was one of hundreds of seasonal field workers hired by the Forest Service to call for northern spotted owls in California, Oregon and Washington.
The divisive owl war that gripped the nation was at its peak and one of the pairs I visited on the front lines lived near where I am now. Even though I never found that pair in this grove, I'm sure they hunted here. It is excellent habitat.
That said, the definition of habitat as something separate from an organism -- like a stage on which it performs -- is one I came to question the longer I worked with the spotted owl. This view overlooks the fact that the owl can be considered but a feature of the habitats of myriad other forms of life, which suggests an increasing degree of blurring between organisms and habitats with every life form that gains attention.
When, after four years with the Forest Service, I became a research assistant on a long term spotted owl population demography study at the Andrews, I came to see owls more as one of countless shapes the forest assumes than as an animal that dwells among big trees.
The feature that most exemplifies this awareness for me is the owl’s feathers. Unlike most raptors in this region, northern spotted owls don’t migrate south in the winter. They are here in rain and snow and cold. Yet, they are not exceptionally downy as one would expect of a non-migrant facing a rainy, snowy, cold Cascade Mountain winter.
The reason for this counterintuitive disparity is the old growth forest, which can buffer temperature extremes at both ends of the spectrum by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit in relation to adjacent clearings. The owl wears old growth like another layer of feathers. That is, their preferred habitat provides sufficient thermal protection that they do not have to expend energy growing as much down as they would need if they dwelled in open country.
So, when we are in the old growth, we are literally experiencing a feature of the owl’s meaningful physiology. In other words, the protection from wind and snow we enjoy among the trees on a cold winter’s day makes the forest our feathers as well. We are part owl.
In my twenty-two seasons in the Cascades, I’ve seen seven mountain lions. For all but one sighting, I was inside a vehicle. Yet, despite how fleeting and indirect the sightings were, I felt time pause, every thought and distraction gone. At the moment of recognition, when the hovering dark-tipped tail disqualified all other options, one awareness filled the mind.
Peter Matthiessen writes of the snow leopard, “It is wonderful how the presence of this creature draws the whole landscape to a point . . .” Here in the Cascades, the mountain lion does the same. This is not mere metaphor. The mountain lion is the focal point of the ecological magnifying lens in this place. It is the hot ray of light into which diffuse beams of distinct Cascadian beings concentrate to beat as a single feline heart. Here in the forest where I’ve been backpacking for the past six days, I can almost sense that heart thrumming all around me.
Plant’s roots web the very flesh of the earth — the rich loam of dark humus and forest soil — drawing into themselves nutrients from the elemental recirculations of decomposition and primary production. The roots take these nutrients and change them with the chlorophylus gleanings of solar input and grow green and luxuriant. Then elk and deer further the concentration in their nipping and swallowing of leaves, making soil, sun and succulent plant growth into meat.
This concentration is further honed in the sinews of the crouching cougar, golden eyes seeking signs of distress. The ailing bull, the bony calf, the limping cow trigger a blood quickening, and the cougar closes in like a spotlight, blinding in its intensity and focus. In its presence.
Pounce, bite, hold. And feed; the whole landscape drawn to a point.
To stand in the landscape where deer and elk concentrate is more than to be in the presence of the cougar. It is to be a part of the cougar, for all of this is literally drawn into the cat, transformed into fur, claws, piercing eyes, beating heart, twitching dark-tipped tail.
I adjust my pack. Quietly. And move on.
The more you know, the less you need.
Australian Aboriginal Proverb
A rifle crack resounds from out of the east. Why does the typical modern human hunter fail to invoke the same sense of presence as the cougar? The answer I think is to be found in the way of the act, the means, the indirectness of the modern process.
Pick-up trucks ply asphalt, hauling would-be carnivores around at excessive rates, from places beyond the accessibility of the feet. They are not of here. In the means of mobility as well as lethality — using weapons not of the land where the hunt takes place — the modern hunter is more akin to alien parasite than predator. And once a kill is made, the prey is removed from the local cycles of the land with nothing given in return. In fact, in terms of overall energy expended compared to energy gained in the form of elk or deer meat, the modern human hunter comes nowhere near breaking even, let alone acting as a conduit of concentration akin to a cougar. Put another way, the gain in meat calories to human bodies is more than entirely traded away in the exchange for fossil fuel calories expended in procedures and products used to make the kill as well as to keep it frozen afterward. The deaths fall well short of balancing out when measured by the ultimate gauge of their sustainability: the Earth’s annual solar budget.
In the way the modern human predator substitutes high-energy global commodities made indirectly outside local energy cycles for the aborigines grounded knowledge, the point to which the landscape could be drawn in human form is shattered.
The few humans these days who do approach the hunt in the way of the cougar are seen as idealistic extremists. They are not typical. And I admit I wouldn’t begin to know how to be one of them. As a child of suburbia, the life-long accumulation of skills in a conducive context and informed by a community of elders from whom to learn such knowledge, was not part of my experience. And rather than hunt in the typical way, which always struck my intuitive sensibilities as discordant even before I could begin to articulate a reason, I chose not to hunt at all. That I had the freedom to make such a choice shows the strangeness of these times. Throughout the existence of the human species, only a few members, at this relative instant in the long continuum, have had the luxury of making the choice not to participate directly in the life-round without perishing.
But, even so, we must all participate in some way. Most of us do it indirectly through longer linkages, commodity linkages. The challenge now as those linkages become ever more precarious in an age of peak everything is to close the gaps. To need less. Learning how starts with asking questions.
What would it mean, on the one hand, to see the forest as an encompassing human body-mind the way it serves as the downy feathers of owls, and on the other hand, how we might draw the landscape to a point like the mountain lion? How might we participate in local ecological cycles that allow us to live well within the Earth’s annual solar budget? How might we sustainably engage the positive qualities we seem uniquely capable of adding to an ecosystem — story, art, poetry, song, dance, empathy, sympathy, compassion — to envisioning and enacting cultural self-expressions that serve life at the same time they serves humans?
It seems to me, asking these questions is, in itself, a way to begin focusing the light of the land, if not to the blazing point of the cougar, at least bright enough to illuminate the frightening darkness of near-singular commodity dependence. And from there, many unexpected pathways may become visible as well. Different pathways into the places where we already are, here and now. Places we belong.
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