Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thoughts From the Marsh: What Have We Lost?

4:30 AM:

Walking home from a friend's I decide to stop at the store (about the half-way mark) to get some coffee and visit with my co-graveyard-shift and fellow-employee who works the four nights a week that I don't.

I was surprised to find the manager there instead. I shouldn't have been; she often fills in for employees who need time off for various reasons. She's a good boss.

I buy coffee, we chat, and I head off towards my next homeward bound stop: The cattail marsh, my favorite neighborhood haunt. I'm rarely there at night. Everything's different at night. I like visiting places at all hours, throughout the year, in all conditions, for many years, to become more intricately familiar with them and move past infatuation to true love. I love the cattail marsh.

As I approached I went into stealth mode. Or at least tried my best. I walked deliberately in the wet grass, putting my toe down first -- slowly, softly and cautiously -- then the heel . . . then pausing and listening . . . then repeating with the other foot, and so on . . . as if I smelled elk upwind; as if I were back in Marine Force Recon on patrol. I pretended to be the great gray heron I had observed and photographed in this very marsh a few days prior; nothing moves more patiently. I felt as if I were sneaking back into my childhood home hoping not to wake my mother (but which, of course, along with being in Force Recon, had more severe consequences than waking waterfowl.)

I failed. A duck sounded the alarm. Many others repeated it. The geese started honking. Busted. The place instantly became acoustically alive, as if I had turned on a sound switch, which I guess in essence I did. None of them sounded happy. QUACK! QUACK! QUACK! . . .  HONK! HONK! HONK!  I guiltily interpreted it as, "You bug us enough in daylight, damn it; leave us the fuck alone; let us rest for God's sake; get the hell out of here!"

As photogenically, semi-tame as these ducks may be, they obviously retain their instinctive alertness and responses derived from evolving as prey to others. I didn't feel too much a loser; foxes are stealthy above and beyond human ability, yet even they fail stalks an estimated 80 percent of the time. Far easier to attack from above, like an eagle, or from below, like a bass. (The biggest northern pike I ever caught was fishing late at night with a lure that imitates a duckling, temptingly and titillatingly swimming above large hungry shadows.)

I wish I could hone my predatory and evasive evolutionary instincts as well as a mallard. I try. But then again, I live in a safe, heated house down the road and, while perhaps not as much as most Americans, I am nevertheless detached and often obliviously blinded to the real world around me -- around us. Nowadays we're only prey to societal-created obligations, expectations, stresses, and the mostly all-around bullshit we call the modern world. We pretend to be free while enslaved. In gaining comfort and average-length-of-life-spans we've lost a lot. I want some of it back.

Just the previous morning I sat several hours on a wet, cold bed of pine needles atop a ridge in a ponderosa forest hoping to see wild turkeys. I saw two. They, too, busted me quickly and disappeared even quicker. They, too, are intuitively attuned to life in the presence of predation.   

Grizzlies used to roam in and around this marsh (fortunately, they still exist just north of here in what little remains of once wild America.) They likely dug beavers out from their dens for snacks back when this tiny remnant of a marsh covered much of this side of town. The Salish once camped along this marsh every spring to gather bitterroots on nearby south-facing hills now covered with homes. That was back when the marsh was part of a larger,  more healthy and intact wild watershed -- before people pulled into a 24-hour convenience store driving fossil-fueled vehicles on pavement to purchase gas, snacks, booze, cigarettes, soda and bottled water at all and any hour they desire.

Convenient indeed; but worth the tradeoffs? Worth the loss?

We humans want to control it all, even those of us who claim otherwise. Roads, houses, buildings; asphalt, concrete, trails; signs, maps, guidebooks; cell phones, GPS units, flashlights; bear spray, safety plans and search and rescue teams. We want safe, sanitized "wild" experiences. As Jack Turner so passionately puts it, we've rendered the wilds an abstract. We've rendered freedom an abstract. Even many hunters I know who feign being "in touch" with the wilds want to alter, shape and control it to suit selfish desires. Many want to eradicate wolves. (They don't want elk to be too wild, to behave and react too much like elk.)

Elk without wolves; ducks without foxes. We're suppressing and denying vital evolutionary innate knowledge and instincts -- not to mention creating a boringly dull and docile world. I want some of it back.

Maybe that's why I feel so damn alive in the presence of wild grizzlies. It's why the cattail marsh felt so alive in the wee hours of this morning -- primordial energy as invigorating as lightning; as powerful as a flood; as intense as a wildfire. It's not always pleasant, but essential for a healthy world. We evade it at our loss, perhaps even our peril.

We say society advances, but what are we leaving behind? What have we lost? 

Such were my thoughts from the marsh early this morning.  

In a few nights I will be selling snacks, booze, cigarettes, soda and bottled water to people driving fossil-fueled vehicles on pavement at all hours of the night -- and right on the edge of this remnant cattail marsh where grizzlies once snacked on beavers and the Salish camped every spring to gather bitterroots on nearby hills. 

What have we lost?