Best Essays: Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!

A story from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona

When Dorothy set off to find the Wizard of Oz, she and her companions encountered a lion in the dark wood just as they had feared, but, the cowardly beast only drew their disdain, for what good is a spineless lion?

Therein lies the dichotomy between our visceral fear of carnivores and our psychological need for them to be wild, fierce and free—a varmint or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized, but neither will help them survive.

Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. A wolf takes-out the weakest of the herd, controlling not only numbers but removing the least adaptive genes from the population’s gene pool. A dynamic balance results between wolves, deer, and vegetation and myriad lives each dependent on the other.

That we do not understand the importance of these relationships was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon, a common practice among Forest Service rangers in 1949. Leopold had watched the “fierce green fire” flicker out in a she-wolf’s eyes at her death.

Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death̶—a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold, and that support man’s livelihood, were created over centuries among myriad species until a climatic stage is reached in which an elaborate set of checks and dynamically sustains it. The whole system changes over time but the checks and balances are always maintained by various species: top carnivores. consumers, producers, scavengers, etc.

The wolf Leopold had just killed was one of the checks that sustained a living community.

Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later identified as something only a mountain possesses. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves, only deer, because the deer will devour vegetation, and the rains will wash away topsoil causing all kinds of havoc for the mountain.

The rancher who compares the life of a wolf against the current market price of his cow misses the much greater value of leaving the wolf wild and free. That “home on the range” where his cattle roam depends on a well-functioning natural community to sustain it.

Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. Six decades later we are still acquiring that wisdom. We witnessed an ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf to that ecosystem. Riparian willows and cottonwoods returned because elk spent less time eating and more time hiding to avoid becoming wolf scat. Other species like beavers returned and their activities created habitat for insects and birds, and so on.

In 1996, I attended a public meeting in Springerville, Arizona in the Coconino National Forest convened to address the “elk problem”. Present were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, White Mountain Apache biologists and tribal officials, ranchers, tourist industry reps, a hunters’ association, local residents, and curious campers like me.

It became apparent right from the start that a classic show-down was about to happen.

The problem stemmed from an exponential increase in the elk population. A rancher testified that elk herds of 600 to 1,000-head could be found every morning on her land, leaving in their path a swath of denuded range. She demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population of elk under control.

As the rancher, a very handsome woman, tanned in face and arms with a silver mane, made her plea, she gestured toward the Apache contingent. I learned that the expansive White Mountain Apache reservation which bordered much of the national part, was serving as a nightly refuge for the elk that discovered safety within its boundaries. It encompassed 1.67 million acres or forest!

As I sat among the people, I imagined a tide of elk ebbing into the ranchland to graze by day then flowing back at night into the forested reservation. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control.

They would not, a tribal spokesman asserted in reply. They would not do so based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural ecosystem would be the only true answer to controlling the population. I think I caught a twinkle in one tribal elder’s eye as this statement was made. We take elk when we need meat for our people, he said and sat down.

Tourist agencies pleaded their case for the presence of elk.  Seen from the roads and campsites, thousands of families enjoyed watching wildlife. Tourism brings 16 million dollars in revenues to Arizona each year, they reminded the assembled guests!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission which is charged with maintaining populations of wildlife. The FWS rep made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf—a keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem. Sheer mention of the gray wolf acted like a match on tinder. The packed meeting room erupted in arguments from ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.

Then a rancher with the look of one who had spent his life in the sun gained the floor.

“We are victims of our own schemes – me included. First, we saw the wolf as our enemy and we systematically exterminated it. We saw it killing too many elk, too many cattle. We feared for our own lives. Once it was gone, we saw elk and deer populations explode. Well, maybe it’s time we examine our own nature to see if maybe we can control that!”

The meeting adjourned in muffled conversations and salutations. As I walked back to my cabin at Deer Springs Inn, I was in deep thought. I’d just witnessed a complete reenactment of the opening and closing of the West with all the historical parties represented as on a stage.

The sun was setting behind the dense Ponderosa Pine forest. Families were gathering around a campfire in the center of five log cabins in a clearing. I happily joined my friends and family spearing marshmallows. Sparkling stars appeared above in a black sky. A breeze picked up that fanned the flames setting our faces aglow in anticipation. An owl hooted above. The fire popped and sizzled as we all settled down for stories and laughter.

I thought how good it was that our National Parks conserved these woods so that we might know where we came from and understand how we are still a part of something greater than ourselves—that we are not actors in a play but participants in the greater community of life.

Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, courage. Maybe the wolf, the lion, the tiger, the bear, the shark, the grizzly will be restored, too, at some time when our own wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.

Up on the mountain,

Tracing the Mogollon Rim,

We hike and return by way of

The towering Outlook,

Black clouds overhead.




We climb eighty feet up to

Join Ranger GS3-1 in his lair.

He scans the horizon for fire.

We chat, then leave for

Hoping Hare Cabin.




We are dreamily breathing

In the sulfur-laden air of

Lightening-split sky.

Lying up in the loft

Baptized by tumbling waters.


Nature Writers for Earth Day

My writing practice began with love for nature writers. Rachel Carson in particular seized my imagination with her ability to combine science and lyrical language. No one in my view achieved what she was able to do–immerse readers in nature. Most of us know Silent Spring as her “manifesto” on the interconnections among humans, wildlife, and the earth. But, how many of you have read Under the Sea Wind? In this small book, her first, Carson writes life stories of three particular individuals: a Black Skimmer, a Mackerel, and a Sandpiper during one season bringing each alive as characters in a novel. The Black Skimmer (Rynchops), Sanderling (Blackfoot), and a Mackerel (Scomber) live, breed, avoid predators, and follow the urgings of seasonal changes, migrating, nesting, and feeding–all within exciting adventure writing. Readers dive deep into unseen lives nevertheless connected to them by large forces in seas, winds, and landforms. Under the Sea Wind is an immersion experience much like a 3-D visual experience today. Note: Under the Sea Wind was published about the time the U.S. was drawn into WWII. It was not until a dozen years later that it seized the popular imagination. For a superb biography of Carson’s life, read Linda Lear’s Witness for Nature, and for an excellent glimpse into Rachel Carson’s writing life, read Paul Brooks’ The Writer at Work.

Watch American Experience for the latest film about Carson’s life. It chronicles her writing and features the commentary of her biographers.

http://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-rachel-carson/

For a regional writer of nature, I can think of no one better than Jack Rudloe who writes about the Gulf near his home and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center. Jack was inspired by Ed Rickett’s whose work and life were enshrined in the popular imagination by John Steinbeck. Jack Rudloe, the 19-year old would-be scientist and nature writer, corresponded with Steinbeck in the latter year of Steinbeck’s life. Read any of Jack’s books for a another immersion adventure in: The Living Dock, The Sea Brings Forth, and the Search for the Great Turtle Mother. Anne Rudloe, his wife and marine scientist, wrote books with Jack that are reminiscent of Carson in their deep love for and accurate science about the landscapes they love and defend. Anne Rudloe passed away in 2010, and Jack and his sons carry on as Titans for Nature–like Carson in Silent Spring.

Enjoy Jack’s video about his book, The Wilderness Coast.

If you have time to sit down to read the record of Ed Rickett’s and John Steinbeck’s travels in the Sea of Cortez–The Log of the Sea of Cortez–you will be treated to a glimpse into evolving ideas about ecology as an ethical basis for living. Then, treat yourself to the film Cannery Row with Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, and John Huston. John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, is based on Rickett’s marine supply business in Monterey, California when the coastline abound with sea life.

 

Ways of Knowing

SUNSETI’ve lived in the coastal South since July 2008. That is exactly 7 years to the month—the periodicity that apparently rules over my whereabouts.

Seven is a number associated with the personal journey, the desire to refresh perspective, endeavor, and relationships. The mystery is figuring out what that means in the latest warp of one’s universe.

Over my lifetime, I have devoted time to reset my internal compass, appreciating that life is a fleeting experience and one to be taken seriously but also with alacrity.

Between 1985-89, living in Southern California, I studied shield-making with a Native American teacher. She was patient and methodical in helping me understand this ancient spiritual practice. I continued to make personal shields through 1999. I saved only two of many. Each time I find them, stored in my belongings, they usher back the time and emotions when I created them as a way of knowing.

Basic Idea: A circular shield contains four quadrants which are directional, representing distinct aspects of an individual’s or a group’s spiritual journey. Each quadrant is given a specific color. North: white for wisdom and peace; white buffalo. South: red or green for innocence and receptivity; mouse. West: black for sunset, introspection and exit at death; bear.  East: yellow for sunrise, inspiration and the divine; eagle.

The circular shield itself is symbolic of the Earth, the Universe, the tribe, the family, or the whole individual. The first shield I made used an embroidery hoop as the frame. I stretched canvas over it and painted the shield. But that was just to start learning the meaning of the elements.

A willow branch is traditional for making the hoop. But that varies by region. In true shield making the artist collects the materials from nature with prayers given and tobacco offered as the willow branch, animal skin, and objects are collected. My first teacher allowed me to intuitively choose objects which she provided: feathers, shells, ribbons, etc.

If you wish to study shields, a good place to start is the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. If you have not been there, you should plan to go. It is a magnificent place. Online travelers will also find great educational articles and webcasts. You can explore the collections online as well. The current exhibit on the Inka Civilization is an amazing opportunity to understand the great wisdom of indigenous people and how their knowledge and experience can inform modern society.

Links to Explore:

Live Web Casts from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian

Shield Making Materials

Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song

It’s a fair-weather day.

A battalion of brown pelicans coast overhead on dark arched wings. Children build sand castles and bob in the surf, and shorebirds rest in warm dunes—a feast of beauty and abundance.

Santa Rosa Island was named in homage to Isabel Flores de Oliva – the “Rose of Lima.” She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1671 as Saint Rose.

Pensacola is rich in stories.

Take the story of Caretta caretta for example. She doesn’t even know we’ve tagged her with a dichotomous name to set her species apart from others. Her only inclination is to find a darkened shoreline and lay her burden down.

Buoyed by thick ocean waves she paddles with strong legs through the currents.

Through heavy lid, she looks toward shore and vaguely remembers its smell and warm, gritty touch. The moonlit shore is quiet as she takes purchase on the shifting sand below her.

She looks from just under the water along the beach head where bright lights in hotels and restaurants, homes and gas stations could make her decide to turn away. She looks for a darkened beach, lit only by the silver moonlight. It’s instinctual.

Every May through September along the Gulf shores, female loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) return to lay leathery eggs in the dunes of their birth.

Kemp’s Ridley, Atlantic green turtles and sometimes leatherbacks also use these crystal white beaches as a nursery. It’s been so for thousands of years.

Caretta caretta has spent her youth in the Sargasso Sea, a body of water created from currents in the North Atlantic and where Sargassum seaweed covers over its surface. It is believed the loggerhead turtle feeds and grows in this protective cover.

When she comes of age, dozens of eggs grow within her as she heads back to the same beach where as a hatchling she was just the size of a quarter and prize catch of shorebirds, crabs, and other beachside predators. She is one of the few lucky infant turtles that managed to survive to adulthood.

Now she returns to lay down the next generation. And, should she come ashore, will she struggle to navigate beach chairs, plastic inner tubes, or sandcastles?

What will happen to her offspring? Baby sea turtles are attracted to bright lights, an instinct that should turn them toward a moonlit sea. Will they head toward the hotel lights instead? Rangers report scores of tiny turtles destroyed by cars or desiccated in the hot sun among buildings.

In today’s world, with the human built environment, it takes countless volunteers to tend turtle nests, redirecting the young toward the ocean. Because of this, can we say that these species are self-sustaining?

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world today. Four of them lay their eggs here on Santa Rosa Island, Gulf Shores National Seashore. That constitutes a biological treasure for this region, a remaining strand of a once diverse web of life just off these shores.

What if Caretta caretta disappears due to human interference in this annual ritual that replenishes her kind? Should we really care?

Reach back 100 years in Pensacola history to an ocean teeming with life. Fish would be larger and more plentiful and you could scoop up shrimp in Escambia Bay with your hands. There would be hundreds more dunes with waving sea oats, both habitat and nursery to many species.

The loggerhead turtle is part of an ocean web that supports our fishing industry. The biodiversity of our beautiful islands is the basis of tourism, a principal industry. Somehow we have to learn to maintain this natural treasure while going about our business.

We are working that out now. There has got to be a way. Pensacoleans have never been short on ingenuity.

For Caretta caretta we can turn down the lights, sit out on our decks and listen to the oncoming waves. We’ll save money by reducing energy consumption and get a better view of the heavens. Let’s face it: life would be dismal without the beauty of nature.

When we see a dolphin breach the waves, white terns dive and soar, or listen to ocean breezes, we are renewed and encouraged that all is right on this exquisite planet we are so fortunate to share with other species.

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song. It’s a symphony.

Duma, Ghost Cat, Part III

Border Cat

This story takes place in Yuma, Arizona where the Colorado River meanders south to the Sea of Cortez. In truth, most of the water never gets to the Delta area as it once did. The jaguar in this story followed the river trace toward Yuma’s agricultural canals and farm fields where he inadvertently became tangled up in border problems. He represents species whose ranges traditionally span the arbitrary boundaries of the human species.

Duma bounded from row to row, sure footed in the cover of night. The big cat’s ghostly form moved through the forests of broccoli, then across the road under a cool moon and into the tall corn tribe growing profusely by the canal. His activity was confined solely to night, now that the ranchers and homeowners were on the lookout for the phantom jaguar. This put Duma at a disadvantage. His white coat stood out starkly against the night sky and dark shadows. His large tracks left a trail of fear for the farm hands who worked in the same fields come morning. Duma plodded over the fields in search of prey. It had been many days without meat and he felt weakness entering his heavily muscled body.

Duma’s quivering nostrils caught the scent of something unknown, stopping him in his tracks. It was not exactly like the smell of the two-leggeds. But what? Duma moved closer to the smell’s source in a low crouch now, soundlessly advancing. Another smell—of death—unmistakable…  His nose led him closer to the road than he liked, and at its edge he paused and stretched out his long, white neck to peer through the corn stalks. Every fiber of his being was on alert, his small ears drawn forward to catch the slightest sound, Duma’s glassy eyes opened wide to catch the slightest movement. He held himself completely still, taking in every possible clue as to what this prey might be and calculating what it would take to bring it down.

Finally, the animal came into view. It was small and sitting on its tail in the middle of the road. It smelled strange. Duma’s full-grown jaguar body demanded more and more of the hunter’s skill to satiate the incessant need for flesh and blood, and now he felt the gnawing ache of hunger in his empty belly. So he continued to investigate.  As he looked on in perfect silence, the strange animal stood up and started to walk toward something ahead of it in the road. Duma understood with his nose that whatever it was, it was dead. The smaller animal swayed over it.

Duma sniffed the air again, breathing in the chemical language.  An acrid scent of urine and scat pierced his nostril. This was no self-respecting beast, he decided.  He took a chance and crept slowly out onto the road toward the prey, sensing no eminent danger.  As he skulked closer, the small creature turned. Duma let a low growl roll out onto the warm night’s air from his powerful throat. The animal seemed unafraid! Perhaps it was more of a threat than he realized. Duma paused, bringing himself more upright. He cocked his small, intelligent head as he tried to understand what he had encountered. Remembering other times he had misjudged a threat, Duma was not going to let his ego fool him again.

Duma crouched, waiting to see what this strange beast would do. It started coming toward him, walking in a strange manner, falling down, and then righting itself. Duma thought it must be injured. He stood up, walking forward with more curiosity, yet ready to pounce.

When the moonlight lit up the white panther, the child saw it.

Colectacolecta…. ”

What a strange sound, Duma thought…high pitched like a rabbit. The creature was holding its paws out toward him, and he reflexively swiped them away, knocking the child down. It began to wail.  Its smell was foul.

Duma was deciding just how hungry he was when suddenly a noise grew out of the sky and sunlight shot down the road! The great white panther bounded out of sight. Behind him he heard his prey shrieking.  Duma looked back. It was the sky beast he’d seen many times.  He was filled with terror.

Now it dropped from the sky with wings swirling and fire breathing from its mouth.  Duma had never seen anything like this animal, many times his size.  He soared into the air and leapt over the tall corn, golden tassels brushing against his belly, white flanks streaming through the dark field toward the trees.

Duma stopped for a moment and looked back to see the beast take its prey. But instead of devouring the strange little animal, it turned toward him! Now the deafening roar and giant flapping wings came rushing at a greater speed than the jaguar could maintain, and his great paws lost traction in the muddy soil. Reluctantly, the powerful cat decided to come into the open to gain traction on the solid dirt path between corn rows. That’s when the creature threw light onto him. Duma felt the ripping heat tear through his flank. He crumbled to the ground, pushing up a great cloud of dust as his two-hundred-pound body came to rest in a heap of white hair, muscle, fang, and claw.

The last fading sight in the cat’s blue eyes was that of the great monster coming in for the kill.

Duma, Ghost Cat – Part I

Yareen made her way down a jagged escarpment on the Sierra Madre plateau, not far from Luis Munõz’s boyhood home. Her ebony and tan flanks rippled through the pale green of manzanita and scrub oak. Falling pebbles, pushed from their earthen beds by her great paws, scattered noisily down the slope ahead of her.

Her mate was roused from an afternoon nap in a tree above her. They greeted each other with low, rolling hellos as she bounded up the tree. Yareen rubbed her head against her mate’s with her golden eyes wide open. They had been together for many sunrises and sunsets. Soon, he would leave her and she would return to a solitary life to birth their cubs. It would be her second time.

They climbed down the tree and followed a path to a big, rock-lined bowl in the stream for a swim. She caught a trout and they shared it. Later they lingered by the water’s edge, where a nearby deer stood immobilized in the brush, caught unawares by their silent arrival. Its breath was barely discernable until the large cats moved away, saved by being upwind of its natural predator.

Earth changes were indeed affecting the sky islands of the jaguars’ home, but this spring it had brought more frequent rain. The streams ran full and cold, and the oak woodlands were a riot of activity as the oaks produced an abundance of acorns on which a host of creatures feasted.

For Yareen, it meant easy access to plumb deer, and plenty of milk for her young cubs when three months later she gave birth to four kittens.

Among them was a large, white cub who startled his mother each time she looked at him. Following her natural instincts, she gave Duma little access to her teats until the cubs she saw as normal had suckled, and often, there was little nourishment left for the largest baby.

And so the white cub weaned earlier than the others and began foraging to survive. Oblivious to his difference, Duma frolicked in the woods that first season of his life, reveling in the joy of being alive on a great, good planet.

Soon, he learned to imitate their mother’s low whistle and practiced the hissing scream that immobilized trembling quarry, though with his were more a yip and a squeak. The furry ball loped over rocky terrain, following Yareen and his siblings at a distance through the scrubby wooded forests, pouncing on the prey his mother wrestled to the ground in a fury of claws and fangs.

Duma’s markings afforded him little camouflage in a region of emerald, umber, and black. Unknowingly, the young cat developed stealth and discernment beyond even the ability of his kind. He would have to be faster, stronger, and develop cunning beyond that of his siblings and mother to survive.

With clear, blue eyes rimmed in red and a ghostly white pelt with telltale rosettes, the pale cat later earned the name “ghost cat.” And so it happened that as the jaguar went about the business of eating, sleeping, and traveling sightings of Duma would spark many colorful legends among the two-leggeds of his time.