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.


If I Were Elizabeth Warren

I wonder what Elizabeth Warren is doing right now? My hope for the leader I have backed with my money and political support is that she is in her pajamas taking it easy. If I were there, I’d serve her a good strong coffee and cook her an omelette and potatoes. Then I’d order her a bodywork specialist, and arrange for a manicure and pedicure, and lavish all manner of care upon her travel weary person. For Elizabeth is fighting The Good Fight in the American Political Arena.

Why did I support her? Elizabeth Warren has seen the truth about capitalism from very early in her career of public service: it works for the top few percent and less so as you go down the economic/social agency scale. The reason: there is a concurrent scale of opportunity shrouded by American society’s propensity to worship rich people and turn away from the poor – or rather, people perceived as poor.

Warren worked tirelessly in government to rectify that inequity. This is the Great Work. What did she accomplish? If you have credit cards, loans, bank accounts then you are benefiting today from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which she fought for over the years of her public service. She worked to create and sustain a Middle Class while making it possible for families with lesser means to educate their children for economic mobility. Warren was ever on that path to ameliorate free market economics to make it fair to all Americans. She kept kids in mind. Maternity and family leave, sick leave and medical care, a good education — these are fundamental rights of all Americans she believes.

Well, Elizabeth I bet is resting, but her mind is spinning on how to keep the Good Fight going. She has always been and always will be an American leader. As a voter and citizen I will do my part to see that she has a place in the new Administration if she wants it, a Vice Presidency or key cabinet position.

One key thing: she is persistent. Women have that. Endurance. And, our networks are ever stronger and larger. One day a woman will lead this country and we’ll be better for it. So rest, Elizabeth. And thank you from my heart.

 

Places – Imperial Valley

Yuma, Arizona Farm Fields

Imperial Valley, Below Sea Level, 1990

The Colorado River was a wild, red fury in its natural state. It flooded its banks in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico on its way from the Rockies to the delta on the Sea of Cortez, Gulf of California. This was true for thousands of years. Early people learned its rhythms and developed cultures in sync with the river’s seasonal flows. They are called The Colorado River Indian Tribes—distinct communities that still exist along the river’s course. Their history encompasses the dramatic changes wrought by damming the great river to create one of the most extensive desert gardens known to humankind.

When I crossed the Continental Divide atop the Laguna Mountains, under a brilliant star-studded black sky, I was entering a dimension so subtle it would take me years to define it. Something more than gravity pulled me down the steep, winding road as it descended into the Imperial Valley. The sun was just breaking above a distant horizon as my vehicle finally leveled out onto the valley floor. Immediately an aroma of soil, mist, and something close to boiled peanuts filled my nostrils. It is a scent that I have only experienced in this part of the U.S. – distinct and overtaking. It is not unpleasant but haunting in a way. You know it is not natural for the valley but something created by a great deal of struggle, sweat, and industry.

In the far distance a range of ruddy red mountains formed the eastern border of the valley with Picacho Peak soaring into unbroken blue. I recall my daughter’s reminiscence after moving to Washington, D.C. from Arizona: “Mom, I miss that big dome of sky that made me feel protected under its blue canopy.”

Openness, expansion, mystery and fear were the emotions that churned in me that day.

The Imperial Valley stretches over 100 miles from the foothills of the Laguna Mountains in southern California to Yuma, Arizona at the juncture of California, Arizona and Mexico. It is a vast alluvial plain, rich in minerals and, before the irrigation of the valley, a low desert dotted by barrel cactus and rolling tumbleweed. Once the dams and extensive canals were built (a colorful history of drastic measures, tragic mishaps, and powerful men with big dreams and money to back them) the desert floor flowered into one of America’s most productive bread baskets. In 1990 the lettuce crop alone harvested $16M for growers.

As the sun rose higher, row upon row of lettuce and blue canals appeared and disappeared from view like an old-time flickering movie. Egrets and gulls flew above or walked among the rows! Did they migrate from the oceans of southern California or up from the delta on the Sea of Cortez?The whole experience was surreal. Then I began to notice the heat…oh, dear. My un-air-conditioned beach mobile! I was unprepared for this region of the world. I was sweating profusely now and had brought only a small bottle of water with me. Suddenly I felt threatened. Where was the nearest town?  Where were the people? I saw nothing but huge sprinklers like warriors from Star Wars on thin metal legs rolling across fields throwing streams of precious Colorado River water onto American grown vegetables and cotton. On and on I drove, past a feedlot that stank for miles, past an ostrich farm and more green flushed with blue sparkling water. Was there any water left in the Rio Colorado? I wondered.

The heat grew ever more oppressive. At below sea level, the Imperial Valley is a heat sponge. I nearly fainted before finding a small town and limped into Wendy’s where I remained for three hours slumped over a table. The waitresses were empathetic. Many California beach combers succumbed to the valley’s record temperatures. It reached 119 degrees that day in May.

Cadillac Desert Video

Imperial Valley, CA

The Remarkable Diana Gabaldon

When I was at work at Arizona State University, little did I know that I was crossing paths with a person who would soon become an internationally known author with a fan phenomenon that continues to grow. Diana Gabaldon is author of the Outlander book series.

The first book which set off the chain reaction, Outlander, was published in 1991. Probably I felt the Earth tremble but didn’t know what it was. I was crossing a river of my own, thinking about writing a book, but didn’t get around to it until 2003. Literally, I crossed the Colorado and would eventually find my way to Phoenix and Arizona State University still clueless of the Gabaldon earthquake. Her eight books have sold over 35 million copies in 26 countries and are printed in 23 languages.

Outlander was a phenomenal success; 7 sequels rolled-on-out into eager fans hands all emanating from an incredible mind — with the 9th in the series due in 2020. See Diana’s website for updates. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/

Diana is a generous writer, sharing more information with her readers than any other author I’ve ever read, and actively engaging them on her website, in literary groups, her blog, and more, answering questions and engaging readers the world over. She has also published tomes called Outlander Companions that give readers a lot of background information on history, medicine, time-travel, etc. (Well, she was professionally a science historian and well trained to record and report with deep attention to detail, and also the weird little anomalies in human affairs.)

I’d heard about the TV adaptation from my daughter in law but didn’t get around to watching it until the 4th season, which in turn sent me on a wild adventure watching all the previous episodes and season, then buying and reading the entire series of books. I’ve started to reread book 5 and 6 in anticipation of the 5th TV season on Starz.

What prompted me to watch the Outlander TV series was a novel I was drafting about a young doctor whose mother’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Wales. [This is partially my own heritage along with Scottish and Irish ancestors who emigrated, and traveled down into the Appalachians where they settled.] My character  is an intuitive who wishes to learn more about natural remedies and practices of her mother’s home country especially after she has just finished a long residency and is deciding on her path in the practice of medicine.

In the fall of 2018 I was taking a course in Arthurian Legends, and reading about Welsh and Scottish history when I happened to stream Outlander to see what it was that had millions binging on Starz.

Diana’s mind is vast. That is the best way I can explain it. Matched with master storytelling which from all I’ve read is a natural gift, I could not stop reading, and when one book was finished I felt like my oxygen mask had been yanked from my face. I literally crawled into the closest book store gasping for the sequel! Later I ordered ahead so that there would not be days of blue lipped waiting. This was behavior never observed in myself before. I’ve become a fan of both Diana and now the Outlander cast members and writers of the adaptations.

What is it that has seized my mind and heart with such power, joy, and keen interest? I cannot express it yet but its something like this: characters that lift my spirit reminding me that we can be better than we think we can, and we can end up doing good even when we just stumble into it. It’s about intent. It’s also the story of a great love that stands the test of time and tragedy and never seems to be shredded or dulled by it. It’s the story of my family’s emigration, it’s the story of our nation’s early history, it’s about science (which I love and have worked in for my career) and it’s about a woman whose mind and skills are challenged to help others.

Finally, Diana has created a woman, Claire, who is a sort of hero for me and many women in even this modern day, maybe more so in our time. She says what she thinks, she never goes back on her word, she is imperfect and vulnerable, and she wants to be loved through and through by her man. Diana has created that man for her in Jamie Fraser who matches Claire’s strengths and provides a protective and totally absorbing love affair whose flame is inexhaustible.

And there is lots of humor! Thank you Diana for making fun of us along the way. If we can’t laugh then it IS a tragic affair, this life we all strive to live and make some meaning out of. She possesses a great sense of humor and puts her characters in numerous embarrassing situations.

I find the books healing in a way, like a balm for my tattered soul — tattered by the banal world I’m living in, the broken hearts, the disappointed people, the loss of a framework in which to live in this fractured time. The story is stabilizing. The people care about and love each other and even when the way is not clear, the characters choose a safe way forward. And to think, Diana is still rolling-out their lives,  showing us a way forward. The fact that Claire and other characters time-travel adds a mystery to it all and opens up unique possibilites for the author to explore and compare historical times and mores, and ask interesting questions such as, “Can history be changed?”

What can I tell you. I am a goner. Diana Gabaldon has captured my imagination and my heart for the time being. And I am grateful.

 

Honor, Duty, and Patriotism: What does it mean?

WWII Veteran, my father, Edward B. Feathers

As I listen to America’s celebration of Veterans Day in Arlington National Cemetery — flags flying, trumpets playing taps, Philip Sousa marches drawing deep feelings of pride and love in, and of, our country — I am once again set to wonder what does it mean?

I am the daughter of a Veteran, the granddaughter of a Veteran, great grand-daughter of Veterans, and the former wife of a Veteran — and I am a very concerned about whether their sacrifices mean something today. A “military brat”, I tend toward blind love of country. In fact, from age 16 to age 40, I spent considerable time and effort to evaluate that blind love and to discern what a democracy is made of. After Viet Nam, I had to consider the terrible violence we did to that country, and then others. We’ve been, and still do, consider ourselves a “good” country, doing battle with evil across the world. Yet it’s hard for many of us to face the fact that we’ve often been the evil doer.

My Grandfather Jones

Being honorable, dutiful, and patriotic requires we look without favor to see clearly how this democracy works, both in our country and in other countries, across the world. Today it means being disruptive when we see our leaders going the wrong way. It means being engaged in ways that we each can be to prevent and to undo the anti-democratic forces at work in our nation and in the world.

We have moved into a dark time and much is imperiled. We Americans must remember we are babies among nations that have existed for thousands of years. Will historians in the future tell the tale of us that we flamed and then flickered out when we became disinterested and distracted by comfort and disbelief?

Captain Thomas E. Williams

Today’s Americans live in an era when words have been corrupted to mean their opposite. Can you discern that in the news, in the political ocean of conflict? Can you step back, ask, and discern how the actions of every leader truly show their words are true? To me, this is our duty, our honor, and our patriotism.

And to every Veteran, now and to come, I will do my best to make sure that your sacrifices mean something on this long, difficult road to achieve democracy.

A short video with Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and writer, on CBS. She asks: Are we living in the worst of times?

See this Bill Moyers Interview with Wendell Berry to listen to an American of great stature who does discern the problems of the time:

Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall KimmererRobin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and  19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).

Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife,  and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’

Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”

For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con,  Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.

This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!