Category Archives: Ecopsychology

The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Continue reading

Eyes on the Sparrow

A heartbreaking image of a swallow with seared wings is what initially scared me away from Rebecca Solnit’s important recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. But Rob insisted rightly that I needed to read it, so I finally prepared my all-too-sensitive eyes and mind to get through painful descriptions of bird tragedies.

Solnit argues forcefully that to deal successfully with our contemporary climate crisis, we need to reinvent not only how we extract energy (and, I would add, our desire for it), but how we tell stories about our time. She is right.

We do need to tell stories, Continue reading

Gifts of Fogmaggedon

Carl Sandburg’s fog may come on little cat feet, but mine comes on the muffled blast of the ferry foghorn, telling me even before I open my eyes in the morning that our annual autumn mist has arrived. Here in Honnalee, the fog moved in 2-1/2 weeks ago: mysterious, atmospheric, giving presence to still air whose existence we usually no more notice than fish notice their placid water. Sunbeams filtering through foggy autumn forests inexorably pull my camera, with me attached, into the forest, and those first couple of days I danced around the park taking photo after photo of the moody woods and enchanting dewdrops.

Fog in Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Fog in Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Dewdrop on cedar needles

Dewdrop on cedar needles

A few days later, the fog still swirling through the trees, I left to spend a week back home in Virginia at my high-school reunion, celebrating with dear friends from way back, then showing my father my old haunts in my college town. (Well, most of the haunts; some were better left back in the past along with my profoundly immature 20-something self.) The remnants of Tropical Storm Karen literally dampened both occasions, dumping her remnant Gulf Stream moisture on us all day, every day. But the joy of being with old friends and my beloved dad lit the days, and one afternoon’s sunbreak gave me a few bird-photography opportunities.

Northern Mockingbird Williamsburg, VA

Northern Mockingbird
Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal
Williamsburg, VA

Do East Coasters realize how amazing cardinals are?

Anyway, as my evening flight took off from Dulles at the end, I was looking forward to returning to Seattle’s glorious blue-sky autumn days, the woods aglow with our brilliant yellow Bigleaf Maples and the occasional stunning red Vine Maple.

I woke up late the morning after, having mercifully been able to sleep off jet lag—to the sound of the ferry foghorn. Still? After a week and a half? No sun for twelve straight days, no sense of the changing light that tells time’s passing, just monotonous gray skies all day, not even a good storm to make it interesting. It would be 10 am, then suddenly 4:30 in the afternoon, time for a nap.

Lincoln Park beach in fog

Lincoln Park beach in fog

After yet an additional three days of this, even our eternally enthusiastic resident weather guru, Cliff Mass of the University of Washington, got grumpy. “Fogmaggedon!” he called our record-setting string of foggy fall days; a “boa constrictor” of an inversion. (As always, he has cool photos and diagrams – check them out.)

Cliff hightailed it to Eastern Washington to get a sun injection to his psyche, but I just stayed in place, not even venturing into the forest for a couple of days—which tells you something’s way off. I just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Then this afternoon, Rob called me a few minutes after he left for orchestra rehearsal. He’d reached the top of the hill near our house—and it was glorious up there, sunny and warm. The boa-constrictor inversion meant that at our house, 200′ above sea level and near Puget Sound, the air was cool enough to keep moisture in vapor form—but a mile away and 300′ higher, the sun had warmed the air enough to vaporize those foggy droplets. He could see all the way to the mountains.

Given this news, I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I got to the edge of the bluff just as the sun broke through near the horizon.

Color! Glowing yellow light through the trees! Bright orange leaves lining the soft red-brown path!

Path to beach, Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Path to beach, Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing color during the days of monochromatic mist. I raced down to the beach, suddenly full of energy, to immerse myself in the palette of post-fog sunset.

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach West Seattle, WA

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach
West Seattle, WA

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into animal vision and the science behind it. Although we humans have three kinds of color-perceiving cells called “cones” in our eyes, many other mammals just have two kinds of cones, so the world looks very different to them. For instance, here’s how a dog might perceive the Lincoln Park path and the Northern Cardinal:

Simulation of dog's view of path and cardinal

Simulation of dog’s view of path and cardinal

All this research has been fascinating—bird vision, for instance, is astounding—and I’ll tell you more about it in future posts. But it took Fogmaggedon to get me out of my head and back into my body, for my spirit to wake up once again to how utterly remarkable it is, living in a world shimmering with hue and tone and vibrancy and saturation beyond the imagining of most other mammals.

If it doesn’t last too long, the quieting blanket of fog can be a blessing, providing an introverted interlude necessary for recharging the soul, bringing its own magical depth to the world. But too-persistent fog—from atmospheric inversion, midlife crisis, depression, self-centeredness, busyness—keeps our spirit from joyous aliveness to the multicolored world. When the time comes for the mist to dissipate, we welcome the brilliant earth back, alive again, rebaptized.

Autumn grove Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Autumn grove
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

 

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Respite

“What day is it today?” Charles asked.
“Tuesday,” Linda replied.
“Good. What’s your doctor’s name that we’re driving to see?”
“Dr. Lopez.”
“That’s right! You’re doing great. Now, again, what day is it today?”
“Umm…Friday?”

A half-hour later, Charles and Linda arrived for their regular meeting with the psychologist, scheduled after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis many months earlier. When Dr. Lopez asked Linda what day it was, she couldn’t remember, even though she’d practiced with Charles over and over during the drive. And a clock was now way too complicated for her to understand.

The dark curtain of Alzheimer’s descends in inexorable stages. The very first stage must be the worst for the patient: receiving the diagnosis, but having enough awareness left to understand what’s going to happen. Then as the patient loses more cognitive awareness, the nightmare expands to the caregiver.

Charles, whom I’d met at my church, was one of the most patient people I knew. He also had a brilliant career in management, ultimately becoming a senior administrator of an international company. But managing Linda’s illness was a wholly different challenge.

“Linda, you’ve got to have three more bites,” he insisted to her at lunch during one of my visits to their home.

She looked at him resentfully. Who was this person who kept ordering her around? He looked familiar, and sometimes she thought she could remember his name, but she had thought he was a nice man, not like this.

“You have to eat! Now, take this spoon and swallow.”

Linda finally did. But she was clearly pretty annoyed about it.

As we watched over the months, kind, warm Charles became short-tempered, defensive, and irritable. His friends began to suggest he take a respite break: arrange for Linda to stay for a week, or even just a weekend, in a high-quality local nursing home. But he’d always been able to handle any situation that came his way; why should this be any different?

“She wouldn’t understand,” he protested. “It would really upset her.” And of course he was right.

Finally, though, we persuaded him to at least give it a try. Charles went to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Malibu for a week. When I talked with them about it later, they said he’d been pretty quiet most of the week. He’d gone with them on a whale-watching cruise, a visit to the museum, out to a new play, and had seemed to enjoy each activity well enough, but clearly didn’t feel like talking about Linda, so they didn’t pry. He told us later that until that week, he’d had no idea how tired he was.

* * * * *
In many ways, Charles and Linda are like millions of other Americans who currently deal with Alzheimer’s in themselves or their families. Current estimates indicate that 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, and this number may swell to as many as 16 million by 2050. And surely at least the same number of people love and care for those with Alzheimer’s: spouses, family members, nurses, therapists, ministers. The kind of “vicarious traumatization”—or, less officiously, “compassion fatigue”—that exhausted Charles affects millions in his position.

* * * * *
Now, imagine that Charles, his son, and his son’s wife are at a pierside restaurant in Malibu, admiring the view and enjoying a delicious dinner of fried shrimp and chips. They run into Ted, a friend of Charles’s son, who sits down to join them for a while. Ted, meaning well, starts telling Charles that he shouldn’t eat fried food; especially since Charles is getting older, salads are much better for him. And besides, Ted explains, those shrimp were harvested from Thai shrimp farms that destroyed many acres of mangrove swamps that used to protect those shorelines from hurricanes.

Picture Charles as he stops eating and sits looking down at his plate; he doesn’t say anything. Everything Ted said is true.

But both Charles and Linda desperately needed Charles to take a respite from increasing darkness as the curtains of Linda’s mind were drawing permanently closed. Without taking time to open up the drapes, breathe fresh ocean air, enjoy a new horizon, and get away from the weight of continuous negativity, Charles would more quickly lose his ability to take care of her as her needs increased unrelentingly. And without a respite, his own suffering would increase: compassion fatigue brings measurable physical, psychological, and spiritual pain. Charles needed a break, not a lecture bringing even more bad news. Just for a week.

* * * * *
We who struggle to hold back the darkening curtain of environmental damage suffer compassion fatigue as well, as we work desperately to minimize the deterioration of our beloved nature. We cling to frayed threads of hope in the face of impending collapse of eons-evolved natural systems, trying to drag the curtains apart just a little, to prevent the increasing darkness from acquiring an Alzheimer’s-like inexorability.

Where is our respite? You cannot open any environmental magazine, or even a newspaper, without coming across yet more information about the devastation we humans have wrought. We read these because we care, because we want to know more about what we can do to change our culture’s behavior, our beliefs, our beatitudes of destructive consumerism and selfishness.

But sometimes we need a break. We need to return to what we love, the exhilarating and precious natural world, to extend to ourselves and each other a respite of undampened joy in the beautiful and the fascinating.

In designing this blog, I’ve intentionally stayed away from sharing yet more of the depressing, enervating environmental news that crosses my screen multiple times a day. You already know about all that. And you know where to get more of it, if that’s what you want to read on a given day to provide you with the tools you need to save what you love.

What we so often lack in these darkening days is delight.

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers, and a wonderful writing teacher and mentor. Yet I disagree full-throatedly with what she wrote recently,

And I can’t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence it’s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that it’s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.

I’ll have to stay unforgiven, I guess. I will continue to write about chickadees and bushtits, spiders and seals: small creatures of forest and sea, living their little lives in shimmering, stunning, awe-inducing ways and means. I’ll let others expound on the anthropogenic violence that pervades their world and ours. I’m convinced that we deserve a respite of delight now and then: for our own sake and for the creatures. At least, I need it.

* * * * *
Coincidentally, on the same day that Moore’s essay arrived on my Facebook page, I also received “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, courtesy of The Sun magazine. Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire remarkable poem.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I insist on our right to be dilettantes—ones who take delight in things—and on the legitimacy of moments of joy unfettered by reminders that we’re nearing the event horizon of an ecological black hole. That doesn’t mean I’m one bit less aware of how fragile and threatened it all is. It just means I never forget why it’s worth saving.

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

One Wren, New Under the Sun

The wrens are singing! This unusually bold fellow, a male Pacific Wren, perched by my regular trail yesterday and sang up a storm, not flitting into hiding even when I stopped and swung my camera into position.

Pacific Wren singing

Pacific Wren singing

When I first encountered the delicious extended burble that’s the Pacific Wren’s song, I marveled about it to a superb naturalist friend who used to teach in North Carolina. She told me of taking a group of students on a spring field trip, a hike up into the mountains to reach the spring range of the Winter Wren (formerly viewed as the same species), promising them the reward of a truly magnificent song in return for making their way up the warm, humid trail.When the group finally reached the wren’s elevation, they waited – and lo, there it was, somewhere deep in the forest, singing its little heart out! Many of the students oohed and aahed appropriately. (The other group’s response was “We climbed all the way up here for that?” But they were young; there’s still time.)

Now it’s our local forest’s turn. Pacific Wrens may be tiny and secretive, but they light up the woods with their complex melodies. We’re lucky enough to have them around all year long, and spring’s when they sing. (Lucky also that we can hear them with an easy walk along a bluff trail in fine breezy 60° weather; have you ever hiked uphill for hours in the North Carolina heat?) As described in this brief BirdNote from “Living on Earth,” it takes slowing down the Pacific Wren’s song to grasp that it may be telling stories we can’t understand with our ears.

Of course, it’s not just the wrens who are celebrating spring’s arrival. The budding Bigleaf Maples are attracting Black-capped Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna's Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna’s Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Everyday little birds, all of them. They’re regular neighbors who live here all year and do pretty much these same things each time spring rolls around. We humans, especially we scientists, love these regularities. Cycles and rhythms soothe us, reassure us that yes, even after the past year’s, any year’s, winter of wars and wrenching tragedies, the maple leaves will open, warblers will return to the flowering hawthornes, wrens will sing.

I’ve been trained for decades to look for these generalizations, to utilize the singular only as a clue to a new and more powerful pattern. Inexplicable uniqueness? No thanks, says my scientist-self; if it’s unusual, I want to explain it, figure out its bigger context.

It’s the artist in me, not the scientist, who wants to find what’s unique about this season—already so thoroughly explored by countless writers and poets for millenia—and this very wren, and treasure it for its own sake. Not only for what it might teach us about wren phenology or phonology or physiology—which knowledge I love not one whit less—but simply because that is a really cool song that the forest just sang. Right here. Just then.

Artist-self insists: This is not the same spring as before. This chickadee, who’s had a nest with her mate in this same Pacific Madrone for the past three years: rotting has opened her nest hole up so you can see right through it; what’s she going to do about that?

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

That particular Anna’s Hummingbird, who each spring has taken up his place at the top of the dead Bigleaf Maple that overlooks the salmonberry patch by the stream, defending his turf from that Rufous Hummingbird who regularly arrives once the blossoms begin to open: the maple finally blew down this past winter, and how’s he going to choose a backup throne?

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled, keeping a lookout for the Anna’s Hummingbird

What about this artist, this writer? This spring’s also different because I am: I now love penguins, when I only liked them before.

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

It’s different because I now have more memories of disparate natural beauties than I ever imagined a person could have; because Antarctica’s ecology-on-the-edge helped me to understand that ohmyGod what an astounding creature any tree is; because my soul has been fed with utter wildnesses that have taught me better how to pray attention. It’s an entirely singular spring because I’ve gotten to live a whole additional year with my beloved partner, and we’re both getting older, and other people I love are getting older, and one day it’ll suddenly be someone’s last spring.

And because a lone small red tulip has mysteriously sprouted in our side yard amidst a thick cluster of irises, while a distant wren was singing through the wind.

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Save or Savor?

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day.

— E.B. White, in a New York Times interview
with Israel Shenker, July 11, 1969

It was so clear, early on, what needed to be done for the world. I had to teach young people how fragile and complex and delicate the earth is, to think with them about solutions to its problems. I joined important teams working on critical issues (all of which seemed to converge inexorably toward sustainability). I founded discussion groups to help us think our way through contemporary environmental problems. At least two, sometimes three, weeknights were occupied with team meetings or group sessions; remaining weeknights and weekends filled up with grading.

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

One year, shopping at holiday time, I found a little ceramic sculpture of a hummingbird nectaring at a piece of fruit. I started weeping. When was the last time I’d sat and watched a hummingbird? I was exhausted.

Another year during that time, in one terrible week I was reeling from the loss of a beloved friend, then a few days later was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cancer cells (DCIS)

Cancer cells (DCIS). Photo credit: UC-Davis. (Click on photo for website.)

In all my efforts to save the world, I’d neglected to savor it, and my heart and body were suffering the consequences. It took the glaring spotlight of cancer — by definition, uncontrolled growth — to help me see that my life had grown uncontrolled, too full of saving. Not enough savoring, I finally understood, meant risking a death sentence. After recovering from the disease (thankfully, the early stage of the cancer meant lumpectomy and radiation only), I left groups, dropped teams. I’m still teaching, but looking to an early retirement.

My savoring account has grown. I spend lots of time admiring the Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds who sip and chase around the feeder on my balcony. I make time for long walks through the forest, for greeting owls and eagles, for just looking across the Salish Sea to see what weather’s up next.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Dramatic dark clouds over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

Dramatic weather over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

My rebalanced life is satisfying, and I’m happy these days. I’ve gotten back my health and my hummingbirds. Still, I head for bed at night wondering whether I’ve done enough for the earth today. My younger self’s certainty about what’s needed has turned into doubt and ambivalence. Is it really necessary, I ask myself, to make E.B. White’s choice? Surely there’s some way we can both save and savor.

Yes, the needed changes are huge. Yes, it’s getting almost too late to make them. But in our rush and scurrying frantically about, driven by our fear and our desperate grief over what’s already lost, we can’t forget to love what we’re trying to protect.

Giving ourselves the space to be stilled by awe, quieted by a chill morning mist, drawn into transcendence by the flash of a hummingbird’s iridescent gorget: we owe these to the natural world that formed us as much as we owe it our active work to preserve it. We owe it to ourselves.

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Anna's Hummingbird flashing gorget

Anna’s Hummingbird flashing gorget

A great blessing of community is that Marthas and Marys, actives and contemplatives, can take our turns and contribute what we best can when the time is right. So perhaps the solution to White’s dilemma is scale. My life may have shifted toward savoring, bypassing real opportunities for saving, but there’s someone else out there who’s just awakened to passionate engagement and is convening meetings and writing policies. It’s ego talking when we think we can do it all at once, not the humble, unique voice of one creature of one species fulfilling its calling in the ecosystem with all its heart and mind and body. Savoring replenishes the energy needed for saving; saving preserves what we savor in our rest. To each, a place and a person; a time and a season.

Tree limb over wet path - Trileigh Tucker

Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

 

Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

Grand Canyon 1: Rivertime

Glowing canyon walls, Lower Saddle camp, river mile 47.6

A palette of reds, yellows, oranges feeds broad horizontal brush strokes, lit by constantly shifting light on the canvas of the river’s song. Time has shifted to rivertime, where the day starts in the dark with the boat guides’ coffee call, and flows along with the swirling brown water, undivided into minutes and hours but distinguished by rapids, beaches, side canyons. Evening begins whenever we pull over to a camping spot on a soft beach, set up our sleeping pads, read or chat until dinner; it becomes night when I crawl onto my pad and collapse into dreams under the hot wafting air, bats flippeting overhead against a rippling backdrop of stars and planets.

Dusk falls in the Grand Canyon

Bat (left-center) against Grand Canyon night sky

Two weeks of rafting down the Grand Canyon has brought me back into a primordial flow, an easier presence to natural rhythms without the overlays of clock time, homework, the meta-level organizing required to run everyday life. I spend my days gasping in astonishment at the evolving beauty of cliffs towering over me, geologic time recorded in the tilted cross-beds of sand swept by ancient winds, fossil remains of crinoids and nautiloids preserved in their original coffins of soft muck now hardened, frozen lava-falls from more recent times.

Crinoid stem and pinnules from Redwall Cavern, Grand Canyon (river mile 33). (The stem is about 2-3 cm long.) This animal lived between 350-330 million years ago, and looked like a sea lily.

Lava flow in Grand Canyon, about 750,000 years old.

(Astonished, that is, when I’m not frozen myself in fear as we approach yet another churning rapid, our trip leader repeating her mantra to once again cinch down our life vests and hold on really tight this time. Apparently other people find these rapids fun and thrilling, and either I’m the only one terrified for my life on a daily basis or the others are better than I am at hiding their anxiety. Anyway, I have survived!)

Perhaps it was just ongoing sleep deficit, but as I got less and less verbal during our adventure, I wondered whether the canyon was calling me into a more profound presence that went below words. Even though some of my trip-mates turned out to be kindred spirits with whom I knew I could talk for hours at home, as we coursed through the canyon’s curves, I found I didn’t have that much to say or ask. Chatty conversation would have required a real effort to dredge myself up from rivertime’s depths; sitting in silence, letting beauty and spirit seep into my bones was enough.

Grand Canyon, lower end, nearing Lake Mead

(I’ll be posting more about the Grand Canyon in future entries, and more photos are posted on my Flickr page.)

Minding the Gap: Attention in the Quiet Season

The ringing cry of the well-fledged eaglet has faded; he’s off to his new territory. Young hawks are nowhere to be heard or seen. Gangs of adolescent Steller’s Jays still fill the nearby cedars with their raucous shrieks, and this year’s crop of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches are still desultorily begging from their parents at my birdfeeders—but the parents aren’t paying too much mind now that the young ones are fully capable of feeding themselves.

Young Chestnut-backed Chickadee begging

Fledgling Chestnut-backed Chickadee in classic begging posture – note open beak and fluffed wings

It’s quieter in my forest: the leaves are yellow-tinged, the soil is dusty, the air feels just a bit spent. The stories have shifted.

Late-summer sunset, Lincoln Park

The waters are stiller too. Our summer birds seem to have taken off, and the winter migration hasn’t reached the Salish Sea just yet. A couple of seal pups have shown up on our shores (well-protected by our devoted and generous Seal Sitters), but the pupping season hasn’t yet generated its larger numbers of baby seals resting vulnerably on the beach, in easy reach of curious dogs and humans.

Seal on West Seattle beach, 2009

Seal on West Seattle beach, 2009

Many of the area’s college students have headed back to their campuses, summer camps are coming to a close, and families seem to be packing cars and kids for that last pre-Labor Day vacation before school starts.

The summer before I started college, my family moved to Europe. When it was time for me to head back to the East Coast in late August, my father came along to help me get settled. We unpacked my suitcases, set up my desk supplies, made my bed, found the cafeteria. Finally it was time for him to leave; orientation started the next day, and he had to catch a flight back to his job.

I remember so clearly our hug goodbye, then watching him walk away from me toward the rental car; I suspect he may have had a few tears in his eyes, as I did, but in our family you tried to seem strong. Off he drove, heading back to his regular life while I started my new one.

Now what?

I had no idea what to do with myself. My new roommate was off somewhere; orientation wasn’t until tomorrow; classes of course hadn’t started yet. I could start reading some of the philosophy books I’d bought, I guessed, but when I tried, the words somehow just didn’t click. I think I just kind of walked around, trying to pass the time until something organized happened. I wasn’t actively exploring with any kind of focus, simply drifting in this new setting.

* * * * *

Late August, the quiet season: major transitions are about to happen, but their germination is still deep underground. These days I find it easier than usual to stay home and write rather than exploring the forest, since there’s a new hush; fewer birds draw my attention. When I do walk in the woods, I need to pay a different kind of attention than usual. Huge raptors no longer clamor from tops of trees, easy to find and observe; instead, humbler creatures whisper from the thickets.

It’s a latent time that invites a different way of listening. A season for special mindfulness, to notice what’s absent rather than what makes itself obviously present, to hold closer to heart the softer sounds and senses: the quiet ‘pik’ of a small Downy Woodpecker making its way around a hidden snag, the lingering warmth of a father’s recent embrace.

Soon enough the fall bustle will begin. Classes will start, Buffleheads will cluster off our shores, flocks of Common Mergansers will bring autumn elegance to the Salish Sea with their tuxedo black-and-whites. For now, though, a passing peace prevails.