Field Note: Vocalizations
Two women have lifted
a boy called Mason
above their heads
and set him into
the cleft of a large
white pine. The boy
is perhaps six years old. He clings
(arms flung wide like a squirrel)
to the broad rough arc of the
tree-trunk. He digs his small fingers
in its cracks. He mashes his tender chin
into bark, looking up, up, up — —
as one woman plucks at his
pants leg, the other clutches
her readied camera, and calls:
Mason, Mason! Look at mummy! Lookatmummy!
Mason, Mason! Look at mummy! Lookatmummy!
But the boy
up, up, up–
where a breeze scampers
through swaying limbs.
He calls out, very softly:
Whoa, whoa, WHOOOOOOOOOOOOA!
and they can’t
make him turn
toward the lens
Whoa, whoa, WHOOOOOOOOOOOOA!
and they can’t
get the boy
to come down.
The Bluebird Meadow
Politics age even less well than
poetry. Nonetheless, I sit in a
borderland. Ergo, I wonder
about succession: the clean march
from grass to shrub to tree so
observable. Neat. Yet, succession occurs
in the wake of disturbance. Fire
or slide, a strong wind rising. Chaos
first cleared this patch of land, though now we burn
and we clear. We work to keep this border
open. After all, we must attract and protect
what is threatened: the bluebirds.
I dig in the dead grass with winter-numb hands.
I expose a small bit of earth. I count: 1, 2, 3
4, 5, 6, 7 clearly distinct kinds of plant
who thanks to my worry have more
(but not necessarily better) exposure to
light. I remember what scientists call
the first species that fill
ecological gaps. I remember:
theyʼre fugitive species.
This dirt (unlike bluebirds)
is uncharismatic (and brown). It feeds us all
unequally. There are gradients—
nutrients, grain sizes—boundaries seen
in what thrives and what dies, or perhaps in
a migrant child crying. But we will not disturb
the earth to protect what is threatened
when whatʼs threatened is
our own kind. Only when it is
a bluebird. After all, who knows
what might grow in the wake
of disturbance. Who knows
what could take root,
and flourish, who knows
what might unexpectedly
— for the Honduras caravans
The Chestnut Plantation
On Frankenchestnuts (and Other Magics)
Long, long ago, in the wilds of California, I used to play a trick on children entrusted to my care. As we walked through the forest together — yours truly and a gaggle of twelve-or-so-year-olds there to learn about natural history — I’d call for a break, then produce (with flourishes) brightly colored bandanas, to be tied tight around the children’s eyes. After checking the security of the knots, I’d line the young ‘uns up, put each person’s hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, and tell them to follow my voice as I sang. Then I would walk off the trail.
What ensued was always a hair short of ill-advised, and loads of fun. Students wailed and whooped and stumbled their way under branches and over fallen logs, with brief stops to improve communication. But we didn’t have far to go. In time, I’d break the line into a circle, carefully seat each student, and begin to tell them a story. Turns out, I had brought them into a magical place, a place only I knew how to find. To truly enter, though, we needed to get past the gate.
I pressed each child’s hand to the gate, and asked them to feel it, smell it, even taste it if they wanted, and then ask the gate (it’s alive!) for permission to enter in their own secret language. In a moment, they could remove their blindfold, but they had to look up or they would break the spell. If their magic worked, they would know, because they would have shrunk way, waaaaaay down, to precisely the size of chipmunks. Ready? You sure? Okay. On three. One, two…
As you can probably tell, I loved this game. I had, of course, seated them around the foot of an enormous old friend: a giant redwood tucked just far enough off the path to make for an interesting journey. The sounds that accompanied the removal of blindfolds were beautiful, in the way that only wonder is beautiful. Just remembering them fills me with hope for our species.
I remember them now because I am lying on my back, with my head tucked between the roots of a chestnut, pressing my forehead hard against the trunk in an effort to see the tree as the giant it might, hypothetically, become.
I can almost manage the illusion, but it’s a tough sell. I squint, trying to give the limbs some distance and a few hundred years; alas, they just sort of…fuzz.
I consider the photos I’ve seen of American chestnuts, with their signature spiralling bark. This tree has striations, but they don’t spiral; the breaks in the skin are wide and vertical. Pink underbark (a technical term, I’m sure) gives the striations a scabrous look. A second, younger trunk is greenish, with horizontal orange dots. Wind rattles the leaves, which cling stubborn despite December’s bluster. A few wickedly spiky burrs still stick to the thin limbs, odd as oak galls but far more sinister in appearance. Most burrs, however, have fallen into the thick leaf-litter. Half-sunk in the moss and reindeer lichen, they make sitting more adventurous than usual; lying down in my current position required both careful excavation and light bleeding.
This tree is approximately the same age as those students I walked through the woods. It has none of its kind to look up to, though I suppose that also means none of its own kind crowd it out, blocking its sun or slurping the nutrients it would otherwise need to grow. Instead, it will have to fight off the blight–a mighty task for a pre-teen. At least it has companions in its quest: this field of hybrid trees, and others planted by hardworking and hopeful scientists who might well have stared up a trunk or two in their youth.
A couple of weeks ago, a scientist in China–where the chestnut that bolsters these hybrids originates–claimed to have “gene edited” a set of twins in utero. I lie under a gene-edited tree, scrawling words I will no doubt edit, and wonder at the choice of metaphor for such heavy-handed interference. I imagine the scientist of the future, walking students through the wonder: nudge this sequence just a hair, and (ta-da!) the disease is gone, and (as a bonus!) the eyes are green. How should I feel about the Frankenchestnut before me, given that my people meddle with our planet in ways that make Shelley’s one-off “creature” seem an uncomplicated blip?
But of course, I’m looking at a passion project here. Had an expert walked me through the orchard gate, I would know more of its magic–of what secret language is bringing the long-dead to life.
Instead, I raised the rusty gate myself, and freely roam/sprawl in this pasture with the company of my own assumptions. And questions, some of them ignorant. Like: where is the blight? How much of this stuff is swarming through the standard square foot of air, that its spores can swoop and attack every native chestnut that sprouts anywhere on the continent? Where and how does blight live if there aren’t vulnerable chestnuts hanging around? Is it omnivorous, munching on this and that during the majority of the year, then making a beeline for any chestnut buffet that appears? Such are the thoughts a grown woman has while pressing her head hard into a tree-trunk.
My forehead itches.
Faced with issues of invasion and hybridity, techno-fixes and anticipatory nostalgia, many of the thinkers I most admire embrace the entanglement of all things, the messiness of interrelation, the mystery of the cyborg, and the wonder of material interdependence on this planet. That seems fair. Still, I very much love old trees and young humans, and I would prefer that the entangled world hold both of them close, through every future.
For now, I press my head against the bark. I feel the cold seep from December ground into my flesh. I ask my mind to shrink down, and down, and down, to the size of a root. I squint again, harder, willing the magic.
I swear, I can almost see it. Almost.
The Lake Trail
Meeting the Neighbors: A Narrative Introduction to Birding (Intended for Complete Beginners)
I moved to Pennsylvania from the Southern coast, where I had begun to learn birds: marshbirds and shorebirds, obliging creatures who wing their way over open water, high-step among the banks of brackish creeks, or cluster at the edges of beaches during tidefall. Coastal birds can be showy — if you’re in a googling mood, check out black skimmers, snowy egrets, and tricolored herons — and, conveniently, they tend to hang out in places where they are easy to see.
So it is with some trepidation that I sling my binoculars over my neck and head out to “circumnavigate” Lake Perez. I imagine I’ll be seeking out passerines: small songbirds that flit quickly through thicket and forest. Thus far in life, I’ve limited my study of passerines to casual observation of my parents’ deck, where a birdfeeder lures nuthatches, titmice (titmouses?), and their ilk into the open for easy viewing. But it is spring(ish) now, and all week I’ve been conscious of the airborne conversations fluttering above my morning bike ride to work. It’s time to go for a walk and meet some of my neighbors.
The last time I visited Shaver’s Creek, a pileated woodpecker (big! white and black! redheaded!) swooped through the trees right as I parked my car. Today, as I shoulder my bag and lope toward Hawk Meadow, there’s no such harbinger of good birding…and despite my best intentions, I fall into a self-absorbed reverie that is incompatible with attention to my environment. Paying attention is, of course, the first thing one must do to notice birds, especially small ones that flit quickly through thicket and forest. Even as a novice, I know I’m far more likely to hear passerines than see them, and active listening goes a long way toward hearing them–unless I want to confine my study to raucous blue jays.
I am so far from active listening that I jump when, as I first approach the lake, I flush several ducks. I don’t get my binoculars up in time: white-edged “duck butt” is my only clue to the birds’ identity as they zoop out of view…
…though that’s not entirely true. The ducks had white-edged tails, were on the water, were in a group of three, and were hugging the shoreline near brush in a central Pennsylvania lake in April. An experienced birder might be able to ID the birds based on that information alone, which is one of the things I appreciate about birding. In a perfect scenario, I’d have plenty of time to examine a bird’s markings and coloration (is that band around the back of the woodpecker’s head continuous or broken? is the nape on that hawk’s neck pale or dark?). More often, however, the bird is living its own life, which—inconveniently enough—includes movement. The damn things just won’t sit still.
Ergo, other details are more helpful to identification. Chief among them are:
- “general impression of shape and size,” known colloquially as GISS (and pronounced precisely like an uncouth word for seminal fluid — at least, according to the very nice and very not-hep-to-the-slang older gentleman who first introduced me to birding); and,
- the where/when/what of a bird’s behavior. Knowing the GISS and basic behaviors of some birds makes it possible to identify them
from a distance that (to non-birders) can suggest wizardry. Turkey vultures, for example, are easy to recognize: they carry their wings in a distinct dihedral (“V” shape), and rock gently as they soar. Once you know this, you can ID turkey vultures from a good quarter-mile away, earning you Steve Irwin status at every backyard barbecue hence. (And if, like me, you find admiring oohs positively reinforcing, you might begin slowly accumulating additional knowledge about turkey vultures, until you not only have a basic understanding of their relationship with the ecosystem and unique adaptations, but have to restrain yourself from depositing all that information at once, becoming more Urkel than Irwin. But I digress.)
I do not know enough about local waterfowl to parse anything from the information that I have. Clearly, I should pay closer attention. I resolve to do better, step back on the trail, and ease out of my resolution almost immediately. Not until I get to an interpretive sign do I snap out of it — or rather, back into it. Mike Branch, good friend that he is, reminds me via the sign that I have been on a trail, not at one, and I acknowledge that save for a few moments when the land grabbed me (slick mud at my boots, a branch snagged in my hair, the sudden growl of a tree in the rising wind), I have been neither.
Perhaps the trail is the problem. My various cross-country adventures have illustrated how readily a trail can suck me into head-down, watch-the-boots oblivion. I’m told that Appalachian Trail hikers will ask “are you on the trail, or off the trail?” The question has nothing to do with your physical location, and everything to do with your immediacy. Are you here, or are you elsewhere?
I have been elsewhere. So much for meeting the neighbors. I sigh, adjust my pack, and turn around to retrace my steps.
We too often expect from natural spaces what we should bring to them. For example: animality. Why should I expect to see any animal in the woods, unless I bring my animal self into the woods? By this I mean: presence. Sensory awareness. Primal alertness, to the extent that we citified beings can manage it. Annie Dillard walks with me often, murmuring,“what you see is what you get” when it comes to nature. But it isn’t only seeing; it’s hearing, smelling, touching, being.
So. As I walk again, I breathe deeply, and listen, and scan the trees, looking for bird-shaped lumps, for movement. Within three minutes, I spy two obligingly still silhouettes on an obligingly solitary branch. I squint at the squat brown birds, who appear (frankly) unremarkable. I shrug and lift my binoculars to my eyes, just to see–and suddenly, they aren’t two brown birds anymore.
I lower the binoculars, and the birds turn the color of bark. I raise the binoculars, and the birds flash pale undersides of wing as they bank suddenly into the trees.
But I’m on it, in it, at it now. With the help of my mediating technology (praise as always to my worth-every-penny Nikon Monarchs), I’ve seen a few key features of those unpromising silhouettes: a pale yellow belly. A rose-brown breast. A dark, up-sweeping mask over the eyes.
Is this enough to identify the birds, using my handy guidebook, the authoritative and indispensable Sibley Birds East? Probably. But.
I have a predetermined policy for engaging unfamiliar birds, designed to maximize my enjoyment of the experience. This policy is also designed to correct for my default step-by-step tendency as a beginner birder, which is:
- See a bird.
- Try to look up the bird.
- Flip through many pages (or twiddle on a smartphone) with my head down.
- Realize I do not have enough information to positively identify the bird.
- Look up.
- Not see a bird.
My tweaked process (ideally) goes something like this:
- See a bird.
- Note whatever markings I can, as well as GISS, location, and behavior.
- Sketch the bird to the best of my ability.
- Flip through many pages with my head down.
- (Hopefully) find the bird in Sibley.
- Revise my sketch to match the Sibley prototype.
- Look up.
The process is geared toward both present and future seeing. Frankly, it’s amazing how much I see wrong as I make that first sketch, or how much I don’t see at all. In the case of this bird, for example, I noted the striking black swoosh.that arcs from beak to crest, but not the white that limns it; I noticed the yellow tip of the tail, but not the black strip above it; I noticed the red-orange patches on the bird’s wings, but not the black bits below them. The process of sketching, comparing, and re-sketching takes me some fifteen minutes…and (as frequently happens if you sit still in the woods) by the time I get to a stopping point and look up, more birds have gathered. In this case, some dozen cedar waxwings — as I now know them to be called — are flitting above me, branch to branch, light as butterflies.
If my prior, moving oblivion took me out of place, this quieter period of intense concentration has done something else entirely. It has brought the place to me, in the form of a small flock of beauties who are anything but unremarkable and brown.
Slowing down, stopping–these are underrated, undervalued, underpracticed skills. Even during “outdoor recreation,” there is a tendency toward heads-down, watch-your-boots oblivion—or laughter and joking with your friends—or focusing on the sweet shot you’ll snap at the summit. I’ll readily admit that all of the above, and many more options, have a place in the woods and my own outdoor adventures…but (pun intended) still.
It’s uncomfortable: to slow down, to stop. In this instance, damp has soaked through the seat of my pants, the wind has chilled me to a light shiver, and my hands are slow and cold. Moreover, I’ve had to wiggle my brain loose from under the weight of the work that waits on my desk. To sit through those discomforts takes a sort of stubborn faith in…something. For me, there’s unquestionable value in this outward-focused immediacy, this attentiveness to a creature I’ve never met and do not understand. I calm. I focus. I breathe more deeply.
I sit among the waxwings for another twenty minutes or so. They drink from a puddle in the middle of the trail, raising their heads from the water suddenly every time they swallow. A cardinal flops through, garishly overdressed. More little brown birds give me glimpses through small gaps in the brambles: russet backs, gray crowns. I half-remember my favorite lines from writer Henry Beston, who describes a “wiser” concept of animals: “they are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations.” I feel very much as though I am watching members of an unfamiliar culture partake in casual gathering.
In time, I shoulder my pack and the party scatters–at least until I tromp out of sight. As I head back to the car, already slipping back into a more normal (and perhaps less natural) mindspace, I for a moment envision the acres of brush and limb around me as they are: alive with many such gatherings, bustling with feathered and scaled and furred bodies pursuing their own intricate ends.
I will never “meet” these creatures, of course. But when I get home, I’ll learn some things about cedar waxwings: how a few mysteriously waxy feathers inspired their name, how enough of one particular kind of honeysuckle can turn their tail-tips from lemon to orange, how they have a high propensity for drunkenness. I’ll remember the bold black mask and the rosy-brown breast and the bright patches that daub each wing. And the next time I see them fluttering through the woods–having been introduced, however informally–I’ll notice them, and know them, and be more likely to stop and sit and slip into alertness. Open to wonder, and ready to meet yet more neighbors.
- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, The Writing Life(New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 15.
The Raptor Center
On Enclosure, Ethology, and Raptor Rapport
During my first visit to the raptor center, I write pages and pages of notes about individual birds. Most of my notes wrestle with how easy it is to project human emotions onto the animal Other — to “anthropomorphize.”
For example: as I contemplated the psychotic-looking mismatched pupils of a stone-still great horned owl, it tilted its head to one side and winked at me, very slowly. [Insolent!]
The golden eagle stayed strangely proximate to me as I wrote, until my eyes lingered long on her injured and deformed beak…when she suddenly showed her enormous wingspan, let out a surprisingly alto call, flapped to the far corner, and firmly turned her back. [Offended!]
And then there’s the black vulture, whose food (secreted in egg cartons and cardboard boxes that required her to extricate her meals) had just arrived. She’d toy with one box for a few minutes, extract a nibble, emit a doglike “woof,” then hop quickly to the wrestle with the next. Another nibble, another soft “woof,” a pause to cock her head and look me in the eye — then a quick hop back to the first box. My parents’ Dutch shepherd follows precisely this protocol when presented with two treats at once. [Playful! Eager! Maybe a tad possessive!]
That Dutch shepherd is part of the reason I’ve begun to notice emotional projection onto animals. My parents adopted Max, a rescue dog, several years ago as a way of filling their empty nest. In short order, Max not only ousted my mom as my father’s closest companion but also became a medium through which military-toughened dad could freely express his emotions. When I come home for a visit, my dad delightedly informs me that “Max is happy to see you!” My father does not get hot during walks in the summer heat; instead, we go inside because “Max is thirsty and needs to rest.” And after evening beers on the deck, dad will yawn and note that, “we should go to bed now. Max is tired.”
While such comments are kinda cute, they are also completely uninformed by Max’s actual behavior. In the above instances, for example, Max: a) shows little attention to my presence, as he knows my dad is the Only Important Human on this planet; b) is a young, strong dog entirely untuckered by a ten-minute walk ‘round the neighborhood; and c) has been asleep for the last hour. Circumstances strongly indicate that my father couldn’t cut it as a pet psychic.
But dad’s willful projection of emotions onto a dog is hardly unusual. When we search for intimacy with an animal, it seems we have little choice butto anthropomorphize. The alternative, it seems, is to deny our fellow creatures emotions they may very well share. And besides: surely my father, who wraps many of his daily decisions around Max’s health and well-being, has earned the right to some level of intimacy and communication with “his” dog.
I, on the other hand, am a stranger to the Shaver’s Creek raptors and their behaviors. Unlike the students and volunteers who work regularly with them, I am ignorant of whatever “birdsonalities” they bring to their daily interactions with humans. In most cases, I’m ignorant even of what disabilities keep them from being releasxed in the wild. How can I presume to read the look on a sleeping barn owl’s face [so sweet!] or the short, quick flights of a peregrine falcon from perch to perch [restless!]?
Fortunately, I know someone who might help translate.
But first: important context. The raptor center is under transition, being renovated into larger enclosures that will house its eighteen birds of prey. Though Shaver’s Creek personnel planned for a smooth, gradual transition into the new homes, heavy rains delayed construction this summer. Contractors first said they’d finish renovation by July 26; then, August 31.
It is now mid-September, and even my untrained eye can see the construction is nowhere near complete. Several bobcats (of the metal kind) hunch with their teeth in the dirt; piles of jagged rubble gather loosely on chewed clay; erosion barriers snake around the terrain like recently gorged boas. Meantime, the avian denizens are divided: some in the enclosures they’ve known for years, some in spacious new homes, and some in smaller, metal cages that function as temporary housing. Though on this Saturday the equipment lies quiet, I take a moment to imagine living in an enclosure–even a nice one–only a few feet from the noise and dust of heavy construction, unable to move away. For months.
These birds have to be stressed.
I watch a broad-winged hawk who is confined to one of the smaller, transitory cages. A single portion of the ceiling is open, allowing a view of the sky behind interlacing wires. During the five minutes I spend at its enclosure, the hawk repeatedly hops back and forth on a small section of perch immediately below the square space of sky. The bird–small, sleek, delicately colored, replete with weaponized curves–cranes its neck back to better see the patch of clouds as it moves. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Every few seconds, it partially extends its wings.
That’s one set of behaviors, I think, that’s easy to read.
Earlier in the afternoon, I briefly met Jason Beale, the Animal Care Program Director at Shaver’s Creek. He’s been a subtle presence in the background as I’ve walked and scribbled: answering visitor questions, feeding the turkey vulture, coaxing the black vulture to “hop up, now, hop up” in a calm, even voice. Now, I hear him describing the bald eagles to a balder man who seems eager for bloody details (“…no, they’re not particularly aggressive, though the female–the bigger one–does occasionally boss her mate…”). I tromp around a bobcat (the metal kind) to request an interview.
“Are you new to the area?” Jason asks as we step out into a light drizzle a few days later. At my affirmative, he says, “then the first thing you need to understand is what this place used to look like.” He points to the rear of the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. “All the enclosures were arranged in an arc facing the back door, so they were the first thing you’d see when you walked out. Very people-driven, with mesh oriented to give people full access to the birds. No real choice for the birds, no opportunity for them to get direct sunlight.”
He sweeps a long, lanky arm toward the new enclosures, which are arranged in two parallel lines that form a wide aisle. “These are re-oriented for the birds, rather than visitors. Birds will have the option to move into sunlight, or out of it; into cover, or out of it.” He turns toward me, and makes steady eye contact [emphatic!]. “Once you take an animal into your life, it’s your responsibility to care for its health. That includes offering it as much control and choice as possible in its environment.”
I have a feeling this interview will be mostly a matter of me taking notes quickly; Jason speaks with the assertive cadence of a professional who spends a great deal of time explaining his work. He continues, “all of our birds are formerly wild”—he stresses the formerly—“but many of them have lived here for over a decade. It’s our job to keep them both engaged and comfortable, so they can show a natural posture in education contexts.”
Suddenly, a bobcat (yup, still the metal kind) groans. “Oh, she’s stressed out,” says Jason as the golden eagle flaps suddenly from one perch to the next and then the next. “Head darting, flaring wings…”
“That’s one of the things I’m interested in,” I interject. “I’ve been wondering how humans can read ‘stress’ in a bird accurately, without projecting.” I briefly sketch the my-dad-and-his-dog scenario, which doesn’t seem to impress Jason much. “But,” I note, “it’s hard to resist that language of emotional projection. I found it difficult even when I was consciously trying to keep it out of my notes.”
Jason is nodding repeatedly [agreement!]. “We train our students for that. We avoid anthropomorphism at all costs. If an intern tells me, ‘that bird was aggressive!’ then they’re going to get questions: ‘why do you say that? What did it do?’ ‘Well, it flew at the mesh and gripped it with its talons.’ That’s not necessarily aggression! We say ‘unlabel that.’ They have to consider what happened beforehand that triggered the behavior, any variations in routine, that bird’s usual behavior patterns. We work with them to unlabel their language.”
“But you have to at some point be able to say ‘that bird is stressed.’”
“Yes. But we’ve created observable standards for what behaviors earn labels like ‘stressed’ or ‘aggressive.’” He nods to the golden eagle. “Science and research offer some context — that’s where the head darting, flaring wings comes from. But it’s largely individual. The more individual birds build positive relationships and familiar routines with staff, the better we can track antecedents that give us clues to their stress level and health.”
“Environmental changes that set the stage for a behavior. The golden eagle’s a good example. See how the back part of her enclosure is open, letting light in?” He gestures again to the eagle, who has hunched as far away from the construction as possible. “Well, she’s been here for over 28 years, and until a few years ago that side of the mew was solid.”
“Mew?” I interrupt again.
“A falconry term for a raptor enclosure. When we replaced that side of the mew with mesh, she had voluntary access to the sun for the first time, and that became her favorite perch…until construction workers put up a blue fence near it. She wouldn’t perch there until they took the fence down; now she’s back to using it. Sunlight, a new fence, an intern’s baseball cap…these can all be antecedents.”
I am listening to the vocabulary. But in my notes, without even thinking about it, I double underline: “decades without sun.”
Like many self-proclaiming nature nerds, I’m negotiating a complex set of responses to the sight of raptors in cages…er, mews. During several seasons working as a naturalist in a major migration “flyway” in South Carolina, I’ve had the privilege of traveling areas where birds fly free. (Though I should note that, even there, they are hemmed in by coastal development, which has left only five of the thousands of barrier islands in the state of South Carolina habitable for nesting birds. Ahem.)
Regardless, admiring birds in their element, where they freely express agency, is fundamentally different than peering at them through mesh. In the field, birdwatching demands awareness; you have to look up from the water to see the swallow-tailed kite winging above the trees, and listen catch a glimpse of the prothonotary warbler in the brush.
The field presents other problems, of course. You can’t always get as close as you’d like, and the prolonged eye contact with the animal Other that so mesmerizes visitors to the raptor center is very rare indeed. But paddle out into a harbor when birds nest nearby — where bird calls drown out thought — and you are likely to shout in surprise, as one mom did during a tour I was leading, “my God, it’s like this place belongs to them!”
That particular (and telling) variety of wonder is nowhere to be found at the raptor center. Then again, that’s not what a raptor center is for. The birds in these enclosures are here to be seen. They would suffer and die if released; here, they can become a sort of antecedent themselves: for changes in human behavior.
Jason and I discuss this when I describe the black vulture as “puppy-ish.” “We get ‘doglike’ a lot for her,” he says. “And while I might resist the label, I embrace that emotional connection. You can’t just load everyone up with research and expect them to care about vultures, but if they say, ‘hey, this bird behaves like my dog, and I like my dog,’ that’s great. They see the bird as curious, playful, and intelligent instead of stinky and dirty, and that gives us an opportunity to talk about vultures’ importance in the ecosystem and what people can do to keep them healthy. Like switching to non-lead shot, for example.”
Looking at enclosed creatures can be one version of the colonial gaze, as intellects from John Berger to Barry Lopez have argued…but (I remind myself) it can also encourage paradigm shifts. I juggle those two thoughts as Jason leads the way to one of the new enclosures, where a door opens into a narrow back room — a sort of staging area for interacting with the raptors.
I peer at various raptor-related gear (leather gloves and leashes, feeding materials, perches, and plastic disks that serve as indicators of where a bird should land or perch during training) while he describes a standard “routine” used during feeding and health check-ups.
“You can ask the birds to do things,” he explains, “but if they say no, you change the situation. We sometimes use the term ‘good welfare’ to complete sentences. Will the bird step on your glove while providing good welfare? If not, you change the criteria.” I notice that he describes the birds, not the staff, as the ones building relationships. Mew or no mew, the raptors’ agency is clearly woven into his perception of the birds.
Jason lifts a heavy leather glove and slides it over his left arm. “Unfamiliar stimuli, whether they’re novel objects or environments, generally lead to wary behavior. So far, it’s taken the birds we’ve moved about five days to settle down and respond to routine.”
“I imagine having a common understanding of labels like ‘stress’ becomes more important during a transition like this,” I offer.
“Of course. It’s one thing to say, ‘oh, great, these birds are going to get bigger, better enclosures that give them more choice.’ But take a bird like the golden eagle. She’s been in the same space for over twenty-eight years, and suddenly here’s this new environment. It’s an adjustment.”
“Still,” he adds as he reaches for a pair of small tongs, “we try to minimize our stimuli, minimize our presence, keep the birds relaxed. It’s the best thing in the world when a bird ignores you. It means they’re fully comfortable with you; you do your thing, they do theirs. It’s” — he hesitates — “it’s almost like a sign of respect.”
The peregrine falcon, it turns out, does not respect me one iota.
Before he entered the enclosure, Jason prepped me for her “calling behavior.” I’d already noticed it; on my previous visit, she had consistently shrieked during the time I spent at her cage…er, mew. Sibley Birds East describes her call as a “slow, scolding rehk rehk rehk.” I would describe it as, “a tormented grocery cart screeches at top volume through half-blown speakers.”
Even though I thought I might be disturbing the bird, I stuck around, admiring her sleek neatness. I recently learned of the Cherokee word osi, which describes a person who is “poised on a single point of balance” — one who is “centered, upright, and facing forward,” in both literal and figurative senses. I don’t know if the Cherokee ascribe the same word to other-than-human persons, but the peregrine looks like osiembodied. Even when she also appears righteously pissed.
As Jason explained, she has not spent much time around people, and likely associates them with food; hence the calling. He’s working on positively reinforcing her during periods of silence, which sounds like it takes a boatload of patience.
“I’ve noticed she calls at seven-second intervals, so I feed her only after she’s been quiet for ten seconds. If she calls before that, I step out of sight. As criteria go, it’s a little abstract.” Using a training perch, he demonstrated the difference between a “nice” routine and a “kind” one. “We positively reinforce only when both our criteria and the animal’s response are clear. You can’t reinforce for half measures, or you do a disservice to the bird. Without consistency, you’re nice…but you aren’t kind.”
Following Jason’s suggestion, I walk around to the enclosure’s viewing area while prepare’s the falcon’s food. When I come into sight, she immediately starts vocalizing. After several attempts at reinforcing silence — all of which are interrupted by aforementioned grocery-cart shrieking — I hear Jason call jokingly, “we have a new antecedent!” Abashed, I try giving the peregrine more space, realizing too late that I have stepped further from the bird but closer to the food, perhaps more in her way than before. But if I move again, won’t that be even more unsettling? After a few minutes, Jason changes the criteria: when he enters, he moves further into the enclosure and further away from me. “Susquehanna,” he calls, and the peregrine quietly flutters down to the perch he taps.
“That was useful information,” he says after cleanup, as we walk toward the animal preparation area known fondly as “NASA.” I try not to look embarrassed as we step into a gleaming, well-lit room with careful charts on the refrigerator and several hairless, dead mice floating in the sink.
“Was that a standard routine?”
“Part of one. Her engagement wasn’t ideal, so I cut it short.” He hands me a chart that correlates distinct behaviors (“wipes beak on perch”; “swallows bit immediately, without tearing into smaller pieces”) with levels of motivation. “Ideally, every bird engages and weighs itself every day. And we encourage them to be co-presenters during educational sessions.”
He nods, and reaches into a nearby bin for a rubberized ball with several large, hexagonal holes. “This” — he holds it high, as though about to lob it — “is not a natural object. But if I fill it with twine, and there’s food in it, and I roll it on the ground, Susquehanna has to dive for it and extricate her food–and that’s a natural behavior.”
He sighs a bit as he puts the ball back. “People sometimes object; they say, ‘you’re teaching a wild animal to do tricks.’ But in the wild animals have to perform behaviors to earn food. An animal of any species, ours included, has to participate in its own healthcare to be engaged and thriving.” He smiles. “A fortunate byproduct is engaged, excited people who suddenly find they care about birds.”
“And you name the birds.”
Jason stiffens a bit. “That’s contentious.”
“Why?” I ask, though I have a pretty good guess.
“We used to not name them, out of respect for their wildness.” I sense that he’s fighting an urge to put air quotes around the “respect for their wildness” bit. “Some of the reasons for naming them are practical.” He points to the chart and stages an imagined conversation. “‘The barred owl needs exercise.’ ‘Which barred owl?’ ‘The female.’ ‘Which female?’ ‘The one in the third enclosure next to the peregrine.’”
“I can see how that would get clunky.” He drops his hand. “Then, there’s the fact that they respond to names. So if I’m in an enclosure with more than one animal I can call to one bird, and the other bird knows that they don’t have to pay attention. But also…” he turns toward me, palms up. “These birds have been here longer than most of the staff, and they’re individuals. Give them the dignity of a name.”
As promised, Jason walks me through some charts that he uses to help his staff standardize their language: what specific behaviors signal a bird’s level of motivation or stress, each clearly aligned to an appropriate staff response. I note patterns I saw in the broad-winged hawk: “quick head movements; bobbing or swinging the head with eyes fixed on a perch or window, as if gauging range,” and mention that behavior to Jason.
“Even trying to avoid anthropomorphism, I felt comfortable labeling that one.”
To my surprise, he shakes his head. “Migration,” he says firmly. “We’re exercising the broadwing particularly carefully, because this is migration season and the species is moving southward en masse. Every year around this time she wants to bulk up, which of course increases her risk of foot-sores, so we have to make sure she stays active.”
That chain of events was by no means transparent to me, but I nod and say, “of course.”
He adds, “who knows what she senses? Maybe a change in atmospheric pressure, maybe she sees the others flying. But all her instincts right now are saying ‘fly south, fly south, fly south. Ethologists call that a ‘modal action pattern.’”
I chew on my misinterpretation of the broad-winged hawk’s behavior as we walk back to the main building. It’s the clearest indication yet of what I sensed during my first visit to the center: without informed context on these birds, labeling them “wild” or “tame,” “stressed” or “content” based on their body language or eye contact is…foolish. And that’s being generous. I say as much to Jason, and he pauses [restraint!] before replying. “It’s surprising, how often people feel comfortable using that language after only a few minutes of interaction with a raptor.” He pauses again. “I work with these birds every day, and I’ve been here for years, and I still don’t claim to know what they’re thinking.”
“No matter how long I linger with any being,” writes philosopher David Abram, “I cannot exhaust the enigma of its presence.” I’ve felt this often during my interactions with wildlife; even as I natter on about the reproductive structures of an oyster or an alligator’s digestive capabilities, I am always highly cognizant of how limited and hard-earned the human understanding of other animals is…and how easy it is to project our stories and values onto animals whose lives we do not understand. One can (for example) make eye contact with an eagle, label it “wild,” pity its captive state, and walk away with a tidy, sad story that has nothing to do with the bird’s lived experience. As easily, one can praise the educational availability of said eagle, marvel at its wingspan and talons, and never consider that the bird has no access to sunlight. Two sides, same coin.
Still, what alternatives do we have? I am hardly the only one wondering. “Anthropomorphism is generally frowned upon. It is said to be improper to see animals the same way we view ourselves,” writes author Craig Childs. “It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm.” Or, as phenomenologist Timothy Morton bluntly puts it, “we can let elephants be hungry when they look hungry, but we have trouble allowing that they are happy when they look happy.” Morton follows with, “What if worrying about anthropomorphism were itself a perfect example of human behavior, namely…anthropomorphism?”
My temperament leads me to choose worrying — or (as I prefer to frame it) careful reflection — over any simple approach to the other animals on this planet. I’d rather not be the adult equivalent of an overeager child with its arms around a puppy’s neck, squealing “it likes me!” even as the dog tries desperately to get away. I hope that, before I try to empathize with creatures not like me, I can make the time to learn about them: their identification marks, their habits as a species, and (when possible) their personalities as individuals. And I hope to always respect people who take the time to build rapport with other species — who have earned through direct contact, however mediated, the knowledge to serve as translators for the rest of us.
“The thing is,” says Jason as we approach the back door, “there aren’t great parallels between raptors and common domesticated animals in terms of reinforcement. A cat will come up to you, rub on your leg; there’s some positive reinforcement there, for petting. A dog is a pack animal, and you can use reinforcement drawn from its social structure. But a falcon isn’t looking for an alpha. A hawk doesn’t ask to be petted. At the most basic level, we have two reinforcers for their behavior: their food, and their control over their environment.”
“That gives the birds a great deal of agency.”
“Exactly!” As we step inside, he adds, “One of the things I like about these new enclosures is the birds have more room to opt out. They’re on higher perches, so they have a choice about whether or not they interact.”
People will like this less. I can imagine it now: complaints about how you “used to” be able to see the raptors up close at any time of day, “used to” not have to walk uphill, “used to” have them all arrayed around you at once, so you could stare into whatever pair of wild eyes suited you at that particular moment. How will peopleactually respond to this new environment — one that privileges the birds’ agency over the human viewing experience?
After a bit of indoor chitchat, I thank Jason for his time, then walk outside for one last round of notes. The sun has come out, and I shed a layer as I walk up the rows of mews. When I turn to come back down, I have a clear field of view of the enclosures…and I notice something. It could, of course, be coincidence.
Still: every raptor I see stands, feathers aglow, in a beam of sun.
- David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America: Second Edition (New York: Knopf, 2016), 238.
- David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 45.
- Craig Childs, Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2011), 137.
- Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (Brooklyn: Verso, 2017), 86.
The Sawmill Site
No sawmill at the sawmill site. Just a ditch.
The sign says the ditch is a mill-race.
A mill-race is a diversion.
an instance of turning something aside from its course, or
an activity that distracts the mind from serious concerns.
A mill-race diverts water from a stream, turns water
aside from its course to the serious concern of
grinding pieces to smaller pieces, which is perhaps
the most serious concern on the planet, and also
the reason there is no sawmill
at the sawmill site. For, lo! —
the sawmill site was ground, and now
it is ground: partridgeberry and hemlock
and other familiar strangers. In Japan, or so I’ve read,
some doctors prescribe “forest bathing” in order
to turn stress aside from its course. Today
is a good day for forest bathing, because
it is damp. Trees breathe heavy breaths
that cling like wet leaves to my skin. Eairth,
one philosopher writes, because we are in it
not on it. We all are always bathing in breaths:
deep chest-heaves of oak, last gasps of hemlock, and mostly
the fishy wheezes of plankton, even here at the landlocked
no-sawmill sawmill site, where I divert my mind
from serious concerns about what we have done to
the air. The plastic map buzzes with names that don’t matter — not like
the matter at hand, undiverted: the mud, the mosquitoes.
The uprooted mushroom
turning its gills to the trees.
— credit to David Abram, who writes of Eairth.
Stream Sampling at Twin Bridges
I once visited a friend of a friend whose basement was a library of sound. Records, yes, but also little snippets of life called “samples”: car doors closing, his daughter crying, the captive tinkle of a music box. I think of this while walking to Twin Bridges from the parking lot. A bright blue perimeter of plastic webbing and a whole host of signs warn about ongoing construction, but the construction speaks for itself: hollow clungs of thisandthat accompany my muffled thwumps down the path. An interesting sample, always not-quite on tempo, at once amplified by hills and snow-stifled.
But as I drift away from said clungs along the path, I find myself walking through a dense and unfamiliar sonic texture. Until moving to State College this year, I have spent winters in ecosystems where the cold months either a) rarely snow or b) rarely rain. A central Pennsylvania February, it turns out, can do both. On this particular evening, a light but steady rain falls onto long-established snow. The sound is new to me, and it is a sound I feel — and not just in the occasional wet splat that drops rudely onto my wool hat. Each raindrop taps or ticks or thuks with assurance into the a firm crust, in jarring complement with its happenstance neighbors, and the effect is a sort of half-speed buzz, an immersive static that extends from the pocked snow to the thwuckking tops of the trees. Surround sound, if you will.
(A sample of definitions for the word “sound,” selected for their resonance—
vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.
the ideas or impressions conveyed by words.
in good condition; not damaged, injured, or diseased.
[of sleep] deep and undisturbed.) 1
February is melting; patches of brown earth have slipped out from under their snowblanket. Today hovers above 50 degrees. But winter weather still wraps the creeks, and walking toward the water is like walking into an industrial fridge. I pause and put on a bright blue, puffy jacket. The cold keeps breathing against my knees, sharpening as I drop toward the creek.
I glance at a sign: “Twin Bridges Has Stories to Tell.”
Which raises the question: how best to listen?
I have spent the best part of the last ten years leading students and retirees and the occasional bachelorette party through a remarkably disparate collage of ecosystems: desert, alpine range, temperate rainforest, barrier island. My professional title in these landscapes varies: naturalist, environmental educator, instructor, guide. But given a choice, I would choose interpreter. An interpreter’s first job is to listen.
Again I glance at the sign. It’s tempting to get that story first; an introduction. But I wonder what stories I will hear if I sit and listen to this place, this place in the place I now live.
I step onto the damp downstream lean of the first bridge and plant my feet at its approximate center. Within minutes, the rain eases and recedes.
I notice first what I see: a small rill nearly choked with snow and vegetation.
(Dead leaves tangle in long, dead grass. Reeds wave idle in an amiable current.
A shelf of ice, recently drowned, extends into the stream: spectral solidity in rippling water.
On the banks is a clatter of crisscross limbs, mostly dead or dormant.)
But something else is going on. These are twin bridges: two bridges spanning a divided creek, with an odd plop of land tossed midstream. Dead trees stick the sky. Strange.
A downy woodpecker tugs my eye skyward, perches on a snag. I think it’s a downy. Single, sharp “cheek” at 4–5 second intervals at the top of the snag, then it bobs back to the scraggly cover of a dying hemlock. I follow, quietly, trying to determine its size; it could be a hairy woodpecker, but I’m not an adept birder and will need to get closer to tell.
I spook the bird. Sorry, bird. But as I turn back toward the bridge I notice something: half hidden in a log is a tupperware container.
The geocache (for a geocache it is) contains a notebook stuffed with words and a few odd trinkets. I do a quick search of the notebook and smile to see that I am not the only one with my ears pricked:
“Babbling brook is soothing.”
“love the creek sounds”
“The stream is soothing
Its music puts me to sleep
I wake up carefree.”
“Everyone should have the opportunity to sit next to a creek and just listen.”
As I add my own note to the cache and tuck it back away, my smile turns wry. Characteristically: in trying to listen to a creek, I have discovered a trove of human voices.
Interpretation tells me, after pacing the damp wood of both downstream-leaning bridges, about a few of the other animals that live or have passed here. Beaver sculpted the stream. Hemlock woolly adelgid ravage/d the banks. The probably-downy woodpecker has circled back for another round of cheek. Not a whole lot of knowledge, but a start.
“Interpretation” is always translation. I apply my attention, but (of course!) my attention is translated by my senses, and then by language, and then. Among the filters I apply: some prior knowledge of what ecosystems mean, how they work. Marvelous business…but less marvelous than the place I try to hear, which is always too whole for me to grasp.
Long ago, in another corner of Appalachia, I worked with a team of scientists trying to get a more whole picture of stream health. I donned rubber waders and an electric backpack that powered a long probe. Some men walked beside me in similar gear; behind me, others towed a large net. Those of us with probes sent our current through the current; the men behind collected the stunned fish. Together, we sorted and counted species, then returned the shining bodies (dead or alive) to the water. This is called “stream sampling.”
While I stand on the bridge, a small island of midstream snow settles with a muffled thwump into the water. Also: a chug-glugg lottles at regular intervals, in a distinctive bass rhythm. I try to trace the higher pitches of the stream, and suffer the auditory equivalent of dizziness. Too much is happening, and all at once.
It is getting dark, or at least dim. The mid-water trees become pale, then vaguely pinked by the evening, while both banks settle into dark. There’s a moment of periwinkle, then my vision enters a twilit space of textured shadows. Snow leaps vividly out from under the trees, sudden as bared teeth. Time to go.
It begins to rain again as I walk away, the sound muffled by snow. The clangs of construction have stopped, but my thoughts return to sampling. What sound would I take from today, to splice into a record? That strange furze of rain-in-snow. The toothy chaw of my boots. The muffled thwump of that settling snowheap. A great big glug at regular intervals. And the scratch of my pen, insistent…which has, despite its limitations, kept some kind of record here. After all, “sound” is not only the vibration traveling into the ear, but also: the ideas or impressions conveyed by words.
- Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sound.
The Dark Cliffy Spot
“Alone, in our separate kinds of experience and expertise, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude. Neither despair nor hope is attuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence.”
February has done beautiful things to the creeks. We’ve had several sunny days after hard, bitter weather, and the warmth has melted most of the snow…but the ice remains, and makes fantastic shapes. Every frozen puddle is worth examining; beneath clear surfaces, jagged ice-spurs cut each other crosswise, or concentric woozy ice-ripples run in rings, or layers of sunken leaves hang, richly colored, in suspension. In the streams, the undersides of fallen logs are heavy with teardrop-shaped icicles, and the streamside undercuts are thick with frost heave: spindled, white columns whose miniscule cliffs could (if scaled up substantially) rival Dover. In low-lying seeps, where water pools over a large area before freezing, the smooth panes of glassy ice hold ink-dark, warped reflections of the woods. A parallel universe? I stare a long time, imagining ink-dark wolves easing through that Other Forest, then shake my ruff and walk on.
The trail approaching the Dark Cliffy Spot is dangerously slick with ice. I walk the frost-firm soil instead, enjoying its slight give underfoot. A broad field of ice coats the land between the interpretive sign announcing the Dark Cliffy Spot and the Spot itself. I hop from tree root to tree root (thanks, trees!) to cross. Then I tuck into the damp, chilly shadow of the Cliffy Spot’s exposed rock.
Ice covers the Spot’s “swimming hole” — ice thin enough that I can clearly see the creek’s flowing water muscle against its boundary. Contract, relax. Contract, relax. Directly beneath the cliff, the cold shadow has preserved thick snow-caps on the mid-stream rocks…though each hummock of snow is translucent, half-melted despite its bulk. HISSSssss. One snow-hummock shears into the stream. I watch the baseball-sized chunk run a short series of rapids, pirouette across a pool of exposed water, and then melt into the current, easing into invisibility.
Just upstream of where I sit, the jut of the cliff could well be a human ruin; seen aslant, it has the look of a built corner, with layers of rockwork neatly stacked. I turn to a fresh page, and sketch just enough of the cliff to get a sense of its intricacy: the complex scramble of deep-hued moss and bone-pale lichen, the cracks and crevices and stretches of blank rock. I stop before I get sucked into a level of attentiveness that would keep me here past dark. As I turn to another blank page, I hear…someone humming? Talking?
At first, I think it might be an echo coming from over the ridge above the cliff — some distant conversation that circles, caught in the cliff-shadow. But the sound seems too close…I listen harder, trying to make out a word or two. It’s as if I’m hearing the voice (voices?) through a phone jammed against someone else’s ear. I can catch the cadence of language, but not the words themselves.
Curious, I move a bit upstream, toward the voice. My movement drowns out the sound, but when I pause I hear it a bit more clearly. I take a few more steps, pause. A few more steps, pause.
Each time I pause, it takes a few moments for me to hear the voice again–like it’s just at a perceivable decibel level, and just low enough in pitch to be a bit out of range. A few more steps, pause. A few more steps, pause. The voice is louder now, with a more pronounced cadence, but still not distinct. A few more steps, pause. A few more steps, pause…
…and I confirm: I’m hearing the creek! Not any sound I associate with running water–not a ripple or a gurgle or a glug-chug sound — but an irregular, intermittent vibration of water over rock. A fluctuating range of low, mellow pitches, with a light buzz.
It sounds like a human voice. Just like a human voice, albeit one heard at a distance. I hone in on the sound until I’ve identified the rill that produces it, and take a seat on the bank. Even though I’m closer, the voice doesn’t become much clearer–it remains just at the threshold of hearing–but the cadence is astonishingly similar to English speech, with appropriate variations in lilt and rhythm and pauses for breath. It’s the aural equivalent of the Other Forest I caught a glimpse of in the ice: an echo, but with warped edges. Utterly inaccessible and uncanny.
I am dumbfounded. I’ve never heard water do this before. Perhaps I haven’t been listening.
I took my first notes on the LTERP sites exactly a year ago, today. Those notes, and the essay that followed, began with listening to a place. Those notes were in pursuit of translation/interpretation…and anchored in the sound of water.
A year later, so much has happened, and so little has happened. Water has run over rock, and water runs over rock. Despite my continued eagerness to translate each of these sites — to faithfully record both a bit of the site as it is, and a bit of my experience of it — I am keenly aware that each place remains too whole for me to grasp. I interpret the Dark Cliffy Spot as I can: through what it makes available to my senses, through its intersections with my experience, through the written history recorded by other LTERPreters. But there are always languages beyond my awareness. A turkey vulture, wheeling in a kettle a half-mile away, maps the Spot by the scents of its recently dead. A red-shouldered hawk tracks the Spot’s ultraviolet light, scanning urine trails scattered through the leaves. A Spot hemlock keeps tabs on its neighbors, exchanging news and nutrients alike through its mycorrhizal network. I can style myself “interpreter” and chat about “translation” all I want, but I can’t know these Other Forests, let alone render them into intelligible English.
So what to do with this literal, yet so figurative, moment: a creek speaking in a language much like my own, but entirely inaccessible to me?
I stand up and clear my throat.
“Hello!” I call to the rill.
[It keeps talking.]
I raise my voice. “I hear it might get cold again soon?”
[The creek natters on.]
“I, uh, don’t know if you’ll be here next time I visit, given that a freeze is coming…”
“…but I’m glad I stopped by and heard you!”
[Blab, blab, blab.]
“Okay. Well, thanks!”
[On it goes.]
Crosstalk, not exchange. Duh.
I sit back down.
If only I were more mystical! I could hear a naiad in this creek, I’m sure. A little earnest meditation, a couple days without food or sleep, some medical marijuana…any one of these might open me to a voice here, ease the translation. I wouldn’t even have to talk back. I could just sit and listen.
I admit: there have been times when I have felt something like communication from a place. A “vibe” or intention that did not (seem to) originate from me.
I admit: I’ve never known quite what to do with such feelings.
I don’t limit agency to the human species; I’m open to the possibility of a Dark Cliffy Spot talking. However, I find the idea that it would speak to me particularly very suspect. It seems like the sort of self-aggrandizing thing my culture would fabricate. After all, we think everything revolves around our species, down to the future of the planet. (Save the planet!)
But perhaps those places that speak are simply good interpreters, capable of translating across times, spaces, and species. Perhaps such communication skills are one way a place becomes “sacred.”
Sounds nice. Unfortunately, I’m not comfortable with that, either. I’ve known too many folks too eager to embrace notions of a “sacred” planet — often, watery appropriations of indigenous worldviews — as a way of negating, rather than negotiating, their lived relationship with the living world. This place may well be sacred, and may well be telling me so…but in that respect, I’m deaf. I can’t hear a damn thing it’s saying.
Regardless: the creek keeps talking.
Ugh. Even my translation-interpretation-talking metaphor is problematic. The creek isn’t talking. It’s creek-ing. It’s water-over-rock-ing, with a lot of bug-and-leaf-and-dirt-ing, and other-ings that have noth-ing to do with human speech.
And beside: so what if I can’t speak creek, or vulture, or hemlock? Who cares? Why bother trying to “grasp” a place at all? Grasping is rude behavior. Very greedy.
All I can say is, I’m a greedy little creature. I would like to know what’s going on, please. I am a member of a mind-centered species, after all…and what I know of the way this more-than-human world works blows my goddamn mind. For example: woodpeckers have tongues long enough to wrap around the back of their skulls, that a) absorb the impact of hammering and b) extend absurdly far, which helps them snag fleeing ants. For example: last time I checked, there were roughly one million ants per human on this planet, which means ants and humans have roughly the same biomass. For example: in the average human-shaped chunk of biomass, only about 40% or so of the cells are human cells; the rest are microscopic colonists. Our microbiomes outweigh (literally) our brains. We are mostly not ourselves! Also: woodpeckers exist!
I would like to grasp everything, starting with my body and moving on to Other Forests, for the sheer pleasure of realizing how out-of-my-hands it all is.
Well. I’ve moved quite a figurative distance from the Dark Cliffy Spot. Never fear — it’s still literally here, and the creek is still matching me syllable for syllable.
I sit and I listen, and the light dims. I shiver. I give up on notes. I ask my awareness to ease down the cliff like a shadow, to slip over the rock like water.
No particular words rise out of this exercise, but the process feels good enough that I stop shivering.
When I open my eyes, it is time to go.
I walk back in the increasing dim, feeling the memory of the creek-voice grow already more distant. I consider voices, including mine. As I’ve paged over my contribution to this project — poking and prodding at essays and poems, encouraging them to sit a little straighter, or take a deep breath and relax — I’ve felt my own voice grow. I value that growth….and I value knowing my voice joins the constellation of voices that have and will visit the LTERP sites.
As much as I might fuss about not seeing, hearing, knowing, enough to interpret a place, interpretation isn’t really my work here. Nor is recording changes (though it has crossed my mind: in the next 86 years, could this area warm enough that the ice I’ve seen today is exotic, fantastic, hard to imagine?). The work, as I see it, is collective…and collectively, LTERPreters provide more than various approaches to the same terrain. Whether our works overlap or vary, regardless of what medium we use, we testify (always) to the frictive intricacies of relationships between human and chestnut, human and raptor, human and abandoned ditch. We testify to the “thick copresence” that shapes these places, and–recognized or not–shapes our world.
I have failed to grasp the Dark Cliffy Spot, and more people will fail to grasp it for the next 86 years (at least!), and we will continue to puzzle together a portrait of place-time that is almost as fragmented and interconnected as the world we move through–a portrait ultimately composed not only of what we know, but of what we sense. The strange forests that take root in ice. The too-familiar voices humming in the water.
- Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 4.