Novelist | Singer
Wild encounters are magical for those who love wild surroundings and their native residents. I often find myself talking to birds, deer, woodchucks and other animals as easily as chatting with someone in line at a supermarket. The craving for these experiences has led me to episodes which live in my brain like an old rerun of a familiar TV show. This story was particularly poignant.
In the summer of 1980, I took a job as a Field Assistant for Biological studies on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana for the summer of 1980. The refuge is an astonishing one million acres and comprises Fort Peck Reservoir as well as the area known as the Missouri Breaks. The Missouri River pours into the western end of the refuge where it soon joins the reservoir formed by a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 30s for flood control.
The Missouri Breaks were very different country than I had ever encountered. High plains desert stretched away from the river, though on the river bottom near the Missouri, the vegetation was surprisingly lush, and supported huge cottonwood trees as well as herds of elk and white tailed deer. Mule deer lived farther away from the river up on the breaks. It was a very wild ecosystem with loads of wildlife: elk, deer, sheep, prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, likely mountain lions, many varieties of upland game birds including sage grouse, millions of birds and in the river, teams of fish—among them the paddlefish; a monster pre-historic siphon feeder that fishermen would snag with huge treble hooks weighted with a spark plug.
It was incredibly desolate. Desolate and dangerous looking at times, especially at night, and especially when I participated in coyote siren surveys. There were loads of coyotes in the Missouri Breaks, but we never, never saw them. Western coyotes are small and wiry, about the size of a large beagle. A Montana state biologist named Duane and Shawn, a PhD student picked me up just before sunset at the bunkhouse, and off we went onto the top of the Missouri Breaks, into the spooky black night of the refuge. Duane had a particular route he would run a couple of times a summer to estimate the local coyote population.
The truck was equipped with a massive hand-crank siren mounted directly behind the cab. Duane gave detailed instructions while he handed out ear muffs that looked air traffic controller gear. We were to secure our ear muffs, which made us essentially deaf, then he would crank up the siren. I only heard it through the ear muffs, but that siren roared. It certainly would affect your hearing, causing temporary and eventually permanent hearing loss. Thus the ear muffs. We needed all of our hearing for what transpired.
The mechanism wailed for about thirty seconds, then Duane would stop cranking and we waited for the siren to die down before removing our ear muffs. Then the séance would begin.
There was always a slight delay, and I could almost picture the vigilant canids, straining their pointy ears in the direction of our machine. The response would wind up and crescendo, as the dogs would initially answer the siren, and then pick up the chorus of other packs who answered us as well. Songs popped up all around us, sometimes at frighteningly close quarters. Our job was to count individual howls. Adults were easily discernable from pups, who were several months old in mid-summer. Theirs was a fast, high pitched yapping, while the adults called more slowly, sometimes in yaps, sometimes in an almost wolf-like howl. We stood in the thick blackness, miles from any electric light, slacked jawed from the rising cacophony of multiple packs of wild Canis latrans. We all would count separately for the duration of the coyote songs, and this is where a big crew was most beneficial—we then compared notes. Duane wrote them all down and then took an average, no doubt weighing his estimates a little heavier than mine, which was fair. I was just happy to be along for the ride.
We then jumped back in the truck and drove for two miles. Evidently, humans can hear a coyote sing from a mile distant—no doubt the coyotes can hear the siren from much farther. So theoretically, if we drove two miles in one direction, we would be hearing a separate set of coyotes. Then, we’d do it all over again.
The siren surveys lasted until early morning, and we returned to the bunkhouse shattered, but those nights were some of the most memorable of my life. A rare connection with a wild animal—singing to them so they respond in that spooky, mournful, social, wild conversation of territory and belonging. I’ll never forget how it felt. To this day, every time I hear a coyote call, I think of those siren surveys in the thick blackness of the Missouri Breaks nights.
In 1968, an event occurred that shaped the rest of my life. My father took a Camp Director position at Camp Perkins in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho for the summer. We pulled our houseboat, The Tortoise with our 1964 Ford Galaxy all the way from southeastern Kansas to Idaho, across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains at 45 miles per hour. I’ll never forget glimpsing the Rockies for the first time. We were someplace in Colorado, and they appeared like distant blue-white clouds on the horizon. It was stunning. Even as a kid, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I was hooked.
We visited National Parks and monuments and drove to the top of Pikes Peak on my eighth birthday. All that summer, the Rocky Mountains provided a far fetched backdrop each day for kids who hadn’t seen much more than flat wheat land during their young lives. For me the mountains felt familiar, comfortable. I felt the same when I went out on the ocean beyond the sight of land for the first time–a peace that was instantaneous and natural, rather than fearful or anxious.
Camp Perkins was perched on the shore of an oval lake embraced by archetypal craggy Rocky Mountain peaks. It was jaw-dropping. The water was freezing cold, and probably not more than a mile from the melting snow that fed the lake teaming with rainbow and brown trout. There was a beach, a huge fire pit complete with benches, and a lodge and trading post flanked by small log cabins furnished with sturdy bunk beds. I don’t remember if there was electricity in the cabins or not, or if we had outhouses or proper bathrooms. It didn’t matter. We were flat-landers in the bosom of the Rocky Mountains, and it felt pretty special.
Dad was the director of the kids’ camp and Mom ran the Trading Post. There was a cook, a maintenance man and some counselors, all of whom were teenagers, but seemed like full-blown adults to me. Other than getting to meals and staying out of the way, there was little else for us kids to do, though our parents were constantly working: disciplining rowdy kids, troubleshooting generators, woodstoves, plumbing and electrical systems and all kinds of things they were unused to doing on a daily basis.
So, they let us run wild. My oldest brother Jon was twelve, Dave was ten, I was eight and Fred was six. We also had two other staff kids Pepper, age eleven and Jan, age seven. Our little gang often roamed the mountains from just after breakfast until dinner, hiking to the inlet and outlet of the lake to discover where the water came from and where it went after it spent time in our lake. We found and created the Garden of the Frogs (play-on-words to the Garden of the Gods that we had visited on our trip to Idaho) and the Witches Forest. We found wide logging roads with eighteen wheelers stacked high with freshly felled trees bound for the sawmill. We caught frogs and fish and observed and learned about nature as only children can. We arrived back at camp generally on time, always wet and filthy, tired and feeling like the Swiss Family Robinson kids. We were mountain children.
I asked my mother forty years later how she could have allowed us to roam those isolated mountains without any
supervision all summer. There were cliffs, dangerous rock outcroppings and rushing water, not to mention mountain lions and grizzlies, or weird people living just beyond the edge. She said, “Dad and I were too busy and I knew you kids would be miserable if I had kept you in camp all summer long. You were resourceful and smart and could figure all kinds of things out, so I decided just to let you go and explore and pray you would be safe.”
I’ve often considered how quickly my parents would’ve been locked up and charged with child neglect today. As they say, it was a different time.
It was instrumental in shaping the person I have become. I led a hike just last Friday through one of our state parks. It was 13 degrees that morning, but it didn’t matter. The outdoors has always lured me. It sure did that summer of 1968.
I witnessed the death of a white pine today. And while most people have seen a tree fall, there is generally someone nearby brandishing a chainsaw. This was different.
I had joined a Forest Bathing session—the practice of Shinrin-yoku born in Japan more than 30 years ago. The practice was created to address social issues caused by the pressure of school, work and life in general that led to problems of anxiety and even suicide. It is not a coincidence that this spiritual practice has grown legs in our own society. Everyone is stressed. Everyone seems to be buried under more work than they can handle. Traffic is horrendous. People are impatient. I have felt this pressure as well, though it makes no sense. We are living in one of the most affluent times in history. My world is like Disneyland compared to my parents, and their parents.
I work for state parks. It’s not triage. No one is bleeding; no one is dying. But yet, even in my benign career, all my coworkers struggle under the constant pressure of too much work; reports, spreadsheets, press releases, numbers. I went into this to help connect people to our fabulous natural world and the history that defines us as Americans. Why are we all stressed out?
Our Forest Bathing leader was Lisa. She is wonderful; a contagious smile, an energy that embraces the participants immediately in her mission to spread the healing power of nature. She instructed us to find a rock onto which we would dump the stress of everyday minutia. She directed us to then leave the rock at the threshold of our experience. We were first invited to observe the motion around us, to sense the life in our immediate environment. As a practitioner of Tai Chi and the power of meditation, I found this approach comfortable, and was soon immersed in the beauty of the forest around me. I reflected on how lucky I was to be able to do this on a beautiful fall day.
We had just begun the invitation to experience forest aroma. We were standing off a trail, breathing in the scent of our forest, when the sound of cracking wood pulled our attention up the hill. The cracking came from a white pine not far away, and we watched a few small branches tumbling from the very top of the pine. My immediate thought was that a squirrel had disturbed some twigs that fell to the ground, but the sound didn’t match the visual. We redirected our focus to the practice, when again, the cracking sounded, and we turned back to the tree.
The noise crescendoed and expanded, and while we watched, the entire 70 foot pine leaned our way, toppled slowly at first, then faster and faster, and the whole tree careened toward us. There would have been no time to run. The very ground shook with the impact of thousands of pounds of wood; a straight bole and all its hefty branches snapping as they struck neighboring trees on their way to the ground. It all happened in slow motion, yet was over in seconds.
The blast was fantastic. Organic matter crushing and snapping as living cells rent and tore in a relentless race toward stasis. Then all was abruptly quiet. I wish I had a photograph of our faces.
For those who have seen a tree fall in the forest, it is cataclysmic. We stood immobile for several seconds, not believing that we had just witnessed the death of a pine that had stood on that site for generations. Over one hundred years ago, a seed germinated, sending out a tiny shoot that anchored itself in the ground with thread-like roots and then proceeded, year after year, summer into winter to grow and widen into the mammoth organism that had for some reason released itself from the earth.
Even flat on the ground, the tree still seemed dangerous, but it was too tantalizing to avoid.
We approached with caution, still in shock, when the entire vicinity exploded with the embracing scent of pine. The shattered branches and strafed needles blasted out the fresh aroma, releasing the cleansing power of pine scent all too familiar from Christmas celebrations, car deodorizers and household cleaners. We are all familiar. But this was different. It was all encompassing, surrounding us and embracing us with the powerful natural scent of one of our most common trees—the white pine. It is a powerful essential oil that can combat bacteria and viruses, and has been used by people for hundreds of years.
Our Forest Bathing session was completely transformed at that point. We were all stricken with the event we had just witnessed. We climbed all around the tree, examining its branches and root system that had wrenched itself from the forest floor, breathing in the aroma of wet earth in the crater it had left. The branches were snapped clean almost to the trunk, exposing yellow wood oozing the water that had been the tree’s demise. Three days before, torrential rain had fallen here and the ground was saturated.
I found feathers from a slain blue jay among the rubble, another example of death preserving life for the predator that had killed and eaten the beautiful bird. I fingered the long yellow roots still turgid with groundwater hanging limply from the tree’s base. I thought about what would now follow—the long, unhurried process of decomposition as microbes reclaimed the energy of this organism. Something good had to come from this death.
After several minutes, a chucking sound drew my attention to a neighboring pine, where a red-bellied woodpecker was raising a ruckus, lurching up the trunk in erratic movements, calling and calling. It was soon joined by a nuthatch, and then after, by several other song birds. A red-tailed hawk circled and cried overhead, tracing the open window exposing blue sky. They were bearing witness to the disappearance of one of the constants in all of their lives, now toppled to the earth, leaving a gaping hole in the forest’s canopy.
We had nothing to say, yet everything. We discussed how exceptional this event had been. We shuddered at the possibilities of having been just a couple hundred feet closer. Lisa directed us to a nearby trunk, just ten feet away from the toppled giant, where she had staged some birch conch tea for the conclusion of our session. Though the trunk was intact, a very large branch lay balanced atop. We would have been sitting right there in the next ten or fifteen minutes.
We spread a blanket and drank the tea alongside the fallen titan, engulfed in the pine scent that permeated our hair and clothes.
Walking out, I thought about the fact that I would never again view a white pine tree in the same way. This one event would forever link our lives in a way that nothing could. It is possible that no one else on earth knew about the death of our pine.
I will visit this tree again and again, watching the return of organic material to the soil, creating future life, keeping vigil over the giant organism that happened to fall on this day, Tuesday, October 30, 2018. It will be forever our tree.
(Written in August, 2018)
Today was annual elderberry picking day, so I took a day off expressly for this purpose. Why so immediate a need? Because the berries are ripe, and I have to beat the birds to a delectable food source. The dental assistant said, “What? Elderberries?” when I offered my post dental appointment plans. “I think I’ve heard of ‘em. But can you just pick them?”
“Yes you can.” Not many people these days have the Euell Gibbons’ gene.
So I proceeded to Stony Cove, which many Cape Ann islanders probably don’t know by name. I didn’t either. It’s that little pull-off across from Sudby’s on the last stretch of north bound 128 coming into Gloucester. I had never been there, though I’d flown past it hundreds of times. Over 50 acres of Greenbelt property jut out from the highway causeway, complete with trails and a trail map.
I scoped out the elderberries in May when they produced plate-sized umbels of blossoms like gigantic Queen Ann’s Lace, which most people know. The bushes themselves are few and far between. They can grow to almost ten feet in height with the girth of a small room. They prefer disturbed areas, roadsides, empty lots. They live in a raggedy-looking world, but are packed with the medicinal qualities unequalled in any lab. And they are wild, like me. As far back as I can remember, I have been gathering wild food to eat. I have decided that it is the best food available. It’s free to boot. And elderberries are among the royalty of wild food. The May bloom lasts about a week or two, not more, and the bushes stand out like beacons in the mostly green roadside environment where they flourish. Although I have a few preferred bushes, I scope out new ones every year. It’s a little game I play with myself.
Once I park, I climb out of my Betelgeuse cabriolet with a bag and scissors and start for the highway. Thankfully a narrow path cuts in back of the guard rail. I do believe it’s illegal to walk right along the interstate. The cars roar by, and I’m sure the drivers are either pitying me my beleaguered existence, forced to walk along 128, or they think I’m nuts and do this just for thrills.
The bush is about 100 yards down just at the foot of the “Rust Island” highway sign. I see I have come a little too early. Some of the elderberries are still that trademark red color which says “keep away.” Oddly, unripe berries are toxic, while the ripe berries are some of the most nutritious on earth. They are also nature’s big secret. No one seems to know what or where they are.
The tiny little berries are extremely labor intensive. So my solution is to snip the main stem and take the whole umbel, then later when I have time, I’ll strip the berries from the stems. The berries freeze nicely as well, making them easier to strip. And less messy. Elderberries stain like a mother. My hands stay purple for days. I pick only what is ripe and leave the rest for the birds. Always leave some for the birds. They have a long trip to make. I’m checking constantly for poison ivy, which loves the same eco niche as elderberry.
I return to the car for my second trip to the dentist’s office to show the assistants my treasures, and in doing so, spot yet another bush next to the parking lot near Grant circle. I pull in quickly and park under an apple-laden tree. I’ll be back for those later. The bush is not as ripe as the one on the highway, and I will come back if necessary, but then suddenly I spot the ultimate prize. Not too far from my newly discovered elderberry bush, I see thousands of choke cherries. Four or five small trees not too much taller than me have branches sagging with the brilliant red fruit that is amazingly untouched. These cherries are bigger than the elderberries, and easy to strip from the tree. I gather a couple of quarts, leaving at least half for the birds, plans of sauces and jellies percolating through my thoughts during this most cathartic activity.
I proudly dump examples of my booty on the dentist’s counter and tell the ladies where to find the fruit. Will they? Probably not. We as a culture have lost our gathering instincts. Now it’s considered ucky. I wonder where they think their food comes from. Generally a much uckier place than the side of Rt. 128.
So why go to all this trouble; scoping out a bloom months in advance, watching day after day when the berries are ripening to determine the best possible picking time, often slogging through wet or poison ivy covered turf just to pick the smallest berries in nature, which then take ultra-patience to process into an edible product? Because the health benefits are astonishing: improvement of colds, the flu, sinus issues, nerve pain, inflammation, chronic fatigue, allergies, constipation and cancer. If elderberry is consumed with 48 hours of the onset of a cold, it shortens the duration of symptoms by an average of 4 days. Elderberries are also packed with antioxidants that make an excellent immune booster. I have a friend who makes cough syrup from them, and we spend the ripening period texting back and forth on locations and readiness.
I don’t bother with the cough syrup, but what I do make is sauce. Tough getting elderberry to jell. One year a while back I tried to make elderberry jelly, and ended up with sauce. At first I was disappointed, but then realized what a versatile product it was. The applications are endless: on meat, vegetables, pancakes or waffles, ice cream, in drinks, on toast, stirred in yogurt. The list goes on and on.
So this year was a berry good success. I beat the birds and found another source of fruit in the process. Very soon it’s onto beach plums; I’ve scoped them out at Salisbury Beach.
They brought her to the dispensary in the bed of a white pickup. A herd of men accompanied her to the door, then left her to navigate the last steps to the platform. She could’ve been anywhere between 30 and 50 – it was impossible to tell. But knowing this was her fifteen child forced me to do quick math in my head. She loosened her sarong-like wrap; simply a section of cotton cloth that all the women wore. It fell to the ground, and she stood before us stark naked.
The air was heavy, the room, dark but for the yellow glow from a kerosene lantern Marie-Jean, the mid-wife had brought along. She a huge African woman, daughter of the village chief and caterer at our wedding two months later. Her stern, solemn expression told me that this birth would not be a celebration, and guilt shot through my chest. Why was I here?
I had asked. Two weeks earlier, I had requested to attend a birth in the village where I conducted the field work for my thesis. Nagero is a scattered but tight community of about 400 people, mostly living in the bush, defending their crops every day during the growing season from marauding protected mega-species; elephants, hippos and antelope of all breeds. Now I was not sure I wanted to be here. I felt bad for the woman—although for her, this was undoubtedly a familiar procedure.
The platform was a large inclined board at an angle of 45° perched on a high table, with a perpendicular plank at the bottom of the slope on which to sit. The platform was comically dressed in a red and white striped vinyl cover, giving it a circus tent appearance. At the bottom of the slope, there was a hole about ten inches across where the plank and the platform came together, with a bucket below to catch the life-giving fluids that would issue from the woman’s body. She climbed up the steps that were affixed to the side and crawled up onto the platform, settling herself down onto the plank to wait for the baby that Marie-Jean had accurately predicted would be in “45 minutes” when she had summoned me at my house.
The pain was clear on the woman’s face, and though she must’ve been in hard labor, the only sound in the sweaty room was soft moaning. After some minutes, Marie-Jean barked at her. The woman fell silent. I was stunned.
Golden lantern light threw shadows onto the ochre wall paint mixed from native clay as night descended on central Africa. The labor intensified, and my stomach lurched and started to turn over. I escaped out to the porch for some cooler fresh air. The sounds of savanna night had begun—the impossibly loud cicadas and their electronic chorus, distant woofs of lions deep in the bush, bats squeaking through the air. The men stood quietly alongside the pickup.
“Mbote,” I offered.
“Mbote mingi,” came the answer in one voice. Very little conversation. This was a task of duty.
Back in the dispensary after I had quelled my rolling stomach, Marie-Jean was in the process of assisted birth, stretching the woman’s vagina with her hands, like someone trying to enlarge too-tight clothes. My gut stiffened. I was sure that childbirth was painful, but this looked excruciating.
How long would it be?
Within ten to fifteen minutes, the woman began to push, and like magic, a small blue-white head appeared from between her legs, crowning immediately. Of course, this was her fifteen child. The baby’s head soon popped free, a tight grimace on the tiny face. And soon, in a whoosh, the body followed. Marie-Jean expertly caught her up and cleared her nose and mouth, then hung the infant by her feet, not unlike a bartender toting two bottles of wine. With a fierce hand, she slapped the baby three times hard, I mean hard, smack on the bottom of her feet. Isn’t that a method of torture? Though I don’t remember clearly, the little girl made a sound, but it wasn’t a cry. Marie-Jean sliced the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, like a seamstress cutting piping. Then she brought the baby to me.
The baby girl was white. Of course, she was covered in the liquid and tissue that had sheltered her life for nine months, safe inside. But she was white. The shock shuddered through my body. Shouldn’t I have known that? I guessed she wouldn’t stay that way for long. The Mongos and Logos living in this area were the blackest people I’d ever seen, so much so that photos taken on bright sunny days revealed just a black circle beneath the bill of the military hats on the heads the guards who patrolled the park.
Marie-Jean gently set the baby on a table next to the wall and turned her attention to the woman. Awe filled my body. This brand new human being newly emerged from her cocoon lay on the table, arms flung out to her sides, eyes wide with astonishment at her new surroundings. She didn’t make a sound.
I turned to see Marie-Jean receiving the placenta and after birth, which she guided through the hole and into the bucket. The woman lay still for a short time, breathing audibly, then sat up and climbed back down the steps to the floor. The two women spoke low and steadily in Lingala, mostly Marie-Jean giving direction, and the new mother answering in brief monotone sounds. She took the towel that the mid-wife offered and wiped between her legs. She gathered her clothing from the floor and wrapped it around her body. I let out a breath. Marie-Jean issued another stern order and returned to the newborn, washing her deftly in the water held in a second bucket on the table. Meanwhile, the mother carried out her assigned duty; she bent to the floor and swept up the fluids that had escaped the bucket. Then she reached up and cleaned the platform of any bloody residue. This chore was conducted not ten minutes after she had given birth.
Marie-Jean swaddled the baby in a white cloth and handed her to the new mother. I looked in her eyes and she peered silently at me, expressionless. This was an unwelcome chore that ended in another mouth to feed. She quietly exited alone just as she had come, not an hour before.
The men outside gathered around her, barely glancing at the new life in her arms. I stood mute while they helped her into the bed of the pickup alongside the other men. Marie-Jean turned to me.
“You have aspirin?”
“Of course!” I answered in shock. There was not a bottle to be seen in the dispensary. I rode the motorcycle back to my house and soon the truck appeared, headlight beams dancing madly against the trees. By the time one of the men came to my door, I had the bottle and gave him a handful of aspirin, for now, for later. They bounced away into the night.
I lay awake for hours, not believing what I had just witnessed with my own eyes. Yes, I had always wanted to attend a birth. I had never had that chance, or since. But it was not the event I had expected. There was no crying, screaming or Lamaze breathing. There were no medications, needles or instruments. There was no oxygen, running water or antiseptic. There were two women, one the mother, one the mid-wife. There was one lantern for light. There was a high, slanted platform covered with Barnum and Bailey vinyl, a bucket underneath to lessen the mess. And the loudest sound in the room; there was no joy.
I visited the family a few days later. The woman, now smiling with the infant wrapped in a sling tight against her body sat just inside the door of their mud house, sheltered by the palm thatched roof. She was cooking rice over a small fire. The baby’s skin was already darkening. I smiled and asked to see her. The mother revealed the infant’s face, but did not offer her to me to hold.
I opened my hand and held out another fistful of aspirins. She smiled and took them graciously. Atolobako interpreted her question: What was my name? I told them it was Barbara, and they looked at each other. I guess Barbara didn’t cut it.
“My middle name is Louise.”
The woman’s face broke into a wide grin. After all, we were in Francophone Africa, and they all knew the name Louise.
So to this day, there is a young woman, aged 22 in Nagero, Republic of Congo, headquarters of Garamba National Park along the banks of the Dungu River who is named after me. I think of her often and wonder if she is married, has children. I hope her life is much better than some that I saw. I fear it is not. I wonder if she is still alive.
Those Africans living in the high savanna of Zaire are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I have the chance to complain about something unfair in our country, in my life, or the lives of any of my friends or family, I think of little Louise and the way she came into the world. That memory alone is sufficient to silence my tongue.
I accompanied my old dog on a walk tonight at 1:00am. Not the best time for a walk, unless you happen to have an old dog. An old dog does exactly what they want, and will figure out how to get it. They also have the loudest mouth in the house.
She is good. She is more than good. She is one of the best beings I have ever known. She will never lie to me, because she is unable to lie. Everything that comes out of her is the exact and honest truth. And she can’t help it, because she is a dog. She will never learn to lie like her proverbial best friend, the human being.
I have nearly given up on the human race, apart from my friends, and my family. I might be simple minded, as I am from the Midwest, but I know one thing: I was raised to trust human beings and what they say. Shame on me.
She lurches one step at time down the 27 steps to the driveway, then proceeds to limp decisively up to the street. I know where she is headed. There is the stretch of sidewalk by the street. She has always gone there, and I’m sure that is where the neighborhood dogs have made their mark. Their marks are not for her. It is for them and their territory. But she is sure of the fact, that at almost 15 years old, even a dribble of urine from her failing system will trump any newcomer on the dead-end street we call home.
The reason I accompany her has nothing to do with me. There is a point in life that I hope everyone will eventually attain. That point is this is not about me. My husband tends to ignore this particular need in her life. To him, she must maintain the pecking order that he has set up in his own mind, and he pretends it exists to this day. I follow his lead, only with the knowledge that this is not true. We all know whose needs are most important.
Caring for Lila is so much like caring for my mother in her battle with Alzheimer’s. Sure, when Lila barks me awake at 4:30 in the morning, I resent her for her bossiness that will by its very nature supersede my tolerance. No one can ignore a barking dog. I launch myself from the warm bed, dress for whatever the weather is providing, and get myself out the door. Sometimes she really tries my patience. It pisses me off. She goes out on the deck, and lies herself down on the step, flipping a look up at me; knowing that I will enable her to live her life like life should be lived.
Dogs are amazing. They don’t connive, though it seems from our over enlarged brains that they do just that. Me? I tend to believe that if you fulfill the needs of a dog, you will attain the greatest reward you can imagine. That is only possible if you believe that a dog, while capable of deception, will not deceive you for their own gain. They have nothing to gain. They are simply living their life.
Sometimes I do the math, the math that speeds up at a manic pace. By my own miserable calculations, which have never been my strong suit (ask my husband – he won’t let me near the checkbook), she is over 100 years old. I never expected her to live this long. And shame on me, because sometimes I wish it would be over soon.
What good is she? She used to guard the house, the car, anything that had a connection with us. Now that she is old, she is seemingly useless in this capacity. Unless she knows more than I do, which is a distinct possibility.
Friends, family, people she knows can walk in our slider just as they please at any time of day or night, and the explosive reaction from her is history. She simply raises her head, sometimes wags her stump of a tail. I shake my head. She used to be such a good watch dog.
But perhaps, just perhaps, she knows more than I do. She is blind and nearly deaf, but her nose works better than any of our eyes and ears. She knows that everything is safe. The data I lack is the unknown. What would she do if a total stranger came through the door? My somewhat educated guess is that they would have a real situation to deal with.
She rounds the top of the driveway and heads straight toward a clump of ornamental grass growing in the front neighbor’s yard. That is stop number one. We have done this same drill hundreds of times. Then she wobbles out to Cross St., very near the traffic that could end her life in a millisecond. The traffic that she has survived for 12 years in this, her territory. Her kingdom.
She ends at the grass stretch on the road side of the neighbor’s house. It is green and lush and not yet mowed this year. She thrusts her snout deep into the grass, and I can hear her snuffles audibly from ten feet away. She is in nirvana. I envy her. I especially envy her, because I am the enabler who understands exactly what it is she needs at this twilight time of her life, and I hope that someone will know this about me when I am over 100 years old.
I hope they will take me outside and let me bury my feet in the dewy grass, thrust my face into the moist green life of the earth and wait patiently for me to finish fulfilling my needs.
I stand patiently and watch her. She moves from clump to clump of grass, snuffling in the rich smell of spring earth, not concerned with my time. She knows her time is priority, and that most of the day, she will relieve me of watch duty as she snoozes around the turn of the clock.
How long must I wait? Is it ten minutes? Fifteen? Isn’t this worth the time that I have been given to watch my old dog burying her nose into life itself?
Finally, she is done, and gives me that old dog signal. Yeah, I’m done. Let’s go home. I accompany her back to the driveway. She is panting every step of the way, and I worry. She will be gone soon. And I will have in my treasure chest, these midnight forays that made her later years worth living.
Perhaps I am simple minded. Perhaps.
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Everyone past a certain age remembers that scene from The Graduate, released in 1967. I was seven years old, so I probably didn’t see the film for the next ten years or so. My parents would never have allowed it. When I recently reconnected with this scene, it struck me hard. He actually said, “There’s a great future in plastics.” He was right. We have already arrived at our great plastic future. There is plastic everywhere. And consumption is maniacal.
If I think hard, I can almost remember what life was like back then. We didn’t own much, didn’t buy much other than food or a few sets of clothing for the school year. Other than a couple of dresses (Easter and maybe something I could wear at Christmas) and some skirts, most of my clothes were from my two older brothers. Yes, hand-me-downs from male siblings, but fashion didn’t play a part in our childhood. Our clothes simply covered our bodies and kept us warm in the winter. We played outside with toys made by my dad or recycled from cousins or neighbors. We explored in the woods or at the nearby reservoir. It was a great way to grow up, almost free from adult supervision. Free to explore our world on foot or by bicycle. Oh, yes, and the bicycles were not new. They were also recycled hand-me-downs. The great thing was we didn’t feel poor or unprivileged. People pretty much lived the same. Possessions lasted a lifetime. I still own tools that my father had from before I was born.
Fast forward fifty years, and we now live in a high-speed world with frantic over-consumption, excessive garage disposal, overwhelmed workers, and environmental threats that exceed our mental ability to process them. Within my lifetime, we have gone from simple life with basic necessities to a society so excessive in production and consumption that it is literally choking our natural world.
Do a small experiment. Wherever you are at this moment, turn slowly in a circle and identify the plastic around you. In my home, this is a quick exercise, as I don’t have plastic items in many places, except for maybe my kitchen. Plastic is ubiquitous in the kitchen: the clock, utensils, appliances, containers, garbage bags, cutting boards. Then take a ride around the streets in your car and try the same experiment. Every couple of seconds, you will pass something made of plastic: signs, wire housing, fences, siding, car trim and bumpers, trash along the street. We are literally surrounded by plastic. And plastic is a wonderful thing; it lasts a long time, is not subject to decay like rust or rot, and withstands weathering effectively. We all use it. We all buy it. We all throw it away, or it blows away until it finds a resting place, by default, our ocean. We know there is a problem in our oceans, but recently, I have come across reports about plastic in our water. Not our ocean water—our drinking water.
By now, all of us are aware of the huge plastic patches in our oceans. The Pacific plastic “patch” (a misnomer, as it is not necessarily composed of visible pieces of plastic, but rather a plastic “soup” of microfibers) is estimated to be between the size of Texas and Russia. Though this is concerning, is way over there where none of us can see it. But the terrifying statistic involves invisible plastics in our drinking water. Evidently, 85% of tap water and 75% of bottled water contains plastic microfibers. Scientists have also discovered that when plastics dry in the sun, they shed microfibers small enough to be borne in the air and inhaled; small enough to fall to the earth in rain. We are literally ingesting plastic. Plastics that contain toxic substances. And when it enters our bodies, what happens? Do the microfibers stick to the alveoli in our lungs? Does it pass through our bodies or get stuck somewhere? I’m pretty freaked out about this. Shouldn’t everyone be? We can no longer ignore the results of our consumption and disposal.
So many of our environmental issues are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We can carry out our daily lives without witnessing disposal problems. We separate our trash and set it out on the curb. In the morning, it is magically gone; something we don’t think about again. We don’t think about its ultimate fate; where it goes or what happens to it when it gets there.
Ideally, we separate paper, bottles and cans, rinsing them out carefully to make sure they don’t contaminate the rest of the load. I was shocked to read that ¼ of easterners do not recycle because it’s too much work. Funny. I’ve never noticed the “work” involved in recycling. You simply put the glass, plastic and paper in one container and the trash in another. I can understand to a certain degree not recycling if it is not available to you, like life in the south. But for us who have this free service–everyone should be willing to participate. Surprisingly, the Echo Boomers (age 18 – 30) are some of the worst offenders. One in three don’t recycle at all. In total, 23% of Americans do not recycle. That’s a lot—a lot of garbage that simply goes into the ground.
Add to this the other waste disposal method—composting. In our kitchen, scraps go into a container on the counter which gets transferred into the tumbler in the backyard, eventually becoming soil that goes back into the garden. I feel good about this; that I am doing my part to reduce the waste that comes from our moderate life style. It can be involved and physically demanding, but laissez-faire composters (me, for example) also have the option of simply dumping the scraps in the pile and throwing a shovelful of dirt over the top. Our resident microbes take care of the rest. The miracle that happens requires some delayed gratification, but oh what a prize at the end! And it’s free fertilizer to boot.
And yet food waste accounts for almost 15% of our garbage headed for the landfill according to the EPA. Organic materials produce methane in anaerobic conditions (our landfills), which is then release into our environment. Never mind that methane is a greenhouse gas with more warming potential than CO2, but those who have ever lived near a farm know that methane is not something you want to breathe. Maybe people don’t know how to compost, or maybe are afraid of attracting garbage raiding pests, but there are ways around it. I’ve finally foiled the rats who used to come over from the marsh.
Human beings are clearly the problem, but we can be the solution as well. With responsible disposal, the garbage flow could be slowed substantially. But how does one escape plastic in our world? We must start packaging goods in paper or some other biodegradable material. We must choose another option than a great future in plastics.
Today, amid the busyness that is a normal job in a normal life, I escaped from my head long enough to remind
myself how really good life is, and how we are given guardians and f
riends when we most need them.
It is January, and the time of year that I most think of my friend Atolobako Vukoyo of Nagero, Zaire.
How old would he be now? 52? 53? I try to imagine him at that age, but can only conjure the young face he had when I was living in Africa. He was my assistant in Garamba National Park in 1993 and 1995 when I was doing my Master’s field work. That was before the military coup, before the civil war that left the already crippled country in tatters. A time when Zaire existed in relative peace.
Garamba was established in 1938 for the protection of the northern white rhinoceros and along with it, many other African megafauna. Atolobako and others who guard protected animals take that responsibility much the same way as soldiers who go to war. They carry AK-47s and patrol in the brutal African sun through twelve foot grass, at any time potentially stumbling onto buffalo, elephants or even a pride of lions. Worse yet, they could encounter a camp of poachers also armed with AK-47s, or any hand-made firearm they can concoct from discarded pipe and wire. Poachers are often friends or neighbors, complicating an already dire political and economic situation. A dead poacher is also worth a ten dollar bonus; equivalent to a month’s salary (in the mid-90s).
Atolobako was a very special man. We met on an excursion into the park to retrieve a rhinoceros collar that had been rubbed off in a mud hole. Rhinos were collared for research and protection measures. His first words to me were a warning of crocodiles in the Dungu River that forms the southern border of Garamba. It was almost dusk and we were summoning the “bac” (French for pontoon), a little home-made ferry that had to be pulled by hand across the river. An old junk truck wheel and a hunk of metal hung askew on a decapitated tree nearby. They served as the calling card for the bac. No matter what time of day or night, the clanging of the wheel brought people to the other side, where they would wait until enough gathered to pull the bac across the river to our side. As this took a while, I had jumped from the truck bed and was walking toward the river bank.
I don’t remember in what language he spoke, but I’m certain it wasn’t English. It might have been a mix of French and Lingala, but I knew exactly what he was saying, and I listened. Atolobako didn’t speak English when I met him. We never really shared a language, but communicated perfectly. Already at our first encounter, he was looking out for me.
That was September of 1993. I was a volunteer at the park, setting up a project for my Master’s study. Over the next several months, we became acquainted, and as I began my field research, he was suddenly my assistant, almost without being assigned. He started speaking English without any encouragement, picking up the sounds that he heard mostly from me. Everyone there spoke either French or Lingala, or a strange mixture of both. I spoke what I could of both languages, but being proficient in neither, I defaulted to English for lack of any other words. Atolobako remembered and repeated, without a book or lessons, and within weeks, was speaking passible English. It was amazing.
We spent a lot of time together, 6 days a week, 6 or 7 hours a day. It didn’t occur to me until much later that although he was there as a liaison between the farmers and me, he accompanied me primarily as my protector. While we were usually near some habitation and not deep in the bush, there was always the chance of running into any kind of animal, even during the day. He generally did not carry a weapon, but at times when we went far afield, he packed his AK-47. It became quite natural to walk through the African bush with this black camo-clad man bearing an assault rifle. We talked a lot in our rounds through the farms and adjacent bush bordering Garamba. Farms planted and harvested by hand; large fields of millet, rice and cassava which by necessity were guarded day and night by subsistence farmers from marauding wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, duikers and hippos mowed down the farmers’ hard-earned yields in a few midnight snacks that could devastate whole properties in the course of one night. Those who had been forced to move far away from the river forming the border of the park were in better shape than the ones who dared to stay within a mile. Everyone suffered from the destruction of the charismatic megafauna protected by conservation.
Atolobako was always helpful, always there for me. He was a good worker and never complained. Every morning he joined the daily run with the guards to the intersection with the main road and back, a distance of several miles, dressed in boots and fatigues. We always heard the cadence penetrating the foggy tropical air before we saw the runners, complete with intricate rhythms and harmonies and sung in that musical language of Lingala.
I was lucky enough to accompany the crew of four men including Atolobako into Garamba to complete vegetation transects, part of the field study for the rhino project. I had a rip-stop nylon tent and polyester sleeping bag, among my other western camping gear. The boys had blankets and canvas pup tents that were right out of Beetle Bailey, with the open ends, vertical poles to the peak, and guy lines to peg them tight. One night we stayed near water that supported a population of hippos. After dinner as we sat by the fire, the hippos would approach the yellow circle of light, their massive eyes shining like two dinner plates out of the black night. It was scary, to say the least. Every once in a while, one of the boys would jump up and yell to scare off the hippos, who would bolt away to howls of laughter. There’s really no fun like spooking hippos on a Friday night. The men’s teeth shown like beacons in the firelight, but the rest of their faces were masked from view. I must’ve looked like a ghost to their eyes.
One full-moon night I brought out my binoculars. Nights in Africa were incredibly dark. We were hundreds of miles away from any source of artificial light. Atolobako and I sat side by side near the fire and shared the glasses. He gasped as he viewed the moon for the first time “close-up.” I will never forget that night.
Another vivid memory involved the breakdown of the dirt bike we were riding at the far reaches of the village. We took turns kicking and kicking the starter, and in the waning twilight, finally abandoned the bike and started walking the 4 four kilometers back home. The baritone woofs of lions were often heard in the moist stillness of the bush, and I was plenty nervous without a flashlight or any kind of weapon – not that it would’ve done much good. Maybe Atolobako felt my nervousness. Maybe he was simply done with work for the day. He started teaching me the song, “Biso to uti na Nagero.” It was a local song that tells of someone returning to Nagero after a long absence. Atolo had a beautiful voice, a baritone resonance that would be the envy of any singer. When my husband and I got married there in the village on December 3, 1995, he led a group of guards in a lively Lingala song to honor our union. Those and many, many more memories remain from my time in Africa, and the most present are of Atolobako Vukoyo, my friend who gave his life for the wildlife in his world.
Atolobako was captured by Sudanese rebels on January 16, 2009. His body was found three days later.
I know he had a wife and children. The community is strong and will help them because they have to. They are accustomed to hard living. In Nagero, there is no other choice.
I think of him often, of the impact he had on my life; the safety he provided, the songs he taught me, the example he set for his people. But particularly at this time of year, he lives in my thoughts, and I am reminded of how good our lives are in these United States.
My dear friend Jeni Mitchell had this posted on Facebook a while back, and I just discovered it hiding in my files. All great words of wisdom that she certainly lives by. Thank you for this Jeni!
Live beneath your means. Return everything you borrow. Stop blaming other people. Admit it when you make a mistake. Give clothes not worn to charity. Do something nice and try not to get caught. Listen more; talk less. Every day take a 30-minute walk. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Be on time. Don’t make excuses. Don’t argue. Get organized. Be kind to people. Be kind to unkind people. Let someone cut ahead of you in line. Take time to be alone. Cultivate good manners. Be humble. Realize and accept that life isn’t fair. Know when to keep your mouth shut. Go an entire day without criticizing anyone. Learn from the past. Plan for the future. Live in the present. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.
Here we are at Winter’s Door once again. Little surprises like an extreme temperature plunge are certainties. The earth itself has cooled, having slowly given up its summer radiant heat through long chilly nights. The ocean surrounding our Gloucester island home is chilling as well, though it’s still acting as a blanket to insulate us from the more frigid temps.
Grey envelopes our skies, our excursions to the outdoors, our thoughts and even our dreams in winter. The magical angle of the winter sun brings a golden haze, casting long skinny shadows even at noon. The sunshine is hot in the lee from the perpetual north wind, but this is still the season of the blues. No wonder we have holidays and celebrations sprinkled throughout the dive toward winter. This cooling down period allows us the perfect environment for self-reflection and examination. We begin to reminisce about the year even though we are not yet at its end. Holidays loom ahead with their own brand of built-in stress. Thank goodness for the internet, which rescues me from crowded stores that make me want to flee for the exits. Though “winter” won’t arrive yet until after the New Year with the snow and icy wind, the long slide through fall into the holiday season provides plenty of prep time to adjust to the big chill of our island.
Among the holiday celebrations we cram into our calendars, one of the most significant is the Winter Solstice. In our modern “connected” existence, we are sheltered from the harsh reality that terrified northern residents years ago, when light, warmth and its benevolent growing season dictated their very lives. Several years ago, I started a program to celebrate the solstice and its ancient significance at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, MA. Though this is done in my role as the coordinator of programming for Massachusetts State Parks, it primarily fills a primordial desire for the return of warm weather, green plants and life-giving sunshine. At this stage in our human evolution on Planet Earth, winter is a mere inconvenience for many northern residents. For those living at a subsistence level hundreds of years ago, winter was a frightening time, and warm weather and a growing season was paramount to their survival. One failed crop season could mean the end of their existence. Winter was dark, cold and barren.
Even thousands of years ago, the winter solstice was certainly well known as the shortest day of the year, and became a major celebration in northern climes. Following is a list of some of them, though undoubtedly, there are many more:
In acknowledgement of the sun’s return, the men carted large logs home. These became known as Yule logs. One end of these logs was set afire, and people would feast until the log burned out, sometimes taking as many as 12 days.
Impressive monuments have been erected principally for the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice, among them Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, colossal structures requiring exacting measurements and years of work.
Amazing that all these myriad festivals, celebrations and landmarks arose independently around our earth, all in recognition of the same day. Some believe that the timing of Christmas actually began with the celebration of the winter solstice. So where does that leave us in our modern technologically-driven existence, replete with central heat, supermarkets bursting with food, water at the turn of a handle, cars with heated seats and electric lights operated by voice-activated Alexa?
Perhaps with an empty feeling. What a missed opportunity for our own spirituality. Some people are not conscious of the solstice passing, though it is announced by The Weather Channel, news and radio stations. We don’t greet each other with “Happy Solstice” like we do Christmas, New Year’s and even St. Patty’s Day.
Certainly, the solstice does not mark the sudden return of anything. Rather, we are just heading into the worst part of winter, awaiting bone-chilling wind and snow storms for the next two months. Though each day brings increasing daylight, it is barely noticeable until about the middle of January, at which time we are buried in full-on winter weather, and full days with no sun at all. Day length near the solstice increases by mere seconds, hence the meaning of the word “solstice” – or, the sun stands still. By March, day length increases by almost 3 minutes, a very noticeable difference. So is there really any cause for celebration on December 21 after all?
I think so. Ritual celebration is sadly absent from our society in general.
Our ancestors recognized the significance of the winter solstice as far back as 10,000 B.C., in the Neolithic period (the new stone age, when farming first originated), making the Winter Solstice celebration one of the oldest on Earth. Unfamiliarity with the solstice’s significance is fairly recent in human history. Despite our conveniences and protection from winter, we still owe our survival to the ability to grow plants which in turn feed every organism on earth.
This writer will celebrate the winter solstice and the return of life-giving light every year. It is the humble recognition of our vulnerability to the elements, the honor of our resilient ancestors, out-lasting winter in less fortunate living conditions, and certainly owning the awareness of what truly sustains our existence.
It is a celebratory, happy day. It is the recognition of the return of life-sustaining light. It is the end of our plunge into increasing darkness. Ancient peoples devoted entire days and even weeks to its significance. In 2017, it deserves at least one day.
Barbara Buls Boudreau will be hosting a public Winter Solstice Celebration on December 21 from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. at the CCC pavilion located on Middleton Rd. in Harold Parker State Forest, North Andover, MA. Come share the fire, drink a cup of hot chocolate, and share the mystery of one of our oldest celebrations on Earth.