Tracking Down Bambi

 

Bambi

Not long ago, my daughter earned herself some cartoon time: She hiked to the local aspen grove all by herself, a couple of miles or so, stepping stones and all, which meant that Daddy Mule got to stroll the raspberry trail smooth and easy—not a single pound of the 40+ I usually lug around for at least a portion of any given hike. So, on the way home, we stopped at the video store for a bag of complimentary popcorn and — no princesses this time — a copy of “Bambi.”

We’ve all seen it. Cute bunnies. Cute skunks. Cute birds. Cute deer. The whole gang of them “twitterpating” just off camera when the sap starts rising each spring. And even if you haven’t seen it, the movie is so iconic that everybody knows that Bambi’s momma gets shot by a hunter — presumably anyway, as we only hear the gunshot and never see mother doe again — and that there’s a raging forest fire somewhere in the mix. And the rest is easy to imagine: forests, meadows, waterfalls and mountains right out of an Albert Bierstadt painting — real purty scenery actually, all of it hand painted and easy on the eyes.

Kids everywhere (or at least those kids with access to first world technology and lazy parents who occasionally resort to the electric screen babysitter so they can do some quick twitterpating in the other room) probably assume that the high drama they’re watching is unfolding within whatever mountains are nearest to them, be they the Sierras, the Rockies, the Appalachians or the Alps, or maybe just the nearest hills or bit of woods behind the tract homes. What kid doesn’t dream about a bit of wild nature somewhere close by?

Hollywood can crank out the special effects, but they are HORRIBLE at accurately portraying proper seasons or setting, especially in movies where it actually matters, such as westerns, road trips or anything set in the great outdoors. Saguaro cactus in Nevada. The Tetons of New Mexico. Covered wagons rolling through Monument Valley, Nebraska. Kevin Costner skinning a buffalo in the shadow of the mountains towering above Dodge City, Kansas. A montage of farm life — plowing, planting, irrigating and harvesting — unfolding entirely in the month of May. Such errors are the rule, not the exception, and rare is the movie that even bothers to take geography or basic biology into account.

Surprisingly, “Bambi,” a 70-year-old cartoon, is more accurate in many of these respects than the average trillion-dollar blockbuster, a rarity that allows us the chance to do a bit of scientific research. Where are those mountains? Where does Bambi actually live? By closely examining the cartoon’s geology, flora and fauna, we can determine just where the world’s most-famous deer made his claim to fame.

The original story, written in Austria in 1923, featured a roe deer, a species native to Europe and Asia Minor. In the movie, Bambi is a white-tailed deer, originally found only in the Western Hemisphere, although they have been introduced into Europe, which means Bambi could possibly browse the grasses of the Alps or Scandinavia. But the movie was made in 1942 — wartime — so even though Mr. Disney didn’t care for Jews, patriotism and practical capitalism surely dictated that old Walt didn’t make a movie about an adorable little ungulate from, say, the German or Italian Alps, the occupied French Alps, the Communist Urals or Siberian boreal forest — ditto for the flanks of Mt. Fuji. Bambi is certainly an American, or possibly a Canadian, deer.

Most of the story is set in the woods, and forest scenes reveal much about Bambi’s natural habitat. Large swaths of the forest are evergreen in nature, and the predominance of towering conifers rules out hardwood forests in the Ozarks and most of the Appalachians. These trees are big, but not mammoth in girth like coastal redwoods or the Douglas firs of the northwest, which points to forests farther east — most likely the Rockies or maybe the high plateaus of Arizona or Utah (unlikely — those aren’t big enough to be Ponderosa pines either), perhaps even the northern Appalachians. One could argue that the trees are small because Bambi roams a secondary-growth forest in Northern California or the Cascades, but the fact that there are plenty of tall dead snags in the canopy, as well as a complete lack of logging roads or clear-cuts shows us that this forest and its (relatively) humble conifers is most likely an unlogged forest featuring trees of medium girth, which sounds an awful lot like your average chunk of Rocky Mountain old growth.

I’m a Colorado boy at heart, so my first thought was that Bambi hailed from the Centennial State, for the dark green forest is a dead ringer for some of my favorite groves of Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir. But the utter lack of mountain bikers and trail runners points elsewhere. Somewhere with bigger wilderness and fewer people: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, maybe even Alaska. Bambi hails from the Northern Rockies!

One problem with that hypothesis: Bambi is “Prince of the Forest.” Assuming the King of the Forest is some kind of large predator, then the Prince of western forests would be a large herbivore — an elk, or a moose or even a caribou, but certainly not a measly deer. And speaking of predators, there are none. No wolves. No bears. No mountain lions. Not even a bobcat or a coyote or even a fox. Bambi occupies a food chain devoid of top-level carnivores, which probably accounts for the outrageously long (spring, summer and fall) deer-hunting season.

At a glance, the missing predators rule out a home for Bambi out West, but things might not be as they seem. Mountain lions roam everywhere west of the high plains, including the suburbs, but how many of us have been lucky enough to see one? Not me. And wolves? I’ve backpacked a few times in prime (reintroduced) wolf habitat, both north and south, but, sadly, saw no sign of the creatures. My hometown in Colorado is chock full of wildlife now — bears in the Pizza Hut dumpsters, coyotes on the golf course, foxes denning under the garage — but, during my childhood (thanks to the nearly extinct ranchers who shot or trapped anything that moved), a coyote or fox sighting was a remarkable event, and bears were completely unheard of. Could it be that Bambi might live in a gentler patch of the Rockies — the Little Belts, the Salt Range or the Cochetopa Hills — circa 1940 or so, and the predators are just being elusive and avoiding redneck rifles?

Perhaps, were it not for some GIGANTIC oak trees. Not scrub oaks mind you, but majestic oaks with sprawling canopies and holes in the trunks where grumpy talking owls nest. As far as I know, the only Western state with oaks like that is California, one of just a handful of states with no white-tailed deer, which definitely pushes Bambi farther east. Plus the mountains aren’t actually that big: the only panorama in the movie reveals rolling green mountains with nary an acre of tundra, more like the “old” mountains back east. Not to mention the fireflies, technically found nowhere west of the tall-grass prairie.

So where does Bambi live? Mellow, rolling mountains. Some hardwoods and large oaks, but mostly tall conifers that aren’t too big. Plenty of deer and possums, but no elk or big predators. April rain showers instead of heavy late-season, pass-closing snow. Blossoming fruit trees in spring rather than mud and thawing dog shit. I hate to admit it, but bad-ass Bambi, Prince of the Forest, is an easterner who watched over a remote chunk of the Adirondacks or northern Vermont.

Crazy-Eye Season

It’s the time of year when the phrase “doe-eyed” takes on all new meaning.  Does get the crazy look, like zombies or psychopaths.  They stand stock still in the middle of the dirt road when I go running and stare at me as though I’ve just landed from Mars, as though they haven’t seen me every morning for months, maybe years.  I’m not freaked out, or mostly not, since I know what’s up: they’ve either just had their fawns or they’re about to have them, and they’re being protective.  You hear a lot in the woods – or really, anywhere, when speaking metaphorically – about mama bears.  But it’s not just bears. And it’s not just the deer.

There are, at Seven Mile, four Canadian geese that line the road four abreast like a color guard and hold their ground, squawking mightily as I approach.  I’m guessing the nest (or nests?) is to my left, in the cut bank along the river, and I’m guessing it’s been there for five years or more because each year four geese block the road the same way.  Are they the same four geese?  I don’t know, but I like to pretend they are.  Sometimes I give in and turn around.  What’s a shorter run, after all, compared to disrupting family life?  When I do, they turn half sideways in unison to keep an eye on me as I retreat.

Last week, I charged past them, and a little ways further ran into a bright yellow puff ball with the biggest orange webbed feet I’ve ever seen.  Not a gosling this time, but a duck.   I stopped running, it kept running.  I pretended to turn around, but it did no good.  In full panic mode, the puff ball continued its willy nilly charge mid-gravel road – imagine the scars on those big orange feet! – like running in clown shoes or swim fins.  Finally, with no other choice, I charged past at a sprint, risking duckling cardio-damage, and turned to jog backwards long enough to see it panting alone, and safe, beside an eddy.

The animals have reason to be worried, of course.  There’s a family of coyotes that lives somewhere close to our house: a bitch and two pups.  Or so other people told us last year.  We’d hear them yipping, and one night the mother stood howling atop a huge boulder in the yard, as though posing for a souvenir t-shirt (all she needed was the red kerchief, we said).  But we hadn’t seen the pups at all until one afternoon while I worked rock-facing our foundation (a project that’s taken me a decade, which is about five years past Zen-like precision and well into get-it-the-fuck-done).   I was slapping up the last few rocks, with a half-wheelbarrow of mixed mortar beside me, when here comes a tiny coyote pup, the size of a large pack rat, not twenty feet away, stumbling over puppy feet from one log to the next, sniffing all the way.  My turn to stand stock still.  I watched until he was almost past, until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I peeled off my gloppy gloves and tiptoed into the house for the camera.  Something spooked him, and he was gone.

This spring I’ve seen them—the mother and the two pups—many a morning on the road.  They don’t mind sharing; usually they just saunter off the road to let me pass. If they go downhill toward the river, that’s cool, but once all three of them climbed the steep cut bank and stood just over my head.   The pups are big now, leggy like teenagers and – who knows? – maybe similarly unpredictable.  Their coloring up close is stunning: mottled rust and beige and grey.  If they were a breed with papers, they’d sell in four figures.  Maybe five.  But when they’re on the cut bank, three of them, above your head, even if you’ve known them, more or less, since birth, well it’s a little disconcerting.  I talked nice as I jogged by fast.

So, yeah, there are coyotes, and cougars that we never see, and omnipresent vultures and birds of prey.  Everyone’s got a story about an eagle with a fill-in-the-blank puppy-kitten-gosling in its talons.  Last week in the bigger town, on the paved trail, we passed geese with goslings, then followed a bobcat – healthy and tabby colored – at a healthy distance for a half a mile as he searched a chainlink fence for a break.  At last he slipped between steel gate posts into the tall grass.

The tall grass would almost certainly be a boon for that cat, for any predator, since it seems to be the favored hiding place.  Laurie is racing these days to mow the orchard before too many does drop their fawns.  Hardly a year has passed when she hasn’t come upon one new and wet and curled in on itself, unmolested by the diesel roar or the flies that congregate close.  She’s not yet mowed over one, but if she’s not vigilant, it could be tragic.  So she’s keeping watch.

We all are.

Garden Scheme

Garlic Plants

“To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world.”

— Stanley Crawford

Peek into my garage and you’ll get the impression you’re in used sports equipment store. The gear, including a 12-year-old 4Runner, is pretty much the same sort of stuff you have in your garage — bikes, skis, packs, helmets and a sea kayak hanging from the ceiling. The truth of the matter is that I’m never going to use some of this stuff again. That makes me a little sad but it also makes me smile — I might still be capable of change and finding new stuff to care about. Among the toys you’ll also see a rack of gardening tools.

After living at 8,000 feet for twenty years, Blue Eyes and I bought this wreck of a house in north Boulder. We called it The Creak House. We’ve had some work done on it by folks who love what they do for a living. As I met with them once a week, I was a little envious that they could see their work materialize daily into something fairly extraordinary. I needed to do the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale, and maybe for some different reasons.

There was a stretch of dirt and gravel along the driveway where some fool parked his beater truck or a leaking RV for 100 years. The soil was saturated with oil and then the construction crew used it as a wash out. Just about nothing was going to grow there.

When we lived in the mountains, the growing season was about 10 days. And those were precisely the 10 days that all the deer in the world would show up to eat whatever we had managed to grow. One day, we’d have delphiniums in bloom, and, the next day, we’d have scorched earth.

I dug out and hauled off the tainted soil from along the driveway and then put in 4X4 cedar fence posts. Between the fence posts, I built 10 raised beds of various sizes and then hung what is called pig wire between the fence posts and finished off the fence and gate.

Raised Bed Garden

My garden is about 12 feet wide and 30 feet long. The fence is a hair over six feet tall. Of course, any self-respecting deer can jump a six-foot fence, but, because of the closeness of the raised beds, the landing zone for this selfsame deer has the appearance of being a tad bit sketchy. So far no deer has attempted the jump.

Building the garden was my way of owning The Creak House through my work. Sure, I get it that you own anything you pay for, but there is something about working on an object that you own that really makes that object yours. It’s like waxing your skis or patching your down jacket.

I actually thought I was building the garden for Blue Eyes. But the truth is that I’ve become a gardener and can spend timeless periods puttering in my garden. Before I leave for work in the morning, I go check to see what has happened since the last time I checked the garden. That was probably last night with a cocktail in my hand. I always see something that needs to be done the next time I garden.

It’s almost summer as I write this sitting in my camp chair in front of the garage and next to the garden.  I have garlic a foot high that I bought from Stanley Crawford in Dixon, NM. Read his “Garlic Testament” if you get a chance. I planted the garlic in November and will harvest it in July. Lettuce and beets are starting to come up. We’ll eat one volunteer head of lettuce tonight that survived the late-spring snowstorms.

Asian Pear tree

The Asian Pear is the star of the garden. I’ve trained it to weave its branches into the pig wire. Last year, we got 40 pears from it. The Bartlett Pear struggled last year, but survived the winter and bloomed, as did the Honeycrisp apple. It seems that if I can get the trees through their first year, they do just fine in the raised beds. Beneath the Asian Pear is a lush patch of volunteer cilantro.

In a week or so, we’ll plant tomatoes, basil and one squash plant and maybe something exotic just for the fun of it. One year it was black beans and corn from Peru. We got no corn and enough black beans for maybe two burritos, but the native plants were exotic looking enough to start conversations with the neighbors who wanted a closer look at what I was growing.

If I swing around in my chair I’ll see that the gear is all still there. None of it has moved. But if I look at my garden, I can almost see things changing, even myself.

History, in Black and White

Stand of Popular Trees

When they wrote on the trees, Ansel Adams was capturing the essence of their homeland. As they longed for their origins, the world was learning of forgotten places — Coyote, Gallina, Hernandez — via gelatin-silver. The migrants’ yearning for the left behind is recorded on aged trees along nearby wooded trails. Every aspen-bound signature is accompanied by its source — the town from which the carver hailed.

Ansel Adams finally achieved financial success thanks to an autumnal moonrise above a northern New Mexico village, graveside crosses a glowing testament to the day’s dying sun. Many of the residents of this town — Hernandez — achieved financial security by working elsewhere, leaving the buried and the yet-to-be-buried behind. Some made a livelihood of herding sheep in Utah’s La Sal Mountain meadows.

The oldest inscriptions on South Mountain’s flanks date back to the ’20s, making the trees century-old sentinels. The Spanish names continue to appear through the ’50s: Lovato, Garcia, Chacon, Sandoval, Sanchez and others. Some of the surnames still reside in the Moab phonebook — a surprise considering the connection these men felt to their hometowns. One sheepherder wrote an entire ode to Coyote, New Mexico, on an aspen tree. All that remains now is “Yo creo que Coyote es … ” before it devolves into black blisters on bark.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what he believed about his home.

Ansel Adams captured the faces and churches of Coyote in the ’30s. Are these the relatives and reliquaries of La Sal Mountain sheepherders? How did Monticello or Moab become home after centuries of faith and family along the Chama River? When they arrived, Catholicism and Spanish were not practiced forms of communion here. Meanwhile, they left towns so isolated and integrated that a form of 16th-century Spanish — otherwise extinct — is still spoken there.

Today, we delight in walking the aspen glades, finding messages from the past on the papery edge between this world and one now gone. Here, yesteryear speaks in riddles. Its language is a labyrinthine network connecting myriad unknowns. After each alpine excursion, we return home and seek glimpses beyond the abstraction of names, into the heart of the people and places mentioned in the trees. Sometimes we find that the past constellates into the present. Sometimes we find that certain galaxies of interest have blinked into oblivion.

We’ve uncovered some of the men’s names in Moab’s newspaper archives: records of illness and death, birth and travel. We’ve found Coyote to be an enigma, as if we are looking at it through the telescope of Ansel Adams’ lens — looking back in time to a town that once was — with no inkling as to its present condition. And we’ve discovered living relatives seeking connection with their past, perhaps unaware of a hidden, sylvan genealogy.

The most gratifying find has been the website of Cosme Chacon’s granddaughter, Ruby. She is an artist, a writer, a proud and beautiful expression of her heritage. Among her artwork, I found a pastels-on-sidewalk representation of her grandfather, a La Sal Mountain sheepherder. Strangely, I am now able to look into the gentle eyes of a man whose 70-year-old steps I recently followed through the forest.

Thanks to Ruby’s writings, I also have a sense for the world in which Cosme lived in Monticello: Spanish was forbidden. There was no Catholic church, so the family had to travel to Colorado for the rituals that lend life meaning. And though the culture wouldn’t accept them, cancer did. The Clan of Downwinders is multilingual, transcultural, perhaps the only true melting — or melding — pot we have.

I want to meet Ruby and — through her memories — Cosme. I want to travel Highways 96 and 84 through Gallina, Coyote and Hernandez. I want to draw the unseen connections between the mountains beyond my window and the memories beyond my knowing. I want to bring color to the clues left in black and white by carving sheepherders and a camera-wielding man.

Coyote is a place. Cosme is a name. And the aspen trees only hint at the fact that they are also so much more.

Hunting Bears

Remote Montana Wilderness

I was living in the true mountains, surrounded by untamed, sprawling ranges. This place is far and away and wild. From my aging cabin’s loft, I looked down onto three ancient apple trees, trees so ancient they do not have names. The apples are delicious, but they are not delicious apples, if you know what I am saying. Late one September, I had the pleasure of eating a few of those apples, picking one from time to time as I walked by, standing on my tippy-toes like some backwoods ballerina, picking one here and there that was almost ripe, but not quite.

A few days passed and the apples were gone from their branches, branches becoming bare and brittle, long bony fingers reaching out into the chilly air. There had been so many apples and I had taken so few. They were just becoming perfectly rosy ripe when the bears were in the backwoods hiding, grinning I imagined, their distended tummies stuffed, their lips sticky with apple juice.

They would come in the midst and mist of night, moon or no, after I had turned off the lights and brought in the dogs. After I was sawing logs. They graciously left their calling cards: great moist piles of applesauce shit, great broken branches. The berries had not been robust that summer, and the bears were hungry, I could understand. I just wanted to catch one in the act, catch one climbing a tree, catch one stuffing its gut with apples. Catch one crapping applesauce … wouldn’t that be funny?

Periodically, I walked the ragged fence line. The fence is there to keep out Ma Hill’s free-range cows. Ma Hill’s goddamn cows. I wanted to think they were cute, but really they were not. So the fence keeps out Ma Hill’s cows, but little else. It does not keep out the bears. Good. Late in summer, along the inside of the fence line, curled steaming lumps of purple bear scat, huckleberry shit to be exact. In autumn crouched browning piles of applesauce. Chunky style. Bears are not careful masticators.

Within days of running away to this bittersweet hamlet, I saw my first grizzly. The cinnamon bear was young, likely less than four years old and was hanging out a few fields over. The locals, some of whom had lived there for-evvv-er and had yet to see a griz, doubted my claim, thought the greenhorn was seeing a brown black bear. Big difference. I can tell. But later on, glory be! one of the locals witnessed my grizzly with their very own peepers.

A friend came out to visit and we hunted bears. No guns for us, just our ears, eyes, hearts. Another friend chose the bear as her totem. Or perhaps it is the bear who chose her? Years ago, we hiked to a peak named Bear’s Breast Mountain, and heard a bear call out to us (though some would have called it a long, loud growl). We froze for a moment, our eyes saucers, our spines electric, then skedaddled up the trail.

Many folks around this faraway mountain hideaway eagerly look ahead to spring bear season, a time when the bears are just waking up and still groggy. With sleep in their eyes and fuzz in their brains, they make for easy targets. It breaks my heart; the bears have so few places to go anymore.

Winter Hardwood
Winter Hardwood

My last winter there had been a mild one and it was early in the next season when I experienced my first bear encounter of the year. He was a beautiful, silvery black bear, about three years old, all paws and romp. He stopped about a dozen feet away, quickly sized me up, his eyes saucers, his spine electric, then skeedaddled back down into the trees.

I’ve had closer encounters since. One encounter that stretched the minutes out good and long, like Salvador Dali used to do. Breath held tight against my lungs, heart pounding to beat the band. Wondering how much the likely attack would hurt and if I would live to bear (no pun intended) the scars and tell the tale. But even that encounter turned out just fine. The big black bear decided, after his own ponderous moments, to leave me be. We could have almost reached out and touched one another. What a rush. After watching his backside disappear into the brambles, I giggled all the way back down the old, overgrown USFS road and back into the cabin.

After a year, I moved away from that remote, Montana acreage, and it wasn’t because of the bears.

I now live at the toes of another breathtaking and wild range, and always feel real peaceful after seeing bears. Close up, far off, it doesn’t matter.  And I love knowing they are right close by, even when I am unaware …

Tsunami on the Trail
Tsunami on the Trail

Two Sites and Causes I Dig:

WOLFWATCHER

FOOTLOOSE MONTANA

Read more of Tricia’s work in her blog Living Beyond Lost

The Shadow Below: A K9 Team Tackles a Lake Search

K9 dog team

“Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow”

                  — T.S. Eliot, “Life Is Very Long”

. . . or, in the case of a 13-year-old Las Vegas, N.M., boy, it is very short. Last summer, the young teen and several friends had walked from his semi-rural home, through the balmy darkness to nearby Storrie Lake State Park. The park’s lake — just over a thousand acres and shallow — nevertheless has long been a popular summer attraction for locals.

In low-income, mostly desert-y New Mexico, almost any accumulation of water larger than a mud puddle is likely to draw overflow crowds on summer weekends. Storrie Lake is no exception, although its shallow depth (often less than 15 feet) doesn’t allow much in the way of motorized boating.

The boys swam 40 yards from shore through beds of weeds and underwater brush. When the teenager didn’t surface, his panicked friends frantically called for help.

In New Mexico, water searches quickly hit the radar screen of the State Police (NMSP) Dive Team. The divers, numbering fewer than 20 in all, are experienced underwater searchers. The team — stationed across the state — uses dive boats, underwater sonar, high-tech gear. Every possible advantage can be important in waters where you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

New Mexico’s rivers and lakes tend to be murky, sediment-filled, often polluted. During a recent river search near Albuquerque, our K9 handlers counted something like 20 shopping carts, multiple truck tire carcasses, assorted mattresses and a couple of microwave ovens — representing the amazing array of detritus the city’s contributes each year to the state’s major waterway, the Rio Grande.

New Mexico offers great green chile. It does not offer even a faint facsimile of Oahu’s Hanauma Bay. For state police divers underwater, most searches are tactile, not visual — tethered by lines, groping for anomalies, they walk 360-degree blind circles on a lake bottom’s treacherous footing. Cadaver search by Braille. It’s not a job for most.

Two divers were in the water, others waiting on their distant boat, when our K9 team arrived for our first-ever water search last summer. After a briefing by the dive team commander, we launched our own craft, a 14-foot jon boat.

Like the dive team, we, too, carry some fairly sophisticated electronics. Top-end GPS transceivers, a depth finder accurate to six inches and ham radios that pick up localized National Weather Service reports. I realize now that I had been developing — despite training that discouraged this — a false sense of security that my electronic tools — if I could remember to keep the batteries charged — could get me out of trouble just about anywhere. I carried this emotional cushion everywhere, I suppose, even when I should have been working instead on better personal skills and clearer vision.

Although none of our K9 handlers realized it at the time, we were soon to learn that water searches are inherently shadowy events. If you don’t find the subject(s), their loved ones and survivors can’t get closure. If you do find subjects, they’re dead. Unlike a lightly dressed man who survived for a week last winter in New Mexico’s snow-covered Gila Mountains, nobody makes it for a week underwater. On this day, the Shadow would fall in a most unusual way.

We returned from our first two hours of searching with our boat. Back on the shore, two-dozen cars — police cruisers, state park pickups and lots of local vehicles were parked haphazardly along the shore.

A small man with short dark hair walked up.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m his step-dad.”

“Hi,” I replied.

“How do you search with the dogs?” he wanted to know. Nearly two-dozen relatives and bystanders were watching us intently from 40 yards away.

I explained what I’d been taught — that water carries human scent much like the wind, and that our dogs were trained to tell us, even in the boat, exactly when they caught it. I pulled my GPS unit out, showed him the lake onscreen and began a basic explanation of how we would triangulate a location based on the dogs’ indications in the boat. He nodded enthusiastically.

“I know about GPS,” he said. “I was a federal prisoner until three weeks ago, and I’ve worn an ankle bracelet for the last year.” Even in his grief, he seemed proud that he understood these tools.

His experience with high-tech gear would take a real turn for the worse the next morning when the dive team found his stepson using underwater sonar. The body was pulled from the shallow, murky water where one of our dogs had shown a lot of interest.

Months later, I still think about the boy, his emotion and the response. What was he thinking that night? Was he showing off for the girls who stood behind on the shore? Did he get cramps? Was he a kid who had been bullied at school, looking to end his life? Was he tangled in the underwater scrub oak?

Our jon boat’s depth finder can’t measure these places where the Shadow fell that night. Maybe he was just unlucky. Maybe the poet was wrong and life isn’t very long at all.

 

River-folk in Academia-land

Colorado River
April 1907. Mud cracks in clay deposited by the Colorado River in Baja California, Mexico. Photo: C.E. Grunsky, U.S. Geological Survey

Before greed, avarice, obsession and sundry other humanly traits got him banished, Sméagol was one of the river-folk populating the Anduin (Great River) landscape of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Then his cousin found a golden ring in the river’s mud. Instead of tossing the damn thing back, the cousin showed it Sméagol, who then killed him and stole it. Eventually the ring was stolen from Sméagol too, and he kept chasing it long after he should’ve just tossed himself in the river for one long last float.

A recent account from a couple of recent Colorado College grads who’d paddled the length of the Colorado River toward the Sea of Cortez has gotten me thinking of Tolkien, hobbits and lords of the ring. The two, Zak Podmore and Will Stauffer-Norris, recounted their trip in Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project 2012 Report Card, which describes student-led studies of the effects of agriculture, climate, environment, diversions, recreation and water laws on the Colorado River basin. The entire effort is well worth a read, though Podmore and Stauffer-Norris definitely get my vote for most bad-ass senior project. (OK, post-grad — but they had to schedule it around Podmore’s Grand Canyon permit, for gawdsake.)

Starting in a snowbank in Wyoming, they paddled or portaged about 1,400 miles of variously human-impacted Rocky Mountain landscape, and four months later they climbed out of an irrigation ditch in Mexico to the bemused stares of some local fishermen (quoting Podmore here, “The fisherman smiled sadly at the confused gringo. ‘El Rio Colorado?’ He shook his head and chuckled. ‘No hay agua en El Rio Colorado.’”). Judging by Stauffer-Norris’ pictures, our hero pair looked only a little hobbit-like after four months of navigating the river’s obstacle course of dams, reservoirs, trip permits, disappearing flows and (Podmore again), “… between the source and the delta, the river also happened to take us through some of the most spectacular canyons in the world … ”

Colorado River
February 2005 Colorado River in Arizona. Photo: USGS

Humanly traits long ago stopped the Colorado from reaching its natural outlet, and the Rockies are no longer populated by simple river and mountain-folk satisfied to leave golden rings lying in the river’s mud, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever again see fresh mud deposits on the delta like the one from 1907 I found among the photographic gems of the USGS library, but the river still flows from the Wind River and Never Summer Mountains, through canyons described, photographed, interpreted and exploited to a fair-the-well. If you live in or below the Rocky Mountains, the reports put out by Colorado College since 2004 are a good resource for deepening your understanding of how our landscape is faring under our decidedly schizophrenic stewardship.

Gollum
Gollum, illustration credit: Guillermo García-Ruiz Pimentel

“One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” says the inscription on Tolkien’s “One Ring” that led Sméagol to kill, steal, change his name to Gollum and hide inside a mountain until he finally met his end in a volcano, still fighting for the ring. Reading through the findings of this year’s State of the Rockies with “The Lord of the Rings” in mind, I’m tempted to end this little exploration by drawing a parallel to the tragedy of simple hobbits grasping for overweening power — but I haven’t taken time to parse the volumes of academic-speak that would allow me to discourse on the literary merits and demerits of Tolkien’s allegories, so I’m off to float another river.

There’s Nothing In Here

“Beyond the white clouds a blue mountain. A traveler goes beyond that mountain.”

 — Zen poem

You know how it is. You stand at the edge of a black highway. It’s so hot your boots stick to the asphalt. The sun bears down on you — on your skull, on your breath. There is nowhere you’d rather be.

There are mountains beyond mountains beyond mirages. Cobalt beyond indigo beyond dusty blue. You know what’s out there — the way washes curve back into the rock, how a waterfall no wider than your palm might be spilling over basalt. There might be reeds and a cottonwood luminous against the dark rock.

A couple in a cliché vehicle drives up and park. They slowly emerge from the car. You try to hold to the cobalt, the waterfall, the verdant flames of the cotton leaves. The man announces to the woman, “There’s nothing out there.” She shudders. In as long as it has taken you to stop breathing, the people are there, not there, and gone.

You look out at the mountain. The sky above is cloudless. You know toward what you will go.

The building was built a few years ago. It is austere. It’s easy to imagine guards and prisoners, easy to believe that like university buildings constructed in the Seventies, it has been designed to discourage students gathering in protest; and should they gather, to allow them to be contained easily. I walk into a huge gray lobby. There are no other people. There is an elevator. I take it up to the second floor.

I exit into more gray, find my way to the room in which I will teach a writing circle. I wait at a long table. Everything is tidy. Everything is gray: table, chairs, walls, ceiling and floor. The door opens into another gray hallway lined with wall-to-wall windows. Outside, the sun drifts down toward a ragged skyline. I lean against the doorframe and watch rose-blue evening melt in.

The students walk down the hall, their laughter muted by the sharp angles of the building. We shove the tables to the back of the room, move the chairs into a circle. I suddenly notice the equipment on a big desk. Brooke laughs. “Watch,” she says.

She touches a button. Two screens slide down over the whiteboard. She touches another button. “What do you want to see?” she asks. “Anything. We can project anything from the internet to the screens.”

“Spirit Mountain. Nevada. Sunset,” I say.

Brooke clicks again. I step aside and turn to the screens. There are two Spirit Mountains side by side. Cobalt rock. Red-gold burning on their tops. Pale desert and dark Joshua trees at their base.

“The last time I looked at that mountain,” I say, “a tourist said, ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Let’s write from these pictures and the prompt: There’s nothing in here.”

We write for thirty minutes. We read. A nineteen-year-old man takes his turn. “There’s nothing in here. I believe these rooms are designed this way to drain the creativity from us students. That way we won’t ever think about what college has become. That way we won’t fight back.”

We finish reading. Brooke steps toward the computer. “No,” the young man says, “leave those on the screen. Let’s pretend we can walk into the pictures. Let’s write from there. We can start with ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Then we’ll go beyond.”

 

 

 

Pagan Page Turners

Elsie reading

Like most of you, my wife and I are avid readers, and we’re doing our best to instill our daughter with an appreciation of books, poems and most anything else printed on a page (other than magazines with Hannah Montana or equivalent on the cover — that battle is still a few years away). So far, it seems to be working, as she’s always eager to visit the library or bookstore, and our half-hour of bedtime stories has become a nightly ritual that the whole crew looks forward to.

This is good for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, story-time provides mom and/or dad a chance to bond with their daughter in a quiet and intimate, occasionally even meditative, setting. No matter how crazy the day, or how absent (physically or otherwise) the parents have been, all of us can count on some quality family time at the end of the day.

Second, study after study shows that the most important indicator of academic success — more than quality of teachers or income level or anything else — is whether or not children are read to by their parents. To be sure, good grades and strong literacy don’t always translate into a high standard of living — check out “Wheel Well for a Pillow” or a hundred other essays right here on the Mountain Gazette website for example — but they do allow one the ability to indulge slacker/freedom-loving tendencies and make vows of poverty based on a full assessment of life’s possibilities rather than the limited options of television brain or straight-up illiterate ignorance.

Finally, these bookish moments give us a chance to instill our daughter with values that we — Pagan Parents — feel that she will benefit from throughout her life. If that sounds preachy, well, it probably is, as millions of religious-fundamentalist parents around the world saturate their kids with (what I think is) sometimes hateful nonsense for the very same reason, but that’s what loving parents are hard wired to do: Raise their kids to become the best people that they can be, and no two families or cultures are ever going to agree on the details of that monumental task.

That said, most of the books that we read to our daughter have little to do with “values” and everything to do with cuteness, or fun, or knowledge, or maybe just the blessing of being swept away by some good storytelling. To be sure, almost any kid book is going to have some kind of moral in there somewhere, even if it’s something as basic as being sure to brush your teeth or occasionally sending a letter to brighten Grandma’s day, but not many of them pack the kind of POWERFUL PUNCH that teaches kids about the big lessons — life, death, love and connection to Earth — in a beautiful and interesting manner. Such books can be found in New Age or local bookstores in remnant hippy towns, or at the gift shop at ye olde national park, but few of today’s best-selling or award-winning children’s books explore our relationship to natural systems in a meaningful way. A recent study that explored over 8,000 images contained in 70 years worth of award-winning children’s books (the revered Caldecott Medal, to be specific) revealed a marked decline in books that include images of nature. I’m not talking about overtly “green” books that try to instill knowledge about recycling or warn about species extinction either, but books that simply contain depictions of natural settings or even animals, wild or otherwise, within them.

Well, so, big deal? Kids can always get their dose of nature from actually going outside and playing, correct? I think we can all agree that building forts and climbing trees is more important than reading books about nature, but the problem is that kids are actually spending much less time outside than ever before. Overall, they spend more time engaging “electronic media” (primarily video games, the internet and television) than any other activity other than sleeping, and, increasingly, their recreational activities take place in an indoor setting (ballet lessons and gymnastics, for example). When they are outside, they aren’t swimming in the river or catching frogs so much as participating in organized (read: supervised) activities in manicured settings (soccer in the park, ski lessons at the resort).

To be sure, any physical activity is better than none, so I’m not knocking soccer or gymnastics, but the lack of hands-on time exploring actual pockets of nature, coupled with the urbanization of our culture in general (currently 80% of Americans live in an urban setting, compared to 50% in 1920) and a sharp decrease in popular children’s books featuring natural settings impacts more than just individual children. Over time, it leads collective lack of appreciation for the natural world, and a cultural disconnect from the creatures, habitats, ecosystems and natural cycles that keep us alive. Even worse, as society disengages from direct encounters with Ma Nature, our subsequent ignorance of it can spur feelings of fear — fear of the coyotes or mountain lions in the bits of forest at the edge of town (where kids used to build forts), fear of the homeless people who may be lurking in the creekside willows (where kids used to fish), fear of wildfires, or killer bees, or spider bites, or bacteria — all of which boils down to fear of the unknown. This dread isn’t likely to create kids who grow up to become conservation voters, let alone monkey-wrenchers or civil-disobedients, and may in fact do the exact opposite, as people who see nothing but dark omens in the woods or spooky swamps are surely more likely to cheer when they are bulldozed or drained to make way for a tidy tract-home subdivision.

The array of ecological problems facing our world have not been caused by a lack of panoramic landscape paintings in our children’s books, but one way to help stave off complete ecological collapse is to raise children in a manner that nurtures their natural love for all things wild and free, and one way to do so is to expose them to books that plant seeds of Earthly awareness in their impressionable young minds. To this end, I’ve compiled a list of ten books every Pagan Parent would enjoy borrowing from the library or purchasing for their midget eco-warrior’s bookshelf.

Keep in mind that my daughter is not quite five years old, so this particular list reflects parental read-alouds to very young children, although older kids can certainly read them on their own. They are generally chock full of illustrations, many of them quite exceptional in beauty and execution, and none of them should take more than 10 minutes for a read-aloud before bed; we average about four of these sorts of books during our half-hour of bedtime stories.

There’s surely an entirely separate list of books suitable for older kids that we haven’t come across yet, and I hope that other parents or nostalgic adults will fill me in on some worthwhile reads for elementary and middle school kids. Also, this list comes straight off of our own bookshelf or that of our friends or the Taos Public Library, and is not meant to serve as an official list of the best dirtbag/tree hugger children’s books or anything like that; it is simply a reflection of our own reading journey. There are surely hundreds of other good ones I’ve missed, so please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comment section below.

In no particular order:

“The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss (1971)

The granddaddy of them all, and, fortunately, the one nature book just about every kid in America is familiar with. Dr. Seuss books often depict fantasy worlds rather than the real one (although, if you’ve ever wandered around Joshua Tree on a moonlit night under the influence of, well, never mind …), and the Lorax is no exception, but at the same time, beneath the surreal nature of the flora and fauna, this book is a concise summary of two centuries of ecocide in the name of making a buck, a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, and a searing critique of the rise of multinational corporations like, say, Monsanto, Boise-Cascade and Exxon-Mobil, all of which have no qualms about devouring entire ecosystems in one fell swoop and leaving behind wrecked landscapes and ghost towns.

You all know the story, but here it is anyway: Old-growth Truffula forests provide habitat for a diverse array of mammals, fish and avian life. A pioneer-like fellow, the Once-ler arrives (Seuss’ version of the fur trapper, miner and mule or sodbuster) in his wagon and chops down a Truffula tree, which he turns into a thneed — a useless product that folks back in civilization decide they simply must  have. Before long, he’s built up a thneed empire that thrives due to mechanical advances that lead to wholesale clear-cutting of the seemingly endless expanse of Truffula trees that support the entire operation. There’s byproducts of course — toxic sludge, smog and habitat loss — but those externalities are borne by the wildlife such as the starving Barbaloots and the choking Swomee-Swans, who, faced with extinction, migrate out of the area, never to be seen again. But that’s all right. It’s a boom! Business must grow! Biggering, biggering, BIGGERING THE MONEY!

Biggering, that is, until the resource is gone and the market collapses, leaving behind a wasteland of stumps and shuttered Truffula smelters and thneeed sweatshops so common in boom-and-bust economies dependent on a single, non-renewable natural resource. Could be mill towns in Oregon. Could be open-pit copper mines in Arizona. Could be the dead dry farming towns on the High Plains. Or drought-stricken ski towns in the year 2040. Or Eastern civilization in general, grinding to a halt … the survivors wandering the Grickle Grass wastelands, wondering what went wrong.

UNLESS. And that’s the kicker. UNLESS. A glimmer of hope. UNLESS we decide to change our ways and heed the Lorax. Quit trashing the planet for 1001 varieties of discount thneeds.  Plant some seeds in the scorched Earth, some seeds of hope. This book hit me like a punch in the gut at age five or so. May it continue to punch kids in the gut for years to come.

“Mother Earth and her Children,” by Sibylle Von Olfers.
Illustrated by Seiglinde Schoen Smith (1906).

If the potential for ecological apocalypse prophesized by the Lorax seems a little heavy right before bed, then follow it up with this little gem — a simple celebration of the seasons. Written in Germany in1906, this poem follows the rounds of the Earth Children who awaken beneath the Earth (the story was originally entitled “Something About Root Children”) toward the end of winter and go straight to work readying things for the spring thaw. They sew flower petals, paint beetles and ladybugs and tidy things up under the watchful eye of Mother Earth (the quintessential old woman sipping tea and doing some needlepoint) before climbing out and into the spring sun … a parade of life emerging from the soil. They hang out with ants and bees, skip among the flowers and have a frolicking good time until autumn comes with a blast of cold wind and forces them to return to the Earth for a long winter’s nap.

A swell story, obviously timeless, but it’s the artwork in this one that really makes the book special, for the illustrations are actually close-up photographs of an elaborate quilt created by a mother grieving over the death of her son. In her sadness, she remembered this tale from her German childhood, and created a quilt that told the story using elaborately embroidered images from the original storybook. The result — the entire quilt is displayed at the end of the book — is an amazingly intricate hand-sewn depiction of the passage of the four seasons.

“First Snow in the Woods,” by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick (2007)

The cover of this books says it’s a “photographic fantasy,” but I only agree with the “photographic” part, as the story itself is a mostly realistic depiction of a young fawn’s experience of his first snowstorm. The story starts in late summer: bird songs, dragonflies, hummingbirds and the like, and moves into autumn and the first frost of the year, as seen through the eyes of the nameless fawn. There are big changes afoot, and all the animals are either leaving or prepping for some event the fawn can’t wrap his head around. Meanwhile, mother doe says nothing and just keeps munching acorns and keeping an eye on the fawn and the weather. One night, the Great Gray Owl swoops into the neighborhood and announces “creatures of the forest prepare! The first winter storm is here.” And so it was, and although our little fawn had been nervous about whatever it was that was coming, it turns out that he was, without knowing it, already preparing for winter (by growing a thick coat and loading up on nuts) and that his ma knew just where to go when the storm got rough.

Entertaining, at least if you have any interest in this sort of thing (and kids automatically do), and informational too, as it reveals the transition from fall to winter quite well, but this story really stands out for three reasons. First, this book consists entirely of photographs, and they are well rendered beauties that capture the essence of this particular place (somewhere in Michigan) perfectly: the northern lights; dew on a dragonfly’s wing; goldenrod glowing in the sunrise light; a family of deer in the snow. Second, that essence of place is shown in a nuanced way that reveals subtle aspects of the season (such as the first frost silencing the dragonflies) as well as lesser-known creatures that don’t always make it into the storybooks, like chickadees and woodchucks. Finally, the fact that the fawn is watching all of this unfold — watching and learning — is a lesson that’s sure to stick with your little Pagan and make him or her look at things a little more closely during your next foray into the woods.

“Sky Tree,” by Thomas Locker (1995)

Edward Abbey once said something to the effect that if you sat out on a slab of rimrock for a year, just sat there and soaked it all up — blistering sun, blizzards, starlight, floods, gentle rains, everything in between — you would become a god. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, which means, by that measure at least, that we’re surrounded by all sorts of living creatures who have undergone that trial hundreds of times in their lives.

I’m talking about trees of course, those berooted and patient watchmen of the forest, the desert, the just about every ecosystem other than sand dunes or the truly tremendous grasslands of the world. It seems like a boring life, just standing there and watching the world unfold, but as this deceptively simple book explains, the life of a tree is quite adventurous. The book consists of 14 paintings of a non-specific deciduous tree growing on a knoll next to a river. Each painting captures an aspect of the four seasons and is accompanied by a sentence or two that tells a quick story about what is happening. It starts with summer — full green glory, then eases into a late summer storm, the changing leaves and the first frost, right on through winter and spring and back to summer. Birds pass through, stars sparkle through the branches. You get the idea.

The cover of the book says “seeing science through art,” and I suppose observing the seasons via the life of a single tree is actually quite scientific, but in reality it’s just that: Reality, and one that kids everywhere used to know without having to read about it in a book. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful book that tells a story that any kid will enjoy.

“The Little House,” by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)

In 1979, the cartoonist R. Crumb created a series of drawings called “A Short History of America,” consisting of 12 panels that began with an idyllic chunk of forest and meadow in Anywhere USA and ended with that same spot after it had been transformed into one of 10 billion possible roadside strips laden with mini-malls, fast food and all the rest. In between were panels showing each step along the way … roads, railroads, powerlines, and the last big tree unceremoniously giving way to a convenience store.

“The Little House” is basically a kids’ version of Crumb’s masterpiece of a cartoon, and is a masterpiece of its own. The book starts with — you guessed it — a little house on a farm way out in the country. The sun and moon pass over again and again. The seasons change. The kids grow up. And the lights of the distant city get a little bit brighter. One day the steam shovels arrive and force an arrow-straight road through the rolling hills and right past the house. Suddenly, there are cars and people rushing by, then houses being built all around as the farm get developed, followed by tenements, railroads, subways, skyscrapers, freeways … and the poor little house is abandoned and surrounded by the industrial age and all its trappings, unable to see the stars or even tell what time of year it is.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, as the great-great-granddaughter of the fellow who built the house recognizes it from a photo and decides to purchase it. After all, it’s a well-built house that simply needs a little love and some fresh air. So they halt traffic and haul it out of the nameless city and out into the country once again.

A Hollywood ending perhaps, since we all know that today’s farmland is tomorrow’s exurbs, or just as bad, today’s crystal methville, but kids need to know that there are some places left to escape to. Best of all, the tale is blatantly anti-development, but in an understated way. The house just sits there and watches the nightmare of 20th century industrialization and sprawl unfold (quite visionary actually, since it was written in 1942), never getting depressed or pissed about it all — just confused and a little sad. Meanwhile, readers do get melancholy, perhaps even a bit angry, for we know full well that something about this tale just isn’t right, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the house ends up back in the country again.

“Frog and Toad All Year,” by Arnold Lobel (1976)

I picked this one at random because ALL four of the “Frog and Toad” books should be added to your child’s bookshelf immediately. Frog and Toad are two pals who hang out and sometimes have adventures. None of the books takes place completely in nature — they sometimes sit inside and sip tea and tell scary stories or clean up a messy house for example — but in the end they are amphibians, so much of their life unfolds out of doors, and they have plenty of fun. They swim in rivers, plant gardens, go sledding, seek solitude on islands, climb mountains and generally live the kind of life any kid born before 1975 took for granted.

The outdoor adventures are good, but the “Frog and Toad” books use these adventures to teach important lessons in a very nuanced and non-preachy way. Sledding takes courage. Gardening involves patience. Lost buttons on the trail can reveal deeply rooted anger issues. Swimming in a silly bathing suit can cause others to laugh at you … but don’t let the snake/dragonfly/turtle/bird bastards get you down. And always remember that spring really is right around the corner.

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein (1964)

You probably all know this short and simple tale, but if you haven’t, then STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW and go find yourself a copy, as I don’t want to spoil it for you. For the rest of you, here’s a synopsis: A kid grows up in the protective and loving shade of a large apple tree. He climbs it, talks to it and eats its fruit, and the kid and the tree form a special bond not unlike that of a child and parent. As the boy ages, he visits the tree less and less, but the tree is infinitely patient and is always glad to see him, even if he comes with his girlfriend to carve their initials in the tree’s bark. As the boy becomes a man, he rarely visits at all, and one day he arrives and tells the tree he needs to cut her down to use the wood to build a boat. The tree obliges and gives up all but her stump so the boy can sail off. Years later, the boy returns as an old and weary man. The tree is glad to see him but says she has nothing left to offer. The man says he just needs a place to rest, so he sits on the stump, just him and the tree once again.

Like the Lorax, my ma read “The Giving Tree” to me at age five and it hit me in the gut in a similar way. Bam. We harm the Earth and its creatures and take and take and take. Bam. But there is a love that’s bigger than our selfishness and meanness, a love that transcends our pettiness and short sightedness. Bam. The One True Love. The unconditional love of our actual mother AND Mother Earth that gives all and keeps giving, no matter what we do to her, all because she knows that eventually we’ll come around and realize that The Love is the only thing that really matters. If Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” is a concise summary of the best impulses of the world’s religions, than “The Giving Tree” is a perfect distillation of “The Prophet.” Read it and weep.

“Two Little Gardeners,” by Margaret Wise Brown.
Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot (1951)

Remember the “Little Golden Books” and the tell-tale golden shimmer along their spines? Well, back before Barbie and the Disney Princesses foisted themselves upon the publisher, these books were reliably good tales featuring a variety of characters exploring various aspects of 1940s and 1950s America. Pokey Little Puppies breaking out of the yard to see what they can see. Toy tugboats sailing down mighty rivers to the sea. Little Red Cabooses saving the train. Little Postmen delivering cards to grandma. If these books were a little bit white bread (and white skinned), well, they were more a sign of the times than anything, and while the stories may not be multicultural, they are worthwhile, and millions of Americans hold these tales and their images close to their hearts.

Although I didn’t own it as a kid, one of my favorite Little Golden Books these days is “Two Little Gardeners.” Nothing fancy: Spring arrives and a boy and girl haul their tools out of the shed and plant a garden. From there, the book just tells the story of the garden. Roots fattening up beneath the soil. Squash flowers blooming. Worms turning the soil. They weed it, water it, chase away the bunnies and eventually harvest it. They have a big feast and then can the rest, or store it in the root cellar. In the end, they sit in rocking chairs by the fire and sing a song about gardening. Who could ask for more?

“On the Day You Were Born,” by Debra Frasier (1991)

The title sums this one up nicely, as this book tells the kiddos what was happening on Earth and beyond on the day they were born. Not in a “on-this-day-in-history” way, but in a cosmically poetic yet scientific way that lets the little one on your lap know that he or she is part of something truly grand. It starts on the eve of the birth, when the good news is passed from the birds to the whales, to the salmon and all around the Earth, then the sun, moon and stars all move into just the right place to welcome the newborn to the new reality. Indeed, everything welcomes each of us into the world. Gravity promises to keep us from floating away. Waves wash the beaches clean for our footprints. Forests make the oxygen we’ll need. Clouds welcome us with rain.

As with our existence here in these bodies of ours, all the natural processes in this story — photosynthesis, animal migrations, solar flares — might well be meaningless and subject to no laws other than those dictated by physics and chemistry … we’re all islands of existential loneliness floating through space on a ball of rock with no rhyme or reason sort of thing. And that’s fine. I spend at least half my waking hours thinking that’s the way it is, not that it matters what I think.

But at the same time, the fact that we can imagine something different makes that something different possible. And that’s what’s great about this book: It offers up a deeply spiritual view of human life on Earth without ever sounding preachy or hokey. On the day you were born, the sun was fusing atoms deep in its core because that’s what atoms do when subjected to such intense gravitational pull, and the energy produced by that process took the form of heat and light. Or, maybe, the sun really did send out those waves of energy just to light your days as you make your way through life. On the day you were born, the moon was reflecting the light of the sun off its lifeless gray surface as it orbited the Earth because it happened to be in the path of the sun’s rays. Or, maybe, the moon really did promise to grace your windowsill each month with a full and bright face simply because it thinks you are special.

Of course, you’re not special. You’re just the latest manifestation of hominids with opposable thumbs, and you’ll soon be nothing but dust. The same goes for your children, who will figure that out for themselves soon enough. But, until then, read them as many books like this as you possibly can … because, well, a little magic and hope never hurt anybody.

“Books for Young Explorers,” by the National Geographic Society (1972-1982)

When I was a kid, these hardcover books used to arrive in the mail four at a time every few months, and believe me it was an exciting time. These high-quality, full-color nuggets delved into many aspects of the natural world and offered up a kid-friendly version of the same well researched information and amazing photographs you’d find in the magazine itself, minus the naked boobs and starving children.

With titles like these, you know you’re in for some hot Earth-loving action: “Animals That Build Their Homes”; “Life in Ponds and Streams”; “Animals of the High Mountains”; “Explore a Spooky Swamp”; “A Day in the Woods”; “Let’s Go to the Moon”; and the epic “Creepy Crawly Things.” Good stuff. Unfortunately, the last reprint of any of these books occurred in 1995, so they’re no longer available from the publisher. Fortunately for me, my own set of books were boxed up and stored away in my grandparents’ attic where I stumbled upon them just in time to read to my own daughter, who loves them all, including the creepy crawly ones. Fortunately for you, most of these books can be purchased used from the usual online suspects, just be sure you’re getting the actual “Books for Young Explorers,” by National Geographic and not something else. If you’re looking for a way to supplement your family’s nature outings with some good nature reads, then I highly recommend any or all of these books.

That’s it for now. Hope some of you check these out. Please feel free to post your own suggestions below, and happy reading.

 

 

What One of the Seven Natural Wonders in the World Needs Now: A Restaurant

Grand Canyon Drawing
Drawing by Ellen Tibbetts of Flagstaff, Arizona

Call it recreational democracy. The Hualapai Tribe have their horse-shoe-shaped glass viewing “platform” 4,000 feet above the Colorado River at the western end of Grand Canyon. The airplane and helicopter charter companies have their airspace and historically have continued to press for more flights at lower elevations, especially at sunset. Why should those pesky river runners be the only ones to enjoy such an awe-inspiring natural spectacle? Besides, they clog the river corridor to the tune of 24,000 bodies annually. (Disclaimer: I know. I used to be one of them.) The hikers (and speed runners) have their trails in the backcountry, and a rescue service at their disposal when the odd one forgets to take enough drinking water. But what else is Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (including Victoria Falls, Great Barrier Reef, Mt. Everest, Particutin, Aurora Borealis and the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro), lacking in terms of a full-course recreational experience? Why, of course: a restaurant near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers. How cool is that? Whoever came up with that idea is carrying grande cojones, right?

Let me explain.

Recently the President of the Navajo Nation signed a nonbinding agreement with the Fulcrum Group (aka Confluence Partners) LLC, a development company out of Scottsdale, Arizona, to build a resort (complete with hotel, shopping center, restaurant, spa and RV Park) on reservation land on the east rim adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. Whether his decision reflects his people’s wishes remains debatable. Hearsay suggests that neither the N.N.P. nor the Confluence Partners bothered to have a word with the Hopi tribe about the resort they have named “Grand Canyon Escalade”.  (Personally, I thought “Grand Canyon Escalator” had the ring of authenticity.) The Sipapu, the place the Hopi believe their people emerged from the underworld, is located along the banks of the Little Colorado. The location of their creation myth is considered sacred ground by tribal members.

Whatever?

It gets better, much better.

This resort development odd couple would also like to build a tram from the East Rim down to and parallel with the Little Colorado, where hungry tourists would find, yes, a restaurant. Can you beat that? A restaurant! The tram riders would have the choice of eating immediately or taking a half-mile “river walk” (hopefully paved, with hand rails and viewing points) for a view of the confluence. The mile-long roundtrip jaunt, of course, would stimulate appetites for the exhausted hikers. Likely there would be a souvenir shop. And sooner or later, passengers on river trips would catch wind of this cool place to grab a burger and a brew and want to stop there.

George Bradley and Jack Sumner, members of the 1869 Powell Expedition, would not have located a restaurant on the banks of the Little Colorado. They wrote,

It is a lo[a]thesome little stream, so filthy and muddy that it fairly stinks. It is only 30 or 50 [yards] wide now and in many places a man can cross it on the rocks without going on to his knees … [The Little Colorado was] as disgusting a stream as there is on the continent … half of its volume and 2/3 of its weight is mud and silt. [It was little but] slime and salt … a miserably lonely place indeed, with no signs of life but lizards, bats and scorpions. It seemed like the first gates of hell. One almost expected to see Cerberus poke his ugly head out of some dismal hole and growl his disapproval of all who had not Charon’s pass.

What did those guys know?

Having had some restaurant experience in my youth and an irresistible urge to name things, I can’t help but offer these visionary entrepreneurs who want to bring tourists to Grand Canyon and also help the local economy with mostly minimum-wage jobs a few catchy appellations for their establishment: Navajo Bar and Grill? The Blue Water Café? The Confluence? Silt and Sand? The Current?

Likely, the restaurant would have a “theme,” because, well, folks who consider putting a restaurant in places like Grand Canyon think like that and they might want to expand (there are plenty of suitable side canyons in Grand Canyon), maybe have locations at Matcatameba, Hermit Rapid, Deer Creek, Lava Falls and Separation Canyon, to name just a few choice locations. Some models of above-the-rim chains that offer inspiration: Bubba Gumps, TGIF, Chili’s, Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville! But let’s not get carried away. It’s important to remember that “theme” concepts are not actually about eating out. They are business concepts; the food is kind of an afterthought.

To continue with the theme idea, waiters and waitresses could dress in traditional Navajo garb? Or as low-life river guides in lifejackets, flip-flop and shorts? Or historical canyon figures?

Let’s not forget the menu where restaurants located in stunning settings come up with the most imaginative names: Nancoweap Natchos, Lava Falls Fries, Crystal or Tamarisk Ice Tea, Havasu Half-Pounder, Chocolate Marble Canyon Fudge Milkshake, the Harvey Butchart Burrito, Martin Litton Key-Lime Pie. I’m sure you can come up with even better names.

The concept of a restaurant at the bottom of Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, literally takes my breath away. Should I laugh or cry? It makes me want to string together really bad words in a way that would make a potty-mouthed teenager cringe. It would be a welcome addition to the recreational industry, a salute to the democratic concept of recreation for all no matter what, and a towering example of an extraordinarily bad idea coupled with unfathomably bad taste.

Tell a friend, buy a T-shirt, write a letter to the editor, throw a buck in the jar of your favorite canyon environmental organization.

Just don’t call the bastards any bad names. Like them, we want to be reasonable about this.

More of the Rivermouth blog here!