Sunday, December 08, 2013


This the view FROM the top of Ear Mountain, which is on the cover of "Landscape and Legacy."

Much of writing about landscape and animals is divided into a kind of either/or that is edited either for semi-poetic admiration with a lot of worshipful liberal assumptions or on the other hand a nuts and bolts compendium showing how it all works.  John Vollertson’s “Landscape and Legacy” allows a continuum of essays united by the place they talk about but also a particular time in history when hunting of animals as food or trophies was being renewed by an attempt to hunt real understanding.  Hunters learn a great deal about their prey and often love them in the way that interacting with them allows, but these new scientists had new means like radio collars and low-level overflights.  They could document and they could follow individual animals through the seasons and life trajectories.

Though they are scientists, normally thought of as lab-coated just-the-facts guys, studying large wild animals on the east side of the Rockies demands strong personalities.  Jim Williams’ chapter on cougars and Mike Thompson’s chapter on mountain goats would be great to compare in a nature writing class side-by-side.  Both are written by seasoned experts describing their early days learning what they were doing.  Williams is matter-of-fact, not writing poetry, though big cats can be big metaphors, while Thompson writes rollicking one-liners and slapstick, entirely justified by the clowning white beasts of high snow.  Not only do "goats" (which are not quite goats) sit on their butts to slide down hills, but also he claims they use their rear ends to waggle a foxhole in a snowdrift that will allow them to hide from predators.

Jim Williams

In a time -- like now -- when philosophizing about the relationship between animals and people can reach such high philosophical soaring as to be nearly unintelligible, it’s a relief to hear about the practicalities of studying critters in obvious hands-on ways.  For instance, the cougar team -- and it was really a team, complete with dogs -- chased the cats up trees, darted them with tranqs, then had to lower them to the ground without killing them.  Williams tells about the encumbrances of tree climbing spikes and safety harness -- let alone rope-and-pulley lowering systems -- and how vital it was to do all of it carefully, because one never knew when the big cats (the size of men) would fail to go under as soon or as thoroughly as expected.  The practice was to nudge them with a stick as a “scientific” test of whether they were really knocked out.  One wasn’t and managed to slash Williams' britches before fading.  A nastier defense from big toms was peeing on heads of those below, so part of the necessary equipment was a hat.

Thompson, the goat man, found an old livestock salt lick where disintegrated minerals had soaked into the ground, so enticing to the goats that they had excavated holes in the dirt by pawing and licking.  The simple idea of setting a foot snare lariat never seemed to work so -- recruiting some help in the form of a horse and a buddy -- they packed in a rocket net that could shoot the edge of the net so quickly that the animals were not only trapped but also held down for tagging, blood draws, and radio collars that revealed at last where the animals went.  

In an effort to figure out what they ate, Thompson carefully studied a goat gourmet, then moved in after it was gone to take samples of the green stuff, tucking sprigs into baggies for analysis back at the ranch.  But the hazard when studying goats is the constant mountain wind so in an unguarded moment the baggies took off “like a flock of waxwings.” 

Thompson’s urine story was about camping high in what was goat but also griz country and therefore at bedtime making a pee-ring on the scree around his tent to mark his territory.  In the night the clashing heavy sounds of feet making the rounds of his mark had him electrified.  When he found the courage to peek it was not a bear but rather a mule deer buck licking up the seasoning.  I haven’t told you all the spoilers.

Gloria Flora

Spoilers.  The usual spoilers: greedheads looking to convert the world into money, leaving devastation and dead golden geese in their wake.  Industrial resource lords are still claiming entitlement while some locals still feel like peasants who must survive however they can.  The only rocket net capable of capturing them is a cooperating webwork of dedicated individuals and interconnected organizations who stay alert, devising laws to be pee-lines they hope will be recognized by predators.  It’s a source of relish to read the chapter by Gloria Flora who managed in this macho melee to slam the door on government leases for oil search along the East Front.  

Daniel Justin Herman

One of the key books in my thinking about these matters is “Hunting and the American Imagination,” by Daniel Justin Herman.  (It’s not in Vollertson’s bib, which is extensive and includes a lot of material you wouldn’t know about otherwise.)  Herman’s key idea is that most of our Euro-based understanding of animals in wilderness comes from a schism in Euro-politics.  In previous days wealth was land-based, so that the “landed gentry” presided over small nations (estates).  These were defined by the king who owned the taxation and military machinery.  Landed gentry saw the animals as signs of their status and employed an army of game-keepers to make sure that only the owners and their friends had the right to hunt.  But the people they had pushed out, who had previously eaten the deer and salmon for subsistence, became Robin Hoods who constantly poached as a matter of moral privilege.  

So some of the people who came to the new continent immigrated with the frank intention to repeat the old world order, except with themselves in the position of the gentry -- land owners with absolute authority.  (This idea hangs on mostly in the South.)  But others among the immigrants came with the idea that this would be a place where no one person -- nor even the government -- owned land, but rather it all belonged to the people in order to keep them alive according to their skills and wits.  This idea sometimes wears buckskin decked with Indian feathers.  It followed the frontier as long as there was one.

What a book like “Landscape and Legacy” gives us is a record of a developing new way for a new world:  hands-on non-consuming accumulation of information which in the course of its acquisition gives us many small bonds of understanding straightly connected to the animals themselves and their relationship to their lands.  And that makes new ways of thinking about human animals.  Technology gives us each other, and includes both goats and bears because we are all part of each other -- even the limestone substrate and the wind that whistles through it -- and the loss of any part is also a loss to the whole.  The loss of the East Slope would be borne by the whole planet.  

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