Dec 1, 2011
I looked out my office window and caught sight of a male ruffed grouse in full display mode. His banded tail stood erect, a flat fan of autumn-hued feathers, perfectly crafted both to conceal and to attract, not unlike the fan of a geisha.
Glossy black feathers formed an areola around his speckled face, a mane of masculine glory that brought to mind tribal masks, Bob Marley’s braids, and mythological griffins. The grouse was a creature implausibly present, strutting one haughty step at a time across the leaf-strewn meadow, three or four females bobbing and weaving some twenty feet behind, courtiers at pains not to disturb the king. He had an unmistakably royal air, theatrical and contrived, every movement designed to convince the observer of his prowess, seduce her with his beauty.
I don’t know how the act was working on the hens who skittered and pecked in his wake—they seemed a bit distracted actually, multi-taskers obsessed with things-to-do—but I must say he had me at hello.
When he turned his head to one side with a dramatic jerk and puffed out his yellow-feathered chest, I couldn’t help but giggle at the come-hither bravado. Patrick Swayze dressed in fabulous, feather-boaed drag.
Workin’ that hat girlfriend, workin’ it hard.
It was the first time I’d seen such a display in real life with my own eyes, absent the photographic editing and sonorous voiceover of a nature show. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to interpret the grouse on my terms, to make my own associations and draw my own conclusions. There was just the grouse, high-stepping across the meadow below the house, and me, watching. My vision un-blinkered, my mind blissfully un-led by any externally imposed breadcrumb trail of an expert notion of What’s Important to Notice About the Male Grouse.
Faced with new, unfiltered experience, my mind was free to decide for itself. My mind was free to think.
One afternoon this past mid-summer, our garden activities were interrupted by a horrible bleating scream, the truly scalp-tingling sound of infant terror. Cosmo had startled a very young fawn from the hiding place where it had been left by its mother, and the babe had run pell-mell into a remnant of rusty barbed wire fence at the forest edge. We, all of us, immediately dropped our tools and moved toward the screams, drawn by the alarm just as urgently as if the fawn had been a human child.
We quickly realized that we knew the fawn and her mother as “residents,” frequent visitors to the Grandmother apple tree, the Spring Road, and the copse of locust just beyond the garden enclosure. As we used my pruners to free the tiny struggling deer, I said aloud: What if the mother doesn’t return? I was near tears, heart-struck by the passionate wailing of the child for its mother. We watched the fawn, so spindly-legged and tiny, yet so fiercely strong, bound away, screaming “Mommy!” just as clearly as if it spoke English or we understood Cervidae, the family to which white-tailed deer belong.
The hollering and wailing of that fawn, so entirely “human” to my anthropocentric ears, forged a bond of commonality: our shared experience of the pain and suffering, the wacky, unpredictable terrors, the sudden, unanticipated mercies of life on earth.
“You are like me,” I thought, as the fawn disappeared into the forest and I knew without doubt that from a nearby yet expertly hidden location, the doe watched all that had occurred.
None of my reading about deer had previously elicited such a progression of thoughts. And nothing about my decade-long experience suffering under the persistence of their appetite for cultivated plants could dissuade me from such insight. The resident deer were no longer The Other. No longer The Enemy of All Things Agricultural. They were neighbors. They were…well, suffice it to say, I couldn’t wait to see if the doe and her fawn came back.
They did. They came back. Along with another doe and her twins. And a mixed-family group that includes a button buck. For four good months now, seldom is the morning that I look out the bedroom window and don’t see one or all of these groups moving up the spring road and across the slope of the ridge. In the early hours, they venture within just a very few feet of the house. The conifers planted along the crest of the ridge are a favorite spot for hanging out, bedding down, and uhm, fertilizing the rocky, hungry dirt. I look forward to the sight of them no less than to the sun itself, illuminating the winter-brown grasses with amber light.
It’s not that I’ve stopped believing in venison as one of the healthiest meats for the human body—and the environment. I haven’t. But I have begun to think about deer unfiltered by what I’d read or seen or even experienced myself in the past. The new experience with the trapped fawn tripped a re-set button of sorts.
Do the deer themselves feel it? Do they sense the change in my intention toward them? Who knows?
I do know this: They're comfortable here, increasingly so, and the sound of my voice does not frighten.
In this most consumerist of all seasons, a time during which I myself am very much engaged in peddling my wares, a question simply won't leave me alone: If we are but consumers of the things others tell us to want, but reflectors and repeaters of the information given to us, but conduits for others' preprocessed ideas do we, any of us, really exist?
To live is be a consumer of air, water, food, shelter. I consume, but not because I’m told I deserve a new handbag, or new shoes designed to make me appear prosperous to others. There’s little room for artifice in my world. I consume to live.
To think is be a processor of experience into thought, not a pipe for the transference of other people’s unmeasured ideas. I think because, frankly, I have to think in order to live.
I experience most of my life right here and now, unscripted, unfiltered. No sonorous voiceover, no photographer’s edit to guide me to what’s important. No utility company. I, uhm, pretty much have to figure out what's important for myself. Right now.
Rene Descartes said: I think, therefore I am.
It’s a philosophical assertion much interpreted and debated, to be sure. I prefer to take it at face value.
How does one know who she is until she thinks for herself?
Certainly, she may well prosper in the purely physical realm through the abject adherence to others' ideas regarding what she may or may not think and what she may or may not adorn herself with to reveal her value. Surely, she may prosper as a physical body with no original thought at all. But what of her mind?
Where does the Self that importunes the mind for existence on its own merits, entirely separate from its ability to purchase the newest technology or rubber-stamp the latest social-theology—where does that Self reside?
Mental freedom is perhaps the most significant blessing of life in the wilderness.
But such a blessing is bestowed, much like God’s upon Abraham (or Gene Roddenberry’s upon Captain Kirk) with a corollary curse: to boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before, regardless how manifestly difficult, absurd or lonely the journey.
To live in the wilderness, in 2011, is to plant, pick and snowplow in the face of a culture that says: Oh, for pity’s sake, what are you doing? What's the point? Follow me.
It’s all online. All downloadable. Google-YouTube-able. Easily answerable. Poll-able. Wikipedia-ready. You don’t need to experience in the flesh what you can experience, virtually. It’s more efficient this way, life as the highlights reel of a really intriguing movie. Who cares if the thoughts aren’t your original thoughts, the conclusions aren’t those you were present to make? They’re well-vetted, they’re probably the majority, they’re the ones you would have made yourself, surely, most certainly.
Really? I dunno. Somehow, I remain unconvinced.
I never saw a nature show that came anywhere close to nature reality.
I never valued for long any thought I didn’t earn through living.
I'm the kind of fool who falls in love with a flannel shirt and wears the sucker 'til it comes apart at the seams.