Wandering with the monkeys of Silver River

There is a colony of feral rhesus macaques living on the Silver River on the outskirts of Ocala, Florida. I try to visit them once or twice a year, because why not? Although I didn’t spot any monkeys on the two trips prior to my most recent one, a paddle down the Silver River is a treat in itself. I’ve tagged along with otters, alligators, scores of birds, and tiny turtles on the Silver.  So I love it regardless of whether the monkeys are out.  The river draws me back every time; if I were a wind-up toy, I’d head to the Silver as soon as you let me go. That’s my wanderlust.

This time, I saw a monkey almost immediately, and he was contemplating a swim. Here is the process, from consideration, to alligator scan, and finally, launch. Too bad when he got to the other side, another monkey shoved him back in the river.

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More on the monkeys — and how they got there in the first place — here.

Co-pilot

On a backpacking trip in early spring, I noticed a group of swallowtails puddling in an area on the ground where something had recently rotted. I was photographing one of them when I noticed it had a co-pilot. We all need our minerals, I suppose. Surprise.

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Pelican magic

Yesterday I was on the hunt: I was looking for hundreds of American white pelicans at a place called Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. For the last few years, these pelicans have taken to stopping off at Goose Pond for fish and frogs and other goodies, in the middle of their migration back to the Dakotas and Saskatchewan, where they go each spring to get their collective freak on and create many more small American white pelicans.

This trip accomplished a couple of things for me. First, I enjoy seeing big groups of migratory animals. Second, I made my first visit to Goose Pond, which is an enormous wetlands restoration southwest of Indianapolis, a magical place, and a finger in the eye of the relentless paving and monoculturing of my state. I frequently run off to other places to get my nature fix, but it’s important not to dismiss my own back yard.

The thing is, wildness typically exists in Indiana only on an attenuated basis — you have to kind of work to perceive it. But that’s not true at Goose Pond. A century or so ago folks here were busily draining wetlands, which were widely believed to be useless, for farms. A little more than a decade ago, a number of heroic souls reclaimed about 9,000 acres and converted them back to wetlands. Birds noticed this happy change almost immediately, and in the years since, have crowded the place in numbers that oustripped even the most optimistic predictions. These wetlands are now one of the premier birding destinations in the Midwest, and perhaps the entire country.

Life, it seems, remains the most insistent force there is.

Oh, and I found the pelicans, after a long hike through brush and muck. As always, the rest of the images are on the Trailhead’s Facebook page.

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Undiscovered country

This afternoon, I received the news that my friend died this morning. I’ve known for some time that he had a deadly and rapidly progressing condition. So the news was not unexpected, but it was still surprising in how ferociously piercing it felt. He told me last week it was about to happen, but there was a part of me that clung fast to denial. That’s the part of me that sits here, now, and wonders how someone can send me a message one day and be gone on another. This happens all the time in life, and yet it still seems amiss.

During these last few months, I strained to minimize the gap that had opened between us, the one that inevitably appears between a person who still belongs very much to the world, and another who is preparing to exit it. It was important to me that we remain on the same footing, and remain open to the fact that until matters are concluded, they are nothing but ambiguous. It seemed a folly to assume that he would die before me, and to presume that the path was clear. So I insisted, always, that we didn’t know who would die first, because life was unpredictable, and I take nothing for granted. I don’t know why that was important to me, but it was. When we talked about death, I didn’t want it to be exclusively about his death; I wanted to talk about our deaths, because death is universally human and it will happen to both of us. It was my way, I guess, of being in solidarity, of casting my lot with his, and of maintaining our connection.

I guess it was also a way to try to stop the widening gap between us for as long as I could. I lost that struggle today.

My friend and I were close when we were young, but then diverged in young adulthood to live our lives. Twenty or so years later, we reignited our friendship and discovered we had spent the intervening years doing many of the same things: hiking, traveling, writing, photographing nature. During the year after he was diagnosed, we spent a lot of time talking about faith, and God, and maybe an afterlife, and maybe not. In one sense, I think that was an expected thing for a person facing a shortened life span to do, all part of the process we go through to meet our own mortality and accept death. But it was more than that for me; for the last year, as we absorbed the reality of his illness and prognosis in the context of our friendship, I went with him on a tour of what it means to be human, and he was my guide.

Neither of us was able to accept the circular reasoning of much organized religion, even as we both suspected there might be something more out there than nothing. We would talk and talk, but all we were left with was the ambiguity, the uncertainty of living and dying.

One day I started reading Marrow, Elizabeth Lesser’s story of donating bone marrow to her cancer-stricken sister and, how, in the process, she and her sister worked through a conflicted relationship toward an acceptance of their authentic selves. Lesser was raised in an atheist family, but from childhood, she hungered for the divine. I message my friend after the third chapter, when Lesser explains her understanding of prayer.

“She says that when you pray, you ‘relax into the mystery’,” I tell him.

“I suppose that’s what faith is,” he replies.

“Better than making shit up,” I observe. “Maybe we need to relax into the mystery,” I type. I pause for just a second before reaching my fingers back to the keyboard, my mind chewing on the concept. A thought sprouts: It’s easier in the woods. It bubbled up automatically, almost as soon as my mind wrapped itself around the idea of relaxing into the mystery.

It’s easier in the woods.

I can entertain the mystery anywhere, acknowledge it intellectually anywhere – in my bathtub, in my car, while scrolling through my Twitter feed. But to sink into the mystery, to lay myself down on it and in turn, let it lie upon me, it’s best to be outside. There, in between trees, on lakes, slogging up mountains, the mystery hangs in the air. I’m not just relaxing into it, I’m breathing it. My friend understands this. He has climbed ice in Alaska, sat under waterfalls in the tropics, walked on trails in the Appalachians. This is where our lives and our understanding of the world intersect.

“It’s easier in the woods,” I type.

“Amen to that,” he types back.

jkb104This morning, he left for undiscovered country. Perhaps somewhere he’s relaxing into the mystery. For me, though, he’s part of it now.

Locking eyes: Self-restraint and the lives of animals

I have never seen a wolf in the wild. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot many other species in their natural habitat – alligators, manatees, mountain goats, moose, bear, pine martens, American crocodiles, loggerhead turtles, moray eels, seals, elk, you name it. But never a wolf. The closest I ever came was a clear and unmistakably fresh paw print on a beach in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. She could see me, but I could not see her. Wolves are good at that.

Wolves certainly live in the places I travel; they are just good at staying out of my way. Last summer, while backpacking the North Fork Wilderness in Glacier National Park, we met an 86-year old park ranger, who had been working the park for decades. We began talking to him about a bear sighting on our intended route, but he was such an interesting character that the conversation meandered, and I asked him if he’d ever seen wolves in the North Fork. He described an encounter with a young wolf.

“Oh, of course,” he replied. “One day I ran right into one, and we stared at each other for a little bit. Then he picks up one paw and holds it up for a second, and he starts to back up, real slow. He didn’t turn his back on me till he was ready. When he finally did, he trotted a few steps, then turned back to look at me one more time.”

To me, the idea that a human being might share such a moment with a wild animal in its own home is a thing of wonder. To be close enough to such a creature that has every reason to fear you – close enough to lock eyes with it one last time before it vanishes into the woods – strikes me as one of the gifts of a lifetime.

That this is so, however, marks me as different from many of my fellow humans. There are times that I feel more of a kinship to wildlife than I do some people –most typically the folks who see wolves and other apex predators solely as threats, and would never pause to consider the expression in its eyes.

Human/wildlife relations have evolved during the age of mechanism. People have always been, and remain, the true apex predator. But as human beings continue on the road to causing the sixth great mass extinction, we are learning the steep costs of wholesale domination. Those costs exist in any kind of relationship, whether parental, romantic, political, or, in the case of wildlife, environmental. And the price is always, somewhat paradoxically, a chunk of the dominator’s humanity. That we have wiped out huge numbers — maybe as much as half — of all wildlife in the span of my life renders the earth a more emotionally and experientially sterile place to live. Many of us have realized that, regret it, and have set about ameliorating it.

In that vein, last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promulgated a rule to block some of humanity’s most brutal practices against wildlife in national refuges, including such depredations as killing hibernating bear mothers and cubs as they sleep, shooting wolf pups and their mothers in their dens, aerial hunting, and trapping bears with painful, steel-jawed leg traps. At the time, Republican Representative Mike Fitzpatrick said, about the rule:

“Inhumane hunting methods have caused the overkilling of native Alaskan predators, this rule takes a balanced approach allowing for traditional, permit-based hunting,” said Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick (R- PA). “Congress vested the FWS with the responsibility to manage our Wildlife Refuges. They intend to protect the necessary diversity of wildlife in our refuges while respecting traditional hunting methods.”

In 2016, a poll taken on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States found that Alaskans opposed the practices barred by the rule on a 2-1 basis.

That’s why it’s somewhat puzzling that last week, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the rule, thus, should the Senate and White House agree, allowing back into practice the fringe hunting practices to which most Alaskans are opposed. (Republican Rep. Fitzpatrick was one of the few Republican “nays.”) To be sure, the newly unified Republican government has an anti-regulatory tilt to it, but the repeal of this rule demonstrates the pointlessness of blanket hostility to federal regulations, simply because they are federal regulations and regardless of their support by those regulated.

Sportsmen, along with tree-hugging liberals like myself, turned the tide against the recent initiative to transfer certain federal lands back to the states in which they are located. I hope they show up this time as well, against fish-in-a-barrel tactics that would drain the challenge from the hunt as quickly as it would reduce the populations available for them to hunt.

207I visited a wolf sanctuary a year or so ago, not so much resigning myself to never photographing one in the wild as just impatient to learn about them and interact with them. Wolves, even domesticated ones, are elemental in a way that companion dogs are not. At the time, I wrote that “[l]ooked at in the abstract, a wolf can seem either like an utterly mystical creature, a thing apart from humans — a symbol, almost, that looms large in the human imagination. Or it can seem like just a big dog. I found that they are neither, really. When a wolf brushes against your leg, you can feel the heft of the animal, and you can tell it’s somehow different from a dog. Not more, or better; just different. Their fur is coarser than a dog’s; there is a steeliness in how a wolf evaluates you, even when its attitude is friendly; you can feel the power and the presence in a wolf standing near you — or, as the case may be, jumping on you.”

Shortly after I thought about all of this, a big male wolf, Wotan, buried his nose in my crotch to decide if I was worth his company. It’s not as romantic as my park ranger friend’s surprise encounter with a wild wolf in the North Fork. But it was enough to remind me, again, of the costs of refusing to restrain ourselves in relation to wildlife. Wolves, bears and mountain lions will slip away. And there will be nothing to remind us of the thrill of creation, no brief but magical interactions with those who are right to fear us, but who still allow us a moment of regard.

Find your Senators here. And while you’re at it, tell them to stop messing with the Endangered Species Act too.