From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.
Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?
Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.
I wish I could tell you I’m one of those people who goes with the flow, who intuitively understands how to let go and ride the river, but I’m not. Too often I still find myself in a fight with the universe over the remote control of my life, and every time I lose.
As summer wanes, I grouse about winter. As winter melts into spring, I feel like I’m not quite ready to leave hibernation. What I can say is that the older I get, the more I learn, and the better I get at handing over the remote.
Winter is coming in forcefully this year. We’ve already had an early ice storm and, today, an early season snow. This morning I walked out in it, entered the stillness and the silence, and let the flakes land on my nose. I walked through brown cornfields in the community garden, trying not to trip over the fallen stalks. I paid my respects to a deceased sunflower, its graceful curve still intact, snow gathering on the back of the long-gone blossom.
And then I went back to where it’s warm, having completed my small act of hospitality to the inevitable. Getting better all the time.
When I married my husband, I knew he’d been interested in reptiles from an early age. He was a bold kid, adept both at evading adult supervision and, thankfully, keeping himself just barely on the right side of the dirt when he did. That’s how he came to handle his first venomous snake – a copperhead – at the tender age of 9, while adventuring in a marshy area behind his childhood home in Houston that the kids called “The Bayou.” His parents had forbidden him from playing in The Bayou, probably because of the very thing that attracted him the most – the varied and occasionally hazardous reptile life that lived there.
Somehow, he made it to adulthood. Along the way, he owned several snakes, turtles, and lizards along the way. One summer, he worked with researchers who were bagging timber rattlesnakes for venom research. His job was to carry the bagged snakes down the mountain and back to the waiting vehicles. Fortunately, he’d learned safer ways of handling venomous snakes since his escapades with the copperheads.
It never occurred to me that my son might come to share his stepdad’s interest in reptiles, if only because the genetics didn’t seem to be there – his father has a straight-up phobia of anything with scales, and though I love animals of all kinds, snakes never really resonated with me. But he did develop an interest in reptiles. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My son is obsessed with snakes, particularly venomous snakes, but any snake will do. One day three or four years ago, he asked Travis to teach him to handle our Rosy Boa, and from there he was off. Sean has studied snakes obsessively – their habits, identification, habitats, and venom. Sometime last year, Travis announced that Sean was now his superior at snake identification.
If there is any ideal I hold as a parent – and I hope there are several – it is “feed the obsession.” (Unless it’s video games, in which case my mantra is “tolerate and manage the obsession.”) Accordingly, when I discovered Snake Road, I quickly began organizing a family trip there. If you’ve read my writing about the Silver River monkeys, you know I’m a fan of idiosyncratic nature travel. This was a destination to please everyone.
Snake Road is a narrow gravel forest service road in southern Illinois, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, sandwiched between limestone bluffs on one side and spring-fed marshes on the other. In the fall, the reptiles and amphibians that have spent all summer plying the marshes leave the water, cross the road, and head up into the bluffs to find cozy dens for winter hibernation. In the spring, they come back down again. Because some 59% of Illinois’ reptiles — and even more of the state’s amphibians — live here, the forest service closes the road to vehicle traffic for two months in the spring, and two months in the fall, to allow the animals to migrate safely.
This, as you can imagine, creates a kind of herpetological paradise. Scores of people in spring and fall descend upon Snake Road to walk its 2.5 mile length, down and back, looking for migrating snakes and other critters. We went for the first time last spring, and again just this past weekend for the fall migration. On a Saturday in the middle of migration season, the small parking lot at the beginning of the road will be full, and 4 or 5 cars will be parked along the side of the road. An informational sign and the closed gate mark the start of the road.
There is a communitarian aspect to the Snake Road experience; when you meet someone, there is always discussion of the species each party has seen, exclamations over each party’s sightings, or commiseration if no one has seen anything at all. If a snake is in a particularly interesting situation and is not moving, the news travels along this informational highway like electricity along a wire. Everyone helps everyone else out – as long as a given person seems trustworthy and snake-friendly.
This is how we found out about a young cottonmouth that had spent the night in a tree snag last spring, and was coiled up in the morning chill. And this weekend, it was how we found out about a timber rattlesnake that was basking in a tree just off the road. A man and his daughter had stepped into the woods to look for something else entirely, and the young girl had noticed the viper in a nearby tree. News of the rattler made its way quickly along the road, and before long, everyone was talking about it.
We made it to the tree at the same time several other folks did, and we all spent a long time admiring the snake, photographing it, not getting too close, but just close enough. Everyone there knew the signs of agitation that would demand we quickly retreat, but the animal gave no indication of being upset. It seemed to regard the people standing around it as no different from the other trees surrounding it. Timber rattlers are fairly placid snakes, which explains why our friend remained calm amid the clicking shutters and whispered exclamations of admiration.
Sometimes, though, you can walk endlessly along the road seeing nothing at all – or at least, you don’t think you do. Halfway down the road Saturday, I was walking along, looking for snakes along the expanse of the road, when my son cried out “Mom! Stop!” And there, right in front of me, was a Cottonmouth, head perked up with interest, that had blended so well into the gravel that my gaze had passed over him. I now have the distinction of almost stepping on a venomous snake because I was too occupied with…looking for snakes.
I was wearing heavy, high hiking boots, so the danger was probably mostly on the cottonmouth’s side. After staring at me resentfully for several seconds, the snake scurried across the road, back from where it had come, perhaps to try the crossing later. I spent the rest of the day looking exactly in front of my next step. I began to wonder how many snakes our eyes simply passed over without seeing.
Last spring, we saw eight snakes in one day and four during the next half-day. This weekend, the weather was cooler, and we saw only four on Saturday and two on Sunday (the latter being a baby DeKay’s Brown Snake, a species we’ve never seen before). That’s nothing like the estimates I’ve heard along the road of people seeing up to forty snakes a day, but it’s more than we would see walking along any other road. That, along with the cave salamanders a couple of teenage boys showed us, and innumerable frogs, made for a great weekend. It’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the best time for maximum snake-spotting; I suspect it’s too much a matter of immediate weather patterns to plan ahead. Perhaps next spring we’ll have more data.
My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.
However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.
I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives. And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.
Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.
It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.
Wildfire smoke in British Columbia made sunset unearthly and weird at the Salt Creek Recreation Area on Washington’s Olympic coast. I kept hoping the sun would sink below the curtain of smoke and explode onto the water, but the haze swallowed it entirely.
The week after Christmas, we drove out to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We went to see my husband’s family, including my sister-in-law, whose partner died during Thanksgiving week. Mary was a small, compact woman with a much larger spirit, and her absence was palpable from the moment we walked in the door.
The deaths and illnesses of people close to me this year has left me sad, reflective, and a bit depressed. My photography has suffered. I even forgot my tripod on this trip.
My father-in-law, though, ever resourceful, called a photographer friend of his and asked if he had a spare to lend me, and he said that he did. When we went over to get it, I said “Thank you. I’ve never done this before.”
He cocked his head, confused. “This is the first time you’ve used a tripod?” He’d been told I was an experienced photographer.
“Oh, no,” I laughed. “It’s the first time I’ve forgotten mine.”
One morning, early, I looked out the window and saw the supermoon setting over the mountains in a sky with strange, golden morning light. I grabbed my gear without thinking, and my father-in-law came behind me with the tripod. Although the afternoon temperatures in Santa Fe reached the 50’s that week, the dry air has nothing to hold the warmth after sundown. The air that morning was piercing.
I shot it with the wrong lens, but it’s a start. Maybe my head will come back together eventually.
This year has been the least prolific photographic year I’ve had in more than a decade. I lost two people close to me this year — the second diagnosed a week before the first passed away — and someone even closer has been diagnosed with a serious illness (with a much better prognosis, thankfully.)
In twenty years of shooting I’ve learned that in times of sadness or distress, the engine behind my writing and photography stalls. It can feel scary sometimes, but it will pass. This is all just life, and you have to go with that.
So when the prompt was to share the most meaningful photo of 2017, this one bubbled up. I took this in June, in the middle of the year, on one of the few days I felt that old familiar magic about being outside. I did travel this year — to Florida, the Badlands, and out to the Pacific Northwest. How funny, though, that the most “meaningful” image came from home, here in Indiana.
Eleven years ago today, I spent my birthday at Glacier National Park. That was back when I owned a house in northwest Montana, and I spent every possible moment there. And because it was my birthday, I wanted to go to Glacier, because I love Glacier. I looked back at my ancient blog Trailheadcase (I’ve been blogging continuously at one site or another since 2005), and was reminded that it was chilly enough up at Logan Pass to require a coat on my almost-four year old (now almost 15), but warm enough to play in Lake McDonald in shorts and a t-shirt. Such is life at elevation.
Tonight, eleven years later, Glacier is on fire. A lot of it is burning. The venerable Sperry Chalet, one of Glacier’s famous backcountry lodges, was overtaken by flame. I’ve been watching this beloved place of mine — all of Montana, really — burning for weeks on the news. I spent a day in Glacier the last time it was this tormented by fire, in 2003. It was a hellscape, and my lungs were scratchy from smoke inhalation at the end of the day. These fires are immeasurably worse.
At the same time, the Columbia River Gorge — a place I lived near for three years around the same time — is alight as well. The story is that a teenager tossed some fireworks into a a canyon for lulz, giggled, and walked away, trapping more than 100 hikers on a trail I can recall hiking about exactly ten years ago. At the end of that trail is Punchbowl Falls, a sublimely chilly pool where a smallish, homely bird called the water ouzel plows into the falls and skims the bottom for food before popping up again, calm and collected, to enjoy its meal.
The trapped hikers made it out. I don’t know the condition of Punchbowl Falls, but as of yesterday, the fire had spread to 30,000 acres, enough to threaten all of the other wonderful trails in the Gorge and some historic structures, some of which I was lucky enough to see again when I was there last month. Although everyone wants to junk punch this teenager, his casual maliciousness could never have had the effect it did had this July and August not been the third driest on record in Oregon.
On the other side of the country, Hurricane Irma, among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, is on trajectory for a head-on collision with south Florida — another place I’ve spent significant time, both in my childhood and as an adult. I took my first steps at the Kon-tiki resort in the Florida Keys. I wonder about my grandparents’ old house west of Ft. Lauderdale. I worry about my stepdaughter in Orlando, working as an intern at Disney. I worry about my aunt in Ocala, and my dear cousin in Palm Coast. I worry about the monkeys on the Silver River, and the willets on Marineland Beach.
And this is all on the heels of some of the worst flooding in United States history in Houston, which saw my husband’s childhood neighborhood drowned.
I lived out west about ten years ago, and it was there I became acquainted with the reality of climate change, as so many of us did. Climate change somehow became a political question, and a refusal to believe the established science became a tribal litmus test for the right — to the profound and devastating misfortune of the earth. I don’t know how much longer that denial will work for people, as one out-sized natural disaster after another befalls us. Sadly, I fear that the denial well is nowhere near as dry as the woods in Montana and Oregon.
And so this is likely to be what the last half of my life looks like, watching these gorgeous and meaningful places die, not to come back in my lifetime. I suppose I’m lucky I saw them while they lasted; my kids’ generation isn’t so fortunate. The earth will outlast us, of course. Whole books have been written about that. The World Without Us talks about what an earth suddenly unstressed by human occupation would look like. Some things, like plastic, are here to stay. But the carbon in the atmosphere would clear after many thousands of years.
These things aren’t so much about the earth, exactly. Climate change has always been more about what we take from ourselves, and from the wilds. And whether we admit it the cause or not, we are starting to lose a great deal.