The Shoulder Season

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“Picture a weasel…that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity–picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a wolverine.”

                                                   Lord, let me die    but not die

Out.”

                        For the Last Wolverine, James Dickey

A few weeks ago, on our way to the End of Summer Concert and bbq at the Camp Sherman Store, my wife and I crossed paths with a bear. He wasn’t a big bear, probably not much more than a yearling boar, and we surprised him at whatever he was doing. He lumbered a few yards into the brush, then stopped, sniffed the air, and sat by a rotten stump. We stopped too, and for a long time the three of us just sat there studying each other.

Maybe it was the smoke, or the heat, or the way the bear sat panting as he watched us, but I had what alcoholics call a “moment of clarity,” a brief window of comprehension that stayed with me long after.

For whatever reason, I thought of Hiro Onoda. Onoda, who refused to believe that Japan had lost the Second World War, finally came out of the Philippine jungle in 1974, almost thirty years late, and only after his former commander was flown in from Japan to formally relieve him from duty.

ODFW estimates that there are 25-30,000 black bears living in Oregon, which is greatly encouraging, if you believe them. But based on what we know about post-industrial human behavior, and how the chart lines of human domination and the success of other species travel in opposite directions, it may not be too far-fetched to think that in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren, seeing a bear in the woods at all may be more the stuff of Onoda’s surrender than a realistic expectation.

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The last Grizzly in Oregon probably died alone

I don’t think that’s too dramatic. The last documented Grizzly bear in Oregon was killed on September 14, 1931, near Chesimnus Creek, in the Wallowas. That really wasn’t very long ago. And the sad truth about it is really much worse, given that the last Grizzly bear in Oregon likely never surrendered, and probably died utterly alone, unknown to anyone.

And how could Lewis and Clark, who witnessed bison by the tens of thousands, believe that within 75 years of their journey some 60 million bison would have been hunted to near extinction?

I’m not pointing fingers. As a young man I would hide in the giant haystacks of one ranch or another, working a rabbit call and cradling a rifle. My friends and I would sit for hours in the cold, glassing the desert and calling coyotes in over the snow–so we could shoot them. We never, to the best of my memory, gave any serious thought to the rightness, or the wrongness, of it all. If anything, we thought we were doing a bit for predator control because coyotes can be truly vicious. Among other appalling spectacles, I’ve seen them encircle a calving cow and drag the calf from her body even as she tried gallantly to fight off a snarling pack of murderous midwives.

But today, in my personal shoulder season–that odd space between old understandings and the search for new ones—I’m looking for ways to accommodate rather than kill, and I worry that my behavior wasn’t much better than the garimpeiros in Peru and Brazil who, for the sake of minerals, routinely murder human beings.

Nothing says “Modern Man” quite like shooting our primitive and defenseless cousins for profit.

We’ve seen that before, too. Settlers in the country where I was raised thought nothing of taking random pot-shots at Paiutes or Maidus, or Bannock and Pit River natives who were usually starving, and sick, had no means to defend themselves, and were simply travelling on the wagon road.

What’s more disturbing is that in some way, with only rare exceptions, we have inherited the mindset. We are part of that lineage because we are, in a direct sense, part of the horrors in the Congo, where children are forced at gunpoint to dig up minerals such as Coltan for our cell phones and computers—by hand.

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The bear on the road to Camp Sherman

I know a lot of people who think that is wrong, but I don’t know a single person who is willing to give up their cell phone or computer so that kids in the Congo don’t have to do that sort of thing, or who would trade the comparative comfort and convenience of modern American life to help stop the slaughter of stone-age tribes in Amazonia. We couldn’t even manage that kind of decency in our own backyard. And these days we mostly don’t see it, so it’s far easier to rationalize those concerns away and to invest emotionally and financially in the anodynes that ultimately do nothing but preserve the disease.

Again, I’m not moralizing here; I place myself firmly, inescapably, in the ranks of the consumer. This is simply the dichotomous web of modern life, and the more we struggle against it the deeper, it seems, we are caught.

“Things reveal themselves passing away,” wrote Yeats. That’s true, but only if we are paying attention. Hiro Onoda revealed himself in the last sad act of a war for domination, resources, and liebensraum that consumed the world, and a few weeks ago a bear revealed himself to us in the under-logged woods of Oregon.

He wasn’t the last bear, not yet, and he’s fighting a war for resources that he isn’t even aware of, but somehow I think these things–the bear, the natives, the minerals, and Onoda, are all related. In fact I know they are related, in the same way that I know the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, spilled out onto a table, somehow, eventually, with the due diligence that is our responsibility, fit together into a much larger picture.

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9 thoughts on “The Shoulder Season

  1. “only if we are paying attention”

    And this is the rub. Maybe I’m just getting cynical, but I’m seeing less and less forethought among my students. Their attention spans seem to be getting shorter as our modern life becomes more and more centered around constant stimulation and instant gratification. It’s hard to pay attention if you don’t take time to notice the world you.

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    • Thanks Cyndi. It is sad. The efforts we are making for some measure of independence and sustainability have sparked a kind of revolution in my research and thinking about how we are doing this thing on earth. The little red lines on the graph do not point in encouraging directions.

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  2. Craig,
    This is intended for your most recent posting, but having trouble posting my comment. In previous experiences it has been hit and miss posting sometimes and not at other times. Maybe my internet is under siege. Not sure. Anyway, I am trying here as there is no other means to communicate. Hope it does not create an issue for you.
    Thanks! — ST

    On Lions and Tigers & Bears and such:

    My [sic] simple explanation for this (and I as well) am most certainly caught in the steel trap jaws of this “devil’s bargain.”

    Yes, Craig. The devil’s bargain of consumerism and it’s consequential destruction of what everything depends on. I identify completely with what you say here. I say this as a reluctant but complicit participant at best and as a explicit and guilty participant at worst. It requires an extraordinary effort to not do so. It has created an insatiable appetite with an ever gathering wake of irreversible damage in so many cases. It feels like an insurmountable and undefeatable enemy that even a legion of Wolverines storming against it might find their claws trying to climb a greased vertical wall. Nature indeed may be the only one that has the last word and final act. The last tree. The last Black Bear. The last hope. Paradise lost. I cannot claim oblivion or blissful ignorance. Can’t beat ’em so join ’em? A false choice no doubt but a temptation nonetheless. Until I figure out what to do, I will try to take Joseph Campbell’s advice and “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” A good place to start perhaps while we try to figure it out. Black Bears are depending on us. Many years ago I had an encounter with a Alaskan Brown Bear from about 100 yards away I was 10 miles deep into the woods from the nearest road and was camping at the base of a glacier beside the mouth of it’s river. Fortunately he took
    a few sniffs and headed back down the river. All the way on the hike back to the road I had to witness the claw marks on carved into the Sitka Spruce trees. My estimate was that he was about a 1,200 pounder. I also passed on an opportunity to be dropped on Admiralty Island to hunt them. Too majestic. Too much spirit. No rational need to do so. I am not a trophy hunter.
    I do not object to hunting, just not hunting Bears (of any genus) by choice. Instead that weekend I hiked up to the gold (glory hole) and camped on the edge of a waterfall with my girl friend. As always Craig, a very well written piece and a worthy subject. Long live the Bears.

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    • Thanks Tramp…I’ve had some connectivity issues here for an unknown reason. Weather related, probably…thanks for this thoughtful response. I have been diving headlong into Wendell Berry’s work lately, and the remarkable thing about him is his consistency over time with a strong message about the logical ways of living we have bypassed in favor of “growth” and “consumerism”. The present course is a zero sum game, and can only result in ultimate cataclysm. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul leaves everyone broke in the end. I hope we can fix it. I doubt it. The choice is existential: present the world with one improved unit. That’s our goal here, and like you, unless I’m going to eat it, I don’t hunt it–not anymore. And I’d much rather grow it than buy it from a store–the climate here makes that difficult, but it’s something. I’ve not seen a grizzly yet…been places where I might have, but so far no dice. Someday I will. Safe travels, friend.

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  3. “To accommodate rather than kill” My hope is the chaos will allow me to do just that in my last several years Craig. Here is a morning Kombucha in the hope that God’s Love will prevail. We leave this morning with a trailer full of mountain bikes and a lifted 94 Bronco for the Great Sequoias. It will be Cipres’ maiden voyage to Johnsondale; peddling in thin air, past thousand plus year old trees and probably seeing a few bears and if we are lucky, a big cat. Already cold up there.

    The last Grizzly Killed in California (1922) is not that far from the trails we ride. The last sighting was two years after that. Ironic and sad – the Bear State needed only 75 years to kill all of the California Grizzly Bears. The disconnect from our creator’s gifts, seem proportionate to our sadness, anger and confusion.

    Not for nothing Craig and in reading some of these replies, you taking the time to create this space of pause, thought and sharing, is a great reminder that the same species that is causing the damage, is also fully capable and in fact the only hope, in making it better. Thanks for your thoughts buddy.

    The good humans are still the majority. Off to the big trees, I’ll let you know if Rick gets devoured…..

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