Encounters – Five Excerpts from The Heart of the Sound.

by Marybeth Holleman

Communicating
South Culross

It is a rainy afternoon in Picturesque Cove. I sit inside the small dark cabin, reading by candlelight from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous about how our language creates a perceptual boundary which has separated us from the natural world. I stop to let this idea sink in, and look out the window to the brighter light outside. The dark wood frames dripping green salmonberry leaves and my son.

Jamie stands on the porch in his green rainsuit, cawing to crows in his sweet six-year-old voice. He makes another sound, higher in pitch, sharper, and repeats it. Then he opens the heavy wood door, enters and says, as he begins to poke at and blow on the fire, “Communicating with those seagulls for a second.”

Clouds Port
Fidalgo

Out the window of this Cessna 206, the weekly mail plane to Chenega Bay and Tatitlek, I see clouds in the water, light and dark. The light clouds, blurring into gray-blue water, are blooms of jellyfish. Great blossomings of pale white moon jellies, pulsations of light. The dark clouds, they are Pacific herring. Eight inches long, they swim in schools of a million or more, a sudden flash of their silver undersides confusing predators. In April their spawning turns the waters of bays and lagoons milky white; from sea and land and air come those who feed on their roe. Over forty different species—bald eagles, brown bears, humpback whales, tufted puffins—all depending on such small fish with such big lives. From above they are dark water; from below they are sky. I sit in the floatplane and imagine the view from down there, from beneath those millions of herring. One dark cloud flashes silver, a bolt of lightening in a sea of blue.

Otter
Mink Island

We beach the boats and find a narrow trail, follow it through devil’s club and blueberry, up. Out onto a muskeg meadow, to a faint trail of pale green sphagnum moss smoothed over. Not for footprints but as a slide, a trail leads from one small muskeg pond to another, some no bigger than a foot across. The ponds are still water, deeper than they look, sinking soft brown bottom. We take the faint slide-trail up through one then another meadow, to a ridge lined with blueberry bushes and dwarfed mountain hemlock. On our bellies, we peer over and see, in the next meadow, in a bigger pond, three river otters splashing and diving. Three shining brown bodies, slender as my arm. The biggest has a salmon in its mouth. It dives in a sinuous arc, a soft splash wafting across the meadow to us. In seconds, it pops up empty-mouthed. The smallest slips under the water and resurfaces with the fish in its mouth. Then all three leap into the pond and are gone. I turn back to the way we all came. That trail we traced here, it was made by this otter family, a slide they’ll follow on their bellies back down to the sea.

Bear
Picturesque Cove

Low tide, and the shallow cove is nearly drained. We haul the boats high on the beach, dragging their hulls across a field of dead and dying salmon. The acrid stench of decay fills the air as persistently as a cloud of mosquitoes on caribou. Their bodies, some crippled by death into grotesque forms, have faded from brilliant red into the same mottled gray as the mud that now holds them. A swarm of glaucous and herring gulls hop and flap, pecking at the worn-out bodies, snatching eyeballs from those still living, leaving them blind in their last moments.

Above the beach ryegrass, I walk the trail to the cabin. Beside it, the stream is clogged with fins like daggers carving water. At the sound of a splash, I turn. A few feet away stands a black bear, salmon in mouth. It lifts a shaggy head toward me, the small round ears twitching, then it gallops, bowlegged, out of the stream and up the near-vertical bank into the woods.

I run to the cabin and latch the wooden door.

Later, I step out on the porch to hang wet clothes. A black bear in the stream, another on the bank, both freeze. I freeze, too. They stand no taller than I, but are thick with fur and muscle. If one were to lunge forward toward the deck, it would have me.

The bear in the stream breaks the trance: it swipes at the water with a wide paw, catches a writhing fish, dashes up the bank. The other enters the roiling water, high-stepping to avoid slipping on salmon.

Far into the late-summer evening, the bears fish the stream right beside the cabin. They must know I’m not a hunter. They must know that bear-hunting season arrives after the salmon are gone, when they fill their bellies with salmonberry and blueberry instead of fish, when they begin dreaming of long winter nights in dark dens.

Hummingbird
Harrison Lagoon

Jamie and I wander back into the cabin after a session of skipping stones on the beach. Inside we find two rufous hummingbirds, frantically bumping into the window. We had left the door open—and now they want out, to that feeder filled with red nectar they see just the other side of invisible glass. We try to shoo them out, waving our arms, Jamie waving his hat. We are all four of us—mother, child, two hummingbirds—a frantic blur, and then Jamie and I stop and approach them ever so slowly. They are shimmering red and green bundles of energy, fluttering and bouncing off the window like rays of color emanating from a sunlit prism. I reach out my hands, a slow glide, encircle and catch one. It’s a tiny thing in my hand, silky and light. It’s as if I’m holding only air, except for a soft quick pulsing, the hummingbird’s breath. I coo softly to it, “Everything is fine, it’s OK,” as I walk to the door, out the door, and then open my hands and watch as it rockets out, landing on a blueberry branch. Jamie says, “Let me catch the other one,” and I do, helping him cup his hands around it. I watch my boy’s face as he feels that finite pulse; watch him as he releases it back into the infinite blue.

Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound, co-author of Among Wolves, and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Pushcart-prize nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, among them Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Literary Mama, ISLE, North American Review, AQR, The Future of Nature, and on National Public Radio. She runs the blog Art and Nature at www.artandnatureand.blogspot.com. A North Carolina transplant, she has lived in Alaska for over 30 years. www.marybethholleman.com

The Heart of the Sound was published by the University of Utah Press (2004) hardcover and University of Nevada Press (2011) paperback.

Equivocal

by Jane Lovell

Light spills both ways:
silhouetting stands of blackthorn on the lane

and climbing the slow hill, striping the turf, its grey horse
racing a big sky.

Along the line of the fence, a ghost owl flies on silent wing
while the weasel creeps to her nest.

The weasel creeps to her nest without brushing a leaf,
breathing its pinbone mess of pellet and fur.

Darkling beetles steady at rustle and hiss, wait
for the long yolk falling.

Along the line of the fence, the ghost owl flies to her nest,
early light tracing the edge of her wing in each direction.

Her ears pinpoint sound in delay; last night’s start
and patter, her hunger, buried in the fall of rain.

She disappears from sight, leaving her silence
and a glimmer of wire.

In the hedge, something woven from air and tats of down
is staring, its flyblown carcass stirring as if waking.

Earth resumes its humming; celandine secures the verge.
On the hill, the horse stoops to graze.

Previously published in Elementum, Edition 4

 

Jane Lovell has been widely published in journals and anthologies. She has won the Flambard Prize and been shortlisted for several awards including the Basil Bunting Prize, the Robert Graves Prize and the Periplum Book Award. Her most recent publication is Metastatic from Against the Grain Poetry Press. In 2018, Jane won the Coast to Coast to Coast Portfolio Prize, the Wealden Literary Festival Writing Prize, the Terrain.org Poetry Contest and the Wigtown Poetry Prize.

Sonia Shomalzadeh- Artist

I make drawings of endangered marine creatures to start conversations and bring to light their beauty and fragility. The drawings are temporary and nearly always life size. The sand drawings get taken with the tides like offerings to the ocean. And the charcoal drawings either fade or get painted over. 

Sonia studied Painting at City and Guilds of London Art School and gained a Masters in Art & Environment at University College Falmouth. She completed a residency in the Azores aboard RV Song of the Whale, studying marine mammals in the North Atlantic Ocean with Marine Conservation Research (MCR) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Soon after, she won Young Marine Artist of the Year 2012 in London. All her work is driven by scientific research in environmental issues and inspired by wildlife conservation.  

Sperm Whale, sand drawing, 2013
Narwhal, sand drawing, 2014
Gray Whale with Kayaker, sand drawing, 2011
Leatherback Turtle, charcoal, 500 x 2400 cm, 2016
Gray Whale with motorbike, 2011

Looking into the Eyes of a Grizzly

by Jennifer Tarnacki

As soon as I moved into a cabin in Alaska I started dreaming about bears. They appeared in my dreams all the time, not nightly, but close. It was like my spirit was trying to connect to the spirit of Bear, searching around in the dark, groping in the crevices and recesses of my subconscious for memories or perceptions that I already had. With every dream similar images flickered across my inner landscape — of predator, monster, aggressor, killer- but none of them felt quite right. My impressions, assumptions, and perceptions about bear, they all felt wrong. I felt anxiety in the Alaskan woods, but it didn’t feel quite right to think of them only as big predators. I couldn’t put my finger on it, this attraction coupled with fear, which are actually two sides of the same coin: fear hiding love. That beautiful ache you feel when looking at a deadly creature, your fatality wrapped up in their being. An intimate and thrilling connection.

Moments in the woods were tense. I feigned calm but really on hikes or trips to the outhouse I feared, jumping at the slightest crack of a twig. I consumed bear facts like I was preparing for an exam. I knew the myriad given names for bear: Lightfoot, silvertip, fur man, honey paw, grandfather on the hill, wise man, winter-sleeper. I read folk stories from every Northern culture. Humans throughout every culture have always had a connection to bear; we see them in patterns in the sky, creating constellations out of them. My first few months I was convinced I’d see one any minute, a mythic silhouette lumbering in a dark wood. I was obsessed.

Nonetheless my hyper-vigilance seemed for naught, all I had spotted so far when I heard sounds that made the har on the back of my neck stand up ended up being from squirrels rattling around in the roof. I hadn’t encountered this being I thought so much about. So when spring rolled around and I saw a posting on Craigslist for the chance to work for a bear viewing company that came with the perk of free bear viewing trips, I jumped on it.

The first trip I joined was to Hallo Bay, Katmai National Park. A brown bear sanctuary. Hallo is a small bay in the gulf of Alaska separated from habitable land by volcanoes and ice-capped peaks. Thousands of brown bears thrive there. Here exists the strange fact of biological habituation: due to the plentiful food and lack of negative contact with humans, Katmai bears have become habituated to human presence, but only if it stays predictable. The bears have not learned to associate humans with food, weapons, or danger. The result — a bizarre non-response to our presence, enabling a thriving bear viewing industry. The pilots skillfully circled Hallo Bay and landed on the beach.

We disembarked the bush plane, geared up and reviewed the rules, of which there were exactly three: stay within arms length of the group, no running, and no fish. We left the relative safety of the beach and stepped out into the valley, following the surefoot guide’s brisk pace directly into the open fields. I fought a fierce urge to sprint back to the plane, feeling crazy for willingly seeking out a brown bear. The hip waders we wore to traverse the mudflats made our movements sluggish and slow, the boots sinking and sticking in the goopy mud with thwaaaacks and thhwwopps. We couldn’t have run if we tried.

The bear trails here are ancient, tamped down by generations of traveling bears criss-crossing the tidal mudflats and fields in each others’ footsteps. Mamas teach new cubs to walk the same pathways that generations before them have walked; a cultural knowledge. They know they’re home. This has been their ancestral dwelling ground for a long time. Take a bear out of
her home and dump her hundreds of miles away and she will traverse rivers and mountains to return within a few days to the exact same place, driven by an impressively powerful homing instinct.

When we first spotted a large bear grazing a few hundred yards away, my heart seemed to catch in my throat. My body went stiff and taut, my breath stilled in my lungs and my heart thumped wildly in my rib cage. This was the fight-or-flight response kicking into high gear. It took everything in me to stay calm with the adrenaline pulsing through me. Phrases like biological habituation and reassurances from the pilots (bush pilots aren’t notoriously sensible folk) only go so far. Try telling your adrenal glands that all is well when a thousand pound grizzly starts curiously meandering your way. Our guide motioned for us to stay quiet, bunch together, and shrink down into a neutral crouching position as the curious bear got a better look at us. I hunkered down in breathless surreality as a big female bear wandered startlingly close, then ambled off, far more interested in other bears in the vicinity than in us.

As my brain caught up with my body’s shock and I convinced myself I was safe, I began to relax. I could trust this. It was May, the beginning of mating season. All throughout the early spring, the bears came down out of their dens up in the hills into the verdant valley below to join dozens of others bears, forming a temporary but cohesive bear society for the summer. They first searched the beach at low tide for clams, then munched lazily on spring greens. Salmon wouldn’t emerge from their watery matrix until July, this is what truly keeps them full and thriving. Until then they gorged on goose tongue grass to fill their bellies.

A juvenile female and male came down from the hills, circling each other slowly, keeping intense focus on each other. The older female pursued curiously and boldly while the younger male inched backwards, maintaining the distance of space between them. When she stopped pursuing, the male started chasing her. A funny, coy mating dance, the female turning around every so often in her retreat if to say, “Are you still following me? Are you committed to this chase, big boy?” A few hours later, evidently over their apprehension, we saw them playfully batting each other around, rolling around on top of one another; two young bears playing make believe at being mating adults.

The bears seemed to dance around each other, keeping space between them with a calculating precision. Specific body language cues signaled to each other an understanding of their place in bear society. At least thirty different facial and body language cues communicate a plethora of information to each other; of aggression, submission, tolerance, suspicion, interest in mating, territorial anger. The young ones must learn their place in the hierarchy or risk a fight. At one point, two big but young teenage males came crashing and tumbling over each other in the dense spruce, startling our guide who instinctively put a hand to the flare dangling from his pocket, but the bears were only play-fighting, looking exactly like unruly puppies. Later we saw them napping on their day beds, curled up peacefully on their razor sharp claws the size of dinner plates.

There is an eerie humanness to their gait. I could see how northern dwelling proto-Europeans could have thought that bears were their distant ancestors, as if stripping their garment of fur would reveal a human underneath. Like us, they are foraging omnivores, like us, they stand upright, eyes facing straight ahead. Like us, they play a coy mating game, and seek privacy to mate or to nurse. They eat herbs to heal their own wounds and illnesses, and put effort into forming comfortable winter dens. Stories abound in indigenous cultures of kinship: of bear cults, maidens mating with bear and giving birth to bear sons, creating elaborate ceremonies around slain bears, wearing their claws as sacred emblems of protection.

The most noticeable sensation was one of space. Bears need large tracts of space: space between each other, space to roam, space to forage and feed, space for privacy and travel. They lumber slowly with a wide girth, rollicking through forest and field. Even with the stress of being surrounded by bears on all sides in an open plain, the pace calmed me. It could have been a scene from prehistoric time. Aided by the sluggishness of the hip waders, I felt as though time had slowed down, like moving through liquid. Yet in this wide open space, in this slow space, a sudden reaction could occur at any moment. The juxtaposition of their nature; first as seemingly peaceful, ambling along munching on grass, only to react with stunning ferocity and speed, is what makes the bears so bewitching, what unnerves us so. This juxtaposition, of slowness coupled with an acute awareness of spontaneous danger, thrusts you into mindfulness, into an intensely alive awareness. Our ancestors evolved in this wild awakening, and I felt a kinship with them too. Slowness and space, aliveness and awareness; this is the authentic pace of wild life.

In this kingdom of brown bears, the most striking realization is that they are living their bear lives, lives as purposeful as any. Here, we are the ones in their territory. Their power, their vigor, seemed to emanate from them, larger than the confines of their form. I felt a strangely fierce and dizzying love of this power. It felt important- a metaphor for wildness.

And yet. And yet. The Katmai bears aren’t quite free. The Fish and Wildlife Service tracks, tags, and tranquilizes them for their research and management purposes. Our arsenal of natural resource management strategies govern what we now refer to as “designated wildernesses”. I felt a dim awareness of the tragedy of this.

I began to wonder…

What did it used to be like? What awareness and knowledge did we used to carry, us fragile humans, to coexist with bear?

Throughout the long history of humans and bears sharing habitat there has been a remarkable coexistence. Our ancestors evolved with this awareness of predators; they knew how to interact, how to respond. When hunting, the bear was more than a trophy prize, it was an initiation right. The slain bear involved a sacred ceremony laden with respect and reverence. A Tligit elder once warned a cocky hunter that he was not respecting Bear enough, and that Bear could sense it. Sure enough, he was right. The seeming descent of the bear into the underworld of their dens and their cyclical reemergence every spring was a metaphor for seasonality and rebirth, giving rise to contemplation of immortality. Bear played an important role in the psyche, because their existence was part of the dangerous beauty of living.

There is a subtle ache in the knowledge that we now have weapons and tranquilizers vastly superior to bear’s prowess, that we’ve diminished their natural habitat to small parcels of manageable land, patrolled by weaponed guards and fake borders. Bears know no borders, respond to no rules. They only want to survive. It makes my heart ache, the fragility of their lives, depending so much on our willingness to coexist versus dominate. How free are they really?

When we landed back in Homer town, all I wanted was to return to Katmai. It felt like the real world. All the asphalt, McDonalds, Safeway and bank buildings looked uglier than ever: a false facade. By visiting a bear sanctuary, I grasped the tragedy of its loss. Somewhere along the way in our history we’ve transformed from being nature, to dominating nature. There in Katmai is one last vestige of wild animal freedom. I would fight to save this, I could die for this.

They say you protect only what you love. Can you love that which you fear? We love our monsters. We evolved side by side. Our freedom is inherently tied up in theirs, of this I am sure.

In the sacred dance between predator and prey is where we emerged, highly attuned to every scent, sound, movement, track and trace of wild animals. Our cognitive acuity was shaped by this awareness and attention. Survival required us to dance on the thin line between predator and prey. We learned from animals the art of the hunt: observing, tracking, stalking, ambush, strategic attack. They were central figures in our mythology, shining with a spiritual animus.

After visiting the land of Bear, I see now that to celebrate animal life, weave them into our myths, live close to them, wear their bones, fur and feathers, use their horns and sinew for tools, eat and be eaten by them, only enriches our humanity. To begin to see them as kin is to crack open your heart, crack open the shell that allows us to look at other creatures as resources to be managed.

Having designated wilderness is like cheating. Supposing ourselves to be the crown of creation, the meaning of it all, meaning evades us.

Today we lack the genuine, authentic experience of coexisting with animals. Maybe that is our loss. Maybe we need to live in an awareness of that sort, maybe it would make us feel more connected to the ecological web of which we are undeniably and irrevocably a part. Maybe
it would enable us to drop the hubris of habitat destruction and feel ourselves, in all our ecological limitations, to be one with the Earth from which we arose. Maybe we cannot reach the full expression of being human if we do not live in wildness.

I’d take the risk for the freedom inherent in that reality. I’d willingly take on the burden of having to know and understand other creatures, not only dominate and control them.

I stopped dreaming about bears after visiting Katmai. My subconscious confusion was alleviated and replaced with an acceptance of risk. There is a creative power inherent in risk; a challenge to our very capacity for survival, assuming that our survival is intricately related to the survival of other creatures.

A world where bears can freely roam their ancestral lands is the world I want to live in, because I can sense deeply, though only dimly articulate, that in this, and only in this way, can we be fully human.

Jennifer Tarnacki is a freelance writer living in Homer, Alaska.

Image by Jennifer Tarnacki.

Emptying Nest

by Bonnie Riedinger

In their dawn state
Twig legs teeter
On the cusp of flight or plummet.

Poised, but flustered
They hover above Ouroboros
Coiled dark,
Bound seven times
Around the tree base.

Barely fledged,
Already they crave–
All mouth
Unhinged
By hunger,
Inside turned nearly out
With red, wet want
They launch—
Ready to devour the world,
Heedless of the hiss
Of the future.

 

Bonnie Riedinger is a poet and fiction writer from Connecticut. Her most recent poetry publication, Aubades Were Inconceivable, is in the Southern Florida Poetry Journal.

Paul Bloomer – Artist

My art work weeps for the world and also celebrates the world.

In our technological world so disconnected from nature where humanity struggles to unite in peace and harmony with the forces of creation my art asks us to consider how we as people can heal the displacement and disunity of our global community. I explore the tensions, fault lines and connections that exist between seemingly opposing forces in a world that is held in a state of perpetual antitheses. The dynamics of nature and culture, present and eternity, physical and spiritual, life and death are wrestled with though the mediums of drawing and printmaking.

In Shetland where I have lived for over 20 years there are many more birds than people and in daily life the various species of birds become familiar companions. In this body of work birds have become vessels of emotion that carry messages full of metaphor and meaning on the rich tapestry of life.

Birds cross international boundaries, true global travellers that see war and peace, beauty and decay, persecution and awe and feast and famine. If birds could tell us how to live what would they say to us?

Paul Bloomer was born and bought up in the industrial Black Country of England. He studied painting at post graduate level at the Royal Academy Schools in London and In 1997 he moved to Shetland where he set up his studio as well as lecturing in art at Shetland College University of the Highlands and Islands. His work is held in various public collections in the UK and in private collections worldwide.

www.paulbloomer.com

EGGS – Each stone tells a story that is shaped and painted by time Etching 21 cm x 15 cm. 2018

LAVERICK – A song of promise and new life That darkened skies cannot silence Etching 15 cm x 21 cm. 2018

POISONED LAKE – This lake has been poisoned by greed and ignorance and now the snow geese have nowhere to land. Charcoal 240 cm x 180 cm. 2017

THE RETURN OF THE LIGHT – The light has returned to the land and for now all is well. Charcoal 210 cm x 180 cm. 2017

NIGHT FLIGHT These birds fly at night because they are scared of the day. They have flown over millions of people displaced and killed by war, atrocity and injustice and they have flown over land and water killed by pollution. Now they are flying over the peaceful tranquillity of St Ninians Isle in Shetland where in the winter the waters of the sea join to create a pattern of mystical union and oneness. If the birds could whisper in our ears the secret to living in peace and harmony with all of creation, what might they say to us as they journey around the globe witnessing the mad, chaotic and fragmented world of humanity. 300 cm x 180 cm Charcoal.  2017

Lichenizing Fungi: Hungry Trickster Gods

by Matt Stansberry

Graft:
1. A horticultural propagation technique joining two plant’s tissues into a single plant for increased yield;
2. The acquisition of gain through dishonest or questionable means.

Each year in the early spring, I find myself obsessively searching the woods for signs for life, a relief from winter. A pattern emerges, and an obsession begins.

One year I maniacally chased birds with binoculars and a telephoto lens camera. Another spring, I rolled on the forest floor every day documenting ephemeral wildflowers. Another year, it was amphibians – listening at night, documenting their calls, watching the rainfall and the temperature to find them migrating on dark nights.

Eventually, my mind forms a search image – and I find the objects of my interest everywhere, as if conjured by my attention.

This year, I became obsessed with lichens.

In early spring, before the vascular plants unfurl and the nights are still frozen, lichens rule the Piedmont forests of Central North Carolina.
In the grey February woods on the outskirts of Raleigh-Durham, I found fist-sized clumps of Bushy Beard Lichen on the forest floor, blown off tree branches.

The tufts glowed mint green and looked like something cursed – all spines and reaching tentacles with fleshy green disks like open mouths ringed in filamentous spikes.

Further down the trail, a peg lichen had sprung out of crumbling rocks in the half shade between the woods and a clearing. Half-inch erect phalli topped with tan bulbous tips sprouted from a shaggy base. Sunlight shone through the shafts. They were joyous.

Patches of crustose lichens crawled over every rock surface. Soft green foliose lichen hands seemed to massage the bark of tree trunks.

Unperforated ruffle lichen colonized small sticks, with a structure resembling pale blue cornflakes sprouting wiry eyelash-like appendages called cilia.

Dixie Reindeer lichens sprouted like corals from the forest floor.
Lichens are the dominant form of vegetation across eight percent of the earth’s surface area. They inhabit ecological niches where most other organisms can’t gain purchase.

The key to success for lichens lies in their compound nature.

Lichens are composite organisms, consisting of at least two but often many more species. The primary actors (at least in our current understanding) that make up the thallus, or “body”, of a lichen are the mycobiont and the photobiont. The mycobiont consists of any one of a wide variety of fungi (usually cup fungi); it provides surface area, moisture, and structure for the photobiont, the other component. The photobiont, an alga or a cyanobacterium species, creates nutrition for the mycobiont through photosynthesis. The photobiont provides the fungus with sugars to live.
The nature of the relationship between these “partners” has been debated by scientists and naturalists.

One of my favorite authors, David Haskell writes in The Forest Unseen, “Some biologists claim the fungi are exploiters, ensnaring their algal victims. This interpretation fails to see the lichen partners have ceased to be individuals, surrendering the possibility of drawing a line between oppressor and oppressed… A lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victims and victims makes little sense.”

And yet, in the authoritative book Lichens of North America, published by Yale University Press – the authors contend that relations between fungus and photobiont “run the gamut between fairly innocuous, mild parasitism to a rampant, photobiont-destroying disease. There are few if any lichens in which the alga or cyanobacteria are not invaded and killed to some extent by the fungus.”

The nature of this interplay between species fascinated me, so I visited leading lichenologists to get a better understanding of the relationships between fungus and photobiont.

I met Dr. Scott LaGreca, Collections Manager of Lichens for the Duke University Herbarium in his office, where he catalogs and preserves lichen species from around the globe. We leafed through his files of flattened specimens (Duke keeps 160,000 specimens alone) sealed in archival paper envelopes.

And then he led me to a staff meeting of the Duke’s lichenology department, which primarily focuses on lichen evolutionary biology headed by Dr. François Lutzoni.

I was intimidated, sitting in a room with a group of super-intelligent and highly specialized scientists.

Each time I asked a question, one of the researchers responded, and François would retort that we needed to be careful about making sweeping generalizations.

Many lichenized fungi are closely related – aside from the handful of exceptions of convergent evolution where lichenization evolved in other groups of unrelated fungi.

Cyanobacteria-based lichens prefer wetter environments and higher PH, but there are exceptions.

Researchers have thought that the fungal component protects the alga from solar radiation, but in some cases the alga protects the fungus.

While some lichens derive nutrition from cyanobacteria and other lichens use algae, some lichens rely on both – deploying a super-powerful combination.

Lichens as a group are hard to pin down.

This was one of the first indications I noticed that suggested we are dealing with a Trickster.

Much as lichens are found worldwide, so too is the mythic culture hero, the Trickster.

The character is most eloquently described in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, a book that examines ancient stories of Hermes, Eshu, Loki, Raven and Coyote. The more I learned about lichens, the more the parallels matched up between tricksters and lichen thalli.

The opening story in Hyde’s book retells a story of coyote taking other animals body parts and integrating them into his own body.

The name of Hermes once meant “he of the stone heap”.

Tricksters are boundary crossers, cross-dressers, ambiguous and ambivalent. They stand for double-ness, duplicity, contradiction.
Hyde writes that Trickster has a hyperactive sexuality, is ridden by lust – but it almost never results in any offspring.

Lichen can reproduce asexually, where the thalli and photobiont disperse together. But sexual reproduction occurs in the fungus only. The fungus will produce hundreds of thousands of spores, but only a few of them will be successful.

According to Hyde, the mythology of the trickster is the story of intelligence rising from hunger, predators outwitting prey. The coyote that steals the bait without springing the trap. Loki who invents the net to catch the salmon.

Lichens are grifters, taking energy and resources from algae and bacteria and conjuring life out of rock and air.

Tricksters are dependent on others for their very identity. Hyde writes that Hermes cannot be imagined without the more serious Apollo whose cattle he steals.

“If the brain has cunning, it has it as a consequence of appetite; the blood that lights the mind gets its sugars from the gut,” writes Hyde.
And as the intelligence of the Trickster derives from appetite, its success is also determined by its ability to limit its appetite and that of others.

A lichen would eat itself alive if it couldn’t regulate its consumption of photobionts resources. Likewise, lichens are exposed to elements and herbivores, and therefore produce chemical compounds that make them unpalatable to most species.

“There are large, devouring forces in the world,” writes Hyde. “Trickster’s intelligence arose not just to feed himself, but to outwit those other eaters.”

So what is Professor Lutzoni’s stance on lichen’s role in a symbiotic relationship? Are they partners or is something more sinister happening?
“Think of symbiosis as a continuum. Parasitism is one extreme of symbiosis, and mutualism is another. I can make a very strong case with examples for either distinction,” Lutzoni said. “Different species of lichens vary in their relationships at different points in their life cycles. Sometimes a spore from one lichen thallus lands on another lichen, steals its algae and kills the thallus. If you stick with the blanket term symbiosis, you don’t have to commit.”

While Hyde’s book doesn’t deal with lichen, I like his phrase, the agile parasite. The fungi offer the alga or cyanobacteria a gift, but not a pure gift.

As biologists study lichens further, the interrelationships of compound multi-species entities become even more complex. “There are many other bacteria and fungi living inside the lichen thalli,” Lutzoni explained. “Over 70% of the lichen fragments we cut open have additional fungi growing out of them, fungi more closely related to the endophytic species living inside of plants. The lichen is still really a lichen-forming fungus and a photobiont, but of course there are all these communities of other organisms living inside, contributing.”

Once you get out the microscopes, it’s hard to talk about lichens as a single species. Lutzoni has adopted the term Operational Taxonomic Unit as a proxy for a group made up of microbial species.

Nothing lives in isolation. We ourselves are composed of multiple entities. “Our very cells are similarly structured,” writes David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance. “In the 1970s, Lynn Margulis discovered organelles found in the cells of complex organisms are evolutionary remnants of bacterial parasites.”

Organelles can reproduce within the cell, have distinct DNA.

As Haskell writes, “We are Russian Dolls, our lives made possible by lives within us. We are lichens on a grand scale.”

Staring into a lichen covered limb, I see a mandala representing the forces of destruction and creation, the disintegration of individuality. It inspires a sense of holiness that is enhanced by our understanding the complex interplay of individual species.

In the microscopic, I see a glimmer of an ancient god.

Matt Stansberry is a writer focused on the intersection of natural history and myth. He lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina with his wife and three sons. His first book, Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds, was listed as one of The Nature Conservancy’s favorite books of 2018. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish.

Artwork by David Wilson www.downpourcreative.com

The Blue of April

by Jean Atkin

I stepped into April & a bee flew laden
over the Abraham, Isaac & Jacob

& the black cat shone
like grass & drank

from the pond where broken
plates of blue

clouded the feet
of the pond skaters

& ewes ran up the stony hill

& the swallows lifted the barn
by its rafters

held the day still

Jean Atkin’s new collection How Time is in Fields is published by IDP in spring 2019. Previous publications include Not Lost Since Last Time (Oversteps Books). Her poetry has been commissioned for Radio 4, and featured on ‘Best Scottish Poems’ by the Scottish Poetry Library. Recent work appears in The Rialto, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Lighthouse, Agenda and Ambit. She works as a poet in education and community. www.jeanatkin.com

Taking Flight: Elegy for a Great Horned Owl

by Melody Hessing

The night after Halloween, I drive home from town to my cabin in the bush. The rain-streaked road winds past orchards and vineyards, then lopes uphill into sagebrush and pine. Across the lake, the knuckled peak of Giant’s Head spooks a sliver of new moon.

But what is that?

A witch straddles the power line.   

I pull onto the shoulder and cut the car lights. A dark form hangs in mid-air, squat and stolid, back-dropped by the silver sheen of Okanagan Lake. I grapple for my flashlight.

A great horned owl rotates its head towards me, golden black-cat eyes scanning the landscape.  Then its wings extend and the owl swoops into the night, navigating a sea of darkness.  It disappears against the pinpricked lights across the lake.

I haven’t seen a great horned owl for years.  I moved to the Okanagan valley forty-five years ago, entranced by its biodiversity.  Canyon wrens, blue-tailed skink, rattlesnakes, rubber boas and badgers made this place home. A great horned owl used to roost on the old pine snag outside the house.  It hooted through the night:  Whoot, who, whoo hooooot.  Whoooot, whooo, whooot.  A woodwind sound—mournful as the wail of the Kettle Valley Railway on its run from Penticton to Midway. The last train went through in 1973.  I don’t hear many great horned owls these days.

Back at the cabin, I check my field guides.  The range of the Northern Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, extends throughout western North America, but I know little more aboutthis bird.  Great horned owls are nocturnal, but may be visible during the day, especially when mobbed and harassed by crows and smaller birds.  At the top of the food chain, they consume a variety of smaller mammals including hares, weasels, marmots and birds.  A great horned owl can hear or spot a rodent under snow.  With a wingspan of almost three feet, it can swoop down on a meadow vole.  The owl is a stealth machine. 

While great horned owls are not endangered in British Columbia, neither are they plentiful.  Through habitat reduction and slaughter, humans have played a major role in their demise. One hundred years ago, a two-dollar bounty on great horned owls in the Okanagan valley targeted this bird for its perceived depredations on livestock. Cultural images link the owl to wisdom, but also to evil and death.  During my tenure in this place, human population has almost tripled.  Much of the undeveloped land has been converted to vineyards or residential use. Today the South Okanagan region is the third most endangered ecosystem in Canada

            The next morning, I drive back to town through ponderosa pine and golden cottonwoods.  As I near the old dump, close to yesterday’s sighting of the owl, a grey-brown object is clumped on the road ahead. It’s too small for a deer, but large enough to be visible from a distance. Trick or treat?

Two ravens prance stiff-legged on top, pecking at the lumpy mess.  As I slow down, the object morphs into an accident of feathers.  A brown-striped tail juts from beneath a mishmash of grey and brown. The ravens hop from a perch of torn red flesh that glares like a police siren.  Perhaps it’s a red-tailed hawk or some other large bird.  I can’t bring myself to stop.

Could this be the owl I saw last night?

I know that owls often feed on mice and voles on the road shoulder.  Although great horned owls may live longer than a quarter of a century, mortality rates are particularly high in young owls.  This could be a juvenile.

That afternoon when I return, the dead bird has been pulled to the side of the road. Hours ago, this mishmash was a lineman of a bird.  Now it lies twisted and pulled apart, one wing raked askew. Bloodstained vertebrae hook like a question mark. I cannot locate the head.  This may be a great owl, but it is no longer horned.

The corpse is feathered — primaries and secondaries, coverts, contours and semi-plumes, down and tail feathers.  Marbled birds-eyes, like a Gustav Klimt painting, and stripes of brown, taupe and grey. These provide camouflage and warmth; they enable owls to glide silently and swiftly to their prey from an aerial perch. 

Two limp and furry rabbit-like feet poke below, unlucky charms.

                                                            *

When I get home,  I call my friend Tony, an avid birder and former parks interpreter.

 “I haven’t seen a great horned owl for years. Last night I watched it swoop over the lake.  Today, POOF! It’s dead!”

 Tony responds in his classroom voice: “It may not be the same owl.  And even if it is, owls often feed on mice and voles on the road shoulder…”

“Could someone have hit it on purpose? Do you think someone took the head? Maybe they wanted it for a trophy…
            Tony interrupts.  “Well, they say we honour other predators…”  His voice softens, “At least it’s not alive. It’s not in pain.”

“I hate to leave it there. Last night, same owl or not, it was beautiful.”

 I sit in my favorite chair, looking over the lake into a bowl of overcast sky. It’s not just the transience of beauty or the imminence of death. I am struck that someone may have killed it intentionally. Surely, to see this owl in flight, followed so soon by a grisly death is more than coincidence.  I am a witness to something extraordinary; I have a responsibility.

There is silence. Then I continue, “I hate to leave that bird on the road.  There won’t be anything left in a day or two.  I owe it something — a burial, at least an acknowledgment.”  

Tony understands, “I’ve got a couple of great horned owls. Pieces of them, anyway. Road kills. Once the car just ahead of me hit one. I salvaged what I could.”

             He pauses. “You have to have a permit, though. They’re strict about this. It’s to protect the birds, to keep people from shooting them.”
               Tony takes his ‘found objects’ to the Museum wildlife display. “People love to feel those study skins, to know that these birds were alive.  Right where they live! They can see all those layers of feathers, how owls fly, why they’re so silent.” 

He exhales. “You could always mount the wings.  That way you can preserve them. I could borrow them for display…But don’t tell anyone. If you have any part of that bird in your possession, you’re breaking the law.”

                                                            *

The next day, I leave the house early, red long-handled clippers in hand.  The owl is now reduced to a flimsy architecture of quill and bone. From a flimsy wig of gray-brown plumage, the crimson core glares, reduced to half its former size. Only the tail remains intact. Zygodactyl feet, capable of seizing small mammals, hang limp and long, like two stuffed toys. At the bottom of each toe are tiny claws, talons that could rake the flesh of an elephant.

This cannot be the bird on the wire.                                      

I approach the body with a detachment that is not exactly clinical.  The corpse is so mangled that I don’t know where to start.  One of the wings folds in on itself like a reticulated fan.  The other is torn; primaries stagger in clumps.  I make a poor pathologist.

Checking for traffic, I hold the carcass over the ditch. The clippers gnaw at the joint. I recall the Thanksgiving turkey in its cellophane package, a grey mound of pimpled flesh, already plucked and plumped, bearing little resemblance to a living creature.

This bird is dressed for flight. 

Beneath my breath, I offer an apology. I acknowledge my species’ complicity for avian assault (on behalf of Henry Ford, General Motors and highways everywhere).  Even if the death of the owl is an accident, it represents the collateral damage of human encroachment of wild space.                                     

Repentance cuts no truck. The bird will not acquiesce. It practices passive resistance, resilient in its death.  The clippers cannot cut through the tendon. The fleshy fabric will not release the wing. Then I hear the slip of release, and in one feral act, tear wing from body. 

I am predator.

From my fingers, the wing stretches to the ground, feathers extended.  I wrap it in a Save-on-Foods shopping bag and twist the top to keep it out of sight. Picking up the remainder of the corpse with my other hand, I carry it uphill and place it on a rocky roost overlooking the lake.

                                                            *

I’m nauseous when I get back to the cabin. What prompted me to cut this wing? Why did I bring it home?

Out on the porch, the wing swings in its bag, long and narrow like a torpedo.

I phone my sister Polly, a wildlife biologist.

“That happened to me,” she reports, “back when I was a student. There was a great horned owl along the highway and I stopped to I.D. it.  It must have just been hit. I couldn’t leave it there.”

She pauses, as if trying to remember.  “I cut off both its wings. Right then a police officer drives up and gets out of the car.”

“What did you do?”

“I just started talking. I told him I was a biology student, which was true. That our ecology lab had all these collections and we had permits to collect. I managed to talk my way out of it. He let me keep the wings.”

She sighs. “I mounted them on a board and pinned them open with stick pins.”

“Where are they?”

“I was going through my old boxes of stuff just a year or two ago. And there were the wings!  Except the dermestid beetles had gotten to them. There wasn’t much left.”

She cross-examines.  “Where did you store it?”

“It’s hanging on the porch. I can’t even look at it. How could I do this?

            After a moment’s silence, Polly begins, slowly. “I think that we want to hold on to nature, to literally preserve the wild.  But, as they say, it’s like trying to catch the wind.”

Late that afternoon, I look out on the porch, where the bag hangs from the beam, shuffling in the afternoon breeze.  I inhale.  All of this is to expiate my guilt, a testimony to human desire. Yes, I reside at the ‘bunchgrass/forest interface’ so that I can readily view and experience its biodiversity. But my presence is not benign.  I drive to town almost every day.  I too might have hit this owl on the road, although not intentionally. I inhabit a place that until the last century was relatively ‘wild,’ and my life here impacts others as well.

To display the wing in my home does not serve the interest of the owl, science, or art. Clipping the wing from the body is the appropriation of another life form. To dismember the bird is to carve it from its essence.

                                                            *

Night comes early as I drive down the road and pick my way uphill, through sagebrush and pine, to the rocky overlook.  To the west, Okanagan Lake is lit by a scimitar moon. The remains of the great horned owl form a small bony cathedral, its remaining flesh nibbled close. 

The wing slides from the bag onto the lichened granite. As I turn to go, feathers lift in the evening breeze.

Melody Hessing teaches Environmental Sociology in B.C. colleges and universities, exploring the relations between society and the natural world. In addition to scholarly publications, her creative non-fiction has been published in several literary magazines and anthologies. Her writing explores the intersection between society and nature not only to celebrate the wild, but to lament its demise.

Image by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Great Horned OwlUploaded by Magnus Manske, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21115843

Red Tailed Hawk, Louisiana

by clare e. potter

Trapped, I woke to my garden, looked out the window
for the hummingbird on the feeder, but beyond, in the ugly corner
on the wire fence, there you perched: a shock, your presence
in this concrete suburb and the garden I was afraid to go in.
Were you after that rat in the thick braids of grass
or waiting for the lizard-heavy leaves to bend?

I wasn’t sure what to pay attention to, your still deep gaze or
the way you swooped off, your wing breeze told on next door’s pear tree.

Later, a dove flew into our screen-door and he placed the dazed bird
into an old cage. As soon as it came back to itself with the wild eyes
of the newly trapped, it came to me, and I took to the road
and then, the sky.

 

Clare E. Potter is a bilingual Welsh poet and performer. For two years, she was one of the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work, the Landmark Trust’s poet-in-residence at Llwyn Celyn, and is currently directing her first documentary. She studied an MA in Afro-Caribbean literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, collaborates with musicians and artists and is completing her second poetry collection, A Certain Darkness. www.clareawenydd.com