Monthly Archives: September 2009

Sneaky Cat

Posted by Mike

Anna calls her “Sneaky Cat.”

Linda is trying to steal her from the neighbors through tasty delights.

I observe her – as well as give her occasional tasty delights myself. She’s tiny and virtually tailless; calico. A Manx? Not likely.

We all seem to think that young animals are so cute. I suspect that a lot of that “cuteness” is the basics of how to get along in the world. “Sneaky Cat” is sneaky because she plays something like hide-and-seek with Anna. Neither of them know that for “Sneaky,” the play is – in a sense – deadly serious. She’s learning how to attack and capture prey. Not that our house cats need to do that anymore. They’re neutered in more ways than one.

I have concluded, however, that cats aren’t really what we think they are. Unlike dogs, their domestication is minimal. Cats are really wild animals who accommodate to us because we make it easy for them. Who wants to go out and forage for himself when you have a waiter serving you a nice prepared meal every night. There is a down side, of course. You have to accept things like neutering and having your claws removed and having to be nice to the waiter. Sounds kind of like being a eunuch in the Sultan’s seraglio.

“Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through snow.”  –  Jeff Valdez

“Cats regard people as warm-blooded furniture.”  –  Jacquelyn Mitchard



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People at Last – Chapter 8

Previous Chapter

Reading my notebook, I saw that Mr. Davis once again gave me a suggestion:

“The gifts of sustenance lay upon the land for the tribes of the past. Food, clothing, tools and shelter were available everywhere. The generosity was overwhelming.”

I sat staring up at the canopy of leaves overhead and realized that the sun had returned and was spraying light into the forest and causing steam to rise from the mossy forest floor. About a hundred feet away from my shelter, sunlight streamed into a small clearing above a massive fallen tree. It looked as though some tall bushes had grown up around the great log. They were full of yellowish-red salmonberries which were wet with sparkling rain drops.

I was very hungry so I climbed over a series of mossy logs to get there and gather berries for awhile. After I had my fill and collected some for later, I made my way through the forest, mostly by walking log-bridges toward the river, which seemed to be straight ahead.

At first I thought I was hearing things in the roar of the river, but I wasn’t. I heard voices calling out slowly yet repetitively. As they came nearer, I discovered they were calling my name!

I yelled back, “Over here!” And they came. They were two park rangers, who looked exhausted, almost as tired as I was. They seemed truly happy to see me, which for a moment I thought a bit odd, because I had never met them before.

We sat down in a clearing and rested. One of the rangers talked to his headquarters on his radio and the other asked me questions. They gave me some food and water. Finally we got moving and slowly made our way alongside the stream, over fallen trees and through the thick undergrowth downstream to a place where the river moved quietly. There we met others who seemed to be waiting for us—including Mr. Davis! It was wonderful to see his face in the crowd.

By the time we got back on the trail, the sun had long been set and everyone was wearing headlamps. We traveled for a couple of miles down the trail until we reached camp—which incidentally was the same place from which I had recklessly abandoned my classmates six days ago. Mr. Davis was happy to see me also, but he did give me the ‘evil eye’ when he first saw me down by the river. I knew it would be my parents and not him who would ground me, for how long I could not imagine.

He told me that first thing in the morning, we would walk out to the trailhead to meet my parents.

All the people and the barrage of questions were overwhelming, but eventually we ate a hot meal and I was able to go to a tent to sleep. But before I slept I couldn’t help but do the last activity in my notebook.

That night I dreamed of the eagle once again. We flew to the top of a tree which stood beside a broad curving river. In my mind I heard him say,Eagle “Copernicus may have discovered that the earth travels around the sun, but that doesn’t mean that the earth is any less important than the sun—all parts have their special significance. Flee as far as you can to the east and you will return to this tree. Run away to the north and all the way around the earth and you will return to where you stand now. There is no escape, for one day we return to that which we abandon. We are all bound to our homes.” I supposed he was teaching me a lesson about staying with the group. But before the eagle vanished I listened to him say, which also contained Mr. Davis’ final piece of advice: “Thankfully, we are all bound to dream. Listen, seek and ask for clues and your dreams may lead you home.”

I awoke to the bustle of camp traffic. Shortly after I emerged puffy-eyed from my tent, we all ate a hot breakfast, after which Mr. Davis and I promptly set out on our hike to the trailhead. We spoke very little during our journey out. I did apologize to him for abandoning our group. I felt really terrible for making everyone worry and work so hard to find me. He said that apologies are good, but actions are better and that he had a big project in store for me. (The writing of this story was that project.)

My parents were at the trailhead parking lot. They were thanking all the search and rescue folks for all their hard work before they noticed me. When they saw me, they both came over and gave me a huge embrace. “I’m so happy you’re home,” my dad said softly in my ear as he hugged me in his arms.

I replied, “So am I.”

We all got in the car and began driving the highway westward, around all the tight curves that parallel the Skagit River on our way back home. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an eagle gracefully pull a fish out of the Skagit’s water and return to a tree perch. Mom saw it too. We pulled the car over into the pullout and watched the birds—there were others.

Finally, I said aloud, “I feel a bit homesick.”

After we returned to the car, I opened my journal to the last page where Mr. Davis had written:

“We are all bound to become lost and bound to wonder how to get home. Never cease to wonder, because in wondering we find our home.”

The End

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One for the Other – Chapter 7

Previous Chapter

It was a good thing I learned about bats that evening for I would have confused all the bats that were feeding on insects in the avalanche chute for night birds. I watched those bats dart and dive back and forth in the clearing from my cozy, log hideaway until I fell asleep.

A mist arrived with the morning and all the bird songs seemed dampened by the moisture. I was horribly stiff-legged. All the favoring of my right leg must have strained both of my legs. I got my day-pack and slowly hiked downward, parallel to the avalanche chute, just paces inside the forest cover. Some would think hiking down would be easier than up, but each downward step sent my weight into my thighs, making them ache terribly. I passed a huge hollowed out tree and wondered if bats lived deep inside that tree—even I could have slept there, the cavity was so large.Snag

“I suppose stewardship goes both ways,” I thought, recalling that stewardship was the last note from Mr. Davis that I had read . “Bats are responsible for eating insects, even some of those that bite us. And we have the responsibility to take care of bat homes.” I passed out of the forest and reentered the chute while continuing my slow, determined descent.

By noon the fog had lifted, but I was stopped in my tracks. The trickle down the center of the chute had gained strength and had become a steep cataract which plunged a hundred feet or so down. I stood upon a cliff facing only air and treetops. The only feasible way seemed to be to my right.

Once again I entered the forest. Inside the forest the trees were immense, wider than I was tall. After I walked in far enough that the sound of the falls eased and became indistinguishable from the deep background murmur that seemed to pervade all of the wilderness, I heard the tiny chirps and trills of birds. Some were flocking high up in the canopy, a couple of hundred feet above me, while others darted around the forest floor, almost seeming to be taunting me to follow them. I had glanced ahead in my journal  in the duff and took a break.

After I had completed the activity, the bird songs that seemed to surround me had vanished and had been replaced by the creaking of tree against tree. A wind was buffeting the canopy. Blue and marbled-white skies were soaring above in the strong, midday breeze.

I had yet to discover a way down the steep mountainside, and was forced to go south, deeper into the forest. So onward I hiked, not able to descend. With my legs continuing to weaken, I hiked for more than an hour and ran into another gully. It was similar to the other avalanche chute, so I chose that route down. It was steep, but not nearly as sheer as the precipice that had redirected me before. Far across the valley, I could make out what looked like a trail winding through a clearing in the forested mountainside. My heart started to pound with anticipation. But my pulse retreated as I started down, for the difficult footing and my sore legs slowed my progress. The wind seemed to be carrying a summer afternoon thunderstorm, for the sky had become mottled and dark gray and I could hear deep rumbles in the distance.

With the thunder growing nearer, I began to feel like a human lightning rod, standing on the open slope. I wanted to find some shelter, so I picked up my pace.

At last I was nearing the bottom—maybe 500 feet to go—and I came across a huge melting snowfield which continued all the way to the valley floor. A few small branches were scattered atop the snow, but otherwise it was clear of hazardous debris and I could clearly see that I was in no danger of careening into a tree, for the snow flattened out onto the valley floor. “Finally, one of Mr. Davis’ notes is going to come in handy!” I remarked out loud excitedly. The previous note was enjoyment.

I sat down on the steep snowfield and began my slide. The speed was tremendous.McMillian Peak

My boots sprayed wet snow in my face. I lost my balance a few times, but otherwise my course stayed true. I ended my ride face up with my arms and legs splayed. I lay there soaked under a darkening sky. But it didn’t take long for me to get moving, because the breeze was still strong and I began to be covered with goose bumps. Only moments after I had slid down the melting snow pile and entered the deep forest, pelting rain fell from the sky.

I found an deer trail and followed it toward the roar of the river. This sound was becoming overshadowed by the chatter of rain in the canopy. I soon came across a very large boulder, at least the size a house, which probably came tumbling down the avalanche chute long ago. On one side its angle created an overhang where I took shelter from the canopy’s water droplet bombardment. Behind me, black soot covered the face of the rock in a wide vertical swath up and out of the overhang, which was otherwise covered with various green mosses. It seemed as though a campfire lay here in the past. The rain still fell and thunder crashed all around. When it calmed a bit, I opened my journal.

Final Chapter

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Harbingers of Hope – Chapter 6

Previous Chapter

Courage will strengthen you.” Mr. Davis had written following his previous entry in my journal.

I glanced around at the old-burned forest. “Courage, huh. I wonder how much courage these pitiful trees had as that fire roared upslope toward them. They couldn’t even….” I stopped myself in the thought. “I suppose, if trees could have courage, it sure would be courageous to stand amid a fury of fiery onslaught. And what’s even more amazing is that they did survive. Their seedlings are building a new forest.” I began to backstep in my mock pity.

Before, I saw just dead silver trees all across the barren landscape, but after learning about wildland fire, I saw a refreshed wildflower garden hosting purple lupine, red Indian paintbrush, yellow groundsels and many other high country favorites that were bursting into life beneath the fire-scarred snags. Scattered here and there seedlings were building a new forest.

I began thinking about a time in middle school when this kid was lofting fiery insults at me, I had the courage to stand up for myself. And in that case, I must have been strengthened because that brat never did it again. And I didn’t even need to toss any punches. All I did was stand up like one of these trees and then I walked away. I didn’t even say a word.

I had my last granola bar and refilled my water bottle in a seep coming out of the hillside where yellow buttercups and purple daisies were poking out from among a carpet of sedge. A ways to my south I saw a grassy chute coursing down the mountainside like a lush river of green ground cover. Patches of snow were still melting out in the upper part of the chute. It looked like it may have been where avalanches carved out the forest. The green path seemed to reach all the way to the valley bottom. “Maybe I’ll find a trail down there,” I thought as I began a long descent; eventually I did find the same trail from which I had left my group. But once again, the sun was beginning to set and my walking was still awkward and slow because of pain in my bruised and torn leg.

I found some patches of sweet, watery salmonberry and kept my eyes out for a good sleeping place. There was no way I would be down before it got dark.

“I’ve made the wilderness my home for four nights, I can do it again,” I repeated to myself. A sense of strength began to well up and drown out the weaknesses of my body. I paced myself down five hundred feet or so, using Sitka alder as safety ropes in the steep rocky areas. I was met by the whistles of marmots along this steep meadow—which were not nearly as annoying as the high pitched chirps of those pikas. The marmot sentries stood tall and proud on their entrance mounds. I even came across a bear feeding on summer berries. Staying motionless yet trembly, I watched him for a full minute before his glance, or nose, caught me. He bolted—in terror I guessed. Up the avalanche chute side he shot, straight up and into the dense forest. I never saw such raw strength. Why he was afraid of me, I could not imagine.

Once again I found a nest of fallen logs in the forest nearby, under which a soft, mossy nighttime retreat could be padded down; I practically had a routine established. My nest looked out into the chute’s clearing and I listened to water trickle down the center of the chute. I fed on some of the berries that I had collected and swatted at a few mosquitoes. Using what was left of the evening light, I started the next activity in my journal.

Black BearThe black bear I encountered was of the brown phase, such as the one pictured here.


Chapter 7

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Whence Comes Morality?

Posted by Mike

In Take Me to the River (or Somewhere Nearby) [ July 30, 2009], journalist and scholar Robert Wright laments about his continuing to have a well developed – yes perhaps even burdensome – sense of sin and guilt despite his years of having given up on the religion of his youth and now being a nonbeliever. He concludes that “natural selection built the conscience, hence guilt, into our brains.” He seems to be somewhat perplexed as to how people without a religious-based moral code to guide them can remain moral creatures, but concludes that “you can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis.” He goes on to suggest that, “In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a ‘moral order’ out there.”

When Wright discusses the possibility of a transcendent source of meaning he does leap into the mystical unknown, which he had previously studiously avoided. I have no problem with wondering about the unknown; however, prior to moving in that direction it seems to me that we should acknowledge that Wright’s original premise re natural selection holds regarding human morality. Can we not parsimoniously conclude that it was likely the survival of the most adaptive features of the human that led to the development of our moral sense? Neither the tribe or a much expanded complex society or culture would likely have been able to survive without the refined selection of moral values society in general now possesses, which among other things enables social cohesion. And whether or not we like to acknowledge it, we humans are family/group/tribal animals who would not have survived the way we are now without our intense social dependence. Lions would not still be with us had they not developed the functional-social unit of the pride, and we would not be here without the human family-tribe.

Once we acknowledge that we possess the moral sense (what Wright calls a “moral order“), that we have because it was selected by circumstances to enable the survival of the species as we know it, then we can speculate further about a mystical transcendent source of meaning. Given our fragility as individual humans and even our fragility in groups and our strong need for emotional supports, and given as well, historically, our profound ignorance regarding ourselves and the natural world, it is quite reasonable that we humans would create structures to make the unknown known and thereby increase our apparent, felt security. Part of our ability to organize and construct the world to meet our needs is derived from this innate and doubtless natural selection-driven need to organize and construct, not only the known, but to extend this to all areas of experience, to the unknown – to what is over the next mountain, to why it rains or why we have seasons, to where do we come from, and to what happens after death.

Wright does not directly suggest it, but (extending the argument in his article), it seems that believers and unbelievers alike need notion, concept, or belief in the transcendent. Though science has, especially in the past several hundred years, unlocked so many secrets of the organic and inorganic world and radically expanded the “known,” there continues the vast expanse of the unknown that we need to have organized in our minds in some way for us humans to feel safe and secure. Historically over time as the veil of ignorance about the world is lifted by human discoveries, our understanding of reality has become more objective and less subjective and we have increasingly had less of a need to create or maintain explanatory myths. The notion of a transcendent source of meaning is a rather hypothetical construct and has the features of a culturally supported, traditional explanatory myth. It may be that as individuals and as societies we will never have sufficient knowledge and understanding to let go of such myths completely. In addition, the poetics of explanatory myths and our human responsiveness to the deep inexpressible meanings inherent in poetry are hidden features of our myths which ground them so tenaciously in our psyches.

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