In his Introduction to The Art of Loading Brush Wendell Berry discusses the movement and migration of his thoughts over long careers as both a farmer and a writer. He has attempted, in the opening pages, to size up his understanding of that work against the fragmentation of modern life, and the extraordinary anxiety and destruction that on-going phenomenon causes in both human and ecological terms. He writes:
“So far as I am able to name them, those habitual movements of thought, at least some of them, are as follows:
- From protest or public advocacy to work and to good work. This is akin to, sometimes the same as, the movement from universal to particular. Obviously, then, this is a movement from the public languages of commerce, politics, the media, and the news to a local, neighborly language, accurately referring to particular persons, places, and things, and to the acts by which they relate to one another.
- From the future, now for bad reasons the most fashionable of all times, to the present.
- From ‘job,’ the manna of the economists and the politicians, to ‘vocation,’ which is the authentic calling to the work that is properly one’s own.
- From anywhere or everywhere to home, which is not a house for sale or a site for ‘development,’ but the place by which one is owned, year after year loved and known.
- From the global economy — which for five hundred years has plundered the land and exploited, enslaved, or murdered the people of the ‘foreign’ or ‘rural’ world – to a local economy that would care for and conserve all the goods of a place, including the membership of its living creatures.
- From my own depleted, disintegrated, and thus somewhat representative rural homeland to instances or thoughts by which its decline may be measured and understood.
- From reality as understood by materialism and industrialism to a reality understood as divine creation, holy, whole, and beautiful.”
I found this summation of his own thinking to be a thing of enduring value, a sort of agrarian prayer, especially as it informs the life we are trying to build here on the Figure 8 Ranch, a tiny slice of land with poor soil and bad winters, on a heavily treed volcanic butte abutting the Cascades of Central Oregon.
Our decision to move here was deliberate, a conscious movement out of, and away from, the soul-sucking and impersonal existence within a spark-throwing industrial civilization machine — where one’s existence is only useful to keep the machine running — toward notions of “particular persons, places, things,” and to an understanding of “home” and self-reliance, of conservation, and toward a “reality understood as divine creation, holy, whole, and beautiful.”
We chose this piece of ground with all of those notions in mind, and we began to build a new life driven by the distinct recognition that “one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.”
But where to start with those private solutions? How does one begin a movement from the “universal to the particular,” and make it count? How does one effectively resist the spiritual, physical, and mental fragmentation both imposed on, and demanded of, the modern citizen? How does one move toward genuine wholeness as an individual within the wholeness of our environments, which is so critical and necessary to the health of all? What can we do, as a practical matter, to arm ourselves with private solutions – to better invest in the intimate particulars of our lives and so finally present to the world “one improved unit”?
As I reflected on those questions, and began sketching the broader notions of this piece, we had an interesting visitor on our place that seemed to sharpen the spear of inquiry.
Working alone in my study – it was just after 10pm — I began to hear a new and intriguing sound in the darkness outside my window, somewhere out by the barn. I listened intently to what at first sounded like an unusual birdcall, something in distress perhaps. I turned off the banker’s lamp on my writing desk in a futile effort to see into the darkness on a moonless night. And I listened as the sound traveled quickly from left to right — loud, clear, and punctuated, until it faded into the forest and was finally gone.
The episode lasted maybe five minutes, and what I heard was a mountain lion.
Among their many vocalizations lions are able to produce a chirping sound that sounds very much like an odd bird, particularly as it echoes through a forest at night. It is at once startling and seductive. This cat was chirping loudly, which might have been an effort to collect her wandering kittens in the dark, or simply to announce her presence.
What I heard was exactly this, and you can hear it about 40 seconds into this clip…
I have had other encounters with lions — one that jumped from a high rock into a good camp that my wife and I had made on a remote alpine lakeshore in the Caribou Wilderness, one that I heard caterwauling like a woman being murdered on a ranch where I worked in Nevada, one that I saw briefly – and what I saw was mostly tail – while riding fence high in the Mogollons, and finally another that I heard growling in the dark outside my tent near Lake Mary, outside of Flagstaff.
Which is often the way with mountain lions — heard but not seen. They remain a secretive, throwback creature that is, incidentally, directly related to African cheetahs – whose own genetic origins are in North America. Fossilized American cheetah bones have been found in several places across the continent.
A visit from a mountain lion is a particularly captivating event, and any brush with an apex predator should rightly be considered a gift to our understanding of the particulars of place.
I am glad lions live here, though I’m under no illusions as to the potential cost of having lions as neighbors. But I want something more than just a spiritual thrill from this nocturnal visit. I want to use it to help inform my own movement from the universal to the particular, to inform my understanding of place, which I increasingly believe is the only way we are going to leave a healthy, whole, and sustainable future for our great-great-great grandchildren to enjoy.
So I began to ask myself a few basic questions. First, how much do I really know about what lives on our property, or in the larger woods around us? How do I put these notions culled from Berry and elsewhere to meaningful employment in my life? Is everything I am doing and writing really just a kind of intellectual masturbation, playing at resistance to the unstoppable monoliths of Amazon, Inc., and the US Government, et. al., or is it a manifestation of real efforts to move away from the protest and sloganeering abyss into the much smaller and quieter tribe of genuinely responsible consumers?
“…the responsible consumer must also be in some way a producer. Out of his own resources and skills, he must be equal to some of his own needs.”
It isn’t enough to grow a garden, or to hunt for meat. Not for me, anyway. It’s a decent start, but what I’m wanting out of this movement isn’t only to sift through my needs and to reduce them. It’s a much larger equation. At the farthest ends I am seeking a kind of wisdom and authority in the preservation and maintenance of wholeness, a reduction in the fragmentation and specialization that works on us incessantly, and relentlessly, and whose only real result is the production of constant anxiety and ill-health, both personally and ecologically. What’s deeply troubling is that out of that anxiety and ill-health millions are driven into the synthetic wilderness where they go shopping for cures they won’t ever find because they aren’t meant to find them there.
Living in one place for any length of time supplies a kind of general knowledge, but that tepid way of knowing is often vague to the point of uselessness. I may be able to see and identify, for instance, the particular song of a western meadowlark, and I may thrill at the extraordinary memories it calls forth from my youth on the Great Basin desert, but other than the sound it makes and the emotionally pleasing memories stirred up in my brain, what do I really know about western meadowlarks?
The answer is, sadly, not much.
I’m not alone. Many of us suffer from the seductive allures of familiarity and half-formed educations, of knowledge so broad and generalized – which is really a survival mechanism induced by industrial society — we somehow convince ourselves that we know more of the particulars than we actually do.
But under scrutiny our supposed knowledge often breaks down and collapses like scaffolding in a big wind. This manifests in humorous ways, arriving surreptitiously in casual conversation where many of us habitually pretend to a kind of excellence and mastery of facts when what we are actually dealing in is perception and speculation. Whole conversations can roll off into the weeds of innuendo and outright fantasy, with every player in the act convinced they are speaking from positions of knowledge and authority.
And the point of pursuing wholeness is that I want to step through the tanglefoot of mere speculation and mere impression, into a place where wisdom resides.
And so to begin that progress, I am seeking a deeper level of intimacy with this small piece of land in the forest, and how it fits into a much bigger picture. Because: how can I be an authority on anything at all if I am not even an authority on the ground I inhabit?
So I decided, after an intriguing late night visit from a mountain lion, to embark on an overdue step in my effort to move from the universal to the particular — to take a census of the life that occupies this ground with us. I want to know what lives here, how it lives here, and why it lives here.
Not everything on the census has a permanent home on our place. But everything on it can be seen here, either in the sky or on the ground as they burrow, hunt, nest, forage, or travel, and all of them exist in the broader picture of the larger forest we inhabit. The Canada Geese, for instance, don’t live here, but they fly frequently and directly over our house in great honking rafts that are lovely to observe and to hear while sitting on the back porch in the evening.
Animal notions of property and territory exist as an overlay, or perhaps an underlay, on our human notions of property lines and boundaries. And there is a fullness in that understanding of the wider ecology that is utterly lacking in our own, as the existence of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and any number of large western cities proves beyond any shadow of doubt.
One of the great pleasures of walking the dogs in our forest is the work they do, disguised as exercise, following their noses and constantly rediscovering and redrawing the map of territories that remain largely invisible to the human eye. There is a conversation happening that they are learning through their noses, and occasionally participating in when they pee on a tree or a patch of brush. What I want is to learn that language, because it draws me deeper into the life of our surroundings and better informs my own existence within it.
What is true of the Canada geese that pass overhead is also true of the Golden Eagles. There is a nesting pair of Golden Eagles who live very close, tucked into a rock wall of Wychus Creek Canyon a half-mile east of us, and they are frequently seen hunting directly overhead in the summer months. They can also be seen on this livecam – http://www.goldeneaglecam.com — as they prepare to hatch their eggs this spring.
The Bald Eagles don’t live on our property either, but have a nest within a short walk into the forest behind our place, in the upper reaches of a towering ponderosa where I often walk with the dogs or ride through on a horse. Like their Golden cousins the Bald Eagles can often be seen hunting in the sky above our butte.
The coyotes are frequent visitors. Usually in pairs, sometimes three or four together, but often singly, and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched them trot to within feet of the henhouse door, where they pause in cartoon frustration, and in the same place where the deer bed down in perimeters, a perfect defensive 360° like a squad of soldiers on a long patrol halt.
It’s also possible that we have otters on the place. Our butte runs roughly north and south, a volcanic berm between two sources of water, Indian Ford Meadow to the west, and Wychus Creek – a broad and fast moving tributary of the Deschutes River – to our east. It would not be a surprising if otters were moving between the two, and our neighbor to the north, where a mountain lion was killed not long ago, called one day to ask if I had seen the otters, as she had. I had not, but her call coincided with my discovery of a bag of cat food ripped open and thrown around the barn as if attacked and ripped open by – well, otters.
So otters make the list.
I decided to break this census down into several categories, bearing in mind that everything that eventually appears on it is in some way interacting with every other thing. It is by no means complete. There are at least a half-dozen bird species I have yet to identify, and the same is true in virtually every category I have listed. But how these creatures are all interacting is the ultimate subject of my study, which is both a long-term commitment and a continual work in progress as I learn the particular habits and needs of each.
“The modern specialist and/or industrialist in his modern house can probably have no very clear sense of where he is. His sense of his whereabouts is abstract: he is in a certain “line” as signified by his profession, in a certain “bracket” as signified by his income, and in a certain “crowd” as signified by his house and his amusements. Where he is matters only in proportion to the number of other people’s effects he has to put up with. Geography is defined for him by his house, his office, his commuting route, and the interiors of shopping centers, restaurants, and place of amusement – which is to say that his geography is artificial; he could be anywhere, and he usually is.”
So here it is. A crack at the particular, an attempt to land somewhere in place, a movement from “We live in the forest,” to “We live in the forest with all of these other creatures.” What comes next, even as I set out this spring to whip the greenhouse into shape, to turn over the garden beds and begin the planting cycle, to build a new run for the crop of turkeys we expect to raise for ourselves and our friends, are the more intimate particulars of the lives these creatures of our forests lead. Because that kind of knowledge contributes to the genuine wholeness of our own lives, and thusly our understanding, and eventually leads to the kind of wisdom that simply cannot be found in the economies of culturally enforced anxiety, fragmentation, and ultimately destruction.
2018 Figure 8 Ranch Census:
Large Domesticated Mammals:
Human, Horse, Dog, Chicken, Turkey, Cat
Mountain Lion, Coyote, Mule Deer, Otter, Grey Squirrel, Golden Mantle, Mole, Rabbit, Deer Mouse, Chipmunk
Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Red-Tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, Canada Goose, Raven, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Violet Green Swallow, Western Meadowlark, Mourning Dove, Stellar’s Jay, American Robin, Western Bluebird, Red-Winged Blackbird, Hummingbird, Quail–and numerous others as yet unidentified.
Trees, Shrubs, Grasses:
Ponderosa Pine, Western Juniper, Aspen, Apple, Japanese Fire Maple, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Indian Ricegrass, Cherry, Cascadia Hops, Lilac, Rabbitbrush, Bitterbrush, Daisy, Mushroom, Hydrangea, Krokus, Daffodil, Tulip, Poppy, Catmint, Lavender–and numerous others as yet unidentified.
Frogs, Snakes, Invertebrates:
Frogs–many as yet unidentified species, Salamanders, Fence Lizard, Rubber Boa, Racer Snake, Western Skink
Scorpion, Stink Bug, Potato Bug, Skeeter-Eater, Carpenter Ant, Formic Ant, Harvester Ant, Ant Lion, Mosquito, Aphid, Ladybug, Earthworm, Gnat, Moth, Housefly, Horsefly, Onion Fly, Bumblebee, Honey Bee, Yellowjacket, Hornet, Black Widow, Jumping Spider, Wolf Spider, Daddy Longleg, Moth, Butterfly, Dragonfly, Beetle–and numerous others as yet to be identified.
This little census is by no means a complete record, but the quest to flush it out is an important feature of moving toward wholeness and health, and it is fulfilling to be enjoined to the work.
It is also a far more interesting and valuable kind of census than the US Department of Agriculture Census that sits heavily on my desk, with its threatening suggestion on the envelope that I am “REQUIRED BY LAW TO RESPOND”, and which seems, by the nature of its questions, far more interested in how much money we are making than in how or what it is that we are actually producing.
Which, as the official product of a diseased and fragmented culture, isn’t the least bit surprising.