Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bobcats & Mountain Lions: Living With Predators

I went for a run this morning in the rugged hills northeast of Santa Fe. Gnarly and dry as these hills look, they conceal narrow canyons with running streams like the one I photographed above.

There is snow on the mountains, and more on the way. I was looking for signs this morning that the mule deer are making their way down to their winter territory. I saw only a few fresh tracks. At the end of my run, just across the street from the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, I saw a bobcat leaping above the two-foot high grasses; all four paws off the ground, four legs stretched straight out.

I have seen only two other bobcats, both of them within a couple of miles of the Audubon Center, one dead, the other disappearing into heavy brush. This one, floating above the grasses, with autumn foliage in the background, was stunningly beautiful. Now I know why I haven't seen the doe and fawn, who have been hanging out in the same bushy area all summer, in a month. A bobcat has moved in.

I saw a mountain lion, my 7th, in the same area a month ago.  It exploded out from its place of concealment a few yards away from me and was gone almost before I realized what it was.  I guessed that it might have been a youth.  It was not as large as the others I have seen, and I doubt that a mature mountain lion would have betrayed its hiding place only to run off in apparent confusion.   

When I see these beautiful predators, I feel conflicted. I feel fear for the deer I've gotten to know in the area, and I know that the predators need to be there in order for the deer herds to stay healthy. I'm glad there are places where big predators still roam. I’m glad that I live in one of those places.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

First Snow

Rain for almost 20 hours, and now snow. The only thing better than rain here in the high alpine desert is snow. Carmen and I have declared the first snow an annual holiday. She’s at school today enjoying hot chocolate & pumpkin carving with her fabulous teacher. Here’s a poem I wrote six years ago on the occasion of the first snow. It makes for great light in my studio.

First Snow

The first snow coming in from the West
extinguishes the lights of the city

We can’t see further than across the street
Carmen worries that our city won’t return
I wish it wouldn’t
We can’t see the coyotes padding softly
on their nightly mission
the bears up in the watershed, agitated by hunger
stupefied by the urge toward sleep
We can’t hear traffic sirens the band down at El Farol

Here in the cradle of the storm
There’s nothing but snow and wind
A wavelike rhythm, now to the East now to the West
and breath

Silver light, cloud-refracted
beams in through water-laced glass
I lie in bed trying to recall the last time I lay in love’s embrace
I recall the last four years’ first snows
where I was, what I drank, ate, nature of conversation, with whom, quality of light, nature of snow
Do I miss the embrace I can’t remember
the touch that left less
of an impression upon my skin than the texture and water content of snow?

Like Carmen misses the city she can’t see

Years ago my Spanish teacher translated “to miss”
echar de menos
“to be struck by the lack of”

I’m struck by the lack of an embrace I can’t recall
by the years between me and a caress that conveyed
not ownership nor need nor desire, but something else

The storm moves East
The city returns intermittently
Ice crystals whip the streetlamp’s now softened haze
Carmen, in dinosaur pajamas, breathes deeply

Between warm sheets the urge toward sleep
stupefies with the softness of cloudlight
Who could embrace me like all of this?

A question, struck by the lack of an answer

Monday, October 19, 2009

Running off-piste

I painted this watercolor a month or so ago. Title: Above Sunflower Falls: Fawn Nursery, 12 x 9 inches. I've been running all summer in an area occupied by a group of does and their fawns. Now the time is approaching when the bucks rejoin the doe and yearling groups and they head to lower ground. October is the gentlest month, and it's been a warm one here in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This morning I ran up Picacho and saw a doe and her fawn. The fawns have reached a good size in this gentle autumn, and there is still plenty for them to eat. Picacho's summit is at 8,577 feet. It's a steep but accessible and short climb, 49 minutes up and 26 minutes down, if you run slowly, like I do.

I took a little-used, half-hidden trail. I usually avoid trails, perhaps because I’ve been shot at three times over the years by strangers while running on trails. That’s life in America, where everyone is armed to the teeth and proud of it. Fortunately for me, all of my assailants had bad aim and/or were drunk, and I was never hit. Armed drunks aside, I prefer finding my way off-piste.  I like to use map and compass, sight lines and intuition. There is much to be said for aimless wandering. People who study deer report that their movements are unpredictable, as though they decide from one moment to the next where they are going.  If you don’t know where you are going, neither does the mountain lion or drunken hunter. Aimless wandering cuts down on thinking and fosters a different kind of consciousness.

Pregnant Atop Picacho, 2001

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Animal architecture

The being whose abode I photographed (above) is probably less than four inches tall.  In the forest, art is everywhere.  One could, of course, say that about any place.  Robert Rauschenberg said that anyone who walks around the block and can't find the materials to create a work of art lacks imagination.  Animals exercise discriminating imagination in the design and construction of their homes, be they squatters or builders.  They construct places and objects of great beauty, like the sphere I described  in my last post.  Yet many humans refuse to acknowledge animal consicousness or emotion. As though we are not animals ourselves.

Animal homes often appear in my paintings.  When I was a kid, my two favorite books were Alice in Wonderland, about a kid who falls into an animal home, and My Side of the Mountain, about a kid who runs away to live in a hollow tree.  Hmm . . . something is going on there about tunnels and dark inviting spaces.  I recently reread the latter & found it as compelling as I did then.  My eight-year old daughter thought it was boring because it's about a boy.  Try explaining to an 8 year old that gender is immaterial.  Of course she is right; gender is one of the most traded upon currencies in capitalist culture. 
Pick of the day:  Check out Heiko Mueller's paintings at http://www.heikomueller.de/, or at one of my favorite galleries, Jack Fischer Gallery, in San Francisco http://www.jackfischergallery.com/shows.htm.  I am particularly drawn to, you guessed it, Mueller's Bambi Chronicles series.  Mueller's work is the sort of imagery you might see on earthen walls while falling down a rabbit hole.     

The sphere & the creative process

I was running through a lovely forest last week, when I came upon a bear's resting place. It was a cozy little spot that a mother & a young bear seemed to have been frequenting, judging from the chewed up food containers from the campground 1/2 a mile away, the scat, tracks, etc. In the middle of this bear nest was a spherical object, a little bigger than a basketball, delicately woven from grasses. It was a perfect sphere. Out of curiosity, I gently opened it up and looked inside. Nothing there. It was not one of the balls that mountain lions use to mark their territory. These are roughly basketball size, made mostly of pine needles, stink like cat pee, and often contain very large cat scat. I wondered how, if the sphere was a nest, it had fallen from one of the surrounding towering pines and landed intact, undisturbed.  It was not a squirrel's stick-nest. Its maker had carefully chosen soft grasses of a single type and size.

Bears in October are on a singularly-focused mission to bulk up for winter. Otherwise, I might speculate that the sphere was bear art. I didn’t have a camera that day, so I didn’t photograph it. Nor did I remove it. It seemed carefully placed where it lay.

I woke up in the middle of the night with the sphere at the luminous center of my imagination. I remained awake and focused on the image for hours. It arranged itself as a symbol in various layouts in various paintings in my mind.  I wonder if other people are discovering grass spheres in other forests, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Blair Witch . . . .

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Controlled Burns, Deer, and Art

The Forest Service started an 850-acre "controlled burn" ten days ago, near an area I've frequented this summer.  All of the wildlife within a mile disappeared, which of course is not surprising.  I did a reconnaissance run while it was still smoking, about 1/2 mile from the burn, in an area that a group of does I've been observing have been using as a fawn nursery, and the place was deadly quiet.  Not a bird, rabbit, or squirrel.  Then came the rains, and life returned. Two days ago, I found the does, nervous, but apparently healthy, back in the old habitat. Today a large raven followed me, its wings beating like a heavy breath, its vocabulary impressive.

There may be some logic to controlled burns. Since people build their houses deeper and deeper in the forest, and citizens demand that every forest fire be put out immediately, fire no longer serves its natural function of wildlife habitat rejuvenation. Enter the controlled burn. Ostensibly, these are about preventing big fires, not habitat renewal. Ostensibly, they are controlled. As we learned from the Cerro Grande and other fires; in reality, they are capricious. And the Forest Service has a knack for starting them in high winds. Fires do create new habitat, but here in the high alpine desert, it is slow in coming. After the Cerro Grande Fire, the Forest Service seed-bombed, and the burned out forests sprouted with new grasses, herbs, and brush. More commonly, here in the Santa Fe watershed, the Forest Service burns and slashes, leaving behind a blackened landscape that looks pretty much dead for years. Eventuallly, new growth comes.

It's not so much the aftermath of fires that's been on my mind this week; it is the Forest Service's methods. They start fires by dropping incendiary devices (i.e., bombs) from planes. Lots of them. If you're a deer, or, worse yet, something slower-moving, this is akin to stealth jets targeting your living room. You don't have a chance.  The Forest Service's protocol, as reported in my hometown paper this week, is to burn the perimeter first, trapping every living thing that can't jump or fly through a swath of fire.  The apparently unharmed deer I saw after the fire were either the lucky ones or the ones who had not been inside the perimiter when the air raid began.

I was very happy to see them alive and trotting; to hear the forest, half a mile from the burn, alive and chattering, to hear the raven's wings beating. I'd like to see the Forest Service change their methods, if not their motivations. If they are going to simulate a forest fire, let them do it like a single lightning strike, not like the firebombing of Gaza. Give the forest's inhabitants a fighting chance to live to forage the new habitat.

When I returned from my run in the rain two days ago, I immediately sat down and created three new watercolors. Watercolors are good for stormy October skies and wet leaves.  Those 8 days without seeing a deer were long. Not because they were 8 days; that's not unusual, but because I didn't know where the deer were. During that week-plus-a-day, I ran for hours through the mountains without that familiar feeling that the deer were nearby, watching me. I wondered, did the does and fawns get out, did they run up, down, west, east? I tried to think like they would think, knowing that they wouldn't think; they would act. On my run in the rain, I stopped thinking, and I intuited the does' location, a few hundred yards from where I had seen them before the fire. Just before I found them, my mind tried thinking again. The thought was, "they wouldn't be down at the bottom of a box canyon at this time of day." I ignored it and kept going on intuition, and I ran right to them.

The does ran; I stopped. They stopped. We stood that way, as usual, for a long time.  I moved; they trotted off.  I trotted off, and I came upon a most intriguing spherical object that will no doubt be reproduced in some form in a future painting.  More about that later.   

Picks of the day: Check out the work of Josh Keyes and James Lavadour, innovative painters concerned with deer (Keyes), and forest fires (Keyes and Lavadour).