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BETWEEN URBAN and WILD
Reflections from Colorado
By ANDREA M. JONES
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2013 Andrea M. Jones
All rights reserved.
The View from Home
You might say it started with the bird feeder.
Oh, sure, first there was the guy, the falling in love, the settling down in a house in the Colorado foothills. But where the bird feeder enters my memory, a different point of view asserts itself. Not a complete revolution in seeing, but a shift in perspective, as if someone had clapped their hands around my skull and swiveled my head, sighting it along a new angle, saying, "There. Try looking there."
I had admired the flickering, fluttering, swooping activity around the feeders at the house of one of our new neighbors. They had a lot of bird feeders—tube feeders, wire cages for vegetarian suet, mesh bags filled with peanuts, platform feeders, spikes with dried ears of corn stuck on them. They even had a little wooden box with a flip-up lid, mounted at a level that made it easy for the squirrels and deer to help themselves. It was all too much for me; birds flew in and out with patternless frenetic energy, and trying to keep so many contraptions filled was, I knew, far beyond the limits of my enthusiasm and patience.
One feeder, though: I liked that idea. A point of focus outside the window of my office, something to stare at when my mental moorings broke loose and my mind went adrift.
I bought a basic tube feeder, a clear plastic hexagon ringed with two tiers of feeding ports, and a small bag of mixed birdseed. I put the feeder up on a dead stub jutting from one of the many ponderosa pines on the slope on the west side of the house, outside my office window.
A bird or two might have flown in [down arrow]for seed before the raccoons found the feeder, but I'm not certain. In any case, one of the three waddling bandits pulled the feeder off the branch the first night, and the family dined extravagantly. We turned on the exterior lights when we heard the clunking outside and settled down to watch. The raccoons glanced indifferently toward our faces in the window now and again as they ate.
The feeder was empty but unharmed, and the next day we stretched wire between two trees and suspended the feeder in the middle. The raccoons were unwilling to venture out onto this tightrope, but the squirrels were entirely at home with the arrangement. They took about a day to empty the feeder, instead of accomplishing the job in one fell thump. I added a baffle, a cone of metal that acted like an umbrella, sheltering the feeder from the rain of squirrels from above, and it finally became the domain of the winged.
Fluttering on and off the perches in quick sorties, the birds obliged my expectations. There was something reassuring about seeing their movements when I glanced up from my desk. Often, my eyes were on the birds while my mind was elsewhere, but I watched at times with full attention. Patterns began to emerge. Certain types of birds would fly up to the feeder, grab a seed, and swoop to a nearby tree to hammer the prize into a cranny in the bark. Others settled on the perches for a few minutes at a time, pecking daintily. Some swept showers of millet onto the ground, hunting for the prize of a sunflower seed. Five or six different species used the feeder. I could make distinctions among the plumages, but I didn't know the names of the birds I was looking at.
* * *
Watching the activity around the bird feeder, I realized that my acquaintance with evergreen landscapes had been rather selective, despite the fact that our family headed for the hills, for evergreen forests, for lakes and rivers during my parents' free time. These habits persisted after Mom and Dad split up, with Cindy, Dad's longtime girlfriend and my second mom, embracing the customs. As a result, family vacation memories, for me, do not involve ball games or cross-country drives, amusement parks or museums, cities or Disney glitz. Most of my recollections of our leisure hours together involve evening fishing trips, long weekends camping, days in the woods cutting firewood or hunting for Christmas trees, and Sunday drives (no matter what day of the week) that consisted of meandering slowly along gravel and dirt roads, stopping to peer at deer and elk through binoculars. The perceptual training of these experiences has stuck; my eyes instinctively search for the tawny shapes and white butts of deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep. I know what the fish common to southwestern Colorado look and taste like, know when to keep my eyes peeled for chokecherries, wild strawberries, and raspberries. The smell of pine woods on a hot day, the springy feel of the litter of needles and cone fragments under a spruce tree, the cartoon-chatter scolding of red squirrels, the lusty wail of an elk's bugle—all are familiar and reassuring.
But as the birds arrived at the feeder with a purr of wing-beats, I realized that they were, for all practical purposes, a new form of fauna to my eyes. I had never paid any attention to small birds before, had never thought of them as wildlife. I could identify the most common or noisy or charismatic species, such as robins, magpies, hummingbirds, and gray jays. In the classification scheme I inherited from my father, though, songbirds were neither game animals nor varmints. They were, literally, background noise.
Seeking to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge of this novel category of wildlife, I bought a field guide. Consulting its photos and text, I began to put names to the nameless: white-breasted, red-breasted, and pygmy nuthatches; mountain and black-capped chickadees. These, along with juncos in both pink-sided and Oregon forms, made up the majority of the feeder's visitors. Electric blue Steller's jays occasionally flew in as gangs of three or more and acted like loitering teenagers: flashy, loud, eating more than was seemly. With my eyes tuned in to seeing small birds, I began keeping the field guide out where I could consult its pages even when not sitting in my office chair. As they were added to the small mental list of birds I could identify on sight, the species names also made their way into my vocabulary: hairy woodpecker, western tanager, mourning dove, canyon wren, brown creeper, violet-green swallow.
My scant knowledge of biblical lore suggests that naming the beasts gave Adam dominion over them. I had no such designs, but the names were surprisingly empowering. Although they contributed mere syllables to what I knew about the birds, the names acted as keys, unlocking access to a store of information I'd never tapped before. Noticing these birds, then labeling them and finding something out about their lifeways that I did not learn from my own observations altered the quality of my attention. The habit of identifying unknown birds helped knit observations of my environment to my propensity for book-learning.
This all sounds childishly simple, I know, a pitiful example of delayed development. Consulting texts is one of the tried-and-true ways we modern humans learn about the world. But for me, before this, natural history was an embodied pursuit rather than an intellectual one. I much enjoyed the simple pleasure of seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, occasionally tasting. Encounters with wild animals and natural beauty were sensory trinkets I gathered like shells in a jar, pulled out and admired now and again but neither arranged with much care nor integrated with everyday experience. Bending down to examine a flower, catching sight of the ashy flash of fur as a gray fox disappeared into the underbrush: these were passing interludes, standalone events.
I had moved to the house on Fourmile Canyon Drive with Doug, who would become my husband a couple of years later. I'd recently quit my job and started taking graduate courses through a distance-learning university while working on freelance writing and editing projects. The house was nestled in a rocky gulch in the foothills a few miles west of Boulder, Colorado, surrounded by ponderosa pines. Instead of commanding views over the town and the plains spilling beyond, the windows looked out on nearby slopes crowded with evergreens and spotted with outcrops of pink granite. The neighboring houses were above us, well screened by pine trees. The location felt intimate, compact and accessible. The double shift, to a new home and away from the cubicle work routine, made me feel a bit like one of those people who packs up and moves to a foreign country. I didn't have the resources or gumption to journey to Tuscany or Provence, but I was in a new place with the opportunity to cultivate an altered daily groove. The changes knocked my perspective askew just enough to bring an awareness of my place in the wider world into sharper relief.
As a stay-at-home non-mom, I had the leisure to explore and the inclination to reflect, and I became present on my new home ground in a way I'd never been before. The woodland setting felt comfortable and familiar, but living full time in a setting more wild than suburban was quite different from relaxing during a weekend camping trip. Events in the exterior environment weren't everyday in the sense of being commonplace, yet they became a fixture of my experience every day. The interval between routine and remarkable shrank. Brief sightings and small details accrued into a mosaic, each small observational event a fragment contributing dimension and subtlety to a larger whole. Within the outline of terrain and trees, I pieced in facets of animals and plants, scents and sounds. The house buffered the weather and delineated our territory from that of the critters, true enough, but over time I was able to track the mood of my surroundings through sunlight, rain, and snow; through seasonal shifts of light; through wet years and dry ones. The birds outside my office window started out as a visual diversion, but they metamorphosed into fluttering invitations to learn more about the natural community into which I had moved.
* * *
My father shaped my early understanding about the relationship between people and the natural world. His father was a timberman whose children grew up logging and working in the small family-run sawmill in Colorado's Wet Mountains. Dad later worked for the Job Corps and the U.S. Forest Service in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, so from his boyhood through his young adult career, he worked in the woods. Knowledge of trees and natural history were part of his upbringing and his early professional life, but he was also a lifelong fisherman and hunter, which meant that the outdoors was also the setting for most of his favorite pastimes and an outlet for his skills. There's no question, too, that the natural world was as close to a house of worship as any place could be for him, a space for reflection and renewal. Dad was simultaneously pragmatic and reverential about the woods: they supplied meat and lumber, solitude and beauty.
I didn't exactly grow up in town, but my childhood was more suburban than my dad's. The two homes outside of Durango, Colorado, where we lived when I was young were set in a patchwork of agricultural land and ad hoc developments scattered through piñon scrubland. My three older brothers and I spent more of our free time outside than inside, but the landscapes we roamed were more managed than wild. Our landmarks were gravel roads, fences, yards, and septic ponds, not just gullies, trees, and hills.
I have no doubt that my father was a wealth of knowledge about the outdoors, although much of what he understood about the woods was probably so deeply embedded in his mind and experience that he didn't recognize it as acquired knowledge. I think he expected us kids to watch and learn, assuming that we would pick up essential nuggets by way of observation. This seems to have worked to a certain extent; I feel confident being outside and have learned some practical skills, such as how to put on tire chains, although I have no memory of being taught this. But I also lack memories of fatherly counsel about the names of things or the relationships among animals and plants and the land that we would these days label forest ecology. When my dad did choose to be pedantic, his topics were either highly practical or more philosophical: he taught me how to thoroughly douse a campfire, the necessity of getting my camp bed made before dark, and that I shouldn't count on anyone but myself to look out for my safety and well-being.
Thinking back, I can't shake the sense that I missed out on much of what he knew about wildland environments. Perhaps I asked questions when I was younger and then forgot what he said. I might have gotten shorted; as the youngest of four kids I might have been told to go ask one of my brothers when I pestered Dad with questions. Other than accompanying him a few times to pack out meat, I never went hunting, and there's no question that I did not receive many of the insights that he passed on to my two eldest brothers when he taught them to hunt and handle guns. My gender would not have been a barrier—he would have been thrilled to have his daughter hunt with him, I think—but I had no interest in hunting or shooting, and since I was a girl there was no presumption that I needed to learn those things.
A more comprehensive inheritance was also blocked because I am nothing like my father in terms of sociability. My dad loved bullshitting with people, whether family members, work colleagues, or barflys. I'm not that social; I take after my mom in being more solitary and thanks to her am an avid reader: I'm content to find out what people have to say by way of the crafted and filtered mechanism of written language. Dad and I once had a terrific screaming fight in the parking lot of a bar. I had retreated to the pickup, preferring solitude and a book to the night's festivities. Such behavior was acceptable when I was a child, but I had recently graduated from high school and was on the cusp of adulthood. In his mind, that meant conducting relationships in an adult fashion, which included negotiating the crowds of bars and taverns. He mistook my shyness and dislike of smoke and noise for snobbery and was furious that I wasn't inside rubbing shoulders with real people with real-life experiences.
What my dad was missing in that long-ago argument was that books are written by real people with real-life experiences, but with the advantage of hindsight I can see additional forces lurking behind our disagreement. Partly, we were screaming across a generation gap, but we were also shouting from acutely offset angles at a sharp bend in the cultural highway. The men and women who had raised and mentored him—and he himself—weren't bookish sorts. Knowledge came from experience, including the experience of elders and compatriots. He understood the advantages of the alternate path of formal learning, as indicated by his insistence that I go to college and not ride horses for a living, but he also recognized what might be lost if I didn't maintain ties to people more literally grounded.
One of the implications of that underlying conflict can be seen in my move with Doug to the house in Fourmile Canyon and, later, to Cap Rock Ranch. Like thousands, if not millions, of people, Doug and I headed for the hills in search of seclusion and space. Having arrived on what was in many respects foreign ground, I found myself wanting to seek advice. The field guides helped fill in some of the factual blanks about flora and fauna, but they could not help me negotiate the process of becoming at home as a modern human in a woodland environment. I would have liked to be able to consult old-timers and experienced locals, including my dad, but there simply weren't that many around. This is an unfortunate consequence of social change and the realities of aging and death, but I've lately begun to wonder whether my wistfulness amounts to a nostalgia for something that never existed in the first place. The longer I live at the interface where urban boundaries feather and tentacle into undeveloped country, the more I question the applicability of old models of residence.
Living outside the city and beyond cookie-cutter suburbs is in some ways a throwback to an earlier age, but in important ways it's utterly different. Moving to a place because it's pretty or secluded entails a different mindset and different expectations from moving there for the opportunities the land affords for earning a living or providing subsistence. The expertise of the rancher, the farmer, and the timber worker suggests the utility of self-sufficiency, and the failures of some of them illustrate the need for sustainable practices to ensure long-term living in place. But traditional patterns of living don't resolve all the issues and paradoxes that come with trying to live a modern American lifestyle in the wildland interface. The same goes for the ideals of a leave-no-trace wilderness ethic or strict environmentalism: there is much to emulate, but the template is not an exact fit.
Excerpted from BETWEEN URBAN and WILD by ANDREA M. JONES. Copyright © 2013 Andrea M. Jones. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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