Montana Wolf

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Buzzard's Return

It’s a joke that garners a wild west guffaw: you’re sitting with friends taking a break and along glides a buzzard aka Turkey Vulture. Her featherless head points down as her slow, tippy flight circles ‘round, casting a shadow across dirt and rock. Better get movingshow signs of life! laughs the group.

Mercifully, we’re not the target of their fly-bys. Their chicken-like feet aren’t designed to carry food. Their preference is soft rotted skin that’s easy to tear with sharp talons and eat immediately. Evolution has equipped them well: they have the largest olfactory system of all birds and can smell death over a mile away.

Small perch not a problem!
It’s March. Arivaca’s dozens of migrating, red-leathery-headed vultures have arrived from south of the border, perhaps from as far away as South America. Whether you call them committees, venues or volts (all correct), they soar in on blue-sky days, eschewing clouds and rain for warm sunny thermals. They land in various tall trees and snags around town, and roost in the rocks that surround Arivaca Lake. Further afield, their migration flocks can number thousands. Their routes are overland, avoiding large bodies of water in favor of land-birthed thermals to aid their five to six-foot wingspans. Their wing flaps are few and far between, lending to the mesmerizing quality of their flight. While their day time foraging is solitary, they gather in groups to feed on carrion, eating one at a time.  A group of feeding vultures is called (are you ready for this?) a wake.

I’ve camped for weeks under an old growth mesquite TV roost and it’s a sight to behold. Silence pervades their lives. No songs, no calls, only soft hissing or an occasional cluck. The rush of their dark brown wings is magic. Even their roosting arguments are silent, as those already positioned for the evening are displaced by late-comers. The jockeying for position on tiny branches amazes. A full-grown vulture with a 67’’ wingspan, 26” long, weighs only three to four pounds.

The Turkey Vultures passing through Arivaca will roost, replenish and show off that wingspan in early morning stretches from tree tops, cliff edges and power poles. When they nest further north, they lay eggs on ledge recesses, in caves, hollow logs or even on the ground. They take over abandoned nests but do not build their own. They are monogamous and return to their nest site yearly. Nest sites from which you want to keep your distance. When adults or chicks feel threatened, they will vomit in your direction.

Barring projectile vomits, Turkey Vultures and I share commonalities. We prefer seclusion and silence. We are drawn to tree snags … them to roost, me to photograph. We fancy juniper berries and grapes, theirs on the vine, mine in a bottle of gin or wine. We even have similar migration routes. I’ve pondered if the TVs catching thermals at the top of Devils Tower WY, my recent park ranger locale, were Arivaca familiars. While I’m not one for rot and never owned a roadkill cookbook, I like to think, in a nod to Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we agree that roadside guard rails should go away.  

Turkey Vultures are named after wild turkeys, who also have a red, featherless head. They are related more closely to storks than hawks or eagles. Perhaps we need a version of a buzzard delivering a baby to desert-dwelling parents? Okay, maybe not, but Arivaca’s harbinger of spring begs for acknowledgement. A shindig. A parade. While Hummers and Meadowlarks are resplendent, nothing jerks our chain like a buzzard’s morning statuesque wingspread facing the sun; or their circling hundreds kettling up and up to catch thermals as they go about their daily mop-up of roadkill and desert death. They fill our sky with silent grace and continue on, leaving us to ponder empty skies.
Worthy of a toast, I say.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Killing Grace

It’s hunting season in Arivaca, a yearly ritual of anticipation, tags, fees and designated locales that bring hundreds of men and a few women into our village. The autumn wave of camouflage is a welcome economic boon to our few stores and campgrounds. Pick-up trucks multiply; rare lines form at the only two gas pumps.

Night comes. Men in camo head for La Gitana, the local cantina, entrance granted only to the gunless in a town that contends with borderland militias. They take a place at the old wooden bar and order up. Hunter humor beams from tired eyes and unshaven faces. They mix it up with the locals and are glad to be here. Depending on the hunting season, they travel to our spacious outback to shoot a grazing mule deer; a wary whitetail.

Deer drape our high-desert grasslands. So do a few Pronghorn. A special species that belongs only to North America, they are not as plentiful as deer. Their prairie grassland evolution did not equip them to jump fences. Manifest destiny and the introduction of barbed wire delivered them to near-extinction as their numbers plummeted from over 15 million across the west to 13 thousand a century ago. There are now 10 thousand in Arizona, and a short hunting season by lottery. Deer, on the other hand, are ubiquitous, bedding down in tall grasses, wearing down game trails to waterholes. They browse woody plants. Think mesquite leaves and beans --- profuse around here.

I have witnessed deer, pronghorn and the mountain lion that preys upon them. Get too close to a deer and you will hear it stomp and snort. They will attack as well. Most anything can happen during rut. As for the elegant pronghorn, I once watched a one give birth outside my cabin. That wobbly baby was up and trotting with mom in minutes, followed within seconds by a coyote to chow down on the afterbirth. Close in on a pronghorn and you will be awed by its take-off and speeds nearing 70 mph, as fast as a cheetah. As for lion, I have watched a mother and her three yearlings eschew my sudden presence and leap across a creek on the strength of their thick tails. Yearlings first, then mom, who cast me an incisor snarl.  Whether deer, pronghorn or lion, their presence catapults one to another reality; grants an opportunity to witness grace and power; evolution’s perfection.

The hunters exit the cantina and return to RVs that dot the surrounding public lands. They rise in the early morn, eat a hearty breakfast and go in search of a doe or buck. They do not hunt out of hunger. At least not physical hunger. The hunters scout ravines with scopes and high-powered rifles along our winding roads. They drive to get closer; crouch and wait. With rare exceptions, they shoot from an assassin’s distance, sometimes 300 yards.  That’s three football fields. Their prey browses one moment, falls the next. One can only imagine the four-legged’s split-second explosion of confusion at what fluke of nature overtook their evolution; what sensory failure allowed for their demise.

Modern hunting ritual begs the question: How has it evolved not so much to kill a deer, but to kill grace --- eons of evolution --- through acts that holds no risk? There is nothing brave in taking down an animal that cannot catch your scent. No challenge in filling the ATV gas tank at the Mercantile. Hunting has transformed from an intimate knowledge of landscape and a skilled act of survival to feed family and community into a video game played outdoors. Like the teen who sits for hours at the computer screen and fights off dragons and demons, there is no real risk. Without risk one does not learn how to live. One takes without sacrifice, avoiding a central tenet of a healthy society.

The ritual of the hunt begins with reverence for the hunted and their landscape. Deference to the those who track, stalk and shoot from short distances, gun or bow. Who crawl on their bellies and risk exposure to prey and the elements in a complicated rite of equals. Ever aware of their place in the food chain, they wander rugged terrain in search of a sustenance, exchanging sacrifice for sacrifice. They sit down to their savory venison meal knowing ritual without risk has no validity. That killing grace deserves better.


This piece was previously published in the Connection and the Crestone Eagle. With thanks. 

Photos by Christina Nealson

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Tasmania Goodbye

White wild wings came a-callin' ...

Entrance to MONA 

I felt assured, in the wake of the forest giants, that the revelations had run their course.  I was wrong. We returned to Hobart for a rip-roaring 24 hours that included MONA art gallery -- a dip into the outrageous borders of the creative mind ---

Velocity of Death=Fate over Will

Women Thru Time

Travel and MONA converged into exhaustion. Too tired to eat out, we checked into our sweet hilltop cottage. I ran a deep, hot bubble bath (yes, I'd brought my own and still had some left!) and we ordered up a fresh prawn/oregano/garlic pizza that took its place as a ten out of ten on the delicious scale. We fell dead tired into bed ... the most comfortable bed I'd ever slept in. No exaggeration. That night I dreamed I walked into that very room and Greg was in the bed reading my journal. I yelled and grabbed it out of his hands. The dream woke me, a shocking image that needed further scrutiny.

The final morning in Tas was fresh and glorious. I gazed through heart-shaped branches at parrots and a view of the harbor. Leaving the island was wrenching. I placed my traveling flower bouquet in the room as we packed for the flight to the mainland. We arrived at the famous Salamanca street market with only an hour to sample what easily could have taken a day ... an impressive array of foods, beers, hand woven and hand crafted goods. I selected a handwoven wool hat from one of the countless Tas sheep on the island. We returned the van; no discount for the leak that had drenched the bed. We slept on the short flight to Sydney and Uber-ed to the original bed and breakfast. Full circle.

Three days until departure. We ferried to downtown Sydney to see a Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz, tickets Greg purchased weeks before. What fun! Little kids decked out in costumes. Poignant to revisit the metaphorical journey of Dorothy, her three sidekicks and the delusional Oz. A reminder that the wisdom one seeks outside oneself is found within. The hero's spiritual journey.

With one day to go we headed to famous Taronga Zoo to photograph the elusive Tasmanian Devil who had shown up unexpectedly that magical eclipse night. An early start was desired; the universe had other plans. First, we waited over an hour in pouring rain for a ferry that did not come. We hopped a couple of buses, a ferry and landed at the zoo near noon.  I hurried uphill to find the Devils and Koalas but the zoo was under construction with poor signage, a difficult combination for an already-rough day. We missed the last ferry back and had to re-route once more with hurried runs to buses.  I'd hoped for a short nap before we walked to dinner but that didn't happen. Exhausted. Hungry. Ready for a rest, meal and a gin and tonic, we headed for one final seafood dinner.

I sprinkled malt vinegar over crispy fish n chips; watched the sun set over the waters and downtown Sydney as Greg appeared on the beach to photograph. I let go into the tangerine world as I recalled the recent dream and hectic day; sought balance in the wake of challenges and then ...

Large and black, it resembled a raven as it dipped and landed in a nearby tree.  Then, another. And dozens. Fruit bats! I never imagined bats so large and there they were, filling the twilight sky, landing in nearby fruit trees. Flying Foxes transformed the landscape, wiped the energetic slate clean; revitalized the air. (Click on the link!) It may have been nightfall but it was a new day.

I departed for the US the next morning and Greg headed back to his Australian home. I watched Greg get smaller and smaller as the Slovakian Uber driver asked about my trip. Where to begin? When the subject came down to the wild he smiled wide. You must go to Slovakia, he said, for the wild. His enthusiasm for his home country was infectious.

Tasmania memories flood my soul. As with many past journeys, a part of me can not believe I was there. Photos verify. Parallel universes abound. What portal did I slip through?

Greg did go to Guanjuato MX to finish his book. He continues the project while I savor memories of the jaw-dropping island journey. In retrospect, the eclipses exaggerated energies already set into motion. As the trip progressed we headed in different directions. Prominent events were not experienced together, like my Bay of Fire walk when I met the aboriginal couple; the full moon eclipse and seeing the Tas Devil. And, many magical moments were shared -- the Fairy Penguin night! The wallaby's, kangaroos and cuolls! Wombat encounters, platypus, echidnas. Sydney theatre nights. Hikes to unforgettable views. Spirit puts us where we need to be, together or apart.

Our over-the-rainbow is a precious friendship.
Thank you, Dear Man "Mario," for the wild ride. Now get that book done!

Thank you, Tasmania and your soul-sparking wild ones.

Slovakia, eh? The High Tatras ...

Tasmania ... forever in my soul

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tasmania: Giants at the Edge of River Styx

Eclipses shake things up. The underpinnings begin to tremor a few days before and continue days and weeks after. Some might warn that to travel Tasmania in the midst of such energy was risky, but turbulence was my forte'.  Unsettledness in nature brought unsuspecting wildlife closer, deepened the shadows for photography, moved energy into the unknown. Eclipses also reached deep into psyches, like a metaphorical rototiller; brought depths into sight. The stage was set for our journey to Styx Valley and her giant trees. Styx: so named for the Greek deity and river between earth and hell.

Despite being a World Heritage Site, the Styx Valley and her giant forests were not easily accessible. We stopped in Maydena, a town a few blocks long and I struck up a conversation with a store owner. He not only gave me directions (warning: there would be no signs to "Big Tree") but also mentioned a little place to boondock by some caves outside of Maydena should we find ourselves in that area at the end of the day. Spoiler alert: we would.

Looking up ... and up
Twisty turns on potholed gravel eventually landed us at the walking trail. Eucalyptus gum trees that craned the neck and blinked the eyes in disbelief. The tallest stood at 300-plus feet, cocooned in a thick emerald forest of fern and moss. Tall as the California redwoods that took thousands of years to grow, these trees reached their heights in 300 years. (The tallest tree in the world is a redwood at 379 feet. There's perspective for you.) Thus I entered the velvet green sanctuary of one of the rarest forests on the planet.

Greg and I took separate routes, weaving in and out of the various faint trails, meeting up again at certain points. Taking time to lean into the energies that exuded from the trees.

the only human-made structure


This forest silenced the soul.

We eventually met back at the trailhead and made our way down to the river Styx. That's when I spotted a neon orange fungus growing out of moss. I was photographing when a couple walked up like ghosts ... we'd seen no one else thus far.  Greg, however, had noticed another vehicle when we parked and asked if it was theirs. It had a license plate that designated the owner a veteran. Yes. It was theirs. The two men began to share comments of their years in Nam and within seconds the man broke down and sobbed. I comforted his wife, Christine, who shook her head and said, "This happens all the time." The man apologized as he fought to hold back years of tears and trauma. He, on the cusp of hell ... a few feet from the river Styx. His soul recognized Greg, who was writing a book on PTSD. An interlude of unspeakable forces.

We parted with warm goodbyes. They returned up the trail to their car; we continued down to the  river. All was silence, green and the slight rush of running water over worn, colorful pebbles.

Once again we chose separate ways. Greg had an unspeakable meeting to process. I struggled to stay focused on my place in the middle of the chaotic energies. The many wonders and wildlife sightings of the past few days. The things set in motion for me were not obvious. The clarity around Greg, however, was crystalline. 

River Styx 

We returned to Maydena with no time for extra stops; found the turn up a dirt two track to the recommended boondock at the entrance to caves. Parked along a small stream. Greg proceeded to build a fire out of wet wood -- accomplishing the impossible in my book -- and the evening proceeded into a truth-telling. The meeting with the Vet at the edge of River Styx augured huge.  And his wife? -- with the same name as mine? You must finish your book, I said. All else must be set aside. No diversions. I suggested Mexico. Guanjuato. He'd never been to Mexico but he was game. He agreed; felt the value of removing himself from distractions on this book project that had drawn on for years. Clearly, this Tasmanian journey was not about him and me. It was a re-dedication to another lover: his manuscript. 

We'd reached clarity, yes. But not without the rough edges that accompany any rototilled ground. Three days from my Sydney departure, energies would continue to plunge, climb and swirl. I concentrated on the steadying force of the Towering Ones.

Our final boondock ... sigh

Friday, March 2, 2018

Eclipsed: Tasmania Blog Nine

We had no pre-determined  destination when we left Strahan. We weren't planning to drive far but wanted to get a head start on the next day's visit into old growth forests. Mario Andretti at the wheel (I joke, but I am so thankful it was him and not me), we were immediately into mountains and more slow-going hairpin curves. I gingerly staggered to the back of the van and stowed the traveling gladiolas more securely; made sure the one surviving wine glass was prone. Up we climbed toward Queenstown. A former mining mecca, the entry into the city was through a red and orange moonscape. Eroded gullies and barren hills had replaced rainforest. Like the scarring I'd seen in Arizona, this abomination was due to King Copper, discovered in the 1890's. I sensed a community effort to move beyond those days; hoped they would be successful. On we went.

Misty rainbows and winding roads
The moonrise and eclipse were on the radar. Given the last forty-eight hours, no telling what weather would materialize. My mind wandered to the wonderment of Tasmania -- the endless, deep wild places and spirits, the friendly folks, incredible wines and delicious local foods, seafood and cheese. I realized I hadn't heard one siren. What would the final days bring? THIS!

but wait, she's backwards! 

She had just crossed the highway. An oncoming vehicle had stopped in the road to ensure safe passage. Greg pulled over and I followed the meandering echidna (ee-kid-na). Once I got close it rolled up into a spiny ball and didn't move. There were no visible feet, ears or face. I waited, hoping it would unfold, but it had more time than I. We continued up the highway as I read that echidnas preferred to eat ants (take a look at that face). And, it laid eggs! An echidna: I was over the top, so satisfied that I told myself I'd be okay if I didn't see a Devil in the wild. The Sydney zoo might have to do. We only had two nights of wild camping to go. The possibility of a sighting was slim. 

Glacier-carved rock 

Wind-twisted trees 

Tired and ready for showers, we turned off the highway for Lake Sinclair Visitor Center on Cynthia Bay. Home to the Lake Sinclair Lodge, we figured boondock or campground, we'd find a place to park. By the time we arrived two dry camp spaces remained. The camp spots weren't level but we were too zonked to care. We pulled between two campers, packed in like proverbial sardines. We slid the side doors open as eclipse energy took charge.

Greg and I lost all semblance of synchrony. Communication turned squirrelly. I settled in, bouquet and all, and he disappeared to the lake. He returned and announced the sunset underway. I grabbed my camera, took off for the lake and he stayed behind. I sat on the shore in sundown meditation; gazed across the stillness at distant Cradle Mountain and smiled. I finally got to see her.

Cradle Mountain from Lake Sinclair 

I rounded up the correct change for showers and we headed for hot water. I finished sooner than Greg, only to find that he'd locked the van. A twenty minute cold, in-my-robe-with-wet-hair-sit-on-the-bumper-wait. Like I said: squirrelly. We managed to walk together to the beach to watch the moonrise. I found the spot where I wanted to photograph, he continued on to find his spot. I took a few shots and wtf??? -- the low battery light appeared. The spare battery was back at the van, a fifteen minute walk; the moonrise would be over. Momentarily devastated, I switched off the camera and came to my senses. Literally. I don't know if it was the latitude, altitude or both, but I was treated to one of the most stunning moonrises of my life, as Luna threaded her way through a train of clouds, casting silver linings hither and yon. Once into the clear, the Supermoon turned night to day. I walked down the beach to find Greg. No where in sight, I turned around.  

Pademelons galore! 

I stopped midway to the van in a grassy clearing to soak in moon glow. The bushes began to rustle and out hopped a pademelon! Then another. Hop, hop. And another. The triple goddess of pademelons. I relished every second of my fifteen minute meeting before the night chill pushed me on. Picking my way through moon shadows, I hadn't walked but twenty-five steps ... I rounded a corner and BAM, walking toward me ... A TASMANIAN DEVIL. I (literally) could not believe my eyes as my brain chattered to confirm. It walked to within ten feet, stopped and checked me out. Her energy was sweet and curious, not at all like the popular mean caricature on signs and tourist paraphernalia. We had a minute together before she moved on. I squeezed one, poor, shot-in-the-dark out of my camera and stood spellbound, eclipsed by a full-moon Devil. 

Greg and I met at the van and excitedly shared our moonrise night. Our paths had been a weaving of searches, he for me, I for him. The day was too much to grasp: the Gordon River rainforest, the Echidna, Pademelons and Tasmanian Devil. The quirky camera event was a first. And. It. Didn't. Matter.

I fell asleep exhausted and awoke at midnight, during the eclipse. I wasn't compelled to walk to the lake and observe. My awe-factor overfloweth. I fell back to sleep and dreamed Melania asked me to accompany her to Italy and we were packing. Ya, that Melania. I awoke in the morning with a Kookaburra laughing outside the van; checked email to find I had been selected to give a talk at the Tucson Festival of Books in March.

Revelations continued to pepper my mind as we headed for the Styx Valley and the loftiest trees on earth.

More Devil Shots, taken at the Sydney Taronga Zoo, a large outdoor enclosure.