In some coincidence, by one, I’ve found myself reading a lot about the Arctic lately. I’d always known it was up there, waiting. Well, not really. It never needed me. But I’d always felt a little guilty somehow. Ignorance. Maybe that accounts for why.
Anyway, first was Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, which took a while because it’s a big book. I could go on about it, but I’ll just suggest you read it. It’s really good. Better, for me, is the next one: Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World.
Both books deal with Eskimos. Among many of the things that have stuck with me, language comes up highest. You need to read it; I can’t explain it justly. But the crux of it is that what we try to say about our experiences in and with the wild — those of us who don’t come from a hunter-gatherer background — is defined almost totally by an absolute inability to convey that experience. Okay, so let’s move on. We try. We fail. We want to share. Some seem to get it. Some let you know. It feels shared somehow. But there’s still a lack, something’s missing. And that’s the piece, the lack. The land itself isn’t coverable by what we want to say about our moment in it. It, the land, is almost inconsequential while being essential. The arrogance. The assumption. It’s the farmer in us, and it’s what will end it all, in the end, for everyone.
Brody has a chapter on Creation that focuses on the first book of The Bible. This chapter, ironically, while limning the distinction between hunter-gatherers and farmers, and thus the basic tension in the shape of the world as anyone knows it, did more for this atheist in suggesting God as a reality than anything I know yet. This is how: farmers live in the easiest places, while the only remaining hunter-gatherers live where they’ve been pushed, areas not amenable to farming (either too cold or too hot). If anyone should relate to the land as another being, it should be the farmer. But it’s the other way around. God, then, makes this almost like a joke: in the places it’s basically impossible to live precisely because the land is so vicious and inhuman, those who live there (hunter-gatherers) relate to it as though it’s another person. It’s too perfect an irony not to come from God. (And, believe me, I get the irony of this idea.)
So all this comes to me as an accident right around the time we got the last chukar hunt of the season. The cap on the second of what I hope are the two mainly missed seasons. The hunt was epic. I’ve never seen more chukar on any single hunt. The spread of bird guano was uniform across the entire ground we covered: everywhere, and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. It was a place that had been hunted a lot, and it was easy to see why: lots of chukar. But, as often happens in January, they busted pretty wild. They could hear us coming a mile away, with the crunchy snow. Still, lots of points, lots of long chances, and one stealthy, solid, long hold from Peat that got me a good enough shot for my rusty brain to connect. And Bloom, who honored Peat, found it and brought it right to my hand. The whole thing was a blessing, and it was hard not to see it as a kind of thank-you from the place and those in it.
Somehow — I really don’t know how — I’ve ended up with a sense of the places I walk looking for chukar as other people. And not just those places: all land. I feel lucky to have come to this, and it’s an assumption I think I came to naturally from watching dogs and trying to find birds, paying attention; the similarity to the shape of the world in the eyes of hunter-gatherers strikes me as a rich coincidence, one I came to but one they’re born into. Land: there’s a rich relationship, richer in reciprocity: we want to pay attention to one another. I remember, as a teenager, looking at the boardwalk in my hometown destroyed by massive waves one winter and thinking joyous thoughts not because of the destruction but because nature still had a fighting chance, some kind of power. Without anthropomorphizing too much (a naughty word for those of us from the farmer culture while a central feature of the language systems for hunter-gatherers), it seemed like the waves were sending us a message about abuse. I think this is why it bothers me so much to see medusahead and cattle damage of many other kinds all across the range; it seems felonious and matricidal, especially coming from agriculturalists.
Oh well. We carry on. Next year there will be more medusahead, more star thistle, more over-grazed, abused public land. But we’ll be out walking on it with dogs looking for birds, never giving up hope, learning from dogs in this, and paying attention, listening to things the land might want to tell us. And none of it can be captured in our words. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.