Divining the wild

In winter, figure and ground trade places. The leafless trees stand out against the snow, allowing more comprehensive and more intimate views of the forest. The composition of whole stands is now more immediately obvious; one can pick out the big trees and the snags, see where saplings crowd a recent windthrow gap, admire the contrast between deciduous and conifer, straight and twisted, rough-boled and smooth. Up close, details of the bark delight the eye in the same way as do the winter resident songbirds. The lightning stripes on whistlewood and the melancholy, five-note whistle of the white-throated sparrow alike lead the mind onto untrodden paths – which is more than metaphor, of course. Winter is, above all, a summons to discovery.

Given sufficient depth of snow, most logs and other impediments to off-trail wandering are buried and forgotten, and the clumsy snowshoe becomes an instrument of relatively free and easy exploration. And the snow gives one so much more to investigate! For those of us who are not expert trackers, it is a source of constant revelation. This shallow depression with an imprint of feathers on either side marks where a ruffed grouse spent the night, having flown headfirst into a snowbank and pulled a quilt of powder over it so as to leave no tracks for a predator to follow. But this indentation, also flanked by wing prints, marks the literal end of the path for a white-footed mouse. Here the arrow-straight lope of the tireless coyote; there the fantastic tangle of prints where courting cottontails fandangoed in the moonlight.

But the new freedom the winter offers can’t be won without effort. Every new trail-breaking is a labor; familiar routes that in summer months could be covered in an easy half-hour before dinner now assume the proportions of an epic struggle. One grows accustomed to the slightly metallic taste of oxygen-hungry blood crowding the small vessels of mouth and throat. But that has its limit, and one shares with the other animals a certain preference for the road more traveled by. On a walk early last week, I found myself following an old trail of bootprints which showed signs of having been used by more than one pair of human feet. The original pioneer had laid a course that doubtless many others had followed, step by step. The tracks had been partially covered by that morning’s snowfall, but were still in use. Sometime earlier in the day a coyote had come through, carefully placing its paws in the indentations to avoid the deeper snow in between. A white tailed deer had followed suit sometime later, and now here I came with my snowshoes obliterating the whole record.

I fell to thinking about prints in general: are they ever really erased? Or do they simply await new techniques, new ways of seeing, for their recovery? I had just been reading about how researchers in Iceland are using remote sensing tools that measure electrical resistance in the earth in order to locate where the turf walls of houses had been 1000 years ago. Correlated with layers of ash from known volcanic eruptions, and mapped with GPS data, archaeologists are able to uncover the patterns of human dwelling through time and space. Clued in by an anomaly in architecture found elsewhere only at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, they believe they have discovered the very longhouse built by the fierce Gudrid upon her return from Vinland.

Of course, this is no different in kind from countless other discoveries arising from the meticulous and ingenious sleuthing of archaeologists. I am struck especially by the results of excavations of unprepossessing spots – certain riverbanks out west where people cleaned and dried salmon for millennia, for example. Better yet, good camping places rediscovered anew by parties of hunters and wayfarers for ten thousand years: I am thinking of course of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania, home to some of the earliest remains of human habitation in North America. Radiocarbon datings as old as 14,000 years B.P. have been suggested for artifacts from the deepest layers; much more recent deposits have yielded evidence of the earliest maize (ca. 350 B.C.) and the earliest squash and ceramics (1115-965 B.C.) in the region. But how many other such sites just like it still await discovery?

Think of photography: not so much an invention as a discovery of how to preserve the imprint of light and shadow on certain insoluble salts of silver. I am especially charmed by the efforts and enthusiasm of the legions of self-styled lomographers, whose populist aesthetic seeks nothing less than to document the entire surface of the earth at every moment. They are, in a sense, archaeologists of the present.

Ogotemmeli, the blind Dogon elder whose discourses on traditional religious ideas were such a revelation to ethnocentric French anthropologists of the mid-20th century, emphasized above all else the importance of seeing patterns as the path to true wisdom. The universe is given shape by a series of primordial Words of increasing complexity, which Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, Oxford U.P., 1965) likened to the three dimensions of Euclidian geometry. The first Word was the line of braided fibres, which could be made into clothing – the fundament of civilized existence. “It manifested on earth the first act in the ordering of the universe and the revelation of the helicoid sign in the form of an unbroken line,” Griaule discovered. “For the fibres fell in coils, symbol of tornadoes, of the whirlings of torrents, of eddies and whirlwinds, of the undulating movements of reptiles.” The second Word, less occult, was the revelation of the arts of spinning and weaving, and the third was the fully three-dimensional granary, originally modeled on an inverted, woven basket. And the granary became the template for the entire cosmos, echoed in a plethora of other symbols: the termite mound; the spindle-whorl; the head of the smith’s hammer, his four-sided anvil, and his invisible female side; the very torso of the twinned divinity (Nummo).

Weaving is a form of speech, the Dogon say, and cultivation is a form of weaving. Patterns define our membership in the human race: to be naked – without the patterning Word – is to be speechless. But the animals, lacking speech, are in some measure superior, “because they belong to the bush and do not have to work,” Ogotemmeli explains. The possession of patterns and the intelligence to perceive and elaborate them is thus a highly ambiguous thing, Griaule found. It seems that the speaking and the speechless are intimately intertwined in a manner directly analogous to the relationship between the civilized and the wild. “‘The animal,’ said Ogotemmeli finally, ‘is, as it were, man’s twin.'”

Fascinating that the African – so similar in his outlook to the European in many ways – can advance an apologia for civilization that does not presume the obliteration of all competitors and the triumphant imposition of the human pattern upon all wild Nature. This morning, as I prepare to go off to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I am thinking that we Americans would do well to trade our rigid, either/or dichotomies for the more flexible and forgiving dualities perceived by sages such as Ogotemmeli.

Humans, like coyotes, are denizens of the in-between, the savanna, the forest edge. Now, through ecology and evolutionary biology, we are beginning to descry intricate patterns where before we had seen mere disorder. We are discovering just how much our own survival – including the survival of the imagination – is linked to the preservation of wild habitat. Wilderness, in our own culture, exists under the sign of the untrammeled. But some human trammeling is benign and necessary: the song, the poem, the drawing or photograph. The rock shelter with its ancient fire ring. We need to learn new ways to interweave the trammeled and the untrammeled: to see in the speechless wild, as Ogotemmeli did, the completion and perfection of the divine Word.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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