On Saturday, Mario and I sat in a park by the Columbia River in Home Valley listening to biologist and ecologist Robert Michael Pyle talk about his experiences investigating Bigfoot. Pyle was given a Guggenheim to conduct this investigation. Afterward, he wrote an amazing book called Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Great Divide which is about the area where I live.
Pyle looked at the stories of encounters, the myths, and the biological possibility that Bigfoot might be a real animal: using environmental science methods. After his investigation, Pyle thought it might be possible for Bigfoot to live in the Dark Divide, a strip of wilderness between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Pyle speculated that Bigfoot might live in the lava fields in the great divide and supplement its diet with pikas.
I've been in the lava beds and they are almost unexplorable by humans. They are so disorienting that it is easy to get lost or injured just feet from the road. No trails go through them. Sometimes depressed people in our county go the lava beds to get lost and die—a rather gruesome local way to commit suicide.
In these lava beds, pikas live, or at least they used to. They're small lagomorphs that look like rodents or squat rabbits without the big ears. They also live in talus fields. Mario and I used to see them when we hiked the Giff, but it had been years since we had seen any. The conventional wisdom was that something had happened, and they had left the area or died out either because of the weather change or some kind of disease. (In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity asked the federal government to list the pika as endangered. In February 2010, Fish and Wildlife refused.)
Pyle concluded his talk by saying that it almost didn't matter whether Bigfoot existed or not. What was important was that we should preserve any wilderness area we could: There should always be places of such wildness where a creature like Bigfoot could make her home.
Mario and I went and introduced ourselves to Dr. Pyle. I asked him about the hummingbird hawk moth I had seen at the Maryhill Museum the week before. These moths looked so much like hummingbirds that we thought they were: until we noticed the antennae. Pyle said that biologists call it "convergent evolution," when different species develop similar characteristics.
Then Mario mentioned that he had sent Pyle his book Animal Life because it had a poem about Datus, a local who claimed to have encounters with a very...amorous female Bigfoot.
Pyle remembered the book and the poem, and he stood to shake Mario's hand and tell him how much he enjoyed his poetry. I already loved Pyle for his writing and his passion for the wild, but anyone who understands and appreciates Mario's talents is pretty much my friend for life.
We talked for a while longer. (I was thrilled to learn that he has a new book coming out this fall, Mariposa Roads: The First Butterfly Big Year. He went around the country for a year looking for and writing about butterflies.) We agreed to exchange books and keep in touch.
The next morning, Mario and I hiked one of our favorite trails in the Giff. The forest was dry and quiet. We kicked up dust as we walked along the trail above the creek. We stood on the bridge over a dry creek bed and looked for pikas amongst the rocks. We didn't see anything.
The trail curved. We were almost at a talus field we had named Pika Village years before because it was there we often saw the little lagomorphs. In the last seven years, Pika Village had taken on the look of a Detroit city block, without the tagging. In the spring, a small waterfall cascades down one end of the field, and columbine and pearly everlasting grow nearby. Now, in August, only the still gray talus field remained.
And something moved in this field. Something small and furry that could fit in Mario's hand.
The pika turned to looked at us. Usually they "alarm" and run off into the rocks. This one stared at us. I whispered a benediction, whispered we meant no harm and we were so glad to see her. We watched one another for a long while, three still beings in the midst of this amazing forest. Just us and the whole world.
Then she twitched and went into the rocks. She came out again and looked at us and then disappeared.
We kept walking toward the falls that would mark the end of this particular trail. Seeing the pika again inspired a kind of great joy to bubble up inside of me. After months of personal (and worldwide) trauma and discouragement, I felt as though I had witnessed a tiny miracle: if the pika could come back, what other wonderful things could happen in this world? I knew seeing one pika didn't mean the pikas were safe from endangerment, but it still felt good. Who knew what else the forest hid?
When I first learned I had to take environmental science as part of my ecological planning and design certificate, I groaned. I already knew all the horrible things that were happening in the world, I thought. If I learned one more bad thing, it would be the proverbial straw and I didn't think I could stand up to it. And it's true that I learned once again about horrible things, and yet, there seemed to be a solution, an answer, to every problem: If only we the people and our governments had the will to follow through.
Listening to Pyle talk to a bunch of rednecks (with a few of us tree-huggers thrown in for good measure), I saw how he was able to weave together the social sciences and the natural sciences to tell a good (environmental science) tale and allow how it might be a good thing to let the wild be wild. Perhaps I, too, could learn to weave the hopeful and the scientific into my writing. My novels are all hopeful tales about how we live on this planet without killing it or ourselves. Now, because of this course, I feel more confident about sprinkling my nonfiction with a bit of hopeful science too.
We'll see. Mostly, though, I learned again what I knew before: I am most at home where the wild things live—and where pikas watch me, and maybe, just maybe, Bigfoot walks where I walk.
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