Hand to Hand Combat with a Bear

It’s a game of mortal combat when a canoeist runs into one of nature’s most efficient killing machines in the wilds of the Churchill River.

By Jonathan Klein

August 3, 2012: I had a new experience today. I fought for my life.

I got to Portage Chute, shortly after noon.  It had been a splendid morning with plenty of current to speed me along.  This stretch of the Churchill is wide, shallow, fast and studded with gardens of large, dark, looming rock.  I maneuvered amidst these monoliths all morning, playing and dodging and showing off to myself, pretending I had nitroglycerin on board which would explode with the slightest jar, and seeing how close I could pass by or over an obstacle without hitting it.  I was enjoying myself.

Pewter SunMy GPS didn’t think I was quite to Portage Chute.  It’s still 1.11 miles downstream, it was telling me but I knew better.  This was Portage Chute, beyond all doubt.  Narrow defile?  Check.  Increased grade and velocity?  Check.  Check.  Flecks of foam popping up downstream?  Sure ‘nuff.  Deafening roar?  That’s a big 10-4.  I was there.

I took out on river left where the Churchill broadens into a small bight, beached the canoe and headed downriver to scout.  There were boulders scattered all over, like a toddler’s toys.  Portaging would be hell.  Two hundred yards in, I came to a major obstacle, a scarp, only eight feet high, but sheer.  Getting the canoe and gear up and over it would take some doing, the kind of doing I didn’t want to do.  I scaled the wall and emerged onto a broad bench, blanketed with low shrubs and clumped with slips of cottonwood.

I recognized some of the shrubs as buffalo berry, adorned with clusters of small red fruits.  Across the bench, fifty feet away, the Churchill pounded through Portage Chute and I headed over to check it out, hoping it wouldn’t look as bad as it sounded.  A rim of pale red rock stood twenty feet above the river and lined it up and down, giving me a great view of the rapid.

I had already pretty much made up my mind to run it, even before scouting, because the portage was going to be a Bitch (note capital ‘B’), but there wasn’t a great line.  Getting through without swimming would be iffy because of several large breaking waves strewn pell-mell across the river that could swamp or roll the boat.  There was no way to miss them alI.  And there were rocks aplenty too, which I’d have to miss, but I took comfort in seeing that the river below deepened and slowed, providing a reasonably good recovery area, so, in the event of a water landing, all the flotsam, including the canoe, any unsecured gear, and I could be reunited in calmer water and, after some sputtering, bailing and sponging, returned to a fully upright and undamaged state.  I studied the rapid a bit more, picked a line, ran it a couple of times in my mind’s eye, and started back.

I was crossing the bench through the buffalo berry and almost to the lip of the scarp when I noticed movement in my periphery.  The bear that almost ate meSomething big and black and blurry.  I turned to look and was incredulous to see a large black bear, only forty feet away, approaching with obvious ill intent. It was moving with deliberation, mouth open, head low, black eyes unwavering—locked on mine.

I had been dreaming of a true wilderness experience and here it was: Mother Nature, telling me, So you want real wilderness? Here you go, sonny. For what could be more real or more wild than an animal coming to eat you?  I was prey, calories, for a large omnivore that was sick and tired of grass and berries and roots. My shotgun and bear spray were in the canoe, 200 yards away.  I would have to stand and fight with the only weapons I had, my bare hands.

There was no time to be afraid.  The bear was closing in.  Only seconds remained.  Some long dormant survival instinct took over and I transformed from mild mannered Nature Boy into Conan the Barbarian in a nanosecond (ok, exaggeration). A klaxon blared in my brain. Every cell in my body scrambled to battle stations.  I was not aware of wind or cold.  The crash of water through the nearby rapid drew silent.  Every fiber of my being was focused on the bear.

It approached with a dispassionate malevolence, as if to say, Hey. This isn’t personal, just business. Some things are killed and eaten so that other things can live to kill and eat another day. But predators don’t always get their prey.  Sometimes, the prey gets away.  Sometimes the predator gets hurt.  We quarry are not completely helpless. We can kick, maybe break a jaw, butt, gouge and bite, put a hurtin on ya, even inflict mortal wounds, so the prudent predator will approach cautiously, especially with unfamiliar, larger prey, to assess the risks, prior to going in for the kill.

That’s exactly what my bear was doing, coming on slowly to take my measure, ponder the risks verses rewards, and then decide whether to attack or withdraw.  I doubt this animal had ever seen a human before. We were in the most remote portion of the Churchill, no roads or villages anywhere close, no trails, fish camps or cabins, and inaccessible to motorboats and float planes because of all the rocks and shallows. The bear could not know, what exactly was I, and just how dangerous might I be?

My only hope lay in exploiting this uncertainty, make the bear  think I was some psycho in search of a rug. I couldn’t run.  He’d shag me down in a heartbeat, swat me to the ground, rake and bite me while I screamed, shake me like a rag doll while I whimpered, and then begin to tug and tear off chunks of flesh while I quietly moaned.  If I played dead, I’d last only slightly longer than if I ran, and it wouldn’t be quality time.  My only play was to be aggressive, fool the bear into thinking that I was biggest badass this side of Fidler Lake.

“Get away you Mother Fucker!”,  I screamed, but there was no discernible reaction.  Nothing.  On it came, walking, watching, not making a sound.  Only twenty feet away now.  I charged it with arms held high, trying to look bigger, and snarling invective through barred teeth.  “COCKSUCKER!” I yelled.  “MOTHER FUCKER!”

No change in attitude.

The bear was right next to me now, close enough to touch. It began to circle, close in, from right to left.  I began to hit it, punching it in the head and face with neoprene gloved hands.  “Good God!” I thought, “I just hit a bear.  Is this really happening?”

It was.  I was really fighting a bear.  As it turned, I turned with it to keep its head to my front, constantly throwing punches.  My left jabs were weak, ineffectual, glancing blows, but I landed a couple of hard rights to the side of its enormous head which caused a momentary pause before the circling resumed.  Near the end of its circumnavigation, I hauled off and kicked it in the ribs just behind the left leg.  I was only wearing soft rubber boating booties, hardly more than slippers, but I kicked as hard as I could.

This seemed to surprise the bear and it stopped circling and rose up, apparently indignant over such boorish behavior.  I’m 6’4” and 185 pounds.  The bear was half a head taller, but on the lean side.  I doubt it weighed more than 250 pounds, but skinny meant hungry and hungry meant dangerous.  Its paws were held high, claws outstretched and I expected to be cuffed at any moment, but the bear just stood there, as if newly uncrated from the taxidermist.

We stood, facing each other like dancers, unsure, waiting for the music to start. Then it suddenly dawned on me.  I had a knife.  Holy shit!  It hung inverted from a sheath affixed to my life jacket.  I’d forgotten all about it. It was only a four inch blade and the only thing it had ever cut was cheese, but I drew it forth with a flourish and brandished it at the bear.

“I have a knife!” I bellowed, to myself in surprise, to the bear in warning. The tables had turned, whatever that means.  Still, the thought of stabbing this creature with the little blade was cold comfort. I did not want to hurt it, or aggravate it, and feared that once the stabbing started, this fight was going to get ugly for real.  So there we stood, two statues cast in enmity, knife out, claws up, a Mexican standoff if ever there was one. I ended it, taking several quick steps backwards to the lip of the ledge, then whirled and bounded down the wall with the speed of a mountain goat, but not the agility.

Halfway down I slipped and had to jump the final four feet to the basin below. I landed hard, tried to catch myself with lunging steps, but fell, sprawled out on hands and knees.  My right hand, still gripping the knife, lit almost directly upon a fist sized hunk of rock, smooth, near round, granite. A gift. I transferred the knife to my left hand, snatched up rock in my right, and sprang to my feet with improbable dexterity for someone of my age and decrepitude, then I spun around to see if the bear had given chase.

There it was, just ten feet away. The motherfucking thing had followed me down the wall.  It stopped when I turned, looked at me, not directly this time, but obliquely and with menace. I faced it, edgewise, like a fencer, knife extended, and the rock, locked and loaded behind.  This was it.  The moment of truth.

“Look bear” I implored, “I don’t want to stab you with this knife or hit you with this rock, but you have to leave right now.”  The words were barely out of my mouth when the bear made up his mind, and it wasn’t to leave.  The big head swung up and he came at me.  I let him have it, heaving the rock with all my might.

Funny. Ever since dislocating my right shoulder in a kayaking  mishap twenty years ago, I haven’t been able to put any umph into an overhand throw.  Before the injury I could hurl hard, be it baseball, football or rock, but, ever since, I throw like a girl, all arm and no shoulder.  Not this time.  Adrenaline is a miracle drug and with a surfeit of it coursing through my veins, I unloosed the rock.  It sailed, trailing flame, and smacked into the bear’s skull right between the ears. It landed with a loud crunch, rock scraping bone, an awful noise normally but sweet music under the circumstances.

The bear vanished in a blur, hunger pangs replaced by headache.  I ran in the opposite direction, hotfooting it to the canoe, where I quickly hoisted the shotgun in one hand and bear spray in the other.

“Hey asshole!” I bellowed.  “You want a piece of me?  Well come on you chicken shit and I’ll spray you right in the kisser.”  I heard nothing but the hiss of wind and water, and blood pounding in my ears.  Then I started laughing like a lunatic.

Once I returned to a semblance of normal, I decided not to tempt the fates further by running Portage Chute.  I figured all my lucky charms were cashed in for the day.  What if I dumped and ended up on the left side of the river?  The bear’s side.  I had no desire for round two with the bruin so I pushed off and clawed my way upstream a couple of hundred yards, far enough up so I wouldn’t be swept down into the rapid, and ferried to the right shore.  There was no channel on this side, just a jumble of huge rocks through which the river poured over, around or through.  I dragged  the canoe past the obstacles, abusing it in myriad ways, but I got down. Then I returned to the canoe for lunch, my favorite, peanut butter on rye crisp with turkey jerky.  As I smacked down these delectables, thinking about my  improbable victory and narrow escape from the literal jaws of death, I glanced across the river and saw a hairy hump moving through the vegetation opposite.

“Hey bear!” I shouted and the hump stopped, turned, and the bear emerged onto the rim where I had scouted the rapid a lifetime ago.  It peered across at me with a puzzled expression, then turned and walked out of sight. “Good luck to you bear” I called after it, and meant it.

Hanging in the wildsLater at camp, I poured myself a big 151 rum and sipped it thoughtfully.  I was in a contemplative mood, totally drained, and numbed, but euphoric.  I marveled at the days events.  I fought a bear and I won.  I knew it was mostly luck, that I was lucky to be alive.  I have always been lucky.  Lucky in my parents, my friends, health, choices.  Lucky in love.

I have learned to trust in luck, but this was more luck than anyone deserved.  I was lucky the bear wasn’t bigger.  Lucky he wasn’t more confident.  Lucky he didn’t swat or bite me.  Lucky, I walked away without a scratch save for a small scrape on my knee sustained when I crash-landed below the ledge. But that was lucky too, because if I hadn’t fallen I would not have found that rock. It was the rock that saved me.

Strange, but there are almost no loose rocks along this portion of the Churchill River.  I wasn’t even looking for a rock, it just materialized, found me.  Now, I am not in any way suggesting divine intervention.  As far as I’m concerned Jesus would have been more inclined to send the bear than provide the rock.  Luck gave me the rock and luck guided the throw that nailed the bear right where I needed to bean him.  A shot to the shoulder wouldn’t have done it.  And it was luck that the bear didn’t think, “Ouch, my head hurts, but fuck it, I’m going to eat him anyway.”

So I drank my rum and thought about the day, August 3, 2012, the day I had to fight a bear.  I kicked its ass and lived.  I love living.

–This is an excerpt from Jonathan Klein’s upcoming book on wilderness.  Klein worked as a wilderness ranger and manager in Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness for 27 years before retiring in 2012.  Three days after leaving the Forest Service, he departed on a 700-mile solo canoe trip on Canada’s Churchill River, seeking a purer strain of wilderness than can be found in the lower 48—where the furthest one can get from a Micky D’s is 104 miles and the farthest from a road, a mere 30.  Klein lives in Ennis, Mont., where he spends his time pedaling, paddling, and planning his next adventure to wild places.  

Assault on El Cap

Jeff Vargen’s film Assault on El Capitan tells the story of the second ascent of Wings of Steel

By Cameron M. Burns

As a kid growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I was a decent surfer. Indeed, I remember at age 10 some older kids at the beach where I regularly went asked me when I was going to go pro. They ridiculed my board, but said I could get a better one if I was planning to turn pro. It was all easy talk. Nothing rough. And, as usual, I was clueless. What the heck was “pro”?

Fast forward 15 years. I was living in LA and working in the film industry. I surfed in Malibu a few times, but hadn’t really surfed since 1978 in Australia. On one ride, another surfer literally tackled me from behind (as we both went down the same wave), later screaming at me that I’d dropped in on him (which I had, accidentally) and telling me I couldn’t surf there because I wasn’t a local. Oh yeah? Sure, I was 15 years out from my glory days as a kid but wasn’t surfing about having fun?

WTF was this? I’m not even sure the guy who tackled me was a “local,” (he had a full wetsuit on and most of the surfers I saw during my attempted Malibu rebirth were dressed like me), but clearly, this was a territory issue.

Any climber who’s spent even a little bit of time in Yosemite knows the story of Wings of Steel, a hard aid climb on El Cap. In 1982, 23-year-old Richard Jensen and 20-year-old Mark Smith arrived in Yosemite Valley with the goal of climbing a new route on the Capitan, one of the most coveted pieces of stone on the planet.

Thirty-nine days later they topped out on the big stone but it hadn’t been without its problems. Yosemite locals—taken aback that two outsiders were on their rock—had harassed them and made death threats. Three locals, whom to this day remain anonymous, went even further. One night while Jensen and Smith were on the ground, these three ascended several ropes Jensen and Smith had fixed, chopped all the bolts and rivets Jensen and Smith had laboriously drilled and placed by hand (and that’s noteworthy because by the early 90s, everything was being Bosched into place on El Cap), and rappelled off. They pulled Jensen and Smith’s ropes, heaped them into a pile, then defecated on them.

Yosemite-based climbers considered the route unworthy of its location on El Cap, although reports circulated that Jensen and Smith’s climb was pretty darn hard. Indeed, a few brave souls who tried the first few pitches (if memory serves, including Rob Slater) came back with stories of tenuous gear and long falls.

Twenty-nine years after the first ascent of Wings, Yosemite hardman and character Ammon McNeely—the veteran of more than 75 ascents of El Cap—decides he should do the second ascent. And, he brings in his girlfriend, Kait Barber, as his partner.

In 2011, filmmaker Jeff Vargen was on vacation on the East Coast and got a text from McNeely that he and Barber were going up on the big stone.

“I asked which route,” Vargen noted in an email to this writer. “He [Ammon] texted WOS. I laughed. No one does WOS and no one would do that slab in mid-summer, but that’s him—do things quietly and under the radar. Word got around that he was doing it and the Supertopo trolls followed his progress as Kait’s mom posted from the wall.”

When McNeely and Barber got down, Vargen went to look at the pictures and video clips that McNeely and Barber had recorded. Vargen was impressed. “One thing led to another and I called a few people I knew and they said they would be happy to talk on camera about WOS,” Vargen noted. “And then it kept going from there.” [WOS is an explosive topic on Supertopo.]

This film starts with a lot of historical discussion about climbing in general, climbing walls, and finally Wings of Steel specifically, including interviews about territory and locals versus outsiders with (Chris McNamara (Supertopo creator), Peter Haan (first Salathé solo), and Eric Kohl (general El Cap bad-ass) are interviewed, along with Hans Florine and Ron Kauk.

Steve Grossman is given the tough cop role, discussing how Jensen and Smith weren’t “forthright” about what they were doing up on the big stone while locals below heard about endless bolting. Grossman makes valid points, which are more or less later left unaddressed as a result of the difficulty of this particular climb and the respect the first ascensionists got from the second ascensionists.

Still, it’s all honest. Vargen told me via email: “Richard and Mark were kind enough to come to be interviewed. I never told them what kind of film I was making and they had no idea how they would be portrayed in the film. They trusted me that it would be fair but I told them it will fall as it falls. They agreed to tell their story and see what happened. they are brave souls. Steve Grossman was the same way. He came and said his peace, wondered how it would come out, but he answered everything I asked in an honest way. We did not chop him up to manipulate the tone. It was said as you see and hear it.”

In general, Assault doesn’t offer a whole lot of explanation for a lay viewer about what hooking is all about (it is scary, BTW), or aid, or wall climbing in general, but that doesn’t matter. The viewer gets the point. This climb is a balls-to-the-walls wall, and the first ascensionists got treated unfairly. And, yeah, the territory thing is always there—in climbing as in surfing.

All that spewed, what’s nice to report is that this is a wonderful wonderful (yeah, that’s two wonderfuls (sorry, three now)) film about McNeely and Barber. It gives us access into the world of a guy many of us have heard about for years (McNeely) and his whole, entirely low-key approach to life. It shows us how he deals with day-in day-out issues, and gives us the firmly backgrounded life that have made him one of Yosemite’s best contemporary wall climbers. The interviews with his brother Gabe are fabulous.

On the Great Slab that is, essentially, Wings of Steel, McNeely took six falls each day. Indeed, he fell more than half the height of the 900-foot Great Slab in the first nine days.

The falls shredded Barber’s nerves and there are several initial scenes in which Barber wants to go down. She hangs in and eventually gets up the wall (I would like to know what Ammon owes her at this point). But Barber and McNeely’s humility and honesty make this film much more than a documentary about Wings of Steel’s second ascent. The issues surrounding Wings of Steel aren’t resolved by the creation of this film, but it is a touching, thoughtful, and exciting film about doing a big wall, regardless of location. (McNeely’s videotaped yanking off flakes with his Talon hooks several times and tumbling yards at a time.)

The ways it’s edited also works well. The Wings debacle comes across as a serious turf war in the beginning, and it’s hard to watch some of the discussion knowing that this is just bickering among climbers. But, Vargen does a great job zooming out to a greater picture of climbing, location, personalities, and other issues, and then turning the film toward personal issues—fear, injuries, pain, and just getting up a damn climb.

In the end, this film is really about communications. In 1982, the communications between Smith and Jensen and the Valley locals weren’t there, clearly. Today, with so much being shared every minute of every day, and with people like Vargen compiling it carefully, communications have improved dramatically. All of the people in this film share the same values and love the same chunk of the earth’s crust. That they got a little sideways with each other is too bad. Hopefully, we’ll never see a repeat of something like Wings.

Starring and with footage by Ammon McNeely and Kait Barber. Also starring Mark Jensen, Richard Smith, Eric Kohl, Ron Kauk, Chris McNamara, Hans Florine, Peter Haan, Gabe McNeely, and Steve Grossman.  More information about the film can be found at Assaultonelcapitan.com.

Cam Burns’s most recent contribution to the world of literature was in To Nepal with Love and Adventure at High Risk.

Postcard: Lakeside serenity

There’s a trail about 15 miles from where I live that traces the shoreline of Dillon Reservoir. I don’t ride it more than once or twice a year, but it has a way of making me forget where I am, which is healthy, I think. Last week, after a fall storm left our higher trails blanketed by snow, a friend and I drove to the lakeside trail and spent the afternoon alternately pedaling, lounging on sand, staring up at Peak 1 and Tenmile Peak, all the while lost in thought. It felt like a vacation. (Click image to enlarge)

Postcard: Great Sand Dunes National Park

The great dilemma for those who prioritize leisure interests has always been whether to choose the mountains or the beach. Finding both in one place is hard, but it does exist, in some form at least. On a road trip through the San Luis and Wet Mountain valleys last week in southern Colorado, we lucked out with a sunny day on the dunes then got a few wishy-washy ones around Crestone and Westcliffe. No matter. The Sangre de Cristo range held glowing aspen groves and empty campsites, and by the third day we had removed (nearly) all the sand from our pores and crannies. (Click image to enlarge)

Photo by Larissa O'Neil
Photo by Larissa O’Neil

Land in the Sky: The View Remains

Duck-Pond-2014In the summer of 1979, I served as a “wilderness ranger” in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York. I lived in a little wooden shack without electricity or running water. It stood on the shore of a scruffy body of water called Duck Pond. I cooked meals on a little Coleman stove. Instead of an outhouse, there was a porta-potty provided by an outfit called “Johnny-on-the-Spot.” They are still in business. No surprise, given how much shit happens. The shack, alas, is long gone, but the view from the front door remains.

Mountain Passages: Drunk Emeritus

Gunner the barkeep looks up as I come into his mountain bar. He nods and goes to work on my usual. I shake him off like a pitcher rejecting a catcher’s signal. He stops and looks quizzical for a second and then leans back against a cooler.


The “usual” is a Manhattan. When I first wandered into his bar about a hundred years ago and ordered a Manhattan I got the same quizzical look.

“You know how to make a Manhattan?” I asked.
“Are you lost? This ain’t Manhattan.”
“Clearly. See ya.”

We stared at each other for a moment. I’m not sure who smiled first, probably me. Gunner is huge and I’m a lifelong non-combatant.

“So you want a Manhattan or a Perfect Manhattan.”
“Manhattan on the rocks with bitters, no cherries.”Manhattan
“You don’t have to tell me how to make a Manhattan.”
“Yeah I do, here in the High Country most barkeeps forget the bitters. It’s a couple ounces of good bourbon, a couple ounces of decent sweet vermouth, and three splashes of bitters.”
“That’s more than a double.”
“I got money.”

As you might have guessed, Gunner doesn’t show up as Mr. Congeniality in his high school yearbook. In fact, he didn’t make it into his high school yearbook. He dropped out and ended up in the Army. Spent a tour as a door gunner. Came back pissed off. Stayed drunk for months. Fought in bars. Hit bottom someplace in Montana. The local sheriff, who had lost his son, took him in and got him straightend-out—or as straightend-out as Gunner is going to get.

I sat down at my regular spot near the far end of the bar. If you love mountain bars you don’t sit at a table. You sit at the bar and talk to whoever will talk to you including the barkeep. Sometimes you sit quietly by yourself and think great thoughts or laugh at your most recent injury. Other times you feel sorry for yourself remembering a love lost, or an opportunity missed, or maybe you just watch the crowd in the mirror behind the coolers.

“So after all these years, you’re not having the usual?”
“Okay, I’m game.” Gunner says. “What do you want?”
“Got a soda with a twist?”
“Make it two twists.”
“Get out of my bar.”
“No, but you may lose your permanent seat if you keep this up.”

Another friend of mine was a highly functioning alcoholic. We competed against each other and sometimes side-by-side for one book publisher after another as sales and marketing types. Regardless of whether or not we were on the same side, we would often find ourselves in the same town, and end the day in a bar telling lies and laughing. What I didn’t know was that while I was having my first drink of the day, he had started his day with a hit of vodka.

We both married other publishing people. We socialized as couples and the drinking continued, but at some point five or six years ago he began a downward spiral, starting with maybe the fifth time he had been fired from a publishing house. There were times when I didn’t see him for six months or so. His wife left him, so he ended up on public assistance and tried to dry out. Never successfully. Most don’t. I’d meet him for lunch every once in awhile, and the spiral downward continued.

He’s been in and out of skilled nursing centers, emergency rooms, and acute care hospitals for the last three months. I see him when he is coherent. He has nearly died of septic shock twice, due to a foot lesion and infection associated with type-2 diabetes. The surgeon went looking for the infection in his leg and ended up removing his right hip bone and a couple inches of his femur. I do what I can as a friend. It’s not much.

“So you want to talk about it?” Gunner asks.
“When did you become a shrink?”

I told Gunner about my friend. He listened and was quiet for a moment.

“So you think you might be a drunk too?
“Yeah, something like that.”
“And now you are going cold turkey to prove you aren’t a drunk?
“So is this forever.”
“No, a month or so just to prove something to myself.”
“I’ve been sober 12 years.”
“ I know Gunner, it’s damned amazing.”

He got me my soda with two twists and reluctantly slid it to me.

“Gunner, you have a real name?
“Which war?”
“Does it matter?”

Alan Stark is a freelance based in Boulder and Breckenridge who lives with a blue-eyed woman and her dog.

Land in the Sky: A Tree Out There

It has been said that each of us has a tree out there somewhere.

The difficulty these days is that you have to go in search of it. In former times it was customary—and in some places may still be—to plant a tree for good luck when a baby is born. Thus one’s tree was right there in the yard, and it would grow with the child. Between them they enjoyed an intimate rapport with life, a shared destiny.

This symbolic tree was carefully tended, and if it flourished, so did the human being, but if it was afflicted with blight or if it perished, the corresponding human life suffered a fate in kind. There was an affinity between the arboreal and human realms, expressed in a language unbound by any dictionary. I have heard it said that if you know how to “read” your tree, you have a most effective oracle. All you have to do is go out there and find it.

A-Tree-Out-TherePrince Siddhartha searched many years before finding his tree, but when he did, he sat himself down in its shade and became the Buddha. Adam and Eve found their way to a tree, one of two that grew in the Garden of Eden. It was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For reasons of his own, God had told the couple to stay away from it, but they ignored the warning and ate of its fruit. God found them out and was vexed; he banished them from the Garden before they could get to the other tree. My friend Jan VanStavern found hers, a venerable maple, growing in front of her childhood home. Upon returning from school each day, she would throw her arms around it in a great embrace. Today she measures the character of those who enter her life by hugging them: the noble souls feel like the old maple tree.

I caught a glimpse of my own tree once, when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey. It was an early morning in mid-October and the trees were putting on their autumn glory. The day was still in shadow. At the edge of our backyard stood an ordinary shagbark hickory, a tree I had never paid much attention to. A hard frost the night before had fringed the hickory’s golden leaves. I happened to be looking out the back window of our house when the rays of the morning sun first glanced off the tree’s uppermost boughs. The tip of that shagbark suddenly became a golden flare, a flaming sword turning every which way, guarding who knows what gate.

Then just as suddenly, the shagbark let go its uppermost leaves and poured forth a slow, golden cascade upon the lawn. As the sun rose higher and its light fell lower on the tree, the same process—a moment of brilliance followed by a saffron rain of leaves—repeated itself, again and again, down the length of the canopy. For ten minutes or more I watched this go on, until the sun had undressed that tree entirely. I can’t remember exactly what happened next—certainly some spectacular shift in consciousness would have been in order—but sights such as this are lost on suburban boys, and likely I went back to my Saturday morning cartoons. My tree remained unclaimed.

In high school I came across a quote by St. Bernard: “What I know of the divine,” he says, “I learned in the woods.” This seemed like a modest improvement upon the Catholicism I was raised in. Shortly after that I read Walden—another improvement—and decided that I, too, would go to the woods. So in college I moved to Maine and majored in forestry, where I was taught that “trees are America’s renewable resource.”

“Resource” is one of those funny words, commonly used but only understood uncommonly. Originally it was a verb and meant “to go back to the well (i.e., the source) and get more water.” Later it came to mean a substance or material recognized to have utility for society, something that can be quantified, assigned a value, and applied to a purposeful end. Usually a resource is consumed progressively as it serves its purpose, but trees we say, because of their ” renewability,” escape this fate. Nowadays we speak of human resources, the renewability of which, I suppose, depends upon your faith.

In my senior year, I took a culminating course called “Forest Economics.” It was not designed for those who would live in the woods. In an everyday sense, the word “economics” refers to the management of the household—making the bed, buying the groceries, balancing the checkbook—but in the university, economics is said to be “the study of the allocation of scarce resources.” Applied to trees, this definition leads to some strange ways of talking. “In terms of production,” the professor explained, “trees are unique because they are simultaneously the factory and the product. If only we could find some way to encourage them to harvest themselves, then we’d really be in business!”

Little of this style of thinking ever proved useful to me, but I still recall the slides the forestry professor showed of an old-growth redwood stand in California. The lecture hall all at once felt more like a cathedral than a mausoleum, and those photographic images might just as well have been stained glass. The redwoods towered with their greenness and handsome branches, their crowns lost in a misty rustle among the coastal clouds. Later, when I finally made it to California, I learned that the birds of heaven, here called marble murrelets, nested in the lofty redwood boughs, and ten thousand mysteries were lodged in the fern-thickened shade of the forest floor. The professor said nothing of all this; his mind was elsewhere. “Hurry up and get out there and see these trees now,” he said. “All those senescent stands will be harvested within the next ten years. Even age rotations are what those timberlands need. Good forest management will take care of that.”

The message was clear: in these American woods, there is no past, no poetry, only the bottom line; no ghost, no god in the tree nor angel in the air, but only the feathery schemes of experts who have the forest all figured out. When I graduated from the University of Maine in 1980, I had a B.S. in Forestry and they gave each graduate a white pine seedling, but still I had not found my tree.

Proverbs are the original field guides to life. In Russia it is said that from all old trees comes either an owl or a devil, and this wisdom holds true in North America as well. Local legends and vernacular histories abound with tales of strange goings-on connected with trees. Near High Point, New York, for instance, there is the story of Rowland Bell, a barefooted fiddle player who lived in a log cabin and had quite a reputation as a healer. He would cut a lock of his patient’s hair and place it in the hole of an aged chestnut tree that grew along the road nearby. The tree would then shake and tremble like an aspen and the patient would be cured, the malady having been shifted to the tree. But that was a hundred years ago; chestnut blight has long since killed that tree, and today managed health care tries to keep most people out of the woods.

On the campus of a small college in the northeast there is an ancient oak known as the “Chewing-gum Tree.” Its trunk, from the base to as high as you can reach, is sheathed in a thick layer of hardened gum wads, the residuum of several decades of ruminating students who disposed of their spent quids by sticking them to the tree. The word around campus is that if you walk by this oak at midnight you can hear a faint murmuring or buzzing coming from it, said to be the voices of all those gum-chewing students from the past, still discussing long-forgotten exams or the joys and sorrows of youthful love. Some students believe that if you ask this oak a question about your future, it will tell you. Privately the administrators at the college regard the tree as an eyesore and even a health hazard (all those generations of germs!), but they fear removing it because it is supposed to have been planted by the college founder; to cut it down would be seen—at least in the eyes of alumni benefactors—as tantamount to cutting down the family tree.

The old shamans who lived in the thickly wooded Pacific Northwest had a strong spiritual connection with trees, much like the druids had with the oak in Europe. Through an assortment of rituals and charms, the shaman used his or her tree as a spiritual helper to ascend into the sky and consult with various cosmic beings in order to gain news of the other world. Among the Salish people, one of the most powerful spiritual helpers was known as “Biggest Tree,” and it was reported to aid the shaman in obtaining special gifts made from cedar. These little gifts were in fact “alive” for those who had the power to perceive and use them.

A similarly magical worldview lies at the very roots of the Great Western Tradition. In ancient Athens there was a religious sect known as the theoretikoi, who resorted to thick forests and quiet groves in order to conduct their meditative practices. When discussing the psyche, Aristotle often uses the term theoria, the root of our word “theory.” Roughly translated it means “contemplation,” but it can also mean “sending ambassadors to an oracle.” Perhaps this was the Greek way of seeking “Biggest Tree.” After all, the most famous of their oracles was the one at Dodona, which originally consisted of an immense old oak with a spring gushing from its base. Through the rustling of its leaves and the remarkable doves that alighted in its boughs, Zeus announced his supreme will to human beings. That old oak stood and delivered its sacred messages to many centuries of eager querents, until a robber came along and cut it down. When the tree fell, the oracle fell silent forever.

Once upon a time in Japan, there was an old willow growing beside a stream. Nearby was a temple. On the other side of the stream was a village. One day the villagers felt they needed to build a bridge, so they decided the tree should be cut down and used to supply timber. One young man among them, however, loved and respected the willow. He alone remembered that the temple had been built in the first place by their ancestors to honor that very tree. He offered other trees from his own land to the bridge builders if they would spare the willow. They agreed, and so it was saved from the axe.

Shortly after that, the young man encountered a beautiful young woman sitting under the willow. They agreed to marry, but she told him he could never ask where she was from nor who her parents were. The two lived happily together for many years. The man grew very old and frail, but his wife remained young and beautiful.

Then one day the Emperor decided a new temple should be built. The village offered the willow to supply the lumber, believing that this would bring them good fortune. On the morning the tree was being felled, the man who had once saved the willow was awakened by his wife. “I am the spirit of the willow,” she said. “Because you saved me once, I married you to make you happy, but now I must leave you forever. The willow is about to die, and so must I, for we are one and the same. I go now to the willow.” And with that, she went away.

The world’s largest American elm stands in Louisville, Kansas—or so it did until March of 1997, when “an angry youth,” according to the Manhattan Mercury newspaper, tossed a firebomb into a hollow of its massive trunk. Residents of Louisville, Kansas, were strongly attached to their elm and are deeply grieved over its loss. “This random act of violence,” wrote one commentator, “not only ruins a lovely, highly prized tree, it ruins a champion from a species that is seen all too rarely these days. An outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1960s wiped out a large portion of our nation’s elms, especially in cities, where elm-lined streets became barren.”

In America, we love our trees and keep track of the biggest in each of the species. I have visited a few of them myself. Even though none of them turned out to be my tree, they do belong to somebody. In Louisville, Kansas, there is talk about placing a memorial shelter and plaque at the site of the immolated elm. That all trees felled by human hands should receive such homage!

Earlier in this century, Aldo Leopold wrote that conservation is “a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of the land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.” Signatures, I suspect, are written with a far wider variety of instruments than merely axe or pen. It would be worthwhile to talk with that “angry youth” and find out on whose behalf he was acting. Was it his tree?

At the center of Nordic mythology was the World Tree, called Yggdrasil. It was described as an immense ash rooted in Hell but the boughs of which supported Heaven. In between lay the Earth. The trunk of the World Tree was an axis that linked human beings to those who dwell above as well as to those below. There was a prophecy that, at the end of the world, Yggdrasil would provide shelter to the last man and woman, and from them would sprout a new lineage. The Old Norse word Yggr, which is related to the English word “ogre,” is another name for the god Odin, supreme deity and creator of the cosmos. To hang a man on the gallows was to string a sacrifice on Yggr’s tree; after death he became a member of Odin’s band, riding the storms with him.

To “baffle” a person once meant to subject him to public disgrace or infamy by hanging him upside down from a tree, a horrifying reversal of everything that person stood for. A public hanging, or any form of execution, is a ritual moment of suspense, requiring witness: what hangs in the balance is a question of transformation. The gallows is but one tree hung between two others. Our coffins are made of trees.

Indeed, death traditionally has been portrayed as a forester. He was called holz-meier, or “wood-mower,” by the sixteenth century German writer Kaiserberg. In a book entitled De arbore humana, he writes: “So is Death called the village-mower or wood-mower, and justly hath he the name, for he hath in him the properties of a wood-cutter, the first of which is communitas, he being possessed in common by all such as be in the village, and being able to serve them all alike. So is the wood-cutter common to all the trees, he overlooketh no tree, but heweth them all down.” Along the Columbia River, the Indians’ custom was to place the bodies of the dead in boxes and sling them by cedar-bark cords from the branches of trees; eventually the cords would give way, and the bones would be strewn upon the ground like fallen leaves.

A logger in Oregon once appeared on network news. A reporter had come out to the woods to interview him at work. He took time out from his labors to answer the reporter’s questions. The logger was very polite. He wore a hard hat. He resented environmentalists because they all lived in the city and said they loved the forest but knew nothing about it. “How can you love what you don’t know?” For his part, the logger was intimate with the forest, having cut down a good bit of it. He did not live in the city. He knew what he loved and stood by it. Behind him stretched a vast swath of open land; stumps and slash indicated a recently removed forest.

The reporter could not resist a certain irony. She pointed to the clear-cut. “How is this love?”

Not a fair question to be asked on national television, but as that man now looked out in hopeless confusion upon the field of his endeavors, the inexplicable terrain of his love, he was desperately looking for something. Maybe his tree.

“I do love the forest,” he said at last. “This doesn’t look good, I know—but my family….I’m sorry that what we have to do is so ugly.”

The words of another spiritual forester come to mind. “Too late I learned to love Thee,” writes St. Augustine in his Confessions, “O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I learned to love Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee.” Now here’s a fellow who found “Biggest Tree.”

To find your own tree, a transition needs to be made. But of what kind? In psychoanalytic theory, a “transitional object” refers to something used by a child as a kind of emotional comforter. Typically it is a piece of cloth or a doll or a teddy bear. In their theory, psychoanalysts regard the transitional object as a psychological bridge that enables the child to cross from “primitive narcissism” to a more mature emotional attachment to human beings, which are the only appropriate hooks on which to hang our love, or so they say. Thus in a small child, a deep and powerful attachment to a teddy bear, or a tree, is considered normal, but in an adult such fondness for the nonhuman is a sure sign of neurosis, or worse.

Nevertheless, there seems to be something a little off about this way of describing how the innumerable relations out there compose our respective worlds. The wrong theory is a major handicap to finding your tree. Pigeons alighting in the boughs at Dodona, murrelets in a redwood tree—things my forestry professors never spoke of. A lady once complained to the great American artist James McNeill Whistler that she did not see the world he painted. “No, ma’am,” he replied. “But don’t you wish you could?”

Earlier I mentioned that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden, and that Adam and Eve found and tasted but one of them, the Tree of Knowledge. The other tree, the tree they never attained, was in fact the biggest tree in the Garden, the one that God guarded most jealously. It was the Tree of Life. “And the Lord God said, Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever….” And so Adam and Eve were driven away, into endless generations of longing. What the Bible fails to report, but is well attested by legends surrounding the story, is that for the rest of their lives, Adam and Eve kept trying to find their way back, not for the Garden itself nor for any home they wished to reclaim, but for the Tree they never found.

After I spent most of my growing-up years daydreaming of trees far north and west of New Jersey, a perverse law of compensation would have it that, as I stand on the threshold of middle age, living in the dark woods of Idaho, much of my dreamlife should now be spent back in the Garden State. The other night, for instance, I dreamed of that hickory tree in our old backyard. It’s been twenty years since last I saw it, yet there it was again in all its flaring, turning glory. This time, instead of remaining in the house, I rushed out into the yard in order to throw my arms around its trunk and claim my tree as it shed its golden treasure of leaves upon me and the leaf-gold lawn.

But I woke up before I got there.

(This essay originally appeared in Quest magazine and subsequently was included in O’Grady’s Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature.)

Postcard: Slate Creek on fire

Like most people with working eyes, I’m a sucker for fall foliage. I also have questions: Why do one aspen tree’s leaves turn yellow and another orange? What determines when each grove shifts from summer to fall? If you know the answers, feel free to chime in below. This (unedited) shot depicts a glowing grove in prime autumn backpacking territory: the Slate Creek drainage on the northern end of Colorado’s Gore Range.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

A Nod to Nostalgia

Why are we so nostalgic?

As with so many young men that are older in wisdom and worldly desires than they are long on chest hairs, I’ve always had a yearning to understand the past, have been drawn to the ideals and technologies of yesteryear, and have longed to experience the simpler days-gone-by.

As a photographer, I’ve attempted to explore these ideas my whole life; I’ve written about them and wrastled with them in my own ways, and I’ve looked to older gentlemen and women, mentors and teachers, to try and gleam some understanding of these emotions.

Is it just a part of the human condition? Or do some people have a deeper connection to the past? Whatever the case, I continue to learn about my fellow Earth-dwellers and myself as I travel, photograph, admire and appreciate that which came before me.