Most of our time is spent in Idaho, but Jeannie, my girlfriend, partner and love in life, owns a house on the pond in Mystic Heights just outside Bozeman, Montana. We spend less time in the house on the pond than it deserves, but our irregular visits are cherished, nourishing and always educational. Bozeman and the surrounding area has more people living in it each time we visit, as does the rest of western America and, in fact,the entire earth. An ever-increasing population of humans is referred to by humans as “growth,” but in the natural world it represents the opposite, a diminuendo. Montana friends both close and casual are, as everywhere, treasured, and the six-hour drive between these two homes and circles of friends and the gaps of time between them encourages appreciation of the moment, person and place at hand and leaves less time for taking any of them for granted. Absence really does make the heart grow.
Absence does not have a like influence on understanding.
Mystic Heights is a classic middle-class America suburbia subdivision, with an abundance of normal children from toddlers to teens, dogs of many sizes and breeds with an accent on Golden Retrievers and adults of a wide range of backgrounds, professions, inter-ests and political, social and spiritual leanings. Except this is Montana and Mystic Heights is at the entrance to Leverich Canyon on the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. That is, like other Western housing developments, it is suburbia joined to a wilderness laced with hiking/biking/running/horseback riding and (alas) motorcycle trails and roads. It is not unusual to start a run up Leverich and meet and pat on the head one of the friendly neighborhood Goldens and fifteen minutes later see fresh bear or cougar tracks on the trails of your run, and, on occasion, the maker of the tracks in creature. A few years ago, Jeannie was running alone and was bluff-charged by a bear less than a mile from the house. It was a black bear but grizzlies are abundant in the Gallatin and the experience, regardless of the taxonomy of bears, properly focused her attention on the present moment of survival and the long trail back to Mystic Heights. I ran up a favorite trail one day and on the way back down came across cougar tracks that had not been there an hour earlier, inspiring an unplanned burst of interval training to end the run. (In truth, I am a chugger with increased interval speed training in the jogging range of fleetness, but I call my endeavors running for purposes of communication. What would people think if I said I was going “chugging?”)
And then there is the pond.
The pond was once a gravel pit several miles from town, but Bozeman grew as part of the ubiquitous developmentof western America, extending pavement and subdivisions in all directions. Parcels of land once used for gravel pits, grazing, farming and just filling a natural niche in the environmental scheme of things suddenly took on an economic value as mysteriousandrandomastheoddsof winningthelottery.Capitalisminaction. Mystic Heights Subdivision was platted, lots put up for sale and Jeannie bought one.The gravel pit was lined with bentonite and filled from a spring on the southwest corner. The pond is roughly four acres in size, less than a hundred by two hundred meters across, forty feet at its deepest spot and, because of the bentonite, turbid, though the water quality is called “decent” by one who has analyzed it. As intended, it has become a private recreational center for the denizens of Mystic Heights, a superb swimming hole on hot summer afternoons, a place to paddle or float on buoyant contrivances — canoes, rubber duckies, inner tubes, noodles, inflatable mats and surf boards. Jousting and balancing contests among hormonal teens are spectator events. The pond has been stocked with rainbow and brown trout and there are said to be suckers as well. I have seen minnows, tiny crustaceans and turtles and a few people fishing on the pond and from its banks. I’ve never seen them, but algal outbreaks and fish kills have occurred.
Each autumn, flocks of geese stop at the pond during their laborious annual migration. They make a squawking racket that is endearing to me and annoying to some others, and I love watching the geese prepare in formation for their morning takeoff from Mystic Heights to the next pond south, accompanied by copious and loud communication. I always wonder what they are saying to each other. They leave in waves. Sometimes three or four groups of ten or twelve geese depart in a span of ten minutes, and it is beautiful to watch such graceful, tribal, harmonious creatures rise and form patterns in the sky. Geese are often on the pond in spring, but usually in groups of two or three or four, never in flocks of ten or twelve.
In winter, the pond is frozen and used for ice hockey and New Year’s Day polar bear plunge fests. The rest of the year, it is not unusual to see a wide range of avian and terrestrial creatures on or near the pond. Several years ago, one of the neighbors used the pond as home for his pet duck, a large white bird that couldn’t fly but added a resident neutered wildness to the suburban ambiance. I named him “Fred” in my own mind, but so far as I know he had no other name and Fred was shunned by his wild, multi-colored cousins during their short visits. Perhaps as a consequence, Fred spent an inordinate amount of time on the pond, quacking existentially into the void to no obvious response in order, anthropocentrically speaking, to substantiate his own existence and alleviate his disconnection from his own kind, much like some human beings do. I rather enjoyed Fred’s running commentary and was not distracted by it, but Fred mightily irritated others who were not amused, informed nor entertained by his lyrics. For them, a beautiful day did not include a loud white bird, even on a hot summer day. One day (or night) Fred simply disappeared, either at the hands of his owner responding to complaints or those of a stealth neighbor who had had enough of Fred except, perhaps, for dinner.
Fred’s close cousins, the mallards, are probably the most frequent and numerous visitors to the pond, except for the geese in autumn. I have seen ospreys, egrets, hawks, cranes and bald eagles at the pond. The bald eagle, the national bird and symbol of the United States, like the nation and values it symbolizes, has recently had its extinction rating improved from endangered to threatened. We hope this trend continues and that both eagle and nation make joint comebacks to health and vitality. Deer are often in the yard, and on occasion we have heard elk bugling from nearby fields. I once watched a bear leisurely amble along the bank beneath the towering cottonwood trees on the far side of the pond before disappearing into the fields beyond. A wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves was staying at the house and swears he saw a black wolf in the front yard.
Whether one views it as suburbia in the wild or wilderness in suburbia, Mystic Heights is as symbolic of Montana, the American West, perhaps the environment of the Earth itself as the bald eagle is of the United States. That is, humans tend to think of things as they are as something else. How could we not? My friend Jack Turner reminded me the other day:
“Two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, billions of galaxies. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at about 15,000 mph; around the sun at I don’t know what; and around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way at around 500,000 mph. Weeeeeeeee… And nobody knows.”
Nobody knows. And, of course, we spin at different rates at the equator, in Anchorage and at the South Pole, and the Earth itself spins around the sun at a different rate in January than in July. I mean, truly, nobody knows. Weeeeeeee.
The only ones with a clue are the ones who acknowledge that nobody knows.
Our understanding of nature is incomplete, and whatever humanity’s selfimposed absence from the natural world does to its own heart, it tends to fragment its deficient awareness of our proper relationship to it. No matter how much we pave, extract from, develop, poison, clear cut, ignore, rape, pillage, plunder and exert our self-anointed, ignorant dominion over the earth, we do not understand the consequences of what we do upon it. We are each part of that inscrutable ignorance.
Before we came to Bozeman this spring, our friend Robin, who has stayed in the house for the past year, reported the presence of a loon on the pond for several days. That was exciting news. I had seen but a single loon and heard its lovely, haunting call once in Wisconsin. We had never seen a loon on the Mystic Heights pond and, so far as we knew, none had ever been there. Which only shows how little we knew (know?).
And there he was that first morning, a lone loon on the pond. Rarely did he make his call, but when it came, it was ethereally beautiful. We watched him through binoculars, floating, sometimes paddling, and every so often diving beneath the surface to fish for up to a minute at a time. A bald eagle made a few swooping passes over the pond and loon and then spent a couple of hours in the top of one of the cottonwood trees observing the world and the loon with eagle eye. We watched these things intermittently between chores and work and as distraction from that antithesis of nature tool, the computer, before which I sit writing words about contemplating nature.
While having coffee the next morning, I watched through the front plate-glass windows an interesting exercise by the lone loon of Mystic Heights pond. He (I later determined it was a he) paddled to the east end of the pond without a dive or pause, turned and immediately commenced a furious wing-flapping take-off toward the west end. He quickly built up an impressive rate of speed but rose no more than a foot or two above the water, not nearly enough to clear even the treeless section of the west bank. The loon made an awkward landing in the last stretch of water and paddled immediately back to the east end and repeated the performance with the same result. Something about it didn’t seem in harmony, but I was busy with matters of my own (perhaps no less loony) life and forgot about it. That evening, I timed the loon making a series of fishing dives lasting nearly a minute each. He was good in the water.
The next morning, again drinking coffee and watching the pond as much in procrastination as curiosity, I saw the loon again paddling east. He reached the far end, turned and immediately com
menced a frenzied, wing-flapping effort to take off. His speed was impressive but his height was low and again he made an ungainly landing on the west end. The loon wasted no time paddling like a loon back to the east end and launching another effort resulting in an even more graceless landing, after which he placidly floated as if contemplating his next move and resting. Two take-off attempts seemed his limit.
I retreated to my computer and the internet for some loon research, which quickly revealed that the Mystic Heights loon was a common loon. I learned loons are sometimes known as “the spirits of the wilderness” and have four calls — the tremolo, the hoot, the wail and the yodel. I’d only heard the wail, though Robin had heard a yodel. Adult loons are rarely eaten by other animals, though the young are often taken by raccoons, skunks, turtles and big fish. Adults are sometimes eaten by bald eagles, leading me to surmise that the eagle I watched swoop over the loon and then sit in the tree for several hours was not just whistling “America the Beautiful.” Because their legs are far back on the body, loons are both awkward and vulnerable on land and spend as little time as possible there. Loon bones are denser and heavier than those of most birds and that weight helps them dive for food. Though I was totally impressed that the loon of Mystic Height pond stayed under for nearly a minute, loons can stay down for up to five minutes and dive to 250 feet. One revealing (to my uneducated mind) description read, “Graceful in the water and in flight, they are almost comical on takeoffs and landings. Their size, solid bone structure and weight distribution result in thrashing water takeoffs that can last 100s of feet. The loon’s landing is nothing so much as a controlled crash-glide.” That certainly matched what I had seen, and it pleased me that my bits of research and observation fit so nicely together.
But absence fragments understanding. Because we had never seen a loon on the pond before, and because we had not talked with our seldom-seen neighbors about that loon, we assumed that loons on the pond were a rare occurrence.
“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness,” said Marshall McLuhan.
We observed the loon for the next couple of days and each morning he attempted two takeoffs from the east with the same inelegant landings on the west end so different from those of the graceful geese. By then, my research had taught me enough to realize that the pond might be too short for the loon’s take-off requirements. For sure, I concluded, a loon launch from Mystic Height pond needed a good wind from the west to succeed, and even that was no guarantee. It occurred to me that this loon was trapped in too small a body of water. Far from being one of the spirits of wilderness, he was a prisoner. With this new understanding that he might have screwed up and landed on a pond with too small a runway, I viewed the loon with new eyes. Nature can be cruel.
What to do?
The anthropocentric response, it seems, is to interfere, which enables our addiction to the illusion of control. By the time my knowledge of loon ways had reached this stage of incompleteness, Jeannie had left for a climbing expedition in Alaska, so Robin and I conferred over morning coffee.
What to do with a crazy loon that had landed on a pond too small? He had been there more than a week. We watched him attempt another take-off and perform another clumsy crash-landing. After some discussion, we decided that, even though the fishing was good and he appeared healthy, his morning take-off attempts were reason enough for the anthropomorphic conclusion that he must be missing the company of fellow loons and he needed help to get off he pond. He clearly needed a longer runway. Robin had to go to work, but she thought she knew someone who worked for Fish & Wildlife and maybe we could contact him later in the afternoon. Like everyone who follows the fluctuating fates of wolf and buffalo, we both know that the true headquarters of Fish & Wildlife departments in most Western states are located deep in the folds of the pockets of the local ranching, hunting and real-estate-development industries. Contacting Fish & Wildlife about helping wildlife is not a step to be taken lightly and we would not, but we were conflicted.
But it was our conflict, not nature’s, and like all things left to nature, it took care of itself naturally.
That afternoon when I returned to Mystic Heights from chores in town, the loon was gone from the pond. Whether the loon got a lift from a headwind or from the bald eagle or was hyper-motivated by ESP that we had even considered calling in Fish & Wildlife is unknown, but neither he nor any other loon has been seen after that.
I’ve since learned that a few loons visit Mystic Heights Pond every spring. Whether they get off the pond in the talons of eagles or a headwind is something I hope to determine by further, better-informed observation in another spring. Either way is as natural as the eagle or the wind or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. I don’t know whether the loons that land on the pond become eagle food or take off in the first strong wind to fly another day, but, anthropocentrically speaking, the loon of Mystic Heights Pond and the more than six and three quarters billion human beings living on this tiny Earth are all in a space that may or may not be large enough to allow take-off into the graceful flight of survival.
Dick Dorworth, who has been writing for Mountain Gazette since before it became Mountain Gazette in 1972, is the author of “Night Driving: Invention of the Wheel and Other Blues” and “The Perfect Turn: Tales of Skiing and Skiers,” soon to be published by Western Eye Press. He is fond of saying that skiing, climbing and writing are the only things he’s ever learned to do.