FOCUS ON THE BEAUTY FOR A CHANGE, WILL YA, JACK?
Where the wild things are. Pierce Point Ranch, Tule Elk Reserve, Point Reyes National Seashore – Jack Gescheidt, JackPhoto.com
I’m painfully aware that I mostly write about problems (as I see them); like wild forests being threatened with logging — rebranded as “thinning” or “management” or “forest health” projects (!). Or the trampling destruction of public lands by the cattle industry. Or the of hundreds of square miles of ocean dead zones created by the massive fertilizer and manure run-off from the cattle and pig industries. Or the land, water and air pollution of Point Reyes National Park by the “local,” “small,” “organic,” and “historic” cattle industry quasi-legally squatting there. Or the cattle industry’s major contribution to global heating — assuming you “believe” in such things. Y’know, things like science. Or gravity. Or whether you exist and are reading these words right now.
You see, there I go (off) again, ranting about environmental-societal problems. I guess this hair trigger just my true activist colors.
And hey, it’s not that I don’t like cows. I like cows plenty. Big, sensitive, shy puppies, in my mind. My animal rights friends are always chiding me about my cattle industry rants, “Don’t blame the cows!” As if I ever would. But maybe some readers take it that way? Do you think (my) criticisms of the cattle industry — which pushes crazy amounts of plant food and fresh water through docile, innocent, captive bovines to make milk and meat for human consumption — come across as my blaming the victimized cows? I didn’t think so.
I know you know most of these issues anyway, I just emphasize them and repeat the hell out of them, like Bernie going on about billionaires, because what’s more important? (Assuming you believe in our anthropogenic climate crisis.) We all know an innocent animal when we see one standing in a cow pasture, right? And that phrase, “innocent animal” is redundant anyway; all animals are innocent.
So, for a breath of inspirational air, I want to focus on the beauty of non-human life remaining on Earth that our species is obliterating — yippee!! Specifically, on the beauty of the what’s-left-of wild animals today. It’s up to us humans to stop harming them, to protect and defend them. This includes not just writing and speaking out, but also taking action in the real world, beyond our ubiquitous keyboards and screens.
The wild animals who still exist are relatively few — and therefore even more precious. They deserve our attention, our appreciation, and our protection. If you’re an animal lover — and I know many of you are — you know what I mean. I go like this so that our animal-worshipping choir might sing louder and more often.
Wildlife Where’s Waldo – Just some of the many critters hiding out at Point Reyes National Seashore. Illustration by Larry Eifert
DATE NIGHT OUT WITH WILD ANIMALS
I usually spend one weeknight evening per week out at Point Reyes National Seashore. I’ve done this more times in the last two years than I have in the previous twenty. That’s because I’ve chosen to work for a specific, but multi-faceted cause, with a large, growing community of fellow activists, environmental groups and thousands of concerned citizens. We sometimes use the general term, “re-wilding” to describe our local little Point Reyes Seashore 20 miles north of San Francisco. So it can become the much wilder national park unit its founders intended. (The private ranchers doing their dirty, polluting cattle business on rented land inside the park sold their land to the federal government in 1962 for millions of your tax dollars in the 1960s and 70s… and then reneged on the deal. They lobbied politicians both local, state and federal, to stay put, continuing to be the park’s #1 source of land, water and atmospheric pollution. READ MORE.)
Oh, right, back to the good stuff… On these weekly late afternoon outings, which are often shared with a younger activist friend I’ll call “DC,” who’s out there even more than I am, we combine a mix of self-assigned Tule elk monitoring tasks with simply enjoying being away from cities, computers, and crowds of fellow humans. (Weekends and holidays are much busier, meaning teeming humans tend to scare off the fur-bearing, feathered and fluked people we’ve come to see and be with. (Yes, animals are people, too.)
Just being outside with wild animals, away from humanity, feels nurturing, relaxing, calming, even healing. Again, I’m betting you can relate. Just seeing a wild animal, any wild animal, from buck to beetle, in a wild environment… even just walking into the wild, knowing wild animals are somewhere around… is restorative; the antidote to too much time staring into illuminated displays.
Point Reyes was created to be over 70,000 acres of mostly wildness, but for some National Park Service infrastructure (minus the 28,000 acres of beef and dairy ranches which are fenced off to the public and fouled by their fences and cattle feces – READ MORE.) It’s small compared to Yosemite, only about 1/10th the size, but it’s more easily accessible and still big enough to get lost in if you know where to go.
The park’s wild animals won’t thrive, or grow their numbers and expand their reign, without the public being educated about them. And the ongoing threats to their health and well-being. (Current park rules allow confining, with fences, and shooting some of the park’s Tule elk, which is how the National Park Service (NPS) un-naturally “manages” their numbers. And cattle ranchers who would prefer killing any wild animal who dared to try to eat their domesticated ones (in or out of a national park).
DC & I like to do what I like to do with all my nature-loving friends, which is to be on the land while keeping a sharp eye and keen ear out for any creatureS, large or small. On land, in the air, in the water (stream, pond, lagoon, bay, Ocean). And also keep a casual count of all different species of animals we see on an outing. Ever do that? (I bet you do.)
My most recent Point Reyes outing included sightings of all the following lovelies. All this wild life just 20 miles from where I live and write about them. In no particular order, we delighted in seeing: a Northern harrier (type of hawk with an owl-like facial disk); a Great horned owl perched at dusk, watching us as we finally spotted his unmistakable silhouette with those wonderful stick-up ears; a white-tailed kite, uh, kiting; 4 barn owls all in one 100-ft. stretch of roadway, perched on fence posts at night, presumably surveying a field mouse meal mecca. Wait, there’s more: one big, relaxed, fluffy skunk we wanted to pet, but decided after some discussion not to chase after to do so; whales (gray? sperm?) breaching in the Pacific, pointed north, but likely heading south for the coming winter; 3 ravens in our dirt parking lot likely looking for human hand-outs; a coyote hunting at dusk in, you guessed it, coyote brush (fancyplants name, Baccharis pilularis); and lots of Tule elk of course. It’s an elk “Reserve,” after all, even if it shouldn’t be fenced. All this, but not one single partridge in a pear tree.
At night, of course, many more animals come out. Being smarter than humans, animals know to wait until (most) humans clear out of the park. We unusual two humans linger into the night, to enjoy hearing critters even if we won’t see them. The Great Horned owls’ calls, those bizarre coyote call that sound, to me, more like screaming children than anything else; and even some late (October) rutting-season elk bugling.
You can see the stars come out, especially on moonless nights, since Point Reyes is miles from big city lights, including the Milky Way galaxy which I’m told we Earthlings inhabit (when we’re not lost in our smartphones). So you can drive out to this little (71,000-acre) national park — always free of an entry fee, by the way — and visit the animals’ home by daylight, then stay to see your own home show up after dark, too.
Point Reyes National Seashore at night, where the stars come out to see and be seen. Photo: Jack Gescheidt, JackPhoto.com
There are always more animal sightings on the drive home in the night, both within and beyond the park’s boundaries, since the rural country roads leading to the park have fewer humans, especially at night.
Drive slowly and keep vigilant, to see, and also to not-kill. On this most recent drive home, I spot another skunk waddling along the shoulder, brushed by my headlights. And a doe with her two fawns, crossing the road to get to the other side, but stymied by a fence — just another example of how fences harm wild animals. A few miles later, more deer are standing too close to the road for my comfort, frozen in my headlights like Mitch McConnell at a podium. (I know, I know; that’s a cruel simile, but that’s what you get for stacking the Supremes, so let’s move on).
An athletic fox bounds completely across the road in front of me, but I’m driving half-speed, at night in the country, exactly for this reason; to see, enjoy and not-kill any furry ones.
And then, finally, on a very windy, 35 mph road in the woods (Marin County locals know it as Lucas Valley Road), I saw someone else. The someone who prompted me to write this overly long, rambling journal in the first place. At first I thought I was seeing a deer. Because I saw the color of a deer. But the torso’s shape was narrower. And belly lower to the ground. A coyote then – – but the uniform color wasn’t coyote, whose coats are often more variable.
Mind you this assessment, which takes paragraphs to describe in words, is occurring in the first 2 seconds of this sighting. I’ll have only 1.5 more seconds, a total of only about 3.5 seconds, before she/he is gone, off the road, back into the wild. But I’m on high animal alert, paying full animal-attention.
The not-deer, not-coyote, is on my side of the road, walking away from me as I’m approaching, my Subaru slowing to maybe 15 or 20 mph.
At the speed of thought, my mind struggles to identify what I’m seeing. As minds do, struggling automatically to categorize and understand what’s being sent from eyeball to brain. (If you drop acid, as many of you do, you know acutely what I mean.)
And then the critter turns right, sideways to me, as I’m closer, with my high beams still on, now illuminating her/his flank. And now I see who I’m looking at clearly, if only for one single second. Someone I’ve never seen in real life before. (Fuck TV.) But have longed to see since moving to the Bay Area in 1996. The telltale I.D. is that a coyote’s tail is fluffy and of a certain length. As is a deer’s, short and stubby. As is our local bobcat’s eponymously short short.
Animal identification, like raptor identification I learned years ago, is often a gestalt, a combination of field observations to make a confident I.D. This guy is just a foot off the ground, to low to be an ungulate, deer or otherwise. And a relaxed, efficient, business-casual lope is another clue. Like a trotting house cat, but with more mass in the carriage.
The tail is about 3.5 feet long. And the body of the creature attached to the tail is another 4 feet long. The tail itself is maybe 2″ in diameter, with a big downward swoop off the rump, then a little another curl, upward so it remains aloft, off the ground. That tail is, again, pure house cat, just bigger. The kind of cat tail that patrols wooded mountains, approaching the size of lions,
I’ve never been to Africa, nor seen a lion or tiger or jaguar or leopard or cheetah in the wild. I don’t count the ones I’ve seen in zoos as a kid since now we know better, that zoos are horrible places for wild animals of all kinds, not just big ones.
But here, in my backyard, about 5 miles from my desk as the crow flies, as the cat walks, is a big, wild cat. A wildcat. One of the few Marin County, CA mountain lions, aka, wildcats, cougars, pumas, catamounts. They name sneakers and beer after these beauties.
Some human people fear being attacked by a mountain lion on a Marin county trail, even in daylight, but especially at night. In part because you’ll never hear or see one coming, usually from behind, and above. Smart, cool cat. But I’m not among those who worry about such rare encounters. Quite the opposite. Now I’m tempted to amble out after dark this winter and traipse around. This big feline was out at 9:35pm PT, just 2 hours after an early October sunset. I can do that.
Wander out into the night, walk up in the undeveloped hills surrounding my home and then slow down. Even sit down, low in the grass. Make sure the wind is blowing from my field of view toward me, so small sounds can carry too. And see what I can see, listen for what I might hear. Of course these wild kitties may still hear and smell me, especially at night, or see me coming a mile away with rods-packed cat-eyes. But don’t worry, I won’t go out unprepared. I’ll bring a big flashlight. Here, kitty, kitty. Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?