AAAAAAAGGGGHHHH! AAAAGGHH! AAAAAGGHHHAAAGH! We all screamed at once. It was a couple of months ago. I was driving home with my 13-year-old girl/boy twins from the pictures (the movies). The nearest cinema is in the town of Omak, WA, 40 miles from where we live, so it is a drive. The road, Highway 20, winds westwards climbing up out of Okanogan, the county seat, over the Loup Loup Pass (elev. 4020’) and dropping back down into the Methow Valley to the town of Twisp.
Yes. I live in the country. Four hours (five in winter) and 200 miles over the Cascade Mountains northeast from Seattle, in the 60-mile-long Methow Valley in mountainous North Central Washington. And north of us is really wild, pretty much all mountains and the pristine habitat of the Paysayten Wilderness, a ‘wildlife corridor’ that stretches 45 miles, as the crow flies, to the US-Canadian border, and many miles beyond into British Columbia. This is living up close to the rugged North West, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.
The Methow (pronounced Danbert met Natasha how? see below ), or the ‘valley’ as it is called by locals, runs roughly north to south encompassing the ‘towns’ of Mazama, Winthrop, Twisp, Carlton and Methow, and on south to Pateros and the Columbia River. The total resident population of the valley is estimated at around 6000. We have most of the modern conveniences you would expect in a rural community, but also two community theaters, what seems to be an unusually high proportion of wildlife biologists, many artists and musicians, and everything from community radio and local access TV to art walks, film festivals, dance spectaculars and a Trashion show. And it is all butted right up against wild nature.
So we are driving back from the cinema west along Highway 20. It is beautiful and wild road bordered by fruit farms, the occasional dwellings dwarfed by the surrounding shrub steppe and ponderosa forest and the occasional outcrop of jagged rock, hinting at the raw building blocks of the Cascade Mountains themselves. At Loup Loup Pass (so good they named it twice) there is a rinky-dink ski hill where I broke my leg, a triple break spiral fracture in 2010, and so began my adventures in the American Health Care forward/slash (and burn) Insurance racket system, and that would be where the titular drugs are stashed, but that is another story. Suffice to say, even a short distance off the main drag of highway 20 it is pretty wild country.
We had been to see Iron Man 3. I read Marvel comics as a young teenager, and back then in the 1970’s I was, like many millions of avid comic book readers, frustrated by how Marvel characters (unlike DC’s Batman and Superman) simply did not translate to the big screen. Remember the 1970 Spiderman movie anyone? It was not only that the special effects had not evolved to CGI but even spandex, coined anagrammatically from ‘expands,’ was in its primeval infancy.
Living in rural Washington, watching the super hero movies, or any decent film for that matter, at the old timey theater with one big screen, with my children, 40 miles away, retains something of magic of communally shared suspended disbelief sprinkled with nostalgic joy. Iron Man 3 was a particular hoot, especially Sir Ben Kingsley, who excels in a masterstroke of screenwriting and acting rarely seen in the blockbuster. Sir Ben ostensibly plays the notorious super baddy The Mandarin … the bit where he is watching English footy (soccer) on the widescreen TV in his lair, singing along when his team scores ‘Olay … Olay Olay Olay,’ catapulted me alone into an uncontrollable outburst of guffawing. It was a sweet reminder of my Englishness, but I digress.
So we are driving home over the mountains at dusk, and challenging all my 21st century super-hero-dad powers, and trashing my sense of oneness with all things modern and old, the children were arguing over a machine. My son had left his iTouch at home and he wants to go on his sister’s iPad. She does not want to be on it, but she does not want him to be on it. I am a patient man, but it is slowly starting to drive me bonkers. Even though we are hurtling up the tarmac (asphalt) road in a beat up 1994 Previa machine, having just seen the highest of hi-tech movies, the stand-off feels bizarrely incongruous with the wilderness outside the window. It is a winding road and requires concentration on the part of the driver, and as parents of arguing children know, hard wired by evolution to be finely attuned to the intonation of one’s offspring, an intensity grips in the gut, which is magnified by, and in turn magnifies the everyday intensity of readings on the gut-monitor we have developed for driving at speed.
Having had my pleas for a sane resolution of the dispute ignored, I ruled that the machine be turned off and kept off and that that be the end of the bickering, which works … for about thirty seconds. This whole shenanigans repeats a couple of times, and I put my foot down (thankfully not on the accelerator) … I want five minutes’ silence, no ifs no buts. The calm is palpable and I can feel the relaxation of my stomach muscles and we sink into some sense of balance with the world outside.
My daughter is in the passenger seat and during the silence my son, never one to sit still for too long, happens to lean forward between us, and at that very moment we all see it in the same instant, and like a scene from a screwball comedy movie, we erupt in a communal involuntary shriek, “Aaaaaaagggghhhh! Aaaagghh! Aaaaagghhhaaagh!” as a black bear scampers across the road right in front of us.
It is only the second time I have seen a bear in the six years I have lived here, but they are all around. Come September the two unfenced apple trees behind my house are surrounded by mountains of bear scat, spattered with pips and made purple by prior ingested berry pulp. In winter, when the bears are hibernating, even closer to the house where I park the Previa, I have seen the tracks of ‘the cougar’. Yes, that is cougar as in mountain lion, as in lion, as in a real genuine big cat. I have only seen the cougar once, running along Twisp River Road for about a hundred yards at night in the snow. It was about a mile from the house, and I slowed down to fifteen miles an hour to watch it effortlessly glide in natural flight before it jumped the guard rail and disappeared into the night. Last summer a neighbor saw the cougar at dusk nonchalantly walking across the bridge over the river that leads to directly to my house.
The theory is that the cougar has a den in the woods somewhere within a half mile to the west of the house. Coincidentally or by some super-hero twist of fate, I saw the cougar around the exact stroke (adjusted for the Greenwich meantime) of our twins’s birthday. They were born thirteen years earlier, 13 minutes and 59 seconds apart, but doubtless I will only find out which one was born under the sign of the cougar, when the full moon breaks on their eighteenth birthday in 2018, when I finally stumble on the cougar den to find out that … Dah! Dah! Daaauuuhhh!
Four years ago, the first scientifically documented Wolf Pack in Washington State since the 1930’s was located around Lookout Mountain only five miles from my house as the crow flies. As a mountain runner it is within running distance from my house. A ragged 10 miles (one way) on foot of wild running along half existing animal trails, through scrub and forest undergrowth, with around 3700 feet of climbing (and I have done it and got caught by nightfall on the way back) … I have never seen the wolves but I have heard their howl, and am pretty sure I saw some tracks in the snow as I snow-shoed up Hottell Mountain up above and behind my house, to snowboard down. There is a BBC film Land of the Lost Wolves (2012) which tells some of this story. I met some of the film crew in the Twisp River Pub when they were here, and we danced. Pretty wild country indeed.
Mule deer and white tail deer regularly pass right by the window of the house, to the frustrated excitement of Frank the dog. I have been unknowingly bewitched by the first time smelling of the far off scent of skunk (the mammal, not the variety of weed) on the wind, quite pleasant at a safe distance, and it was only when Frank brought one home, (and had been totally blasted by it in his face, during its dying moments) that I saw what a truly beautiful creature it is, was. I was pretty mad at Frank, over the next week or so, being reminded over and over that he had worried such a fine creature to death, as I rubbed tomato juice into his face and neck, and fully understood up close how the skunk got its reputation as a harbinger of foul stench.
I’ve seen ‘em all. Beavers, bobcats, coyotes, pack-rats, chipmunks, marmots, long-tailed weasels, raccoons, snowshoe hares, mountain goats, turkey vultures … and bald eagles, making a comeback, sitting in the cottonwood trees over the half frozen river out my window in winter, spying their fish dinner. It is a regular Deputy Dawg world out there.
I have yet to see lynx, elk, moose, but these are only a matter of time. And, perhaps the most elusive of all, the wolverines, which live in the wild forest up beyond the end of my road, a mere 20 miles west. They are very reclusive creatures, and I will probably never see one unless I accompanied one of said wildlife biologists who track its fragile existence in the field. Like I said there are many wildlife biologists around here, especially salmon recovery people, some of whom I play music with, many of whom I drink beer with. And then there is this Canadian girl who I met at a party who studies lynx, and her dream is to study big cats. I have yet to uncover the truth, but I strongly suspect that her demure biologist persona masks a raging feline super-heroine within.
In the summer there are rattlesnakes not too far away, less than 10 miles to the east, on the other side of the Methow river, but thankfully not too close either. On a camping trip over towards Grand Coulee I did have an ‘encounter’ with a rattlesnake. The other adults and children were swimming in the lake, and I and one of the toddlers were hanging out by the camp. Right there coiled up under a tree was this big old brute. And then we saw a baby in an open cave a couple of miles from camp. After the initial shock there was some relief for me. I am partially deaf (genes and long years of rockin’ out) having lost some definition at the top treble end of the spectrum, and my fear was I would be out running and stand on a rattler and not ever hear its rattle. No, I heard the rattle of the guy by the tree LOUD and clear. It spoke to me, warning, “Hey Bald Guy! Don’t look. Don’t even point.” Thankfully (for the snake) the other adults suddenly materialized and the snake beat a quick retreat into the undergrowth away from the camp.
I probably would not have died had I been bitten. The toddler, had he been bitten, with a much smaller circulatory system, would have been in a much more critical situation dealing with the poison romping along the proportionately shorter veins to his heart. The adult snake injects a first dose of venom, but then holds some back in case it has to bite the would-be attacker a second or third time. The baby rattlesnake in the cave, though he has proportionately less venom, has not yet learned to control it and just shoots the whole load at once and is thus counterintuitively more dangerous still.
There are harmless garter snakes in the garden outside my house, though the first time I saw one I had no idea if it was venomous or not. Assume the worst. We were visiting the valley two years before we moved here, and I was babysitting four five-year-olds at the time, two sets of twins, my own and the girl-girl twins of the friends we were staying with. I asked the local girls about the snake, and younger one told me it was like the one that bit her dad and put him in hospital. Her dad was in hospital a couple of years prior with cancer which he survived, but there it was in the child-like imagination, our mythical fear of the power of snakes connecting us to stories going all the way back to the dawn of human culture. Not knowing any better I promptly banished the double twins to the non-air conditioned cabin on an upper ninety degree day, and then the David Attenborough in me compelled me to go and get the video camera to film the critter. The scientific video evidence later confirmed the snake as completely benign.
Talking of Iron Man, we get the occasional Black Widow spider, common across much of North America, inside the house. The Gene Colan drawings of Ms. Natasha Romanova in the early mid-70’s fueled my first post-pubescent dreams, and would that the Black Widows in my house were of the Scarlett Johansson variety, a worthy sparring partner for my own (rural) super hero alter-ego History Boy (pictured), but these are the genuine arachnids, the female with its anarchic red hourglass insignia on its shiny black abdomen. I have learned to catch them with a jar and a postcard on top and then then release them somewhere at the other side of the river.
The coyotes are most definitely more keen to get involved with human activity, though not humans themselves. Frank the dog has an occasional run-in with them. I have watched him through binoculars on the hillside. He is stronger and faster than they are, but they have sharper teeth, and they are not playing. Frank is so innocent, and he does not learn. He really just wants to play and be friends, but he comes back with puncture wounds on his haunches. We lost two cats, MIA, presumably to coyotes. A coyote was seen in broad daylight heading off with one of our chickens.
Before moving here I had always lived in big towns and cities. I have been here now for almost six years, and as an Englishman, all this fie-fie-foe-fum, potentially life-threatening fauna remains absolutely fascinating. Yes one could theoretically put one’s hand up to lean against the wall (as I have done with a wasp) and not seeing the Black Widow spider, be bitten by the most venomous spider in the US, but the bears and the cougars, and even the rattlers see and smell us way before we see them. The big mammals are never so desperate for food in this relative bounty-filled paradise to have a need to attack humans. Yes of course one would shit one’s pants, metaphorically if not literally, if a face-to-face encounter occurred, but these are rare in these parts. The rattlesnakes you have just got to respect and give a wide berth. You are actually more likely to die or be seriously injured if your machine collides with a deer at speed. There are something like 300 plus vehicle-deer collisions annually around the valley, mostly resulting in dead deer, damaged cars and shaken drivers.
You get the general picture. Living here I cannot help but feel my connection to nature. It is literally outside my door. There is thus something of a frontline feel to the struggle to protect natural habitats and all the life which co-exists therein, from the rampant consumer capitalism which lurks and threatens, the natural world, and invades and destroys it on a daily basis across the planet. George Monbiot has a theory that many children growing up in the city today are not invested in saving the planet, because they have little, if any clue, as to what they would be saving. That is, it is theoretically possible to grow up in the modern urban world and not truly engage with wild nature on any meaningful level.
Back in the early nineties when I lived in Leeds (population 600,000) I was an adult chaperone on a children’s camp, which took city kids from poor families on a holiday (vacation) trip they would not otherwise get. We went to a Youth Hostel in the Yorkshire Dales for a week. I had a group of five 11- and 12-year-old boys and the first thing we did after we landed was hop over a stile through the dry stone wall and take a short walk along a nearby trail. The first thing the boys did on seeing a sheep in the field was to pick up rocks and start throwing them at the sheep. A city dweller myself, I was completely floored in the moment. We’ve all heard the survey results where when asked ‘where do vegetables come from?’ a significant proportion of children will say ‘the supermarket’ (store). And we are not even talking about wild nature here, but the relatively young (on an evolutionary timescale) animal and vegetable products of 10,000 years of farming.
The reason I was so gob-smacked by the spontaneous impulse to throw rocks at sheep was I grew up in big towns and cities and lived in them until I was 45, and spent most of my adult working life touring them as a rock ‘n’ roller, but I always seemed to have a natural respect for the natural world. Don’t get me wrong; I love the vibrancy and the pulse and the culture of cities. Cities are sexy in a way that only cities can be, but I always had the instinct to seek out and explore the natural world. (There is sex in the country, too, but I’m running out of space). More specifically, by design and default, I was given the opportunity to be able to follow that instinct and/or birthright to seek out nature, even within the bounds of town or city (and I will write at length about this next time). Following that instinct is surely central to the reasons why I now live where I do.
So my thought for the day. It is Sunday as I finish this writing, and I am not religious, but if I have any spirituality it is in my connection to the awe inspiring mountains, rivers, forests and oceans which make up the natural world and gazing at the stars on a clear night (and the night sky with no light pollution is easily accessible and truly spectacular here in the valley). It is feeling impossibly at ease with my own smallness when contemplating the vastness and stark natural beauty of the great out-there. It is a feeling of being connected, and as we need food for the body and art for the soul, and human warmth and companionship for the heart, we need to re-establish our connectedness to the wild universe on a regular basis for true all round health and well being.
It is summer. Raw nature has stretched its wings and is in full flight. So the call is, wherever you find yourselves get out of the house and find some nature. It really is possible to do so in the town and city or I would not be where I am today. And if you are feeling even more adventurous, get the children out of the city for a blast of wilder nature, and who knows the CO2 expelled in getting there, may in the long run be a counter-intuitively sound investment for the good of the planet in nourishing the next generations’ will to fight alongside us to protect this wonderful place we call Earth. You know it sometimes seems achingly impossible, even living round here to rally the troops, but it really is the super-hero parent thing to do.
P.S. It was ninety plus degrees here (Sunday) and I managed to get my guys off their machines, and rounded up some of their mates, only to meet some more of their mates and their dads, at the Carlton ‘the Mediterranean of the Methow’ Hole … the biggest beach in the valley (about the as big as a volleyball court split down the middle long ways and laid end-to-end) with luxurious swimming and sun, and it was as scintillatingly cool and earth-shakingly beautiful as any place of worship can get.