Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Reluctant Naturalist

Heat waves rip over the canyon wall, a blurred curtain that distorts the broad brown wings of a golden eagle. A single male, the largest raptor in North America, rises quickly on occasional wing beats—in search of a mate perhaps? An unlucky jack-a-lope? Only God and the eagle know. With the passionless sun scouring the desert, seemingly barren, I am overwhelmed; this must be what Muir felt when first laying eyes upon Yosemite. This joy, this longing, this blissful melancholy, an echo of Thoreau at Walden, drives a single tear down my cheek. But the world’s cares soon return and rain down upon me to quench my desert reverie.

I have been watching this bird for close to two minutes and the football game is all but certainly returned from commercial. I press the channel return button and my communion with the eagle, this sky king, is not ended, but rather paused. I have TiVo.

I am a lover of nature; the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Animal Planet are all programmed as favorites on my remote. I have a shirt with a bear on it. My right arm is tattooed with an eagle, an orca, a dragon and a squirrel, four natural creatures locked, as far as I know, in a battle for survival. I hear the front door open and my fiancé scuffling about in the kitchen. “Hey Babe, want to watch Planet Earth on Blu-ray after the game?”

“I’m pretty beat,” Jessie replies. She is tired from her meeting. Jessie is a leader of the Baltimore Outdoor Sierrans and wants to get up early to go hiking with the girls. Unlike her man, Jessie is not a naturalist. Some people are wired differently. Jessie takes inner city kids camping; I like a bar with a good view of the outdoors. Jessie keeps a whitewater kayak in the basement, a dual suspension mountain bike in the living room and has no problem pooping in a forest. I’ve got an X-box downstairs, a couch in the living room and, as for forest pooping, that’s squirrel work.

For my birthday three years ago, our first together, Jessie planned a great surprise. She took me camping! Here’s the thing. I’m a naturalist, and while we were stuck in the woods, I missed a documentary on the majestic humpback whale, a PBS special on the wolves of Yellowstone and a Meercat Manor marathon. The closest we came to interesting wildlife was the constant yipping of coyotes, or the poor man’s wolf, nature’s most boring animal.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, while I am a rather unusual naturalist and, as difficult as it is to admit these days, I genuinely like TV; I am not a complete couch potato. I practice hapkido, walk rather than drive, and I am all about a day on two wheels ripping through the woods. I just prefer my two wheels by Honda rather than Schwinn. I’ve worked for The Audubon Society, been a guide at The National Aquarium and worked on a tugboat teaching kids about riverine ecology, I genuinely like nature. I just don’t like getting it on me.

This split has always been an issue for me. Before I met the love of my life, I dated an environmental engineer and amateur ornithologist, a herpetologist, a string of organic farmers, and a pair of wildlife biologists; I like my ladies like I like my peanut butter. Crunchy. I don’t know what it is about them that draws me or, more surprisingly, what it is about me that draws them. Could be the bear shirt.

Catherine was the second wildlife biologist. Her mom and dad introduced her to nature as a kid and our first date was a hike. I asked her when to pick her up, she said “early.” I replied, “Noon?” She was thinking six a.m. We compromised and met at eleven. Catherine lived in a ranger station on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Once, on a visit, she woke me up before five in the morning (Yup, each day has two fives!) so we could hike miles into the old growth to watch a baby pileated woodpecker make its first flight. After 2 hours of hiking, ninety minutes of waiting, and a combined three and a half hours of me whining, we saw the little bird take flight. It was spectacular. As, I’m sure, were its second, third and fourth flights, which probably took place some time in the afternoon. Her job had her radio tracking bull trout from a seaplane. That’s pretty cool, I guess, but I’ve seen great white sharks breach on three continents, followed a redneck Australian (redundant?) through the Everglades poking eighteen-foot carnosaurs and seen a monkey poop on Johnny Carson’s head. I was introduced to nature by Jacques Cousteau.

Sarah was one of the organic farmers. I hadn’t seen her in years when I ran into her on the other end of the continent at a hot springs near Mt. Hood, Oregon. Sarah had been working her way through Spain following the olive harvest. I’d been telling wiener jokes in nightclubs. Sarah had given up her home in the back of a forty-five year old school bus in NoCal to hike and camp her way through the hot springs of the Pacific North West. I had driven my Bronco up from Portland for the afternoon. What drove us apart seemed clear, what brought us together, more elusive.

These differences might seem trivial, and for a Summer fling, they were, but in a marriage, these basic philosophical differences can cause deep fissures. Like couples from different cultures, say, a Christian and a Hittite or a Dutchmen and someone who isn’t crazy (wooden shoes? Really?), love can bridge much, but it also takes hard work and real compromise. So the question becomes, how do I, a less than avid outdoorsman, satisfy my woodsy woman, yet remain true to myself and avoid having to cut my own arm off with a rusty Swiss Army knife to avoid starvation is a hostile and hideous landscape? Plus, we’ve got a four month old son and I need to know we can work together to instill in him a sense of the horror of the outdoors.

For Jessie, entering nature is like finding her way home, “It’s calming. Calming and freeing,” she explained. “In the city, there are structures, routines, and commitments. Obligations. Mechanical things that create a constant hum, an artificial hum, it’s nice to be free of that.” And I hear her. I’ve felt it too, but I also find it scary. “It was a painful realization,” Jessie continued more quietly. “When there’s something that’s essential to you, you don’t even question it’s there in someone else.” There was a pregnant pause, filled with loss, before her eyes slid up to meat mine, and a sly smile crawled across her lips, “Plus, you’d lived in Oregon, which was enough to make me believe.”

I realized then, that Jessie had made a mistake, a miscalculation that many before, who have never seen what I have seen, have made. Much of Oregon is kept indoors. But in that moment, when Jessie’s wit cut the sadness, we shared a moment of communion. Jessie’s love for the outdoors runs all the way through her, but our love for each other runs just as swift and strong. And we began to focus on the things we shared. I asked how she’d change my relationship to the outdoors, “It begins with an appreciation. It doesn’t have to be hardcore or anything that requires skill or adventure.”

Jessie half closed her eyes to imagine nature and the ways I experience it, “He breathes in the air as he goes by on his motorcycle at sixty miles an hour (Authors note, more like eighty) and he looks at the trees and likes them. I think he’s a collector of info­ on all sorts of things, which I appreciate—most of the time—which could come in handy if we actually get him outdoors. I think he’s not comfortable with pain. So, when we hike up a hill, he is really unhappy. So if hills are involved, it causes him pain and I try to let him be on his own. But he does seem to forget about it at the top. Like childbirth.”

We went on to talk about our little boy, Jonah, and I asked how she wanted him to meet nature. “I hope he loves it as much as I do,” She answered, “maybe more so. I fantasize a lot about it, doing things with him outdoors. A friend of mine is going to hike the Continental Divide and I thought, wow! Wouldn’t that be a great thing to do with your thirteen-year-old son? It would be a great fiftieth birthday for me.” I agreed, but reminded her, he probably has a bit of his old man in him. I asked, “How does it make you feel that I am going to teach him that the lion is the king of jungle and that the king of the oceans is Aquaman?”

“I think we’re going to have a very confused child,” she answered

Confused indeed, but, like the lion and the tiger who see past their differences, maybe over a box of wine and a Barry White album, to give the world a liger (or tigon, depending on who’s on top), Jessie and I have overcome our differences. I’ve looked past her stripes and she has looked past my enormous hair, cravings for wildebeest and sandpaper like tongue and together we’ve found some balance, built a life and started a family. I resigned myself long ago to weekend hikes, powerless boats, bikes that require peddling, camping and, yes, even pooping in the woods, and I am better for it (Well, except the pooping part. I really really don’t like that and I’m pretty sure I’ll catch a disease.). And while I look forward to teaching the boy how to kick start a motorcycle and program a remote control, I’m glad Jessie is there to teach him about whatever the hell it is that people do out there.