In the past few weeks, my wife and I have made our yearly journey to the “lower 48” to visit family and friends. This year, we made a 4-day stop to see our friends Bill and Anne Albrecht who are living as caretakers at the unknown and beautiful Archer Taylor Preserve in the mountains outside of Napa, California. This little jewel of a place provided my needed warm-climate-biodiversity-fix which fills a void that opens after too many months of cold Alaska winter. The humid, moonlit nights found me listening to tree frogs and a mating pair of spotted owls, checking out scorpions hunting in log piles, and catching a northern pacific rattlesnake for relocation from the front steps of their home to a more secluded spot. I was in heaven, especially since this rare tract of redwood and native oak forest held something that I have become addicted to; being in the presence of something more powerful than I, in this case mountain lions. The need to preserve populations of large, potentially dangerous predators will be a common theme of my writing on this website. I moved to Alaska 16 years ago because I wanted to live near wolves and bears.
I remember when I was a young boy living in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a book about the animals of the Appalachians. I would carry this book into the deep forests near our home, lay in the moss underneath a rhododendron canopy and read about the denizens of the hazy ridges and coves such as the black bear, the bobcat and the gray fox. The last chapter spoke of the animals that had been hunted to extinction in the region since the turn of the century. I longed to be taken back in time so that I could listen to the howls of eastern timber wolves as they hunted elk and bison, or to catch a glimpse of a painter, the local term for cougar, watching me from atop a boulder. Something big and powerful was missing from those forests, though I believed the ghosts were still present. These were my broken hearted fantasies at 5 years of age. I do the same thing today whenever I am not in a totally intact wilderness. I cannot fathom anyone not wanting predators in wild spaces. Without them, the emptiness is overwhelming to me.
I spent a lot of time during the summers when I was very young on my Grandparent’s farm in the swamps of coastal South Carolina where my mom was raised. My grandfather, Papa, would sit on a swing hanging from a low branch of an enormous pecan tree. I would climb in his lap and he would feed me peaches from a nearby orchard and tell me stories, always about local wildlife because that is the only thing I cared about. I was mesmerized by tales of giant rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and alligators. When he carved the farm out of the wilderness in the 1930’s, red wolves and cougars (he called them panthers) still prowled the forests, and he had seen them. In the 1980’s, it was still wild country. One night, a black bear tried to break into the sliding glass door and on another a screaming bobcat emerged from the forest and killed a dozen feral cats that lived around the house. A dark line of trees loomed on the horizon just beyond the cotton field. These “backwoods” were larger than life to me. It was a haunting wilderness ruled by wild animals. When I explored them, I felt as alive and alert as at any time in my life. I loved it there.
Bill and I sat in a grassy meadow in the preserve listening to piliated woodpeckers and red tailed hawks stake out their territories with aggressive calls. Bill’s three year old daughter, Hallo Rose, named for a bear filled bay in Katmai where Bill and I have worked together for a decade guiding brown bear viewing trips, asked us where the mountain lions sleep during the day. Bill lifted her up and pointed to a craggy ridge a mile above us. “Up there in those rocks, way up there is where the lions and the coyotes live. They have babies in caves up there and at night they come down to hunt deer.” I watched Hallo’s dreamy stare as she stored this answer in her ever growing bank of local knowledge. This was a powerful moment. At this impressionable early age, this little girl was lucky enough to feel that tingle in her soul that I treasured so much, right in her backyard.
A few years ago, I went back to the Long’s farm in South Carolina to ground my memories. My eyes teared for the first time in many years as I realized it was all gone. An endless spread of golf courses and residential homes had replaced the great swamps and loblolly pine forests. The ‘backwoods” were now neighborhoods and shopping centers. The bears and bobcats and alligators were all gone and with them the character and integrity of the country. All I saw was a wasteland.
I feel lucky that I had enough early exposure to wildness to instill a sense of its value deep in my psyche. It invigorates me to know that Hallo Rose will understand when she is my age, but I fear that this is an exceedingly rare occurrence today. It is hard to put into clear words why this tingling feeling that comes with the presence of mountain lions and bears and wolves is so important to me, but it is.