Long Live the Watchers


Katherine Hauswirth


This week I write from my porch. I deplore the chemical smell but I’ve doused myself in Off to flummox the hungry mosquitoes. My dog Molly would like to roam free, undoubtedly back to that chipmunk condo in the stone wall. But I’ve hemmed her in here with me, using baby safety gates. Despite the boundaries I’ve erected, the face of nature thrusts itself into mine insistently. I plug my laptop in beside a spider’s web. Birds are calling to each other across the canopy. One level up are three holes reminiscent of the perfect mouse doorway, except much taller and wider. This is where the squirrels access our attic, just adjacent to the main power line. In other contexts, any one of these elements might be framed as at war with our human endeavors—bird droppings on the windshield; the possibility of a bite or at least the sticky residue of a web across my hand; squirrel poo above our heads, squirrels gnawing on our circuitry.

But each book here beside me on the porch speaks eloquently about a longing I continue to feel despite my so-called civilized life. It’s a longing to connect more with, to notice more about, those things that man cannot make, the many elements of nature that live beside us, so often unnoticed. The authors of both books clearly share my longing. But they have done more than just pine for pristine flora and awe-inspiring fauna. They have watched closely, and they have chronicled things as they are. They have advocated for how things should be. They have made me want to look up their stories to see what the next chapter might contain.

The Book of Yaak is a collection of essays about the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana where author Rick Bass resides. He is almost apologetic in his advocacy for the place—he is a writer by nature, not an organizer or politician, and feels awkward citing statistics and writing letters to DC. He worries that his tone will be too strident, perhaps push people away rather than convince them that the valley, which even sixteen years after Bass wrote Yaak still contains no protected wilderness areas, is worth saving. He points out that most people living in this setting are quite happy on their own, in relative silence. Otherwise they wouldn’t make it in Yaak, where the arrival of the mail carrier is a big occasion, where one must fix one’s own generator on the mountain.

I read a collection of Bass’ short stories once, and I wasn’t blown away. It might have been the genre. Short stories often disappoint me. But Yaak didn’t. It’s clear that the words of this book are genuine; it’s clear that Bass’ own longing is embodied in a place that must be preserved.

Bass paints a multidimensional picture, as complex and varied as the dense territory through which he hikes. His words ring true and command attention. He struggles with complications; he notices subtleties in his surroundings and in human nature. He has deep respect for the animals of Yaak and seems to equally enjoy a good hunt. He’s disgusted with politics but deeply admires an unusually sincere Congressman. He repairs countless things clumsily with duct tape but can craft sentences that will just about knock you over with their perfection. I felt I was part of the Yaak Valley, too, no doubt a response to Bass’ frank, persistent, and gifted voice.

The book’s dedication memorializes a friend whose name also appears in the essay Metamorphosis, and here Bass’ voice struggles with and grieves for both his land and his friend, all the while recognizing an immutable element of eternity in both. He remarks on charred skeletons of giant larch trees, scarred by a 1910 fire:

…That’s a rule of the West, and a rule of the world: if it doesn’t rot, it burns.

If it dies, it’s born again—as long as there’s a soil base for it to return to. Orange mulch or gray-black ash, it makes no difference; it lives and dies in its home and then lives again. Even when the soil is washed away, it is not the end of things, because then the sun and frost and snow and rain begin to work on the exposed bedrock, crumbling it and kneading and pulverizing it through the millennia to make soil again.

It’s good soil here, in this back-side valley. I’ll send you some. It feels good to be standing on it. There are a lot of stories buried within it. It supports so much life.

I looked up Yaak Valley and was relieved to find it hasn’t (yet) been obliterated by human carelessness and greedy industry. In fact, there’s a very active-sounding Forest Council for which Bass has served on the board. In a 2009 editorial he wrote about finding common ground among the many parties who are invested in the Valley’s future, including not just the conservationists but the snowmobilers and the timber industry. The Council has been busy.

The next book I read takes place in the heart of New York City. Stifling, you might say, after the wild acreage of Yaak? Actually, the book had a wide-open, freeing effect that leaves me itching to hop the train into Manhattan, more specifically to Central Park. Marie Winn had me at the Loeb Boathouse, where she discovers the “Bird Book” a loose-leaf register kept by watchers in the park. From the register she expertly sets the stage for Red-Tails in Love.

Red-Tails is mainly about the appearance, coupling, and parenthood of red-tailed hawks that takes place in and around Central Park. But it’s not just a nature journal, or an enchanted story of discovery in an unlikely place. I am a New Yorker (originally), and Winn captures the hard-to-define place that is Manhattan by describing a rich mix of both people and animals. The Regulars are the faithful watchers of the park who chronicle all forms of wildlife, not just the birds. They befriend the not-so-regulars and one-timers—tourists passing through, small children who want to look through the telescope, Mary Tyler Moore (who lives in a nearby building and is interested in the hawks). And what would a New York story be without at least a passing mention of Woody Allen, another neighbor to the park and the hawks?

All of the elements of human drama are lived vicariously, and ironically, by those watching the hawks: the new companionship and tenderness in a courtship, the hopeless feeling when a child is lost, the anxieties of new parenthood, empty nest syndrome. Of course the humans so invested in the hawks are predisposed to anthropomorphizing Pale Male and his brood, a practice frowned upon by strictly scientific types. But Winn is quick to point out that: “Clearly such supremely valuable human properties as reasoning ability and emotional complexity did not spring forth fully evolved, like Athena from Zeus’ brow. The notion that only humans think and feel is a relic of creationism harking back to the Victorian era.” In other words, we can connect in many ways with nature, and anthropomorphizing may not so much be imposing our selves onto nature as recognizing ourselves in it.

As in the Yaak Valley, those who love the park and its animal inhabitants are united in a longing to connect and to protect. They are less environmentalists than hawk-obsessives, but even this rather narrow focus leads to action—monitoring the use of rat poison, the vigilant protection of a nest on a tony midtown building, talking to local scientists about their observations. The book encourages the reader to learn more. It contains rich appendices authored by the very characters in the book, on migrating hawks, damselflies and dragonflies, butterflies, and edible Central Park plants.

Winn includes a quote by Schopenhauer toward the end of the book: “The sight of any free animal going about its business undisturbed, seeking its food, or looking after its young, or mixing in the company of its kind, all the time being exactly what it ought to be and can be—what a strange pleasure it gives us.” Both The Book of Yaak and Red-Tails in Love convey this pleasure. Both books made me grateful for the watchers that pay attention to our wilds, be they off a long, unmarked road or in the heart of the metropolis. Long live the watchers, because we need their words to remind us not only of the delights of fauna and flora but also of what we need to do to stand up for these nonverbal denizens that reside beside us. A book in the hand is an excellent place to start.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Book of Yaak, by Rick Bass (Mariner Books, 1996)
Red-Tails in Love, by Marie Winn (Vintage Books, 2005)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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