Nature, Vicariously

vicariousThe great yellow eyes were fixed upon him with a wicked and baleful gleam, and the red tongue licked the longing lips as Sabor crouched, worming her stealthy way with belly flattened against the earth.

Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I watched our cat cross the lawn, belly to the grass, eyes intently focused on the squirrel searching the ground below the bird feeder. Her tail flicked back and forth, she bunched up her haunches and readied to spring. In my mind’s eye, I saw the lion stalking the gazelle through the tall yellow grass with plane trees and wildebeests in the background. I smelled the dryness, felt the gently breeze and heard the bird calls and snorting of the nearby herd. The charge was imminent; death hung in the balance.

I’ve never been to Africa and never personally seen a lion charge a gazelle, but I know this moment very well. I’ve witnessed tens or hundreds of such charges in books and movies and on TV. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Ruark, H. Rider Haggard, Ernest Hemingway, J.H. Patterson and others have planted the experience deeply in my mind, almost to the point where I can claim it as my own.

But it is necessary to have a frame of reference in order to absorb the experience. I have hunted on grassy plains and forests, tried to sneak undetected upon unsuspecting critters or friends, and have seen predators attack and kill other animals. None of those experiences matches the feeling of a stalking lion; however, it gives me a small sense that I can apply to the descriptions I read in books or see on the screen.

By the same token, I’ve never explored the Amazon or Himalayas or a thousand other places, but I have traveled and explored in cities, towns and rural and wild areas. I can relate, however minimally, to the exploits of Sir Richard Burton, Lewis and Clark, William Bartram, John L. Stephens, William Least-Heat Moon, Marco Polo, Johnathan Raban and countless others that probed into the lesser known and unknown and have passed their experiences on to me through their writings.

We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders.

We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.

John Wesley Powell, quoted in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner

I have been thirsty and sore, sunburned and bug-bitten, wet, cold, lost and found. I’ve been frustrated and afraid, exhilarated and depressed. These experiences have given me some empathy for the experiences shared by others through writings and on screen.

As a kid, my family did a lot of fishing and hunting on various Texas properties. We fished the farm ponds for catfish, crappie and bass, and occasionally got to the Gulf coast where we never knew what we might catch. We hunted dove, duck and quail and in some years went after whitetail deer. At the same time, my father encouraged us to read some books about hunting and fishing, notably The Old Man and The Boy series by Robert Ruark. In these autobiographical stories from before the second world war, the salty old grandfather teaches the kid how to hunt and fish the “right” way with a reverence for nature and an appreciation for the catch. My own hunting and fishing adventures weakly mirrored those in the books, but as I read, I could still smell the gunpowder and feel the fish scales and feathers, and lose myself in the North Carolina woods or on the mid-Atlantic coast.

The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything. And he mostly ain’t painful with it. What I mean is that he went to Africa once when he was a kid, and he shot a tiger or two out in India, or so he says, and he was in a whole mess of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why the quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why the turkeys always fly uphill.

The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark

From my dad, my siblings and I learned to see and hear and feel nature. Our hunting excursions were less about what we could get than what we could experience. Shooting or catching something wasn’t more important than finding a cool nest or interesting plants or bones or bugs. We saw porcupines and armadillos, all kinds of snakes and birds, rabbits and squirrels and rats. There were beetles and spiders and cicadas and wasps. We scouted out-of-season game and tried to identify the ducks and other birds before my dad could (but almost never did).

As I grew, these early experiences stayed with me as a background to newer real and vicarious explorations and experiences. In Georgia and Florida, I felt a degree of the wonder and awe experienced by Hernando DeSoto, William Bartram and others. In Arizona and Colorado, I see every day the legacy of mountain men like James P. Beckwourth and Jedediah Smith, and explorers like John C. Fremont and Stephen Long.

My time in Alaska was sharpened by John McPhee, Jack London and Robert Service. Every time I skied, the bone-chilling cold reminded me of the accounts of expeditions to the poles by the likes of Ernest Shackleford, Robert E. Peary, and Sir John Franklin.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail,

Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” in The Spell of the Yukon, by Robert Service

And in all the stories and books, there’s a raised expectation of what I should be, how I should behave. Those people experienced significant hardship and danger and doubt, but set an example for me to follow.

In all East Africa there is no man, not even Cunninghame himself, whom I would rather have by me than Tarlton, if in difficulties with a charging lion…”

African Game Trails by Theodore Roosevelt

Out on the lawn, my cat bunched up her haunches and readied to spring at the unsuspecting squirrel. Her tail stilled; she charged. The squirrel dashed to the side, then juked left before scurrying up the oak tree, well ahead of the bounding cat. She turned away from the chattering squirrel and sauntered back across the lawn as if to say, “I didn’t want to catch you anyway.”

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