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Spectral Light

Beyond black-and-white thinking in the New, Old West

by Amy Irvine

Published in the January/February 2010 issue of Orion magazine




IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT the human brain is most capable of distillation—of boiling things down to basic black and white. Smoke means fire. Breaking glass signals intrusion. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of rudimentary thought process might be a most valuable survival skill—the kind that allows a body to respond to threats even in a state of half-sleep. My husband, Herb, is a lawyer, the kind of man who has been trained to think before he acts—to examine all angles and consider complexities. But at three a.m. on an uncharacteristically cold and moonless night in late spring, even he is reduced. And through that reduction, he would come to see how things that lurk too starkly, even at opposing ends of the spectrum, can shift. As if fundamentals could be that supple. As if values—like the presence of all colors in relation to the sheer absence of them—could be so pliant. As if the natural order of things—like the age-old relationship between predator and prey—could flex into a new arrangement altogether.

The dogs would start it. Their frenzied barks, their teeth gnashing against the glass of the back door, would draw my husband out of bed and into his jeans in a single motion. In the mudroom, he would stumble through a sea of writhing canines, pull on his boots with one hand and turn the knob with the other. Two aging Aussies and a half-blind border collie mix would spill out into the dark yard and charge toward the goat pen. They would make it halfway before stopping dead in their tracks and high-tailing it back to the porch. Herb would hear the screams then, the desperate cries for help. He would fumble in the doorway for the porch light, two-stepping with the returning dogs, and there, his sleep-riddled mind would already be drawing conclusions so swiftly it would feel, he would say later, like pure instinct.

And here I should point out that my husband, despite his profession, is a man who could have been born into the Paleolithic—the kind of guy who has built a life sustained by wildness more than any other element. After college, Herb left Michigan for the West and never looked back. On the other side of the Continental Divide he found the kind of unfettered topography that he needed—for he’s a man who is happiest when ambling over great stretches of soil or stone. He loves the basics, the way they ignite his senses: The procurement of food, shelter, warmth. The silky curves of women, skylines, rivers. Then there is his deeply held belief that he is a sort of Dr. Dolittle; and indeed, I have been witness to his extraordinary ability to communicate with animals. Domestic or untamed, creatures of all sorts seem to enter quickly into some kind of understanding with him.

It is this latter quality that explains why my husband’s guns have never been loaded—despite the fact that we have made our home in one of the more wild parts of the West, where black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and elk are as common as livestock. Where large tracts of untrammeled public land still eclipse both alfalfa fields and subdivisions of “ranchettes.” Herb had stored in various places a .22 Smith & Wesson six-shooter, a 12-gauge shotgun, and three rifles in .22, .30-06, and 7 mm magnum calibers—an inheritance from his grandfather, who had been an avid hunter in both the Great Lakes region and in Africa. All but the .22s had lain in their cases since his grandfather had died nearly eleven years prior—and those two firearms had only been used to shoot beer cans off fence posts on the occasional Sunday afternoon. Looking back, I think we both took a certain pride—and a smug one at that—in having no need for guns in what is largely a gun-toting community of roughneck ranchers, folks who let loose bullets daily on coyotes and prairie dogs.

So it is mind-boggling that Herb would conclude as he did on that night. Call it a natural impulse, or call it one of the ill effects of living in a culture steeped in sensational news and violent movies, but his mind instantly crafted the assumption that the hair-raising cries coming across the dark yard were of human origin. Somehow, he decided—in our critter-laden, outback of a neighborhood that sits seven miles from a tiny, low-crime kind of town—that some heinous, unspeakable assault was being committed by one deranged human upon another. And as he charged away from the now-cowed dogs into the colorless void that lay beyond the porch light’s glare, his brain illuminated with one white, shining thought: This is what the world has come to. Standing empty-handed in the inkwell of night, he was ready to face squarely some malevolence in his own species.

Herb turned, detouring away from the pen and into an adjoining shed, where he flipped on the light and took quick inventory of several of his grandfather’s firearms. He then knelt to rummage for ammunition in a random collection of boxes. This took some doing—my husband is not the most organized of men. And in the process he failed to hear the intruder climb back over the imposingly tall fence that contained the goats and circle around the shed. It was only as he realized that the cartridges that matched these particular firearms were elsewhere that he heard the padding approach behind him. He stood and turned. On the threshold, only four feet away, stood a three-hundred pound black bear.

Our daughter, Ruby, and I were not there that night—and in hindsight, as well as in the spirit of thinking so fundamentally about things, I can’t decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Would our presence have changed in any way Herb’s course of action, or the bear’s? Would the dogs have been more aggressive? And what might I have done to alter the outcome? Through countless replays of the situation, Herb and I would be reminded that variables come in many hues, and each one has the potential to change the overall effect—the way Warhol’s varied silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe changed the essence of the subject simply by changing the colors. Of course we also have to consider that we can only see things through the lens we were born peering into—while other species are able to perceive things entirely invisible to the human eye.

The bear stalled on the threshold for a moment, and my husband stalled briefly too, before realizing he could not possibly summon a single word of conversation with what stood before him. For the first time in his life, Herb was tongue-tied. When he finally spoke (Yo, dude, unbelievably), the bear fixed his gaze on him and took a step forward. Fortunately, Herb had been training to bench-press 315 pounds in honor of his fortieth birthday, and so, rather than continuing the conversation, he lunged at the half-open door and heaved his body against it—effectively shoving the bear back outside. The bear stood there for a few minutes, then shuffled across the driveway and into the woods.

Not man, but beast. Of course. Herb’s mind quickly reconfigured to what should have been his first impression all along: big animal with teeth and claws has found easy food in what had been a rather unforgiving emergence from the winter den—the late frosts having nipped springtime staples such as young forbs and grasses. Meanwhile, our daughter’s pet goat, a white, bottle-fed Nubian named Dora the Explorer, was still screaming. And at last Herb recognized the wails as hers.

Curiously, the dogs remained on the porch, not uttering a sound. When Herb exited the shed and headed for the house, he made note of the quiet, for three dogs barking in unison has always been enough to keep wild animals at bay. He hadn’t even made it ten feet from the shed when the bear re-emerged from woods. Herb scrambled back inside and waited. When he opened the door a second time, the bear stepped out again and came right at him. The two repeated this pas de deux over the course of an hour. It was sometime during those sixty minutes that the goat ceased her cries.

PERHAPS THE REASON Herb failed to grasp the situation more quickly was the same reason our dogs were so quiet: they were stymied by the bear’s unlikely behavior, its seemingly sheer fearlessness, its clearly predatory intent—for these are not attributes we see in the wildlife on our mesa. Here, seated between the fourteen-thousand-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains and the red canyons and rivers of the Colorado Plateau, there is still a great deal of food and space for humans and animals alike. Unlike their cousins trying to eke out a wild lifestyle within the slim margins of the nation’s national parks, and unlike those poor ursines who have had the misfortune of claiming turf near dense populations of humanity, our black bears have had the luxury of keeping almost exclusively to themselves.

There were explanations: Perhaps the bear was sick. Or maybe it was a juvenile orphaned before learning how to acquire food properly. But it’s also possible that this bear was part of an escalating and global trend—for some biologists say animals everywhere appear to be changing in new and unsettling ways. One recent study concluded that human impacts are forcing animals to evolve at a pace three hundred times faster than they would naturally. And there is evidence to support that the traits affected are not only size and reproductive capacities, but behavior too. David Baron, author of The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature, contends that some regional trends in cougar attacks are “upward and exponential.” Boulder, Colorado, is his prime example—where an environmentally minded populace has sought to live closer to nature by building homes on the “edge,” the transitional area between forest highlands and desert plains. A zone where deer feed. And where lions hunt. The equation has been disastrous for everyone. The deer overpopulated in backyards while the big cats began stalking, mauling—and sometimes killing—a relatively significant number of household pets and humans. Of course the offending cats were destroyed. But here’s the kicker: whenever a guilty lion was removed from an area, others quickly moved in—only to exhibit the same new tactics.

Add to this global scenario of changing behavior the ill effects of climate change. Barren-ground grizzlies, for example, have faced a diminished supply of coastal plain plants—a food source that is dwindling in a warming Arctic. Without this essential nutritional source, the bears have been forced to alter their foraging and feeding habits, and some have become malnourished in the process. One such grizzly recently killed and consumed two experienced Alaska bush backpackers who, in the opinion of the investigating officer, “did most everything right” in their efforts to deter bears from their camp.

Given this new context, it is probably inappropriate to say that such predator behavior is aberrant; rather, these animals are adapting fittingly to a drastically altered environment. There’s irony here: the more humans coif the natural world to our liking, the more we push out into the last wild places for recreation and real estate, the more we are finding ourselves back on the food chain—as a menu item. Herb and I are complicit in this twenty-first-century showdown between wildlife and people; the five-acre parcel we purchased for a home site had been a bull pasture until the rancher subdivided it to subsidize his retirement. The east half of the property is hemmed in by neighboring pastures of grass and alfalfa—a scene utterly bucolic, punctuated by the brays of livestock. The backside of the property is altogether different. A woodland of oak, pinyon, and juniper slopes down to a lush creek-bottom lined with cottonwoods, wild iris, and tall grasses. The draw carved by the creek begins high on the forested uplands to our south and serves as a natural corridor for wild ungulates that move between desert lowlands in winter and high mountain meadows in summer. The predators—black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, and coyote—all follow suit. Our eight-hundred-square-foot house sits smack dab on the dividing line of these two worlds—and depending on which way you turn when you walk out the door, the rules for how to behave, what to watch for, can be very different.

RUBY AND I RETURN home the day after the bear’s visit, and already Herb’s story has spread across the mesa like a runaway ditch fire. Like so many small towns in the West, we’re a mixed group here—a blend of traditional rural folk and transplants who have fled cities and suburbs alike. For weeks afterward, I am reminded of the dichotomy between the two camps; each time I am asked to recount the story on Herb’s behalf, I receive one of two pat responses.

The New West: Did he try and talk to the bear? Did he project peaceful energy?

The Old West: Hope he shot the son-of-a-bitch.

To each individual, I nod. Yes, he did try to communicate. And yes, he shot it.

The double affirmative isn’t duplicitous. In terms of philosophy and aesthetic sensibilities, it is easy to side with the New West’s romantic notions about preserving natural landscapes and living in and among wildlife. But the old-timers have a point. They largely blame the newcomers, who flock to places like Telluride (a resort town thirty-four miles to the east), where predominantly well-heeled, left-leaning residents supported the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s termination of the spring bear hunt. The town’s abundant PETA enthusiasts and Humane Society donors also applauded the prohibition of hounds for the remaining autumn hunt—deeming it a cruel example of unfair chase. In response, our enclave’s more traditional, rural crowd could be heard grumbling, Now them bears are thick as thieves . . .

It’s true that resort towns in the West tend to have the biggest bear problems. Garbage cans, greasy barbeques, and bowls of pet food get left out by individuals who tend to be rather naïve about wildlife. When the bear comes sniffing for easy extra calories (in late summer a black bear must consume 20,000 calories a day in order to survive winter hibernation), such folks snap pictures when they should be clanging pans or throwing rocks—actions which, with a healthy, unconditioned bear, are almost always enough to scare it off. For minor first offenses, wildlife officers will tranquilize a bear, punch an ID tag through its ear, and relocate the animal—to places with more open country, places like my neighborhood, where they become our problem (and perhaps this was the case with Herb’s visitor). But in severe cases, or repeat offenses, the bears are put down with a big-caliber bullet—executions that are all on the taxpayer’s dime.

Bear stories like Herb’s linger on our tongues, in our imaginations, like erotica. They are titillating precisely because they are the closest that most of us come to igniting the ancient physiological and psychological tinder of the predator-prey relationship that lies dormant in the human body. (Come get me, Mommy! I see the glowing embers in my daughter’s eyes, hear the quickening of her breath, when she asks me to chase her.) And perhaps this is why the cause to protect North America’s predators is so feverish; and why it is equaled in pitch only by the efforts to exterminate them. Each side is glaring, garish even, in its shriek of righteousness—and so it is with bears the way it is with everything else: we respond from a black-and-white paradigm, the potent dualities of us versus them resound with a faint, prehistoric echo. Instead of man against weather, or man against beast, though, it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, tree-huggers vs. wise-users, Buddhists vs. Bible thumpers. The appeal of such binary thinking is that we are able to name not only who we are, but also what we are not. We draw the dividing line like a firebreak, and it holds back the advancing enemy while we retreat to safer ground.

But I am the descendant of rural ranchers on one side and artists, scholars, mountaineers, and businessmen on the other. As a daughter of the American West—both the old version and the new—what I have felt about my homeland could easily be characterized as a form of cultural schizophrenia, a psychic swing between my frontier-busting forebears and my Patagonia-clad, Sierra Club card–carrying contemporaries. For many years, I chose a side—shoring up my persona by way of education (higher), occupation (both as a national park ranger and as a paid public lands advocate for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), and recreation (bourgeois style, like rock climbing, river running, and skiing). And as I grew into this role, I grew apart from the other side of my family and their cowboy ways. I kept them at arm’s length with a subtle (so I thought) sense of superiority. Feeling right served as a shield for my own mind—which felt like it would shatter if I attempted a mental straddle between two worlds.

What I missed was this: hunting is a vital part of life for both sides of the family—whether it’s hooking rainbow trout to grill for a streamside Mother’s Day brunch, shooting antelope to complement the garden harvest feast at summer’s end, or plucking pheasants to roast alongside the Thanksgiving turkey. For such events my mother’s and my father’s sides still sometimes come together—the men combining efforts to bring home animal flesh, the women uniting in the kitchen to cook it. The universal acts of procuring and preparing our sustenance have always served as our species’ most common denominator—and among my kin, they have always made faint all other disparities.

BY CALLING THROUGH the shed window, Herb finally got our most geriatric dog, Jack, to come off the porch just far enough to distract the bear while he made a break for the house. For an old guy, the Aussie put on quite a show, and Herb finally got the head start he needed. He and all three dogs just squeaked inside the house; when they turned to look back through the glass, they saw the bear’s snout pressed up against it.

The creature pawed at the door, attempting entry. Herb dashed to the bedroom closet, grabbed from the top shelf the only gun kept in the house—the .22 revolver, complete with cartridges. Not that this particular gun could have done much harm—for a bear, a perfect shot would still be nothing more than a bee sting. But Herb was thinking more complexly by this point. There was no time to call for help from the neighbors, and the nearest law enforcement was, at best, twenty minutes away. Besides, he wanted to get to the goat. He was banking on the fact that if the impact of the shot didn’t scare off the bear, its report would.

Herb beckoned the two younger dogs, and together the three of them sneaked out the back entrance and crept up on the bear, which was still on the front porch, facing off with Jack through the glass door. Herb got as close as he could, and as the bear turned in his direction, he fired a round at the animal’s underbelly—the only place a low-caliber bullet could have any kind of impact. Before Herb could blink, the bear turned and disappeared into the dark of the woods, black devoured by black. Then he headed to the goat pen to retrieve Dora’s flayed body.

It wasn’t the best scenario; the bear was still alive. It could come back for its kill—or for Herb. Nevertheless, Herb was momentarily relieved. His strategy had been a serious gamble—for the animal could have turned on him just as quickly as it had fled into the woods. I can imagine my husband at that moment, contemplating all that was happening along with that which might have been: his jaw would have been set like a steel trap. And yet, the encounter would have resulted in bright eyes, flushed skin, and a larger-than-life grin—indications that an ancient, inner sense of vitality had been pricked.

Herb was adamant that we not tell Ruby, who was only three and a half at the time, what had happened to her goat. He begged me to speak euphemistically—to say that Dora got sick and passed on. But I knew our daughter would see that something was wrong. I thought it worse to lie to her, to undermine her intuitive perceptions by telling her that things were not what they seemed. Besides, to deny the bloody realities of animals eating animals—including our family’s consumption of meat—would only distance my daughter from her budding relationship with the natural world. I needed to believe Ruby could handle the fact that something had tried to eat her goat. Just as I was banking on the fact that she would be able to face on her dinner plate the elk I hoped to shoot in the fall, the chickens we had raised and would butcher, and be able to eat both with reverence, gratitude, and delight.

And so I tell her.

She cries.

And after her initial outburst of grief, her pale, tearstained face blooms red with fury: “I hate that bear, Mommy. Bears are bad, bad, bad.” I think then that maybe Herb had been right. Maybe this is too much for her. But it is too late to recant.

“We can be sad for Dora, sweetheart. And we can be sad for the bear too—because if he’s still alive, he will probably be destroyed.”

Yes, and yes again. I hold my breath and wait for some sort of resolution.

For the next two days, we find the bear’s tracks, punctuated with small splats of blood, encircling our fenceline. The local game warden surmises that the single, small round Herb put in the animal will probably fester in the gut—eventually killing it. On the third day, the bear returns in the middle of the night and digs up Dora’s body—which had been buried three feet deep beneath a big rock slab at the far edge of the property. And then we never see sign of him again.

For several weeks, Ruby acts out the drama of goat and bear with her toys, and each night at bedtime asks me to repeat the story of what happened. One night, she awakes in terror. Shaking, howling, she scrambles onto my lap and tells me she had dreamed that a bear was trying to kill her. I think of Carl Jung, who suggested that the image of the bear in the unconscious is a representation of one’s own potency. To run from a bear in your dreams is to flee from your own potential. To turn and face such an animal is to reckon with the Other—not just its beloved aspects but also that, perhaps especially that, which is wild, ravenous, even terrifying—and with the parts of our own wildness that we fear more with each passing generation, with each species’ extinction, with each acre of land razed.

I tell Ruby that if the bear comes again, she must stand her ground, ask it what it wants. I stroke her strawberry-blond curls as she falls back asleep. A few hours later, she wakes again, whimpering.

“Mommy, the bear came back, and when I asked him what he wanted, he said he was hungry. So I gave him a carrot.”

Ruby is no longer terrified, but tentative. She falls back into sleep, and I am still sitting next to her when she starts to giggle. Then she sits straight up, her eyes shining in the pewter moonshower falling through the window.

“Mommy, the bear came back, and this time he looked just like Winnie-the-Pooh!”

For a moment, I cringe at my daughter’s reduction of a wild creature to a cartoon character. But then I see that she has, on a deep level, bent the bear into something she can manage—and in this way she has digested her conflict with the animal and its deeds. Afterward, I notice in my daughter a deeper appreciation for the animals around her—she loves them more than ever. And yet: she now holds a realistic and healthy respect for those that have the potential to harm her.

I LEARN MORE SLOWLY than my daughter. The day after her dream a neighboring rancher stops by to inquire if we’ve seen the bear around. He whistles at the claw marks on the shed’s threshold and has a good laugh at Herb’s small pistol. But, as the new long-haired attorney on the mesa, my husband scores points for having a gun at all—and a few more for being willing to use it. And when, in order to prove his adequacy, he pulls out his 7 mm mag, the rifle his grandfather had used for killing Cape buffalo, he really gets a slap on the back. “Next time son, you drop that bastard dead in his tracks.”

Herb just shrugs and smiles. I, however, feel compelled to interject my belief that we don’t want to kill interloping bears—that we merely want to keep them at bay. The rancher cocks his frayed ball cap and juts his grizzled chin at me.

“Notice how the bear that paid your husband a visit thought nothing of your three dogs? That’s because you nature lovers thought you were doin’ right for the bears by making it illegal to hunt ‘em with hounds. Now you got bears strollin’ right by dogs, into backyards and barnyards, with no fear at all. ”

Facing my neighbor, I feel a powerful impulse to pull back. This is where civil convention dictates that I silently agree to disagree, that I make some remark about the weather. Later, I can air my opposition among like-minded people who will fan my flames of indignation. Emboldened by their passionate agreement, I’ll feel justified in penning letters to the editor, e-mails to the Division of Wildlife—any venue that is capable of presenting the issue in black and white, any venue that is impersonal enough to isolate my beliefs from my neighbor’s.

And yet. In Aspen, during a two-week period this past summer, a bear sauntered right through a fur salon, another broke into a house and attacked the owner, and another bit into a woman’s thigh while she lay sleeping on her deck. During the same time frame, a bear broke into a steel enclosure down the road from our house, killing five Shetland sheep and maiming two others—only to return in broad daylight for more. Three days after the offending bear was trapped and removed, another one moved in and killed three additional sheep. And in the nearby tourist town of Ouray, at least two more bears ate an elderly woman who, every evening for years—despite harsh reprimands from state and local officials—had watched from a fenced-in porch as bears came into her yard to feed on the dog chow she set out for them. The coroner’s report concluded that the woman had been dragged out of her makeshift observation cage and devoured by the very animals she fed.

Standing on my own bear-clawed threshold, I am caught in the spell of a familiar misanthropy, only this time I begin to sense how it stunts my understanding of the world. And suddenly I find myself willing to consider my neighbor’s perspective, to extend an open-mindedness toward his knowledge and experience that I haven’t even granted my own rural family members. It comes down to this: by retreating from that which we oppose, we render lifeless all opportunities for intimacy, and for community. To smile and step away is as fatal to possibility as is brandishing a finger of blame.

And so after a long, awkward silence I offer my neighbor a seat on the porch and a cold beer. Then I lean forward. I seek luminosity—the deep bruise of blue that hung on the fence alongside the man’s coyote hides, complemented by the soft rose of empathy that emanated as he knelt in my goat pen the summer before, showing me how to revive two kids half dead with scours. I was new to goatkeeping then. With my young animals, my neighbor was as tender and gentle as I’ve ever seen a man. And in eyeing these two tints of him at once, I find a newfound level of humility reflecting back.

“Tell me,” I say, haltingly, “how you would restore the equilibrium.”

“For starters,” he says, “git yourselves some outside working dogs—no more welfare critters. Then load one of them bigger guns you got there and for godssakes, keep it where you can use it.”

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” But perhaps it isn’t brains so much as courage—the courage to say yes, and yes again. At the very least, I am learning to bring into singular focus my double-edged essence. For if my preschool-age daughter can behold the whole of each animal, then surely the rest of us can embrace two seemingly opposing elements with every nuance, every context, every color in between.

We’ll need a language of delicacy to articulate such complex thoughts and feelings—one that can carry us across the muddy mire of moral, spiritual, political, and environmental ambiguities. And if we wield our words with heartfelt compassion and respect, it just might be enough to repair the psychic fissures we have suffered in this age of sharp divisions.

Now, I keep a loaded rifle within arm’s reach. We have two new dogs that roam our fenceline, day and night. And I find myself hoping that hounds will give chase during the next bear season. It’s not a contradiction to say all this—and then to say I am still rooting for the bears, for their rightful place on our mesa, and across the remaining wildlands in the West. Indeed, as my family prepares for the rigors of the autumn elk hunt in the Colorado high country, I am reminded that it is no small thing to inhabit our place on the carnivorous continuum—a place where we not only consume animals, but in turn consent to the possibility of being consumed. This place, an edge of sorts, awakens us to our biological inheritance, and we become viscerally, sensually invested in our surroundings and their ability to sustain us.

These adjustments to my view of the world have not made me a more typical westerner; nor have I become a more conventional environmentalist. But if our model of advocacy, no matter what the cause, requires that we stridently defend our territory without leaning across the fence to consider, wholeheartedly, another view, if we cannot embrace the Other in both its delightful and repelling pigments, then the world has little chance to be spared. For this is what it means to forge meaningful conduits between our existence and every other bit of biota. Swallowing the spectrum whole is to devour the exquisite breadth of life. After all, diversity is the strength of a people. Of an ecosystem.

The hunter and the hunted. The Old West and the New. The wild and the tame. We must be lithe enough to stretch between.

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Amy Irvine lives in southwest Colorado. Her second book, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, won the 2009 Orion Book Award and the 2009 Colorado Book Award.

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