Don’t Tread on the Sparrows

Driving home along the deserted South Klondike Highway at 9.30 last night I felt the ‘otherness’ of The Yukon for the first time this trip. A copper sun, with another hour to go before slipping below the horizon, was pumping out a steady, liquid light behind me, transforming the mountains, lakes and trees into a creamy geometry of angle and colour. Something about the sheer spaciousness and rough, casual grandeur seeps into the mind and the senses. Suddenly I knew where I was. It was like waking up elated from a happy dream, waking up and knowing that you are going to be spending time that day with someone you love. Like finding a key, a password, a PIN number to something that you need.

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I was driving back from a talk in the Whitehorse Library. Subject: how to deal with encounters with bears. I have come across both grizzlies and black bears on previous trips and the overwhelming wisdom is that bears do not seek confrontation. If you don’t crowd them, stay calm and back off they will avoid you. But there is such a thing as bad luck: surprising one, appearing a threat to cubs, or meeting a rare predatory bear. The talk was based around a booklet produced by the current experts in the field. The key finding from all reports and research is that you have to distinguish between “defensive attacks” and “aggressive attacks”. The former are warnings characterised by fake charges, drooling, huffing and pawing the ground (sounds like your average Millwall fan); the latter are silent and deadly rushes, sometimes after a period of stalking (sounds like your average Millwall fan). So, I do carry bear spray and I also carry a special cell phone with a hot line to an aircraft carrier off the Alaskan coast…though on second thoughts, there could be an issue with ‘friendly fire’…

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Of course, bears are really one of the sheer joys of appreciating this terrain. This afternoon I went for a long walk along the seemingly endless Annie Lake Road, which takes you deep into the area between the Grey Range and the Red Range. I read by a creek for a while and a Grey Wolf, mangy but bigger than any I saw in 2007, came to drink a couple of hundred yards upstream. It clocked me but had a nonchalant slurp and disappeared into the bush. On my way back to the car I found a loose-bowelled braid of fresh bear scat where none had been half an hour earlier. I’m sure the bear saw me, but I did not see the bear.

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When I got in I could not resist checking on the election result. If I can summon up a trace of enthusiasm I might comment on the politics some time, but the main aspect that has been reported here is the Gordon Brown ‘still miked up gaffe’. His reference to a “bigoted woman” reached my ears from the fuzzy radio reception as him muttering something about a “big-titted woman”. I know that New Labour has sold out to the populist agenda but that seemed pushing it a bit too far…

*   *   *   *   *

A short story: Raven decided that the birds of the forests needed some variety after centuries of living among the spruce and lodgepole pine of the boreal lands. This decision was partly his own idea, and partly the result of requests from the smaller birds. They wanted more food and shelter, and they also wanted sweet music to brighten their lives.

So Raven created the family of Birch trees, the Trembling Aspen, the willows, the poplars and the cottonwoods. Raven instructed the spirits of the shadows in the forests to pay special attention to the bark of the Birch and the Aspen. When these trees grow to about the height of an adult woman or man, the spirits move among them and bind their trunks very tightly with horizontal bands of a special fibrous, sticky tape. This tape is sometimes a milky grey, sometimes a creamy white. The trees continue to grow quickly, but the tightness of the banded taping forces them upwards rather than outwards.

To escape the firm grip of the tape, the fully grown Birch has developed a way of shrinking its trunk, allowing the bite of the bark to peel away. Sometimes the Birch even shucks whole bands of bark-tape. This allows all sorts of small birds to nest and to feed on the abundant insect life that flourishes up and down the trunk.

The Aspen, however, has learned to live with Raven’s orders by forcing its trunk out to fuse with the constraining bark in a hard, smooth union. As the tree grows, this process causes small splits and scars, making the tree shake gently with each release of tension. This causes the beautiful music of the Aspen leaves that entertains the birds even on a calm, windless day.

Each Spring the birds of the forest celebrate Raven’s ingenuity and wisdom.

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I have sorted out a problem with my camera’s memory card and have put up a few photos on my flickr site (www.flickr.com/photos/tedeames). I do like taking photos, and then enjoying them later, but often I’d rather just appreciate a moment rather than hassle around trying to get the perfect picture. I consciously chose wordpress for this blog as it is text only…gimme the words! Maybe cameras are just too darn good these days, there’s less and less challenge (unless you are a pro like Jack, where the rise in amateur standards poses a different set of challenges).

It’s interesting that the word “capture” has come to be so closely associated with our efforts to record an essence of a moment, whether in images or in words. I want connection without possession.

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The downturn in the sparrow population in Britain has been fast and distressing, though they seem to have rallied a little. In contrast each day sees huge numbers of several sub-varieties arriving here for the Yukon Spring: Tree Sparrows with bright orange caps; Chipping Sparrows (long recitations like cicadas); Savannah Sparrows (like small thrushes with cycling helmets); Fox Sparrows with white bibs; White-Crowned Sparrows (badger-striped heads).

And they all love grubbing on the ground, rooting noisily for seeds and insects. Instead of looking up you have to look down – and there are scores of them, out-squirrelling the squirrels among the thick brush. They don’t seem too worried about any predators, which is sad for me as I would love to see a lynx. They are around apparently, but the sparrows have obviously got their own little cans of lynx spray under their wings. But I bet they don’t go to talks in libraries.

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This week I have been too excited to be here to get down to much writing on the two docs I have brought across an ocean and a continent to work on, and the early morning snows of the first 2 days have been replaced by beautiful, warm, long days…but it’s all grist to some inner mill, at least that’s my excuse.

Do send in comments, and feel free to pass on the address if you know someone who might be interested.

Love from,

Ted xox

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17 comments

  1. All water under Westminster bridge now, but it would be interesting to know whether Gordon Brown would have faced more of a backlash if he’d grumbled about being pushed in front of a ‘big-titted’ woman. It sounds just as plausible on the gaffe footage – how do we know the news subtitles are correct??

    Was it a definitely a bear? Or could it have been a wandering hobo that laid that braid? CP X

  2. Ooooo I just had a quick look at your photos and they’re a wonderful accompanyment to your blog Ted – thanks so much cos it all helps bring your experiences to life in my front room!!! x

    1. Ha! The old wristwatch thing, eh? Just because I took my watch off in a gale on a Cumbrian peak and it was blown over a cliff edge people just can’t let me forget! Especially that Jenni, so I am disappointed to see you following her lead, Karen. But really pleased to see your name on the blog!
      Ted x

      1. What can I say – I didn’t even say a word and I still get the blame! However, there could be something in it, unless it was the squirrel!! Jen x

    1. Thanks, Daphne. Feel free to pass on the address to anyone you think may be interested…at some point I am hoping that it will help find a publisher for my book. Looking forward to staying in touch around Lewes Lake and beyond.
      Cheers,
      Ted

  3. Been following your blog whilst away in France and very enjoyable and poetic it is too, Ted! Glad to read you’re out there with more than the ‘bear essentials’ as it sounds quite dangerous to be searching for inner peace around rogue psychopaths with the strength of 10 men, however remote the encounter. May the mace be with you!
    Compared to the human eye that can see superb detail in perhaps 20 stops of light, modern cameras can still only see detail in about 5 stops – pretty crude devices for trying to capture the isolated beauty of a Yukon sunset. By taking several digital shots at different exposures and merging them to make one overall photo, it is possible with modern software to approximate the magic of the scene. Of course, as you rightly point out, the hassle of the capture can take away the ‘all important’ connection to the moment. But in the mind, image fade fast and a beautiful photograph can provide lasting joy and keep you tethered to the memory for a long time there-after. Just my two cents worth! Keep them coming!

    1. Thank you, Steve, a necessary corrective on behalf of the photograph! I know from seeing some of your’s how photography can also be part of the moment, and reveal great things to other people.
      A photographer who specialises in wild life and Arctic images lives in the valley across from here. He’s called Paul Nicklen and he works for National Geographic amongst others. Google him to check out his work. I hope to meet him during this month. Any news of your Shrewsbury book?
      Cheers,
      Ted

  4. I’ve just spent a refreshing morning at my local library on compost-making. I should have suggested, on the evaluation form, that a future event on keeping bears at bay might pull in the crowds!
    Would rather now be in Trafalgar Sq for an electoral refom gathering but must go and clear the garage. Seems a million miles away from the wonderful experiences you are describing so vividly Ted.
    squawking ducks xx

    1. Thanks, Sue (Squawking Duck!). Will we ever see electoral reform in the UK I wonder. I’m sure that Clegg is so hungry for power that he will agree to some far distant enquiry or royal commission, which the Tories will then be able to filibuster indefinitely. It all looks even worse from a distance than it does at closer quarters…and a Cameron-Clegg deal would be the Dictatorship of the Public School Prefects!
      Agitated Donald Duck noises attract a big red squirrel to the balcony here.
      Ted xx

  5. “connection without possession” I like that. Sounds beautiful there. Probably best that you are alone as it forces you to write to share it. A companion may be pleasant but you would be physically sharing your experience. This way all your sensory observation and stimulation can be shared through your sensational words.
    Keep it up. XOX Kari

    1. Yes, later in the journey I am very much looking forward to companionship, but it is great to have this time solo. Sort of a yin-yang which makes up the whole.
      Ted XOX

  6. Sounds like you’re having a wonderful time. We are enjoying hearing all about it. Take care xx

    1. Thanks, Jen and Dyl. I hope you noticed that I put Millwall fans rather than Cardiff fans! Hope all’s well with you both…fill me in on any news via email.
      Take care,
      Ted xx

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