I like to get to my otter study site before 7AM. There are few people, it’s cooler in the summer, scat hasn’t dried out yet and the otters are often hunting. It’s a not-so-secret that the best time to see wildlife is wildly early. This day, I was a little late. It was so cold and foggy that I’d lollygagged in bed and was only reaching the lagoon by about 6:45AM. I drove slowly, lights on, through a thick fog band then came out into the just misty. Pale yarrow blossoms brightened the verges. A lonely bull lay in a pasture by himself, and plenty of younger beef cows (steer) dotted the fields. On the way in I’d seen two fox slip into Olema Marsh, intent on getting out of the roadway when they saw my headlights.
Ahead of me in the road arose a small shaggy, mottled furry figure….could it be? Yes! It was a badger! Badger badger badger, be still my beating heart! The youngster (no stripe visible, shaggy fur, smallish) hesitated, then scurried across the road ahead of me. By now I’d halted, and scrabbled for my binoculars. The badger trundled into the field and ambled across it, sniffing suspiciously every few steps. At one point it stopped and looked back at the idling car. Then it disappeared into the scrub. I sat and crowed to myself, grinning hugely. I’ve been seeking badgers for a long time, and found many of their digs but never seen one. The delight in finding an animal that I’ve been longing to see, especially when nobody else is around, is enough to keep me cheerful for a long time.
When I got to the parking area, I found my friend Carlos, and I got to tell him about the badger. The second best thing about an unusual wildlife sighting is telling someone! Carlos and I had business together. I had a River Otter Ecology Project cap for him. He had a photo print for me. Carlos is a talented and dedicated wildlife photographer. After his 35-year career as a state parks ranger, most of that in Tomales Bay State Park, there’s not a lot he hasn’t seen, heard about or known in our neck of the woods, bay and seashore. Carlos Porrata is one of those people you want to know right away, who is so easy to be with that you slip into friendship with him without thinking about it.
Carlos and I had met up by chance last summer for a remarkable hunting display by our otter friends. In fact, I blogged about that day too (scroll down to the next blog for that account.). I and some young visiting naturalists had taken an early morning walk and discovered the otter family hunting; mom and a couple of older juveniles. We saw them successfully hunt, kill and eat a coot and a pied billed grebe. Carlos photographed two of the otters, and printed a large-sized photo of it on metal for me. It’s the brightest, most beautiful memory. He printed it because the naturalists had been beside themselves with seeing otters hunting, being out and young and alive early in the morning. And Carlos and I had been content to see and show and tell. That’s a secret of nature lovers…we get to see stuff, get excited and talk about what we’ve seen and what it means.
So this day, the day of the badger, Carlos and I fell into conversation about the nature of being a being in nature, of the intimacy of art when it’s about shared experience, of the joy of sharing an early morning, of the solidarity of we who love the wild. “I wanted you to have a memory of that morning,” he told me. “It’s not a great photo, but it’s a memory.” It’s a terrific photo. Loving nature isn’t always solitary; among its joys is the community it engenders. Like any community, it’s not always easy. Our wider community in West Marin has been torn and continues to be torn, by the pressures of stewarding a national park inhabited by working ranches. The battles become bitter and anger hardens into disdain and hatred. It’s difficult to retain peace in our hearts when the wild places we most care about are abused; when the land and wildlife we love so dearly suffer from human mistakes.
Wendell Berry said it, and I think about this a lot, “If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities - and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.”
In presentations, I talk lots about our local life; the triad of coyotes I watched all last year and called “The Three Amigos,” the quail parents with 15 tiny fluffballs I saw a few weeks ago, and was thrilled to see again with Carlos……all 15 fluffies grown into fine young quail. What remarkable parents to manage that with the weasels, fox, snakes, bobcats, raptors and everyone else on the lookout for an easy dinner! I’ve seen the single bobcat many times, most memorably on one of my otter cameras, carrying a cormorant in its mouth. Yes, bobcats hunt by the water, and are well able to pounce on an unwary water bird. I know one doe who is unafraid of people, and lots of deer whose heels I see most often as I traipse across the scrub. I fall in love again each year with the water flowers that bloom so beautifully, and I aim to find out what they are and haven’t yet. It’s humbling to be in nature, to be everlastingly curious about it, to discover so much and find so much more to discover. It’s an older persons’ game in that way…I accept that there will always be so much more to know than I can ever dream of discovering.
The point is that when we share our local life with friends and neighbors of all persuasions (wild, domesticated, human, plant, earth and waters, sentient and not-so), when we open our hearts and minds to include rather than exclude, to protect all in our sphere, to improve the world, not to profit by it personally, to delight in the delicate beauty we’re offered, to share, to share, to share, to share……we grow stronger and braver. We grow richer in those things that matter most when all else falls away. We grow our communities by tending them.
I think a lot about conservation, about wildlife, about community. These are the things that matter most to me, and the things I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand and protect. My life opens to the cold morning, the badgers and otters, the yarrow and sparrows, to the quail looking after their 15 young, and to the people who try so hard to succor and support the beauty and profound gifts we are offered.