Discover more from An Irritable Métis
And being a good neighbor to every little one
The gophers in the area are manic and suicidal and last week I killed one. He dashed out in front of me at the last possible moment—I didn't see him beforehand, or, trapped in my own reverie having just left the house, wasn't watching—and there was nothing I could do. It was horrible. In my rearview mirror I could see him flopping and struggling all over the road so I turned around and, hoping to be merciful, finished the job. It was bloody and disturbing. I hoped one of the multitude of carrion eaters around would carry the remains away before I returned, but no. He was there for several days to remind me.
I spent the next hour raging in my mind over cars, and roadkill, so much roadkill, and the hypocrisy of my struggle—my failure—to give up eating meat. My attachment to driving, the suicidal choice required to switch to a bicycle full time given the narrow country road I have to travel and the speed and inattention that so many practice while traversing it, all of it. It was a rough morning.
Some weeks ago I was at my desk and heard a horrific squealing erupt outside my window. I leaped up and looked just in time to see one of the local cats dashing off down the street with a dangling, squirming baby rabbit clenched in its jaws. It is a thing my neighbors do, most neighbors do; they allow their pet cats the freedom to roam outside and be destructive ... and they are horribly so. These things bother me more than is probably healthy for me, the way the human world doesn't so much interface with the wild one as it does crush it, slowly, each tiny decision made in selfishness another stone thrown on the smothering pile.
When I see a cat lurking around my feeders I run it off. If I see a cat take a bird, I'm pissed, as when one of the neighbor cats grabbed a red-winged blackbird and dashed away. However, some weeks ago a Cooper's hawk was in the street just out front, also with a red-winged blackbird pinned to the ground, and while I felt a tinge of remorse, I also felt awe. That arrangement—wild predator, wild prey—is primal. It isn't simple evidence of human irresponsibility.
A few evenings ago there was a large insect inching across the living room floor that I thought was a beetle but was revealed to be a bumblebee about the size of my thumb. He didn't seem to be in very good shape. I captured him and took him outside to the flower box beneath the front window and was able to move him from the paper towel onto a blooming flower. He latched on and immediately began to feed. I held the stem and positioned another flower beside the bee, and he climbed from the first onto the second. Watching, I was transfixed. Two or three flowers later he was moving with much more alacrity. Still holding a stem the bee was mounted on, I felt the entire thing start to vibrate but the bee didn't seem to be moving his wings. I learned later that is a trick bees, some bees, will pull to shake pollen loose, kind of like when we use our straws to break loose the remnants of fruit at the bottom of a really good milkshake.
A few moments later the bee fired up his wings and took to the air, buzzing, like the world's tiniest dirigible. I swear it regarded me, inches away, face to face, for a moment, before seeking its own flower of choice. I was pleased to think he was on the road to recovery. I hoped somewhere in that brief exchange was a, “Thanks, man.”
There are a fair number of references to fly fishing in One-Sentence Journal, yet it is an activity I've abandoned and one I'm not sure I will ever return to. In fact the summer/fall before OSJ came out—that would be 2017—was the last time I ventured out with a fly rod. Somewhere along the line I could no longer reconcile the practice with my … well, "spirituality" is the only word I can come up with for it. It would be one thing if I was fishing for sustenance. That is part of the natural order of things. But to drag a wild one out of its habitat just "for the fun of it" is not something I can do anymore. Harm, completely avoidable, is being done and I don't want to be part of that. I want to eliminate the harm I am responsible for wherever I can and here is an area where I have complete control.
Studies that suggest fish don't feel pain are bullshit. Hell, there is a screenshot floating around social media of a page from a medical text published in 2017 that suggests—among many other wildly ill-informed and racist suggestions—that Indigenous people don't feel pain like "other" people do. So anyone arguing the non-suffering of fish using a, "Yeah, but science says—" need to think again. When I see a fish on a line I see trauma. The show they put on when they leap clear of the water isn't for the joy of it, they are fighting to get away, to survive. When I see some grinning idiot holding a fish up for the camera, I see a soulless entity, at least for that moment, extending the suffering of a life form solely to proclaim, "Look what I did!" Even when released, many fish die anyway. That is unconscionable.
I also learned to have reservations about the culture. I have friends, good friends, who are anglers and love it. I'm not here to judge them (though I really, really hate the "grip and grin" photos no matter who is mugging for the camera). For them it is a spiritual practice of a sorts, and there is a long history in pursuit of that. I sometimes miss the zen quality of the coordination of arm and line and water, so I get it.
But there are other people I'm not so sure of. Like every activity practiced mostly by men, I find it to be a toxic, beer-fueled culture that is off-putting. I don't miss loudmouth braggarts and gear-obsessed know-it-alls who hang out in fly shops. Missoula is an outdoorsy, fish-happy town, and even just waiting in line at the coffee shop (in those sepia-tinted memories when waiting in line at a coffee shop was something one could engage in!) and hearing a couple bros one-upping each other at volume via weekend fishing stories is tedious and annoying. Especially in the morning, when I am not at my best in public.
Actually, I'm rarely at my best in public.
I don't really feel any guilt or remorse over my fishing days. In many ways it helped me regain a deeper connection to the love I've always had for wild, moving water. I just came to realize the bulk of the joy I felt was less about catching fish and more about sinking into a landscape and, once the world accepted and recognized my presence as peaceful, would come alive around me. Osprey overhead. The beaver at Kelly Island who regularly shared the water with me, evening after evening. The sleek, gigantic moose who entered the river just upstream of me while fishing near Ennis, Montana. I don't need a rod and a box of flies to achieve that.
I do carry lingering regret for engaging in the more commercial aspects of the industry. I'm thinking mostly of the Fly Fishing Film Festival and its ilk. Especially when stories were breaking of some of the filmmakers invading protected areas to get their footage, things like that. In the two or three years I was participating there was definitely a more conservation-minded bent to these films (an observation I overheard being groused about many times from attendees) and I appreciate that. But it is still fishing porn. They are still mostly an attempt to sell gear, often to big companies who turn around and donate that money to political campaigns for candidates who are anything but conservationists.
What is the point of all this navel gazing this morning? I don't know. Maybe there isn't one. I just know that, as the skies break over my part of Montana and the sun returns after a few days of glorious rain, summer is upon us. More people out enjoying our wild places. More anglers on the water, rafts crowding the waterways like bumper cars. More traffic up and down every road, highway and interstate. RVs, boats, SUVs loaded down with kayaks and canoes and mountain bikes. People from all over the country coming here. I hope we will all be alert to the life we share the world with. That we exercise caution. That we are all curious and kind.
And that we all wear our fucking masks.
A little aside about the gopher, from Joseph Kinsey Howard’s magnificent Montana: High, Wide and Handsome (Yale University Press, 1943), speaking of the Métis people: "They left Montana its French place names, the name of its most pestilential rodent, the gopher (from gaufre, honeycomb, because of its intricately tunneled burrow).