A Natural History of Community

July 24, 2013

by Jimmy

The first spring we lived in the Whitney House, I heard a noise in the field to our west that drove me nuts because I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing a bird or a frog. I only heard the eeent in the evenings, right around the time the peepers cranked up, meaning dusk. I’d listen and listen, trying to make the noise with my nose and mouth and transcribe it in letters. I asked friends who knew more about the local fauna than I did what it might be. Some suggested a type of frog; others shrugged. Even though I looked for it, I never saw what made the noise.

The second spring, nothing.

The third spring, I heard the eeent in a field on the east side of the house. I paid more attention this time around, noting that the eeents started right as the peepers wound down and the birds had settled in the for the evening. Each night I heard eeent, I wrote down the times: 7:15 p.m. 7:37 p.m. 7: 49 p.m. I asked some local friends (again!) if they knew what it was, but no one did. I searched the net and our field guides. No luck.

Then one Sunday night after a couple of beers, I decided I was going to track the source of that eeent, no matter how long it took. I sat on a downed willow branch on the east side of the yard facing the field around 7:50 p.m., listening to the peepers and songbirds settle for the night and watching the trees turn from green to gray. I waited, sure that the maker of the eeents would take the night off, but determined to sit there until complete darkness fell.

Eeent. I looked at my watch. Eeent. 8:03 p.m. . . . Eeent. I stood up and began walking straight toward the sound, trying to make my way as silently as possible through the briars, small trees, and piles of brush that separate our property from the field. Eeent. After walking a log and crawling through some briars, I popped into the edge of the field, just in time to see a bird take off near a rotting stump about 4’ high. A bird! I exulted. At least now I know it’s a bird!

Sure that I had spooked it for the rest of the night, I walked over to where I saw it take flight. Moments later, I heard eeent about 50 yards further up the hill. I looked at the ground where I saw it before, hoping to see something that might help me identify it. Maybe a nest. Anything.

I saw nothing.

I stood and turned to zero in on the bird’s position when I heard a weird twitter circling the field. I turned again, trying to follow the sound, wondering if it was the same bird. Staring up at the nearly dark sky, I saw a darker shape against the sky flash across my line of sight, like Batman zipping across the Gotham night sky. Then I saw a small bird land fifteen or so feet away. I froze. Eeent. Damn! I thought. I read about these birds in A Sand County Almanac. What did Leopold call them?

"The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters."

“The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters.”

It was too dark to see the bird well. I noticed it was about the size of my fist, and when it turned away from me, I lost it completely in the not-yet-green grass. Until it launched. I stood there for twenty or thirty minutes, listening to eeents, seeing the launch, and hearing the twittery call circling the field and transforming into the water-trickling-through-rocks sound that preceded the bird tumbling out of the sky. While the bird didn’t land that close again, I began to feel the rhythm of its ritual and got better at predicting where I would see it silhouetted against the sky.

Once I had bothered the bird enough, I walked back to the house and pulled out my copy of A Sand County Almanac. Under Leopold’s section called “Sky Dance,” I read once again about the American woodcock’s mating ritual, the very thing I witnessed. Leopold called the eeent a peent, and he said that, though he enjoyed hunting woodcock, he never shot many because he couldn’t imagine his Wisconsin farm without the sky dance. I picked up a bird book and looked up the American woodcock. It’s a small brown bird with a long bill that relies on camouflage for protection. (One of my students told me that, if you can spot them, it’s possible to gig woodcocks like you would a frog. Camouflage is the bird’s defense. He also says they’re delicious.)

I returned to the field several nights after that to watch the sky dance. Every time I stepped out the back door around dusk, I now heard the twitter that accompanied woodcock’s flight. I noted how the weather affected the dance—clouds meant no dance—and noticed one moon-bright night when Lilace and I returned home after seeing Kris Kristofferson that the woodcock still peented away at 11:00 p.m. This little bird connected me to this place in unexpected ways, snapping me out of my human world and reminding me that creatures live by rhythms and rituals different from my own. My experience watching and listening to this bird has given me a history with this place that I did not have when I moved here. Now, I feel closer to the land, more connected, the same way wading the creek, getting into a yellow-jackets’ nest, catching brown and rainbow trout, and eating turnip greens and shelly beans grown in the garden made me closer to my grandparents’ land in NC. These experiences give me a sense of community, a rich context in which to live my life.

So, how does a place like this become a “zone,” ripe for drilling? One way is when legislation gets written that takes the three-dimensional world we and the woodcock live in and turns it into two dimensions. Such an act of language abstracts a place.

Take Act 13. Act 13 states that unconventional wells must be sited 500’ from houses or water wells, unless given permission otherwise by the land owner, and that well pads must be sited 300’ from residential buildings. Like other bills, Act 13 spends much ink defining terms, stating clearances and environmental expectations, explaining the permitting and other bureaucratic processes, and so on. What the bill does not say is that Jimmy Guignard watched the sky dance of an American woodcock in April 2012, he learned something, and he created a memory which connects him to that place in ways that should be respected. He has a richer history here now.

As measured with my trusty 100’ steel Stanley tape, I watched the woodcock 271’ from my back door. Potentially, that means the woodcock had a whopping 29’ buffer between himself and the edge of a well pad. To the person siting a well in an office down the road, they see numbers enshrined in language that they apply to a map which then becomes a well pad. The dimensions on a page transfer to dimensions on the land. Since I live here, I see wildlife trying to make its way in the world the same way I am and my kids will—as best it knows how. The memories are written into the landscape. Those are two different ways of knowing. The former is abstract—the gas companies can transfer ACT 13 dimensions to any piece of land anywhere. The latter is not—though I may see woodcocks elsewhere, I cannot transfer my experience in the Whitney House to another piece of land as easily. For starters, the mystery won’t be involved.

This is what my place looks like to followers of ACT 13. I can't see that woodcock anywhere.

This is what my place looks like to followers of ACT 13. I can’t see that woodcock anywhere.

One could argue that building the pad and drilling is not abstract at all, and they’d be right. I’ve pushed down trees with a bulldozer, and there’s nothing abstract about it. But the issue I’m trying to hone in on has to do with our attitudes before we unload one dozer. Act 13 tells us to look at the land as a zone marked by numbers. It’s abstract and inclines us to focus on only one thing—extracting gas. In contrast, my experience tells the story of me seeing the land and its inhabitants as players alongside my own attempt to create a meaningful life. It’s holistic, one that stresses community.

We all have experiences of places, like my experience in the field next to our house, that give those places meaning to us. And we have all experienced the distress that accompanies something changing a place that holds those meanings for us, especially if whatever is built or drilled shows little or no regard for our history with a place. These feelings run deep. To this day, my aunt in North Carolina refuses to go to a grocery store built ten years ago on the flank of Grandfather Mountain because “they tore up part of the mountain.” Mind you, it’s a small part of a big mountain, but I get where she’s coming from. (They also destroyed a rather poorly-built, but lovely, trail straight up the side of that big mountain.) I’d like to figure out how to inject more awareness into bills like ACT 13 so that they more deeply take into account the places or communities they disrupt.

I don’t expect bills like ACT 13 to include my experiences. That’s impossible. But I do think such bills and the people who enact them need to recognize more carefully that they aren’t working on a blank slate.  It’s easy to inflict damage on places we see in the abstract, as containing only one thing we need, like natural gas. Leopold writes, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relationship to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land. . . . Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.” Act 13’s dimensions encompass all kinds of daily dramas, big and small, but the language flattens out the details of those dramas, the consciousness of them. Though I don’t know how to to do this, we need more bills written with Leopold in mind. He took what was seen as a worthless piece of Wisconsin farm land and made it come to life in deeds and words. He took a zone and made it a community. “As a land-user thinketh,” he wrote, “so is he.”  Peent.

American woodcock

American woodcock

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4 Responses to “A Natural History of Community”

  1. Jimmy, nice job putting it all in perspective. Leopold would totally agree. Sad how the power, intimacy and magic of the earth are so easily disregarded when humans are able to make it abstract. Much like the dehumanizing of the enemy in wartime.

  2. ellenblais said

    Enjoyed the essay and the memory of seeing your woodcock, Jimmy.

  3. LuAnn Guignard said

    I know you are a wordy guy and i like to read them,feel them even.
    But I’m not sure what your words would mean without an experience to pluge them in to.
    I walked in the creek, across the mud and up the hill into the maples and ferns this afternoon. All this was interrupted by a helicopter landing across the road. I don’t belong.
    Love

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