To Live Amongst Wildness – Exploring Boundaries and Freedom in the Ochocos
Last summer, I found a low nest in the tree near staff packs. Glancing around to make sure everyone was okay, that no one needed me, I slowly, quietly, pulled the branch down to peek inside. Momma, or daddy bird, jumped and chirped nearby, anxious. My curiosity overcame my hesitation. Inside, three tiny, alien looking creatures, smaller than my pinky toe raised yellow yawning mouths, begging for food. Scattered fuzz, more like a boy’s first facial hair than like feathers, covered pink wrinkled skin. They were more fetus than bird. I returned the branch to its natural resting place. I didn’t want to risk scaring off the parents. These chicks would not survive.
At the time I was working in group 1, one of our adolescent boys’ groups, as a lead field guide. I wasn’t sure whether showing them the nest was a good idea. Members of the group were there to work on emotional literacy, social interaction, and boundaries. I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction they would have to the vulnerable life forms in the nest, but my desire to share the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime sight overtook my hesitation.
We instinctively hushed and moved slowly. Anxiety washed over me as the member of the group who struggled most with boundaries and respect cried out sharply, “Let me look!” But even he was able to pull the branch down, peer in and not let his curiosity, his impulsivity or his desire for power and control cause any damage to the baby birds. In that brief moment, we became stewards of the Ochocos, protectors of the thrushes and sparrows and bluebirds.
Wildness surrounds us: coyotes sing us to sleep, flickers alarm about a passing hawk, ravens call and chat. One morning, I awoke to the piercing cries of elk. Out of sight but close enough to hear the distinct textures of sound, two bull elk crashed into one another; cows cried out. I snuggled into my sleeping bag (wig); the sun already splayed across my face.
Our society often associates wildness with freedom, unpredictability, or acting “uncivilized.” Working in the ebb and flow of life and death, weather and seasons, though, I have witnessed an order in the wildness. I feel a storm brewing at times days in advance. We put on rain gear and string up the large tarp. If I’m looking where I’m walking, a wasp nest is easily spotted and avoided. We hang our food at night and sleep away from camp. Of course, if these precautions are not followed, there are natural consequences: Mice chew through spoons and ziplock bags. Improper layering results in cold bodies, cold feet. We only let these natural consequences play out when not dangerous. When they can happen, though, they are the most powerful teachers.
Two months after finding the bird nest with G1, I found another nest at a different staff tree. Something swung from a low branch. It drew me closer. A ball of feathers was still attached to an abandoned nest. What could have caused this? I looked into the ball of feathers, and there in the mess of old feathers and dried up grass were two small bird skulls. I jumped back. The baby bird skeletons continued to swing unceremoniously.
I checked in later that day, sharing my feelings of shock and grief with group 4, our adolescent girl’s group. Although we often find old sun-bleached skulls and skeletons, or fresh ones with bits of flesh still clinging to them, this particular experience affected me. Perhaps it was finding that earlier nest of living birds or wondering whether a staff team had scared away the parents of these dead birds. Whatever the cause, even I, someone who spends half of their life in the wilderness, am often floored by the imagery and stories I witness in the wild. Survival in the animal world is a series of consequences, patterns, balance. If an animal is not aware of its surroundings, respectful of its neighbors, humble; it, or its offspring, dies.
Being in the wild reminds me that every action I take has never ending ripples. One poorly placed backpack could be the difference between a nest of live chicks begging for food and dead chicks swinging in the wind. I am free to choose my actions, but I am never free from the consequences of my actions. While I may scrub the dirt out from under my fingernails every time I leave the field, I carry this knowledge of constant cause and effect, respect and boundaries with me. And, I think, our clients do, too.