Monday, September 19, 2011

Ghost in the Darkness

There is a wind out on the meadow. It whistles through the bones of a bird, hollow like drinking straws, a pneumatic system, bellows pumping air that keeps the frame bloated and aloft. It sings. Then a gust carries the bird away. I look at my notepad. I had something to write down but I lost it.
It is a cloudy, low sky. Wind and water are fundamentally clear, but you add smoke or clay or condensation and they each become visible. It's like putting a radio collar on a suspect bear or radioactive dye in the bloodstream. The suspended substance gives it a form and you can track it across a matrix. But it's still not wind or water.
Sometimes it doesn't matter. The bear circles a sheep herd in the foothills at night and you can watch it move in and out of the herd carrying off one course of a meal after another, a feast, a banquet of mutton - all in the comfort of a climate controlled office in the northern Rocky Mountains. I think about that office and wonder what heat used to feel like.
I want to tie a rope to the bird. Before the taming of the electric current, a sheep herder would have to recognize the shape and space and color of the eyes in the firelight. Two red dots four inches apart. Two blue dots that don't move. Two green ones that move up and down. Quick. Which one is the sheep. Which one is the bear. Which is the reflection of the moon. Which one is the camp cook. A shot into the dark could mean hot bear steaks tonight or prison meals for life. It is at this point in time that the herder, his face raining sweat and eyes wide like egg whites, conceived the idea of radio telemetry and was about to broadcast it to his two friends staring into the woods, but, alas, was unable to expound due an unfortunate combination of poor night vision, wind, rain, and simple miscalculation. Three bears, not one. This is what we call circumstances beyond one's control. Too bad. Under the same circumstances the bears easily recognized the well-fed sheep herders.
The vast majority of humans were rural dwellers in centuries gone by; some 95% in the United States in the 1790's. They were villagers with stone or wood or animal skin dwellings and few dozen family units and surrounding fields with livestock and beyond it, a vast wilderness. This was an unknown wilderness, really, known no more than the accidental provisions that spilled out from it into the village: the occasional elk, the flock of grouse overhead, the swarm of bees, the creek that passed between the fields. Many villages were surrounded by barricades of pointed stakes or stone walls and armed men posted in watchtowers. This wilderness entered by invitation only. At night, when something moved in the darkness the men would fire guns, shoot arrows, toss spears, throw rocks...even their own children. At daybreak they would venture out into the bush and find blood-soaked sand and drag marks. A wounded or dead animal was carried away by something much, much larger. The talk would spread and convolute and quickly the animals would become unimaginably large. Great, horned beasts with claws and toothed jaws that ate entire mountains and breathed fire and ate women and children by the thousands.
Today, it's the other way around. The vast majority of humans are urban dwellers; some 75% in the United States live in cities. These are still walled cities, with stone fortresses and watchtowers with heavily armed men. But the wilderness is proportionately smaller: quaint, little fenced rectangles, like schoolyards, with a sharp, razor-tipped line between the civilized and wilderness lands that can be seen from 800 miles in space. And the forest that was never known is now simply unidentifiable: a scrubby, worm-eaten corpse with tilting trees, pock marked stumps, inbred wildlife, sunken aquifers, tailing piles, herds of feral cats, toxic stains, windblown plastic, severed corridors, and an understory of wiry invaders and genetically-modified mysteries that coil around the last remnants of the original forest.
There is a rustling in the woods tonight. Quickly, the menfolk grab their guns and fire into the darkness. Guns on turrets with fifty caliber shells and thousand-pound bombs with jellied gasoline and dioxin and benzene and plutonium. The smoke drifts back into the city and burns the eyes. An air-quality alert goes out. In the morning the men venture into the bush and find the remains of something unrecognizable; tufts of fir, or is it feathers. Maybe it's a mammal. Probably a bird. Who knows. Who knew. Who would ever know.
I suspect that the animal probably recognized us before it vanished. It's probably true: Something is here that is larger than we can imagine, something monstrous, a great, horned beast with claws and toothed jaws that eats entire mountains and breathes fire and eats men and women and children and living things by the thousands.

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