23 December 2008


llll ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Ayiisakootsiiyo’p

If a guy’s wearing cargo pants, what does he get when he fills one thigh pocket full of raw beef liver and the other with bologna sandwiches? Don’t worry, it’s kind of a trick question. What I hoped I would get was an opportunity to share a late organic lunch with a bald eagle.

Okay, so it’s Christmas Eve and I couldn’t abandon Piipiiaakii and Ohkomaakii all day to go trekking around in the coulees. But after my first-of-the-season ksikkihkini sighting yesterday, and the Chinook that passed through last night, I’m itching to get back down to the river to learn what’s new. And after a little bit of running around in Lethbridge for last-minute holiday supplies, I get my chance. I figure I’ve got maybe three hours of sunlight left to work with, so I fill my pockets, bundle up (a little less layered than yesterday, given the warmer temperature), and drive down into the coulee.

Along the way, I catch sight of a northern flicker gliding between a couple of small, introduced conifer trees, part of the landscaping of my neighbourhood. I also pass by three small flocks of aapsspiniiksi, feeding and sleeping in the now-exposed fields of the coulee rim. Because I know there’s limited daylight left in which to feed the eagles, I don’t bother stopping to make an accurate count of the geese. Just eye-balling the three groups, I’d say they numbered fifty or sixty all together.

Down on the river-bottom, things are quite a bit different than they were just twenty-four hours ago. For one thing, all the remaining snow has shifted into drifts. On the shore, they create quite an obstacle. The snow is compact enough in some areas to walk on, but there are weak spots too, and when I hit these there is a sudden drop of a foot or two. To make matters worse, my pants are so weighted-down on the one side by beef livers that I have to hang onto a belt-loop as I walk to keep them up. On the river itself, travel gets easier. There’s drifts here too, but they’re formed like waves or sand dunes – very easy to recognize and navigate through. They’re also extremely beautiful, so nice that I cringe at the thought of what they’ll look like after I’ve tromped over and between them in my clunky gum boots.

The river is quiet today. I make my way past the swallow cliffs and around the bend without incident. The only notable presence is the two golden-eyes who are diving in the crag of open water in front of the old beaver lodge. This exposed trickle has expanded lengthwise with the bit of heat brought by the chinook and, as I approach, the golden-eyes make their way to the far end of the pool. I glance briefly away, my eyes following a coyote trail up a slide in the canyon wall. When I look back again, the golden-eyes are gone. At first I think that maybe they’ve just dived below. But as I continue to watch the water, they fail to resurface. Nope. All it took was thirty seconds of distraction, and they vacated without a sound.

Just yesterday there were so many geese flying up and down the river, I spent a good part of the day counting them. Now, besides occasional chirps from chickadees in the poplar forest, the river’s totally silent. I move between the old beaver lodge and the new one upriver almost as if it’s a chore.

Just downstream of the new beaver lodge is a good spot of solid river ice – no jutting pieces of old icebergs, no suspicious circles of blackness, as if the running water were just inches below the surface. Clean, thick, milky ice, cleared of snow by the chinook. This is where I decided to drop my first couple slabs of beef liver.

I have my choice of natural blinds. On one side of the river, there’s a sand bank thick with old licorice and brome. If I hide there, I’d be concealed on a horizontal plane. My other choice is the cliff on the opposite side of the river, where there’s a sandstone rock ledge that would conceal me from any viewpoints above. I choose the cliff.

Unpacking my camera equipment, I ready myself for the ultimate eagle shot. Okay, almost. I didn’t bring my tripod. Too much of an impediment to movement. But I brought my 900mm lens, and I figure I can prop it up on my knee for at least bi-pod stability. I’ve also brought my camcorder, because I figure I’ll see some interesting interactions between the magpies and eagles… and, god-willing, between a few eagles. Of course, all of this technology junk fits in a single sling-pack. I’m conscious of the fact that the most important equipment I have is my own eyes, ears, nose, intuition. Never discount the significance of intuition. The last thing I do before sitting heavy on the ground is I stash the ziplock bag with the remaining liver up high in a crevice of the cliff, where the coyotes can’t reach.

Having readied myself for the stake-out, I settle down beneath the sandstone ledge and start eating. Two bologna sandwiches and a peanut-butter-flavored PowerBar. The latter was left over from an excursion I made last summer, twenty miles into the back country behind Chief Mountain, when I wanted to travel especially light. But the thing about PowerBars is, if they’re not warm they’re hard as a rock. I ate my sandwiches. I sucked my PowerBar.

After about twenty minutes, the magpies started to gain interest. I could see them passing now and then between poplar trees on the periphery of my vision. Finally, one swooped in, awkwardly fluttering about on the slippery ice to tear off a piece off the liver, before hastily flying into the forest to cache its treasure. Then another landed, spotted my gaze immediately, and took wing again. Another half-hour passed. In that time, four magpies visited the liver and my back-side grew colder, colder.

The heat of my body was dissipating into the ground, and in reciprocation the cold of the frozen earth was moving into my hands, my toes, my legs. I wanted to be a good birder and stay put, but I had to move. I decided to cross the river again, to go into the poplar forest, thinking that I would circuit back around to the liver offering eventually, and then have an opportunity to observe magpie (if not eagle) social behavior.

Between me and the poplars lay a thick tract of aged rabbit-willow, a kind of forest in itself. As per my usual habit, I found a well-worn deer trail to take me through with the least obstacles. Just on the other side of the willows is an eight-foot embankment, and above that the poplar forest. I climbed up and found an old fallen log to sit on, where I could observe a few large trees. No sooner did I sit down than I heard and saw, in the distance, five black-capped chickadees making their way toward me. They flittered from tree to tree, stopping for a few seconds at each to poke around in the bark for whatever they’re eating in this season. Despite their apparent busyness, I knew that ultimately their movement through the forest was prompted not by a lack of available food in any particular tree, but rather more by their curiosity about the new arrival in their territory, namely me. Niipomakiiksi are inquisitive little birds.

In a famous Blackfoot story about Naapi, the trickster creator, he comes across a group of chickadees playing a game where they cast their eyeballs out to a distant tree or log, and then call them back in. Naapi wanted to join in the game, but the birds warned him against it… they knew that once he’d learned how to throw his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to abide by the rules of doing it only four times. But Naapi begged, so they finally consented to let him play and taught him their technique. Naapi threw his eyes out to a tree, and called them back. Then he threw them out to a log, and called them back. It was so much fun, the old man soon lost count of how many times he’d tried it. When he threw his eyes out a fifth time, they didn’t come back. Naapi was left with no eyes. He walked around blind in the forest, running into thorny bushes and tripping over deadwood. Finally he came across a coyote and stole its eyeballs. That’s how Naapi came to have blue eyes. This story’s used to admonish those who let their eyes wander in infidelity. But on another level, it speaks to the inquisitive character of niipomakiiksi, who I’ve found are always quick to investigate any new activity going on in their midst.

Within a matter of minutes, the five chickadees made their way to the trees nearest me, where they seemed to linger just a little longer picking through the bark (and no doubt checking me out) before moving on. As they departed, I heard some magpie calls down by the river. I stood up and looked. From atop the embankment, I could see several magpies, moving individually between the river and the forest. By my count there were at least five, although there may have been more outside of my field of vision. I had only been away from the liver offering for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but with all the magpies at work I thought I’d better just get back over there.

I went down the bank and wound my way back through the willow thicket. Just before the river came into sight, there was an eruption of frantic magpie calls. But when I got out to the ice, there were no magpies in sight. Moreover, there was no liver in sight. It was gone. How could they have possibly taken apart two beef livers on slippery ice in just twenty minutes?

As I walked out on the ice to gaze dumbstruck at the blood-stained ice, coyote howls sounded from immediately downriver. Looking through my binoculars, I could see – by the old beaver lodge – the two coyotes who had been hunting geese there a few days before. When I spotted them, they noticed me too, and made their way quickly off the ice and into the brush, giving a few more howls once out of sight.

It was evident then that the coyotes had quickly darted upriver and stole the liver in my absence. Had they been attracted there by magpie activity? Or was it that they, like the magpies, had been watching me all along, waiting for their opportunity to nab whatever I’d left on the ice? This thought made me wonder how many other animals in the area were aware of my activities without my knowledge. I had come there intent on being the observer and, at least on this occasion, was obviously more the observed.

Alright then, we’d try again. I walked across the river to the cliff, climbed up and retrieved the other two livers I had stashed there, brought them back to the same bloody spot on the ice and set them down. I then took a seat in the licorice and brome, hoping to watch it all happen again. As I sat there, I could see magpies gathering, perched here and there in nearby trees. I counted four. They were going to wait me out.

Stubbornly, I held my ground. The sun dropped lower, lower, eventually passing beyond view of the horizon. They had won. I got up and started walking downriver, until I’d reached whatever distance marked the magpie threshold of security. Then I turned and watched with my binoculars as they went back to work, swooping down to the meat, hopping and tearing at it, and then flying as individuals back into the trees to stash what they had taken. They did all of this without a sound. I might have stayed to watch a little longer, but darkness was coming quick. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see them anyway.

So I walked, past the old beaver lodge and the crag of open water, around the bend in the river and under the swallow cliffs, until I reached the trail that would take me to my truck. As I struggled to plow my way through the large drifts, an eagle came into view, flying low upriver. I watched it, silhouetted against the darkening blue sky. It passed the swallow cliffs, turned to follow the river, and when it came to approximately the area where I’d left the liver, it wheeled quickly one-hundred and eighty degrees and dropped down, presumably right to the ice.

For the briefest moment, I considered returning to the site to see what I could of the interaction between the eagle and the magpies. But I knew it was no use. Darkness was upon us. I continued on to the truck, and as I drove back out of the coulee I saw a first a porcupine wandering uphill, then six mule deer eating at the coulee’s rim, and again the three flocks of geese as splotches of blackness in the fields.

Although I hadn’t been able to observe and photograph the eagle as hoped, I was content at having fed it and others. For me, this was aatsimihka’sin, a reciprocation, an act of balancing. I’d been down in that coulee several times recently as a learner and therefore, ultimately, as a taker. The geese, golden-eyes, coyotes, magpies, chickadees, porcupine, deer, eagles, the water and the forest itself had all been my teachers, feeding me. It was apparent from the events of this day that they were on-average far more aware of my presence, activities, and potentialities than I am of theirs. If they had wanted to, they could have concealed much more than they did. Instead, they were willing to share what they might without endangering themselves. It is only appropriate that I, on occasion, offer something useful in reciprocation. This exchange, aasimihka’ssin, is in my opinion one of Blackfoot concepts and practices most crucial to share with wider society, because it is so much needed as a guiding policy and principal for our interactions with the environment.

Last spring, I had an opportunity to travel east with my in-law and colleague Narcisse Blood, to receive two days of intense training in climate science by Al Gore, David Suzuki, and others. Coming away from that workshop, Narcisse and I discussed what we had heard and came to the agreement that, while their climate science was solid, the ramifications should not come as such a surprise. As Narcisse said, “If the elders of the past were here today, they would tell those scientists kitsiisiimootsspoaa, you all were warned.” Because this way of life, which we are all now complicit in, is so consumption driven. The psychology behind what’s happening to our climate is the same as that which led to the purposeful slaughter of the bison. We are in the business of mining resources (whatever they may be) for short-term gain, turning a blind-eye to our long-term dependence on this place. Even the proposed solutions for today’s climate change amount to little more than a commitment to take-less. And while taking-less is important, for our short term gain, what we should be considering is aatsimihka’ssin – how are we going to create a balance? What are we willing to feed back into our relationships so that we can ensure that they are maintained and lasting?