28 September 2013


It seems my muse for fieldnote writing has departed. I haven't encountered her for a while, and I've no idea whether or not she'll return. For now though, I thought it might be best to take an alternate approach, so that I don't miss out on opportunities to record and share observations in my ongoing phenological studies. So at the full moon of Awakaasiiki'somm, I got started, using a video-recorder to capture my experiences at Sspopiikimi. We'll see how this new approach goes. It might turn out to be better than writing in the long run.

During my first visit, following our first cold storm, which arrived at the full moon, there were still quite a few of the late asters - tufted white prairie aster, hairy golden aster, and showy aster being the most prominent three. The flicker families were still here at that time too...

Given the cold shot we'd had, I noticed the turtles had already gone under at the pond. I knew the rattlesnakes would be going back to their hibernacula as well. One of the developments that occurred in my life this summer was that I inherited the lead position for coordinating and carrying-out rattlesnake conservation and mitigation in the city of Lethbridge. In the course of that work, I'd taken in an injured rattlesnake, named Rupert, who had been hit by a mountain bike, and had required surgery. Though healed from the operation, there was still signs that Rupert was suffering some internal injuries. All the same, I thought it best he go back to his hibernaculum for winter...

Finally, I made another visit to Sspopiikimi after about a week of chill. This time, I found almost all the asters, with exception of a few hairy golden holdouts, gone. The flickers too had departed. But there were still lingering dragonflies, grasshoppers, and drone flies...

26 July 2013

Head Knowledge Is Hollow

Head knowledge really is hollow. When I read works from those reputed to be the best scholars of our day, I can easily discern whether their insights are anchored in their own real-world experiences, or whether they're merely cribbed from the testimonies of others (academic or not), or even just a set of intellectual associations thought-up during those long hours in front of their computer screens. Head knowledge is hollow. I bring my students to harvest the berries heavy on the branches of the brush around the University of Lethbridge, because those inside the buildings believe they get knowledge from reading about our kind of harvests... and head knowledge is hollow. I openly challenge those who protest for change, even though I may support their causes, because I see that any protest staged as an 'awareness campaign' is all head, and already hollow. Real knowledge is not cerebral. It's dispersed throughout the muscles and the sensorium. It's truly embodied. You can only give this to others by directing them into direct experiential encounters where such knowledge is known to derive from. A good teacher understands how to do this, well

19 February 2013

Down The Beaver Hole

IIII ) lll (14Feb13)

1058 Sspopiikimi - We're just a few sleeps into Piitaiki'somm, the Eagle-Moon, and I feel like it's time I get back into my phenology studies. Not that I've been 'out' of them, per say. Hardly a week has passed in several years when I didn't commit myself to some hours of learning in the coulees. But during Misamssootaa, the Long-Rains of last summer, I suddenly stopped writing fieldnotes. Part of the reason for this, I attribute to a sort-of depression. There were very few successful waterfowl nests at Sspopiikimi last season - one goose, two mallards, and zero teals, redheads, or coots. Neither the owls, nor the hawks, raised broods here either. Though there certainly was no shortage of life to engage with at the pond, I felt the absence of these familiars, and it bothered me... so much so that a lot of the joy and spirit of inquiry I'm accustomed to experiencing simply wasn't here. I kept voice-recorded notes of the visits I've made weekly or so since, but hardly have I felt compelled to even begin writing them up

Today, that changes. Enough dragging around feeling sorry for myself and this place, for any events that could have been, but weren't. Maybe last summer was an invitation for me to enhance my familiarity with the lives of some of the other residents, or to discover communities I've here-to-fore overlooked. Who knows what opportunities I've missed by fixating on the missing instead of the present. Or maybe I just needed a break from the routine of fieldnote writing. In which case, I've had my breather. Best to get on

It's warm today, probably ten degrees. We've had an extremely easy winter. The nights are still freezing, of course, and as a result the surface of the pond remains iced-over, though I wouldn't trust it to walk on

I can hear geese out at the river as I begin my walk along the west cutbank. A family of four pass overhead, on their way to join the others. I'm expecting any time now to see the geese returning to the pond, to begin staking their claims to the limited number of islands, prepping for the nests they'll begin sitting almost as soon as the water thaws

Already there are a few open holes along this cutbank, though I don't know whether they result from melt, or the conscious actions of beavers. Certainly the latter have been feeding at these stations, as they always do in late winter. I can see the evidence, even from a distance - many green pieces of lower bulrush stem, each about six inches in length, floating on the water's surface. From above, it's also evident that each of these openings in the ice is also the destination of underwater trenches, built and maintained by the ksisskstaki. I would not be surprised to learn that they somehow produce the conditions that result in the ice thawing at these positions. At the moment, I have no explanation for the phenomenon at all, whether nature-fact or beaver-produced

1116 A raven soars past, giving a single throaty call, as I inspect one of the ksisskstaki feeding stations up close. It's connected by underwater canal to what appears to be another open spot on the edge of the reeds in the wet-meadows. As I climb a little ways back up the cutbank to try to photograph what I'm observing, the ground suddenly collapses beneath me, and I find myself sitting in a large burrow. I am near the end of this tunnel, and by flashlight I can see down to where it terminates at the waterline. Here, there are more of the green pieces of freshly cut bulrush stem, and by the size of this burrow it could only have been dug by the ksisskstakiiksi

This is clearly another piece of the overall feeding-station puzzle. Could the presence of this large burrow in the cutbank explain why the ice thaws against the shoreline here? Which came first, the feeding station or the burrow? Certainly I could understand how handy it would be for the beavers to have such architecture here. This feeding site is a long distance from their lodge. What if they swam all the way out here and found the surface still completely iced-over? Obviously it would be to their benefit to have a spot where they can climb out of the water regardless, and take a breather

1129 A little further along the cutbank, I come across two other ksisskstaki feeding stations. These ones must have been established some years ago, because in each case the earthen ceiling of a corresponding burrow had sunken in. I suspect they had been re-dug, given that the ice is still melting at the shoreline, and that both sites are still in active use as feeding stations (based on bulrush evidence). Now that I see the correlation between these small open pools and the sunken tunnels, I can't believe I never noticed it before. I've wondered at these feeding stations every winter for several years, but I had to actually fall into a burrow in order to take notice of them. And I still don't understand the physics of how they function to assist in melting the ice

Above this cutbank, out on the exposed golf greens, there are perhaps hundreds of geese. They've been taking off in groups toward the river as I inspected the beaver works. Where I am now, directly across the pond from me is the ksisskstakioyis. There are open water pools at its primary entrances as well

1141 Also on the golf greens, in some conifer trees to the south, is a pair of mamia'tsikimiiksi. These same trees house a nest that I know of, and the one bird I can see from my position is perching on a high, exposed branch, flicking his tail straight up in display, and giving a flirtatious call to his mate. I sit down to watch, hoping I'll witness some magpie love. But this couple isn't interested in being subjects of my surveillance. They wing off to land again high up on the coulee rim

Walking back off the greens, I pass under a cottonwood tree where a downy woodpecker is busy tapping for grubs. Out on the wide south pool of the pond, there's a family of four aapsspini. These are the first I've seen in these waters since the ice-over, and their presence here is exactly what I expect to witness during this moon

1158 The currant and bulberry brush above the peninsula are quiet today. None of the tiny passerines who can often be found here are about. But as soon as I drop into the owl wood, life awaits. Given where I'm at, my eyes naturally scan the forest canopy, and in one of the very first trees there is a yearling porcupine. He's extremely cute and gold of hair, quite possibly the progeny of Peekaboo and The Blonde. One tree over from him, a furious chatter erupts, and I look over to see a female downy woodpecker. No doubt she is the one who lives nearby, beside the male owl's usual perch, which is surprisingly empty today. It was like this last year, come nesting time (this moon) - the kakanottsstooki couple just disappeared to wherever their new nest location was. I'm assuming the same departure has occurred, but take a walk along the thick western treeline just in case, and sure enough I find the male there above the old raccoon den. His mate is still absent, as she has been all winter here. In fact, I can't even be sure it is the same male who has lived here so many years. It could just as easily be one of his sons, as yet a bachelor

1246 Satisfied at having confirmed the presence of the male great horn, I move into one of the meadows of the Owl Wood to experiment with movement. It is part of what I've occupied myself with since my slow-down in note-taking began... the next phase in my overall project of learning to engage with my environment more fully as a human being. The way I'm looking at it, my progression began with a few years of gaining familiarity with the other inhabitants here. I then moved on to exploring the primary relationship all beings have with this place year-round, the quest for food. Both of these initial aspects of the project continue today, and I suspect will be lifelong sources of personal development. And now I have added a third element: movement

Is it possible for a modern human being to move strong and gracefully through our natural environments, in a manner becoming of a creature who actually belongs here? And can we do so not as oblivious recreators, but as highly aware beings, surveying and responding to the others we encounter? For several months now, I have been exploring such questions, drawing off traditional martial arts and parkour for inspiration. How do we navigate rocks, logs, hills, trees? Will I ever be able to pass quietly along a forest floor that's scattered with dry leaves?

Today, I've brought along a chokecherry staff almost my height. In the meadow of the Owl Wood I practice spinning it, and using it as a weapon, moving the rod around me, and myself around the rod. It is a basic tool drawn straight from this environment, but one that is awkward in my hands, save for it's crude use as a walking cane. This is how pitiful we've become as a species in the outdoors, that even the able-bodied often seek the assistance of sticks in order to gain balance

I experiment in the meadow for about a half hour, before shouldering my pack again and setting off over the levee, and down to the open spring of south-pond. Out on the river, I can hear geese squabbling by the high-level bridge. Already they're fighting over claim to the island-like pillars

1308 It's warm enough now, there must be quite a bit of insect activity going on in unseen niches, under cover. I decide to move out onto the wet meadows and turn a few rotten planks from the old boardwalk to confirm this suspicion. Indeed, the very first one I turn is home to a plethora of wintering critters. There are at least three kinds of carabid beetle: the sidewalk, badister, and a black species about the same size as the latter. There are also paederus rove beetles, two species of spider, saltmarsh moth larvae, meadow slugs, and an ichneumon wasp. I am surprised that, with how many planks I've turned in this marshy area over the years, I've never once found an live mouse, nor a tiger salamander

That one board had given me enough information about who's stirring at the moment. Continuing on toward the big bulrush patch, I come across a spot where the grasses are all matted down, and there's evidence that a deer was taken. The coyote packs are a force to be reckoned with when hungry enough. All that is left of the deer are a few partial bones, chewed at their ends, and tufts of hair. And speaking of coyotes, just as I begin to move away from the site, I'm treated to a close-contact encounter. I guess I'd been quiet enough, standing still inspecting the deer kill area, that a coyote hunting for voles in the wet meadow grass walked right up to me unaware. Only when I began crunching again with my big, clumbsy feet did she look up, not more than a few meters from me, and then quickly turned to run

1323 I stay where I am, watching as the coyote runs away from me, stopping every so often to look back again. Eventually, she disappears into the treeline of the forest main, and then I move in that direction as well, but a ways south of where she entered, hoping I might encounter her again

When I come into the forest, there is a magpie who gives a double call. This is answered by a companion to the north, and then by another companion to the south, who flies in and lands near the first bird. Then a fourth magpie flies overhead from the north and gives a stuccato series as he passes. The other three take wing and follow him

I suspect that they are moving with the coyote, that she's already passed through this forest and is perhaps somewhere nearer the coulee slope. Even if I'm wrong, the likelihood of seeing her again is faint, because a human presence has suddenly erupted here. First, a jogger passes. And less than a minute later, I come across a retired couple walking along the main trail. They're not familiar with this place, and are wondering whether I've seen any porcupines, an animal they'd come across elsewhere in the coulee before. I share with them the location of the yearling in the owl wood, and they depart excited to see it for themselves

1339 As I reach the far north end of the forest main, a couple clan-sized flocks of aapsspini land in the wet meadows and mid-pond, just as I expected they would be by now. Out at the big river island, there are even more geese, hundreds of them. And the Oldman has considerably more open water than I've ever witnessed so early in this moon before

1351 Rounding north-pond and making my way back to the Jeep, I make one final stop off at a small cluster of cottonwoods, with a log where I know there to be deer mice residents. I retrieve a bag from my pack, and place the contents near the entrance to mice's den, speaking to my wish that what I'm leaving, all the trimmings from the last haircuts Mahoney and I had, will be of use to them. This is a form of aatsimihka'ssin, of balancing things out. We don't own our bodies, we only borrow them. And what we have no further use for may become very beneficial for the lives of others