Saturday, February 3, 2018

7. The Kingbird Fields

It was the end of April and the weather took a sharp turn, becoming warm and sunny.  People emerged from homes and workplaces, blinking at the sky as if not quite comprehending what had happened. The ornamental cherries and plums hustled to finish flowering and the air billowed with pine pollen and smelled medicinally of cottonwood. William had finished his last of a long series of school programs and was in for a lull in interpretive employment. With the help of Alan he was able to put in time as a wildlife biologist, what might have been his only job had fate not poked him in the eye.

William’s environmental consulting company was called Tyrannus2 Environmental, which he named after the eastern kingbird, whose Latin name is Tyrannus tyrannus.  Eastern kingbirds had always been among his favourites.  They were in his opinion the handsomest of summer birds.  They stood sentry over the fields where William played as a child on the outskirts of Toronto, when Toronto still had outskirts.  They perched on telephone wires and spied down with sharp little eyes.  They were fearless and cheeky, gleefully rousting jays and crows twice their size.  Since then, Toronto had melded with Mississauga and Markham and all the rest, and former farmland became oppressively residential, with endless tracts of large houses of pink and tan brick interspersed with swatches of grass that mocked the term, yard.  William didn’t know where eastern kingbirds lived anymore.        

There was a western kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis, which William would see from time to time in the farm country up-valley from Vancouver, but that species and William had yet to develop a relationship.

They were headed that way in Alan’s brand new, midnight blue Mazda two-door.  “No disrespect to Fooj, but the Pinto really shouldn’t be on the road,” he said.  “It belongs in a museum.”  And just like that he bought a peppy new sports car.  William wondered what that was like, having so much easy cash that you could walk into a car dealership and say, “I’ll take the blue one.”

The previous evening they had tromped around in a woodlot near the base of Sumas Mountain, which wasn’t really a mountain, at least by British Columbian standards.  Its western flank was in danger of being engulfed by the city of Abbotsford.  They had set a series of traps among fallen logs and smothering mounds of leather-leafed salal.

“These are the sort of places a rodent snuffles along, looking for fallen seeds or tasty invertebrates,” William had said.  “Here, Sherman trap.”  He held out his hand.

Alan was clutching the traps to his chest.  Each was a metal box the length of a pencil case and about two inches square.  It had a spring-loaded door that dropped when a plate inside was depressed by the slight weight of a small animal.  “That’s what these are called?”  He tried to hand one to William, and ended up dropping three or four.  “Shit.”  He dropped the rest and pushed the lot into a heap with his shoe.  “Why Sherman?”

“No idea,” said William.

“The name isn’t helpful,” said Alan. “A name should say what it is.  ‘Mouse-catching box’ would suffice.”

William baited the trap with wheat seeds and peanut butter and moved on.  He was machine-like in field-work mode.  He was under contract to the Ministry of Environment to survey this woodlot for small mammals, in particular for an endangered species, the Pacific water shrew.  The woodlot had a stream running through it, and common wisdom had it that Pacific water shrews favoured the edges of watercourses in woodlots of exactly this sort. 

Alan, catching up to William with traps re-clamped to his chest, asked, “So, if a Pacific water shrew snuffles into one of these Sherman traps, will you be happy?”

William stopped scrabbling in the undergrowth.  He stood up straight and looked at Alan.  “I believe I will be,” he said.

“Super-happy, or just regular happy?”

“Dance in a circle happy,” said William. “They’re that rare.”

“I sure hope we catch one,” said Alan. “I would love to see dancing William.”

William smiled and snorted.  He knew what the chances of finding a Pacific water shrew were infinitesimally small.  Aside from that, even if it happened, would the proposed development be stopped or altered to protect this habitat?  Hah, no.  Only if the land to be developed were federally-owned, thus subject to federal regulations.  This place wasn’t.                                   

So what was the point?

William didn’t know, and didn’t want to think too deeply about it. He didn’t want to face the possibility that almost everything he did was pointless.  He would tell himself that at least there would be documentation of what was about to be lost and an improved picture of how tightly this species was circling the drain.  Perhaps a cunning junior official in the provincial government, still at heart a biologist and not yet soul-destroyed by the bureaucracy, could chit-chat local officials and, if a sympathetic one existed, have the developer nudged a bit not to do what had been done to the farm fields of his childhood — not to do quite so much damage?  Perhaps a fragment of the woodlot might be spared, set aside, in hopes of extending the tenuous existence of the Pacific water shrew in British Columbia.

Fat chance.  He knew that’s what that was.

William was certain that this obscure creature was one mammal Alan didn’t know, an almost totally subterranean creature the dimensions of a dill pickle. He interpreted Alan’s participation in the search as more lark than anything.  Herein lay part of the Pacific water shrew’s problem.  Like most animals neither nuisance nor danger, they weren’t on the collective radar of the general public—they were of no value either way.  Even a reasonably savvy naturalist like Alan hadn’t heard of this one, thus couldn’t care if it were there or not.

After more than an hour, to stave of the boredom inherent in the monotony of field work, Alan assumed the air of expert as they set traps among the underbrush near fallen logs and close to the limp little stream that slinked across the property.  “Right here!” he would say.  “It looks like an especially shrewy spot.”

After three or four such exclamations, William suggested, parodying Milt at Stanley Park, “I know, you can paint a Pacific water shrew, make it famous, like the spider and the pig!”

“As soon as you catch one!” Alan answered strongly, which revealed he had about as much expectation as William of this actually happening — in other words, none.

They left for the day, leaving the small forest creatures to investigate their offerings. On the way home Alan said, “I hope I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

William glanced at him.

“Thinking that tomorrow I might experience the circle-dance thrill of encountering a Pacific water shrew.” 

The next day they returned to check the traps.  One contained a towhee, a ground-dwelling relative of sparrows that had somehow blundered inside.  William had trouble removing it, because it kept opening its wings.  After William fussed for a few minutes, tilting the trap over and back, poking the towhee with a twig, Alan snatched the trap away and placed it on the ground.  He leaned close, and yelled, “Get out of the fucking trap, you stupid bird!”  It did.  It darted into the salmonberries and, after a few seconds to collect itself, let loose a series of indignant cat-like squawks.

Two traps contained deer mice, pretty little rodents with fawn dorsal fur, white bellies, prominent petal-shaped ears and enormous black eyes.  Alan clicked a macro lens onto his expensive digital SLR to photograph them as they quivered on William’s wrist, tethered in place by his grip on their tails.

The feistiest creature was a Townsend’s vole, the Pacific coast equivalent of the meadow mice William would catch as a child in the Kingbird Fields.  They had no tail to speak of, so could not be so easily handled as deer mice.  They were compact and bad-tempered, and bit ferociously if given the chance.  At age ten or eleven, William had owned a cantankerous hamster named Buddy who would sometimes bite if William made the mistake of sticking a finger into his nest ball.  Every single Townsend’s vole he had even encountered as like a fast-moving and twice as cantankerous Buddy.  William used heavy leather gloves to prevent bites from voles, but these made handling of an effectively tailless rodent like trying to manipulate handling a pressurized beanbag — which is why this one shot into the air.  Its slow-motion arc sent it down the v-shaped opening of Alan’s shirt. Alan shouted and fell backward over a log.  He rolled around, thrashing and swearing like a man beset by demons, but as quickly as the possession had commenced it ended when Alan pulled his shirt-tails from his pants and the vole scurried to freedom into the dense salal undergrowth.

“Bugger!” Alan exclaimed. Then he laughed like hell.

There were also two vagrant shrews, long-snouted, thumb-sized animals with almost invisible ears and eyes.  One had perished, its manic metabolism having burned up all the wheat and peanut butter in the trap and then its own tiny self.  William popped it into a Ziploc bag to keep as a voucher specimen.

They went into what seemed to be the downtown of Abbotsford to kill time before coming back and resetting the traps over another night.  Typically William’s surveys were carried out for at least seven days in a row to maximize the chances of finding what tiny beasts inhabited the polygon of land destined to be smothered by a housing development other indignity.  They found a Wendy’s, and stopped for lunch.  At one point, seated across a plastic table-top, Alan squinted at the ragged, shiny centipede a half-inch above William’s right eyebrow.  He pointed a pinkie.

“I just noticed that thing.  Is that the lightning?”

William nodded and reflexively ran a finger along it. 

Alan asked, “And because of that you can’t drive?   “That’s quite the bum rap for a biologist.”

William shrugged.  This was nothing he didn’t know.

Alan said, “You’re kind of a Charley-in-the-Box now.” 

William laughed.  It was good to be with someone whose television allusions overlapped with his.  Even the meagre seven years separating Fooj and William meant that Fooj often had no clue when William referred to 1980s TV.  Or maybe he had never watched much television.  William would believe that of Fooj. 

“What did it feel like?” Alan asked.

William had been asked that question many times.  Most people assumed it was like poking a knife into a toaster, writ large.  It wasn’t.  William thought Alan might understand if he called up a common Camp Ohmeemaw experience.  He said, “You remember when you jumped off the five-metre tower, that instant when you hit the water, when you went from thrilling acceleration to instant deceleration, the loud but smothering sound it made when your head hit the water, suddenly changing the entire feel of the world?  Remember how for a moment you hung motionless with the bubbles swarming over you, before your buoyancy started to drag you back up?”

“It’s like jumping into a lake.”

“No.  But it’s the same kind of sudden change.  It differs significantly in that it hurts like you’ve been clobbered with a barn door.  And of course then your thoughts fizzle out and you start to die because your heartbeat has been interrupted.”

“You were dying?” he asked.

“I would have died,” William said.  “Fortunately, I was at the centre of universe when it happened. There were other people around.”          

“No shit.”

William told him the story.  He was struck by lightning in Washington D.C., on the Mall, in the bald spot a little west of the monument.   The bald spot was where the grass was worn away because of people standing there and spinning in a circle to look north to the White House, east to the Capitol Building, South to the Jefferson Memorial, and West to the Lincoln Memorial.  The lightning bolt hit the Washington Monument and then bounced down and hit William, or perhaps just hit William and William alone.

He found out later that when the paramedics got to him his heart was fluttering like a moth, not doing anything useful.  Before they arrived, complete strangers had run to his aid and done their best to keep his brain and heart and body alive.  One or more had put their mouth on his and blown air into his lungs.  One or more had pumped his rib cage up and down.   At least one of those must have been big, because his sides hurt for weeks afterward.

William asked Alan, “ While we’re on the topic of mishaps, why, sometimes, do you appear to have a limp?”

“Oh that,” he said.  “Well, that’s because a while ago I was working on this huge canvas, 12 by 16 feet.  I was on a scaffold that turned out not to have been properly assembled.  It separated and I fell and injured my hip.”

“How far did you fall?”

“Only about three feet, but I landed funny.  The femur-head of my right leg got jammed into the hip socket. The joint became a bit arthritic because of it. I may need a replacement some day.”

William said, “Yikes.”  He asked what Alan had been painting.

“A fucking Bengal tiger. It was a commission from a ritzy private school that has a tiger for a mascot. I never finished it, got paid nothing. It was a fuck-up from start to finish.”
 
As they reset the traps, Alan several times declared with even greater certainty, “Not here, try over there.  It looks like an even SHREWIER place!” 

William sighed. 

On the way back to Vancouver Alan asked if William didn’t miss Toronto and if he ever intended to return.  He said from what he had seen so far of Greater Vancouver that it was a soulless, wooden place.  He described it as a glorified shantytown, a boomtown that had yet to get beyond a frustrating level of needy immaturity.  Harsh words, William thought, for what was widely believed to be one of the most desirable places on earth to live.

“Have you invited your parents out here to visit?”

“I haven’t.”

“I didn’t think so,” said Alan.  “You’d have to get a bigger apartment or maybe a second one where they could stay so you could continue to ignore them.”                     

William decided to redirect the conversation.  He asked how Hiroe was.

Alan didn’t answer right away, but eventually said, “She’s great, like always.”

“Will she be arriving soon?”

“Pretty...soon,” he said.  The hesitation suggested to William that there might be a problem.  In his head he heard Alan’s words, ‘Good thing it’s a large country.  Otherwise estrangement is awkward.’  Hah.  Why couldn’t he just spit it out?  He was having marital problems.  That wasn’t a big deal.  Most marriages failed, didn’t they?  Thinking back on Alan’s difficulties with the concept of fidelity at Camp Ohmeemaw, it was easy to imagine how it could happen.  Alan could tell him about it or not, he didn’t care.  It did explain why Alan had rented an apartment though.  He obviously planned to stay for a while.

William assumed the discussion of marriage or anything related to marriage had ended.  Not so.  Alan asked, “Have you ever come close to getting married?” 

William looked at him.  It seemed a genuine question.  It was hard to understand what was going on in this car.  They were strangers who knew each other too well.  They had been apart for seventeen years, yet it felt as if they had never stopped riding together, with Alan driving.  Why was he asking about William’s past relationships, or asking if he had had any?  Fishing for some similar experience with the difficulties of long-term monogamy, leading up to an explanation of his current situation?  William would do his best to find common ground.

He said, “When I lived in America, in Maryland, when I was working at the Smithsonian, I was in a relationship that for a while seemed headed toward marriage.  I was living with an expert on marine parasitic crustaceans who also happened to be a classical pianist.”

“That sounds like someone you’d like,” said Alan.

That was a bit snide.  William could have stopped there, but decided to forge on. “It was actually the lightning that was the beginning of the end of that one.  Lightning can change you in profound ways that may not be easy for others to comprehend.  It can make you sullen, confused, antisocial.”

Alan said, “Wow.  That would make you even more you that you already were.”

William glared at him. “If I punch you in the ear when you’re driving, what will happen?”

Alan glanced his way.  “Sorry,” he said. “You know how I am.”

“You’re seventeen years older.”

“I’m still the same.”

“Well then why did you even bother getting married?  It was pretty clear at age eighteen that long-term relationships weren’t your thing.”

Alan readjusted his grip on the wheel.  Staring long down the highway he said, “I hadn’t found the right person yet. I probably shouldn’t have done everything I did back then, but, can you please keep telling your story, about the lightning, about what happened afterward with your piano-parasite lady?”

“Not if you insult me.”

“I won’t.  I’ll try not to.”

After a mile of forested hillside, William said, “After the lightning, I spent a lot of time at home, watching TV and not doing my research.  Before I did she realized our relationship was dying, but I don’t think she understood why.  I was tuning her out, but it was because I’d become like a computer, endlessly rechecking its operating system, trying to find where the gaps were.  I was trying to remember my life in as much detail as possible, going through grade school, high school, my old neighbourhood, trying to remember faces and names.  I was having no trouble with all the crazy Latin names of the animals I studied, but it seemed that people were missing.

“And I couldn’t tolerate her attempts at comforting me, like coming up behind me and wrapping her arms around me if I was standing at the sink doing the dishes or something. I would shrug her off without thinking. I don’t know why.  It was the start of a thing that I still have. I hate being hugged. It panics me.”

“That could make a number of things difficult,” said Alan.

“A critical moment came when she called me into the bathroom after I had gotten out of the shower, and the mirror was all steamed up except for one place where I had apparently written a name with a soapy finger.”

“What name?”

“Becky Pang.”                                                                       

“Really,” said Alan.

“By the time my visa had expired, so had we.  Part of the reason I came to BC rather than moving back to Ontario was because it rarely thunders here.”

“That’s convenient,” said Alan.  Then he said, “You’ve been here now, what, four years?  There seem to be a lot of single young women in your daily life, some very attractive.   I can understand why Fooj beat you to Monique, but look at who else is available.  There’s those other two, the ones at the forest program a couple weeks back.  The blond one and the brunette one, two way-above average young women.  How about them?  Have they been trying to hug you?”

“Stacey and Tracy.  They’re newbies, they’re like twenty-one.  I don’t know them.  Ed Daddle hired them. I have no interest in them and I’m certain the feeling is more than mutual.”

“You can’t be like that.  It’s self-defeating.  You’re slamming doors shut for no reason.  I saw you talking to the blond one.  She looked like she was enjoying talking with you.  That holds promise, as long as you didn’t say anything stupid.”

“It was kind of odd, actually.”  William sat there trying to recall the brief conversation.  “She was acting strangely familiar, and she said, ‘I didn’t expect to see you here. You’re an interpreter too?’”

“What did you say?”

“What was there to say?  It was an odd question.  I was wearing my uniform.  I had even remembered to wear my interpreter name badge.  I think I said, ‘I’m afraid so.’”

“She must know you from somewhere.  Maybe she went to Camp Ohmeemaw.”

“What, when she was six?”

“I think she likes you.”

“Like half the female counselors at camp, according to you, seventeen years ago.”

“You missed many an opportunity. You were at the peak of your powers.  I could weep.”

William was tired of the topic.  He said, “When we were eighteen, we must have talked about something other than girls.”

“As I recall, we stopped talking about girls,” Alan said.  “We had philosophical differences on that issue.”

“We still do,” said William.

As the traffic thickened and slowed, Alan asked, “Do they make beaver-sized Sherman traps?” 

William told him no, but there were beaver-sized cage traps.  Then he made the mistake of admitting he owned a couple, which he kept in the storage locker of his apartment.           

“I’ll need use of them,” Alan said.

“You need a permit to catch a wild animal.”

“Do you have one?”

“Yeah, for Pacific water shrew.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Are you seriously thinking of helping crazy Milt?”

“I’m helping every crazy person I can.  How do you do this work when you can’t get a ride from someone?”

“I take a cab.” He explained that sometimes he would take a cab from Vancouver to Chilliwack and back, about 80 miles in total.  He would pay the driver a flat rate.

“How much money do you get to do this?”

“Almost as much money as it takes to pay the cab,” William admitted.  “I rarely make a profit on a survey.  I keep doing them though, because they’re what I like to do, and I should be keeping my skills sharp in case of whatever, maybe a job that suits me.”

“All this kind of work requires driving, doesn’t it?”

William shrugged.  “Maybe I’m being like Fooj.  Even though he has all this new money coming in, he has to keep on interpreting.  I have to keep on rooting around in forests and wetlands, trying to help build a picture of the state of the wilderness as it still persists, despite everything.”

Alan said, “All the crazy people.”                                                                                         

The farmland of the Fraser Valley was giving way to a patchwork of new subdivisions.  Many were modern heritage-style houses in clumps so dense that a roofer could step from one to the next.  The freeway exists were coming closer together and the traffic was slowing.  Alan and William talked about why it was so difficult to muster the public interest and political will to preserve wildlife, yet if Alan painted an animal, he could sell the picture for thousands of dollars.

Alan said it came down to twisting the aesthetics, by removing the animal from an uncomfortable context — to translate it from being an element in a perhaps damaged ecosystem to a guilt-free commodity.

Unlike many wildlife artists, Alan wasn’t known to be a conservationist.  While intellectually he understood the importance of preserving nature, apart from now and then donating a signed print to raise money for the odd conservation group, he had little to do with the cause.  His motivation for painting was primarily monetary, to increase his own net worth, which, over the years, had run into millions.  He had been criticized for that.  People expected a man who became rich exploiting wildlife should also be an advocate for the protection of wildlife habitat.  William remembered Alan defending himself in a TV interview about six years after they had lost contact.  He said, “The only things I’m exploiting are my imagination and my ability to draw what I’ve seen or can imagine seeing.  People like my art.  I’m grateful that they like my art.  Expecting me to lead a conservationist cause is like expecting a great chef to lead the way in stamping out world hunger.”

So how exactly did Alan remove an animal from its context – when he was surrounding it with other animals and plants, all painted so accurately that any biologist could identify every species?

“Simple,” he said.  “You put it inside a frame, which hangs on a wall.  Or on a coffee mug, which lives in a cupboard.  Or on a sweatshirt, which is folded up in your closet.  That’s as much attachment to the natural world as most people want.  They don’t want to crawl around in swamps and forests being bitten and stung.  They certainly don’t want a freaking vole inside their shirt.  They don’t want to see the clear cuts and gravel pits that are the cost of economic growth.  They don’t want to deal with what a downer it all is – or with the guilt.  But they’re quite willing to hang a picture of a moose on their living room wall.”

William told Alan that he was depressing the hell out of him.

“My answer to that,” he said, “is booze, and pills.”  

“That doesn’t solve anything,” William said.

Alan said, “Maybe you can sleep at night.”

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