Testing, testing, 1-2-3…

Stepping stones

Let’s catch minnows in a jar,
Abandon our shoes on the bank
Like an old sorrow, a heaviness.
Let’s cross the creek
only for the sake of crossing
the slippery stones
which may or may not
hold our weight.

Though there’s no time
to hesitate (all is in the movement,
the lack of pause) everything
at this moment
on the firm and precise
placing of the

 – Lorna Crozier
   From The Garden Going on Without Us


hen I was a small child, I was afraid of ants. Seeing one wander toward me, I would scream in exaggerated terror. My mother worried I was so fearful that I would be poorly suited to life in this world.

In the 1979 Russian film Siberiade, a multigenerational epic of isolation in the vast taiga, there is a character who works himself to death trying to build a corduroy road across the vast, impossible swamps to lead aimlessly anywhere but the place of his birth. Scenes pause on the wide-angle-lens view beyond the last logs he’d laid down, into the wilderness to the unpromising horizon. At the point of ultimate exhaustion, he fell over dead at the side of his pointless road, landing cheek-down in an ant mound. The actor who portrayed this character had to lie dead-still, eyes unresponsively open, camera rolling, as the ants crawled over and bit his face. Though grim, it is a beautiful scene.

I’m told that in the native Okanagan culture, children are dared to place a hand down on an ant mound. A challenge to see who can stay palm-down longest, enduring the biting, before pulling away to brush off the swarming ants. Now that I’m an adult who can take an ant bite without panicking, I wonder, if I were present at this test whether I’d be drawn into the challenge. Would I do any better than the kids?

One of the three full-time mammal residents of Edgewood is Kabuki (Buki for short). Based on her puppyhood behavior, we thought we were in for a difficult time with a problem dog. She was a bold and headstrong imp, and was too quick to play-bite and dominance-nip. I became her self-designated bitable friend to give her an outlet for the roughhousing she loves. The bite-Curtis-but-nobody-else strategy worked, and later we developed designated biting game situations while biting me was no longer allowed in any other situation. The bloody (painful) results of this training were shown to Buki with played-up “ouch” emotions, and that brought out the needed empathy to train her to be gentler and more cooperative. My scars faded, and now Buki is three years old. Our biting games are elaborate, harmless (no bleeding, but it still hurts), and hilarious. A game perfect for bonding and for building trust. As a child, I was afraid of dog bites. Now dog bites are a silly game.

As an adult dog, Buki is gentle (aside from our careful biting games), never aggressive or skittish around people, except for one friendly and perfectly trustworthy local who freaks Buki right out of her mind. Is it because he has big crazy curly hair and wears a low-brimmed straw hat? On trail outings, Buki meets other hikers with obvious joy. On the approach to strangers on trails, she stays with me until I call out “don’t worry, she’s gentle”. And then she bounds toward them, all her body language saying “I love you, let’s play!” She’s met with “Oh! What a cutie!” and “Hi pretty dog!”

On a recent trail, a couple approached Buki and me. As usual, I called out reassurances, and Buki (ears up, eyes wide, tailless butt wiggling fast) bounced like a puppy off to greet them. The woman screamed. I thought at first it was the usual scream of delight, but the pitch and volume rose higher and higher, and I saw her bury her face in her husband’s shoulder. She was in a state of grossly exaggerated terror while Buki went and picked out a stick from the forest to play with. As a confused apology, I said “Oh, you really are scared aren’t you?” I tried to explain that Australian shepherds like Buki are not the sort of dogs who attack people (their overly friendly and playful tendencies make them very poorly qualified as guard dogs, let alone attack dogs). Despite reassurances, I saw a look on the woman’s face that I would expect of someone who just witnessed terrible violence. The husband explained that his wife is scared of animals, and they walked on without pausing. My dear, for the sake of your own and others’ happiness, try to learn the difference between danger and safety. Urban people, obviously, but at least they were out in the forest tails (albeit an easy, short one).

My first drivers license gave me freedom from the city and out to the wildland trailheads. My curiosity about plants started in childhood. By the time I was a teenager, the need to know plant taxonomy had become a strong force. At first I was a nervous solo hiker, but curiosity kept me going. I wanted to see and understand all those species I was reading about on my page-turning reviews of the regional flora. Blind curves on the forested slope-contouring trail seemed at first to conceal a wild animal ready to pounce. I’d heard it was wise to make noise to avoid bad surprise encounters with cougars and bears, so I jangled my car keys loudly as I walked. My childhood fears faded slowly. I wasn’t terrified of ants by then, but I had to learn the difference between danger and safety. And now I know that in those dark forested places that raised my fear and alertness are not the sort of places where a hiker is likely to meet any animal larger than a squirrel.

Earning a place in the wilds requires the taming of fears. Especially now that Canadian kids are so sheltered from any cause for courage, it’s common for young people to react badly when first taken out to see a wild place. Maybe not as badly as the dog-fearing woman, but will they ever learn to keep their hand in the ant mound, gritting their teeth, maybe giggling about the silliness of the contest? Even Buki, who fearlessly and gleefully runs toward potential danger (she’s been called an adrenaline junkie), had to learn through her puppy years to let go of some useless fears (though she never has got over her terror of the crazy-haired man in his straw hat).

In this blog series, which begins here, I hope to help foster fearless connections between people and the living world. Let’s venture out and see what we can find.

Oh the rewards of the wilds!

3 thoughts on “Testing, testing, 1-2-3…

  1. I’ve been wondering about Buki! Thanks for letting us know how you all are doing. I’ve been to Mexico and Costa Rica botanizing this year. Leaving for the SW deserts Monday. So many plants, so little time…..

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