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Know the West

How wildlife sightings create community

What we share and what we keep quiet in small mountain towns.

 

For many years, in this tiny mountain town, we avoided certain signs. Oh, we had trailhead signs and wooden slabs on brush-hidden driveways adorned with family names. But there was an unspoken rule: No signs for political candidates. Even when a neighbor ran for the state Legislature and his face graced fence-line billboards elsewhere in the county, we didn’t see many here. Why? There was no need. With fewer than 100 year-round residents in our remote corner of the Northwest, we knew where everyone stood. Or we thought we did. We just didn’t want to know. We needed each other too much to risk conflict.

An organic garden in Stehekin, Washington, home of the author.
Andy Porter

Until last year. Everywhere you turned in 2020, you saw signs. On barns, on bumpers, painted on asphalt, dragged by a prop plane. Candidate names and Confederate flags, rainbow stripes and coiled snakes. One color for the country, one for town. Lines drawn. Curtains closed. The inevitable result, perhaps, of long-suppressed anger.

By the time of George Floyd’s murder, tensions ran high. Disputes over masks had moved past clenched-jaw truce to all-out screaming matches. Friendships were lost. When a few people decided to gather in support of victims of police violence, my wife and I thought long and hard before making a sign. I worried: Would the sign amount to virtue signaling or worse, needling neighbors who’d choose not to attend? What about the unspoken rule? Didn’t I care about peace in my community? Yes, but this sign was not for a candidate or an issue. The sign would signal support for people’s very lives. I thought about how it would’ve felt if, a decade earlier, during debates about our love for each other, we’d seen signs of support. It would’ve meant the world.

We knew where everyone stood. Or we thought we did. We just didn’t want to know. We needed each other too much to risk conflict.

We painted a sign, took it to the protest and left it up where we’d gathered along with a smattering of others. Someone took it down. We put it back. Eventually, the sign disappeared. Let me tell you: I was very angry.

I moved soon thereafter for a short-term job across the country. Eight months was the longest time I’d spent away in more than 25 years. I returned eager for a new start. Mask mandates had lifted. Election season had passed. Most delightfully: Animals appeared everywhere.

I’d forgotten how wildlife sightings create community. A few years ago, I came upon a wild turkey running between four-foot-high snow berms. Except we don’t have wild turkeys. I told the story shyly at a dinner party. I saw it too, my neighbor cried. I saw it, too!  Once, midsummer, I came upon a mountain goat walking the same stretch of road. Mountain goats don’t visit the valley floor when the temperature’s over 90. Not usually. Not ever. I pulled my Tercel next to a Dodge Ram and rolled down the window. Did you see? I asked. Did you? the driver asked. We shook our heads, grinning. One winter, trumpeter swans showed up on the lake. In the post office, ever since, swans dominate every conversation: How many did you see today?

This early summer, we saw more fawns than usual, more rattlesnakes, more bears: a blond with black haunches, a cinnamon yearling, a big black male sitting mid-road in the dark. River otters on a dock. Ermine in the woods. Harlequin ducks riding rapids. Some we learn about secondhand. Four new fisher kits somewhere in the county. Cougar, bobcat, elk and wolverine: camera-caught and ghostly.

Why so many? Maybe the pandemic gave nonhumans silence and space, a chance to reproduce? I doubt that’s true. What’s new is we’re out of the house. We’re talking again. There aren’t more animals, just more sightings, more casual conversations, more connections. I am relieved.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/49.15/essay-awake-at-night-and-listening-to-coyotes]

I am also worried. We’ve heard rumors of other sightings, animal visitors so unwelcome I dare not name them. If they move among us, what will become of our common ground? We’ll have to confront conflict again. We’ll take sides and take stands, as our consciences dictate, as we must, and we’ll hope the frayed thread between us can hold. After all, fire season is now upon us, when we need one another more than ever.

Meanwhile, a small fawn hops on spindly legs, skitters down the road, and trails its mother into dense brush. Keep moving, I think: grow stronger, outwit predators, avoid hunters. Nothing’s easy for this tiny unspeakably beautiful creature. I look around to see if anyone’s sharing the moment: Did you see?

This time, it’s only me.

Ana Maria Spagna lives in Stehekin, Washington and is the author, most recently, of Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going. Follow her on Twitter @amspagna

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