Friday, December 19, 2008

Kilkenny Wilderness, crossing a high ridge at dawn, 2008

I took this photo on a bushwhack across the Kilkenny Wilderness back in August (2008). A lot of the time when I am bushwhacking I’m constantly thinking of the people who lived and possibly thrived here long before hiking trails, before the Europeans, before logging, and who knew all of this terrain with unparalleled intimacy and were so intimately part of this landscape. The natural history of these mountains is, to a large extent, their history.

In the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans Chingachgook, who is the last Mohican and one of my true boyhood heroes, is shown running swiftly through a dark forest pierced by shafts of sunlight. He’s chasing a white tailed deer. Chingachgook has his bow cocked with an arrow and is running the deer down to kill it. He looses the arrow striking the deer. The deer collapses to the ground and Chingachgook moves quickly to the deer, grabs the deer’s muzzle with both hand and blows his own breath into the deer’s nose and mouth in a propitiary offering to the spirit of the deer, an act of gratitude.

There’s great beauty in this scene; the beauty of the forest itself with the light shafting through the ancient trees, the man running like a deer, leaping over blow downs, aiming the arrow and taking the deer’s life with astonishing skill and coordination. It’s breathtaking. I, for one, would love to run through the woods as lithely as Chingachgook just to experience his delight of speed and agility. He is, of course, a fictional character created by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leather Stocking Tales but with a certain accuracy in the depiction of the beauty and simplicity that is implicit in this non-sedentary way of life and the ability of humans, at least at one time, to actually be at home in nature, an integral and highly functional part of it.

When one thinks of people there is the question of food and in this case, with the ecological succession that would follow the glacier, or deglaciation of the area, one also thinks of animals as part of the succession, not just the trees and plants. We already explored the impact of beavers on devastated sites but we would expect to find them in these valley soon after the glacier ablated. The first humans here after the glacier must have had to base their economy on animals for clothing and food. Perhaps their motivation for coming here in the first place was to hunt. So the White Tailed Deer in the movie clip represents many kinds of animals that re-populated the northern forests in the post-glacial years including caribou, an excellent source of food and clothing, and those mythical beasts like huge bison and mammoths.

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