The small cloth covered Cessna had circled the clearing and dropped like a piece of hail from the overcast November sky. The clearing looked smaller than the front yard of a Santa Monica house. The plane had touched down, bounced a couple of times and stopped like the ground was covered with adhesive, not a foot too soon.
She had been in hundreds of similar landings, and she never had learned to relax. The pilot however did it all with mostly one hand, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He had a three day growth of beard, a sweat stained shirt and untied boots. He flew like he was just going to the store for some groceries.
Maybe he would bring her stomach with the next load.
After six more trips he had brought all of her stuff, and supplies for the winter. He said he would check in, and to use the radio in an emergency.
His door had closed and the plane had taken off from that postage stamp sized clearing with a gravity defying leap into the sky just moments before the remnants of the summer were buried under four feet of snow.
She had wanted solitude to search out what was still truth for her; for a breath of her own air, and it looked like she would have her chance.
For as long as she could remember life had looked to her like moments in time. Like those old time movies where you cranked the handle and each frame moved across the eyepiece. You could crank fast or slow and that was the pace of that frame by frame movie.
There were moments of extraordinary beauty, and sensitivity, and there were moments of extraordinary pain and suffering and anguish. Life breathed in the moment by moment experience of it. It felt to her like she was watching that breath.
In her late teens her muse handed her the keys to her dreams:
Her father had given it to her. He did it on a Saturday afternoon. It was one of those rare Saturday afternoons when the serendipities of life had let them have some time together knowing they both would appreciate the opportunity.
He had handed it to her with a smile, but his eyes had shone with a vast curiosity. He wanted to see how she received it. Would she grasp the potential?
She had held it for a second wondering. He had said very gently “you can take pictures. You can learn to catch those moments you are always looking at.” Then he had paused, and then said “Those moments when a person’s whole life changes”. He had said it very softly, like he had been talking almost to himself.
The shadow of a cloud, the hint of a smile, the way the entire world would feel different in the light of spring, or autumn were all there in those moment by moment pictures she saw.
A heartfelt greeting, or the snide feeling from someone who didn’t really mean it, were also there to see if you really looked. And if you could see it, you could photograph it, and those photos would reflect life the way it actually was lived.
Her father…wasn’t that a story, but he had been right. You could catch those moments
And the camera! It was almost like it had a mind of its own. Her job was almost simply to carry it around, and make sure it was someplace it would want to see.
The other thing about it was that over the years she had realized it didn’t have an opinion, it simply saw. There were no moral judgments with the camera, it simply took pictures of what was there. She at times wished it were as simple with her.
She had talked with older photographers about young solders. They said it was the same in Viet Nam, and the other wars they had photographed. The young men and women had come doing their duty, with bright faces, into wars that were not their job to judge. The cameras had caught their faces as they did things fulfilling that duty, which, for the rest of their lives, they would be unable to talk about.
They had done things doing this duty that would keep them awake nights, wondering about the fate of their souls.
Those particular photos never got in the newspapers, or on TV.
But the camera didn’t care.
Cameras were like that. A camera saw it all, and you simply carried it around and fed it film. It fascinated her.
For years it had fascinated her. She had traveled the world, went to both poles retracing famous explorer’s steps. She trekked through strange jungles; She saw and followed migrations of exotic animals. She went to the tops of the tallest mountains and sailed over vast deserts in hot air balloons. She traveled to the edge of space carrying her camera.
She saw and finally learned that the glory of life was in the living of it.
The camera didn’t care, but she did; and she knew she had seen the best and the worst, or thought she had.
She wanted to see if she and the camera could help change rather than simply record what was there.
It was at that point she had met her future husband. He had been an attorney who worked a lot on ecological and social issues.
He had the ability to stand at the gates of Hell and tell the Devil to go home.
They had fought and won wars that involved growth rather than bombs.
Their big mistake came when they forgot their working lives were not necessarily their personal lives. Sometime during the glory of the confusion between their professional lives and their personal lives they had gotten married, and had a child. A boy obviously named Robert, not Bob.
Robert had shown her what real trust was, what real contribution was. He had taught her how to look at life from the viewpoint of what was best for everyone. In some ways Robert had shown her what her own life was. What being alive actually was. Not an idea, but an action!
She had spent a decade with Robert. During this time the camera had not been gathering dust. There were birthday parties, and bike wrecks. There were swimming lessons, and trees climbed. There were teeth lost, and words found, and the camera was hungry.
Things had become more distant with her husband. She had always thought her actions had spoken loudly enough to project her reality to him. In fact, to him, her actions were simply an extension of his planning.
The camera couldn’t capture her astonishment at this realization.
One thing had led to another, and in her life, as with her parents, there was a divorce.
With impeccable lawyer’s one sided logic, and in ways she couldn’t counter, he destroyed her credibility, or made her feel that way. He left her wondering if she ever really had any credibility at all. This included even her relationship with her son.
It truly was amazing.
When the call came from the National Geographic about a project in the north woods of Canada, she had jumped at it.
It seemed that for two or three weeks all she did was sleep, unpack her personal things, as Spartan as they were, and set up the equipment.
National Geographic had called because they wanted a pictorial essay on what life was like in the Mackenzie River basin in the new millennia. They didn’t want a sentimental retrospective, but a photo story of what life actually looked and felt like in the 21st century and she was known as one of the best. She could write novels with her photographs.
It was going to be a long project.
The living arraignments were incongruous in that while the cabin was located miles from any road, heated and lit by lanterns and wood. There was computer equipment and satellite uplinks so she could send her work in, and also a phone connection with the outside world. Cooking was done over
a wood burning stove, and water pumped by a hand pump, and then heated over the stove. There were both a gasoline powered generator, and a solar collector to make sure this contact was maintained. The project was not to revisit the past, but to view a very remote area, and remain connected with the modern world. She could call Robert on his birthday, and send emails to him, and others of her friends she maintained contact with.
It was so beautiful it would take her breath away simply by walking out the door. Sometimes in the dawn there would be elk or moose or deer clearing away the snow in the clearing, or eating from the lower branches of the trees. If she opened the door very quietly she could sit and watch. At night she could hear the wolves.
Theirs was such a song! It echoed the sounds of the wind in the trees, either with a light breeze, or bending under the heavy gusts of a storm. It had the potential of great violence, but there was no threat. It thrilled her! The James Deans of the wild country! The Robert Johnsons, John Hammonds, Etta James of the Arctic Circle! Miles Davis, under Northern Lights! Bitches Brew, carried on moonbeams! Sometimes she would sit up all night listening.
Other times she would just sit and think up ways to try to describe it to Robert! But there really wasn’t anything down there, perhaps the way it feels just before a big storm hits, the temperature drops, and the wind comes up, and you get filled with anticipation. The tremendous unpredictable strength of a half tamed horse. Trained just enough so you could sit on its back, but not enough to give you any more than the barest illusion of control. But there wasn’t anything half tamed about this sound! It was all alive with no reservations!
After a couple of weeks she started to feel less weary, and started to go for short walks, and then longer ones as she felt more at home. She always carried her rifle, and her camera. She would laugh thinking about what her friends from West Los Angles would think!
On time late in the afternoon she heard the sound of growling, and yipping and moving quietly she had crept up to a sight she would never forget.
There was a big grey almost wolf looking dog caught in a wire snare, and an entire pack of wolves attacking it. The big grey dog fought, and fought, but the others were tearing him to pieces, slash by tearing slash, and the snare was choking him. There was no doubt of the outcome. Though there was tremendous valor in the way the dog fought, he wasn’t going to win. But just as obviously, he simply wasn’t going to give up.
She took pictures; and then realized what she was doing. About how the dog was caught between the worst of what was wild, and the worst of what was human. She thought, the wolves were not really vicious, but the trap was.
She thought vicious really was an intention, a decision to inflict pain and she thought that that intention really was personified by that trap! Then she thought, “What am I? That animal is dying; while here I am taking pictures about modern life in the North Country”.
Just watching life, as it passed by!
Great photos, what a hypocrite!
Enough of that! She had wondered about carrying a gun, but now saw why.
A shot or two in the air with the rifle scattered the pack, and she took the noose from around the animal’s neck. Making a travois from some saplings she dragged the unconscious dog back to her cabin.
He was terribly cut up, and had bled a lot, his throat was swollen from his struggles with the wire, but he was breathing and at least alive. He was very close to dead, but alive.
She bathed and bandaged and stitched him up. She did the best she could for him, but the wounds become infected before the night was out, and the dog remained unconscious. He became feverish, and she put a poultice
made from various herbal things she had brought, and then hot compresses and salves. As the days past, gradually he improved.
Once she had been putting a salve on the terrible gash in his side and he had awakened and bit her. He had looked terrified.
It was four days before he regained consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked lost and bewildered.
It was strange, that even though he seemed a wild animal, she had no fear of him. It simply felt the right thing to do.
He had opened his eyes and she had talked to him, telling him how she thought he had left, but he had kept coming back. He looked at her like he thought she was the dumbest thing he had ever seen.
He had looked at her hand, and seemed a little surprised, and tried to lift his head, but was too weak.
She had asked if he were hungry, just talking, not expecting an answer and he looked like he was relieved she were finally making some sense.
It seemed to her this was the most meaningful conversation, aside from those with Robert, she had had in years. She knew she was relieved by what she thought was an imaginary dialogue, and it surprised her.
She smiled to herself, and the dog’s eyes seemed to soften.
Hum…she thought as she went to get him some bullion.
Over the next week or so he gradually became stronger. He would sleep almost all of the time, and awaken to drink some bullion, and then eat a little stew.
And then he had managed a few steps. He walked to the fire, where he lay down again and slept some more. After that he could go outside. Winter was nearly to an end, and the sun was warm.
His single-mindedness and determination were amazing. He wasn’t going to give in or up; she found that distraction from the thoughts of her own life to be very refreshing. It was like they were both healing, and bit by bit they were both getting stronger.
He was walking most of the time now, and she would talk with him as she moved around the house or clearing. He would follow her into the woods, so she kept her trips short.
One time he got up on the table and ate a chop she was going to have for dinner, he was really fast doing it. She had thrown a towel at him in play and had chased him outside and around the cabin. It seemed like he was deliberately staying just barely out of reach, so she faked slipping and falling. He had stopped and come back, almost like he was concerned. She hadn’t waited quite long enough before lunging at him, but had almost caught him by the ears. Close, very close, but not close enough! It seemed they both had laughed for five minutes.
He wouldn’t let her touch him though, particularly on the head. He had stopped growling when she tried, but would move away. At first he would go all the way across the room, and then just his head.
He would follow along with her when she photographed things. He didn’t understand the camera, and would look at it like “what a silly thing”. One night when the moon was full, and the clouds spectacular she had spent the whole night taking pictures. He had just lay there and watched. One dawn there were elk in the clearing. Fawns, Bulls, and Does. He looked at the camera and her like she was the silliest thing he had ever seen. It was like she could see him thinking “use the gun, stupid!”
She had tried to show him the photos, but he wouldn’t look.
Late in the spring he was fully well, and he was getting a kind of restlessness about him. He would pace, and pace, and look off into the distance. And one morning he just got up and headed off, like he was going somewhere. She saw him going and went to the door and watched. He got to the edge of the clearing, and stopped, and looked back. She just stood there. She didn’t want him to go, but couldn’t make him stay. She wanted to call him, but
didn’t, she wanted to thank him, but didn’t know how, she could only watch him. And he had turned around and left. She thought her heart would break, but…well, he was a wild animal.
Late in the afternoon he had come back to the edge of the clearing, and had lain down, like he couldn’t make his mind up. She had sat on the sill and watched him. The sun went down, and the moon came up and they had simply watched each other. At one point she had made herself some dinner, and his ears had come up, but he didn’t move. All that night they had watched each other, when dawn came he got up and just walked into the house.
She had stood aside and let him pass, and not said a word. She didn’t think he noticed, but there were tears running down her cheeks.
Early in summer the mud of spring had finally dried, and she could wander much further. Sometimes she would be gone for a couple of days. He would always be there. Sometimes she would hunt, and he seemed to know when she was doing that, and sort of drive the game to her. He was an amazing dog.
She had tried to tell him her name, which seemed to excite him greatly. When she tried to work out a name for him he looked disgusted. She thought he was going to walk off. She thought since he had seemed to come back from the dead he should be called Phoenix or Lazarus, and he looked like he had a feather caught in his throat, Prince really didn’t seem to suit him, but Sam did, it had strength, and pride, and was simple and straightforward, like him. And he seemed to be willing to respond to it.
He would still get very restless, particularly at night. Sometimes he would pace and pace, and go outside and comeback in and sit down and stand up and sit down. Like he itched, but couldn’t scratch it.
She would leave the door open and scratch his ears, which he was finally allowing her to do. She thought it was more because she liked doing it, than he liked having them scratched. She would tell him it was okay, trying to reassure him, that things would be alright, and he would look at her like,
”Yeah right!”, but he never left again.
They would wander the area, two or three day radiuses, taking pictures of everything. Sometimes they would come across snare traps, and their grisly remains, and she would work to tell the story of what had happened there.
One time Sam had seen a trout in a pool and gone after it. The water was deeper than he thought, and it was hilarious!
One time she had seen a couple of Grizzly Bear cubs playing and had been taking their pictures, and the mother bear had stood up. Nine feet of enraged bear standing not thirty feet away. She was in serious trouble and knew it. As she started backing away, taking pictures all of the way, Sam had charged in and taken on the bear. It was a furious fight. Sam was very fast, but the bear was very strong.
The photos had turned out to be amazing, some of the best she had ever shot.
After she had gotten enough distance away, Sam had also gotten away and they went back to the cabin, where that night she had cared for his wounds.
There was something about how he hadn’t hesitated a heartbeat, but dove in to help her, and thinking it about broke a dam inside her and she put her face in the fur of his neck and cried.
She cried for herself, she cried for Robert, she cried for the Kurdish Children, and the “Collaterally damaged”, she cried for the gangsters, and for the peoples whose lives had been such that drugs were a solution in the first place.
She cried because it all had gone on since the beginning of time, and all the farther we had advanced was this: Marriages ended in vicious divorce courts, visually guided missiles were the ultimate foundation for international negotiations. Shock treatments, prefrontal lobotomies, and addictive drugs given to elementary school children were as far as human understanding had progressed.
She could talk to anyplace on the planet any time she wanted, and get there within a day, but if it were serious, or intense, involving lives or money, or egos, what were the chances of real communication working things out?
If it needed agreement, and that “agreement” were based on who had the biggest bomb, literally or figuratively, what chance did any of us have in the first place?
We could make the bomb, but we couldn’t make sanity.
We could make a court, and laws, but we couldn’t make justice!
She cried for it all, and she cried for a long time, and when she was finished, she felt somehow cleaner, and somehow ready to begin again. And Sam had looked at her like “It’s Okay”, and she cried just a little more.
Sam was right; it was at least beginning to be okay.
Sometimes in the afternoon Sam would go off for a while if she were working around the cabin, and that day he had. She had no idea where he went or what he did, he would just be gone, and then be back.
One day he had done that.
An hour or so later she had heard a small sound and looked out thinking it was Sam, but it had been a strange man instead. She was shocked as he was the first person she had seen since arriving, and this one was not much to look at. His clothes were dirty, he was dirty and unshaved, and there was an air about him that was uncomfortable. This man was a predator, but more like the hyenas she had seen in Africa, actually more like the pimps she had seen around Times Square. What a concept: parasitical predators. It definitely took the pride out of being at the top of a food chain.
And made her clearing a little bit less magical!
It turned out his name was Charlie Hodgkins, and he was the trapper who had been setting the snare traps she had been photographing, and dismantling.
Her photos had been in various magazines in the state and around the country and had people upset at his traps. Some of those people had called their Senators; some of them had called the governor. The Senators had called the Governor, and the Governor had called Fish and Game people. The Fish and Game people had come talking to him. The traps were illegal, he had been poaching. He thought he was lucky that they couldn’t prove anything.
Susan thought he had been lucky nobody had put him in one of his traps.
She thought “lucky” was a word that didn’t apply to people who killed other living things like that. “Lucky” would be a good word for him realizing the pain he had been causing, and changing how he lived.
She wasn’t sure what he wanted. The pictures had already run. If she saw anymore traps, she would take more pictures. This wasn’t the wild west. Charlie seemed to think that blustering and threatening her would change anything that had happened.
About that time Sam came out of the woods. He had moved quietly up to a few feet from Charlie’s back and sat down. He had sat just where the man could see blurry motion, but would have to turn his head to see clearly. Sam just growled quietly. The thing was he looked intent. He had that look wolves get as they are about to hamstring a running elk. He was very focused and intent on the back of Charlie’s leg just above the knee.
The thing about wolves is that they could enjoy a hunt!
Well, Charlie seemed more comfortable yelling at her when he thought she were alone than he did with Sam sitting there thinking wolf thoughts.He made a couple of comments and left.
Later that night Sam was sleeping by the fire and he looked so comfortable, Susan thought. Susan was thinking about Charlie, what was he really doing there?
And she looked again at Sam, what a wonderful chancy meeting!
And he was right. It was going to be okay.