A road trip from Minneapolis to Louisville to Asheville and the animals that see us.
Music by Brian Thavis
Part 1: Bears don’t kill beavers. Legend says they are of the same kin. So much so, that I’ve heard tales of northern trappers staring on in disbelief as bears help beavers escape from snares. Bears are powerful, and brave while Beavers are the stubborn ones, stopping at nothing to complete their job. Work usually begins by damming fast moving water. Wider streams give them more protection and provide an ideal place to build a lodge. The exterior is constructed by Arranging sticks, stones and mud. On the interior, they create soft bedding with grass, wood chips and reeds. The roof is pitched like a teepee for ventilation. If you find a beaver lodge on a cold day you may see steam rising from their chimney. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear the family griping at each other, chewing on sticks, and grooming themselves.
During fall, beavers stockpile sticks underwater in preparation for winter. When the water freezes, this is all they have to eat. They crawl out of a water tunnels built into their lodge. Their rear webbed feet propel them to the underwater stock pile, They grab the stick with their mouth. Their inner set of lips close to prevent their throat from filling with water, a flap protects their ears, and a lining covers their eyes. Only humans manipulate the environment more than beavers.
On my way to wild goose festival I stopped in Clarksville, IN, across the river from Louisville KY. The name sakes of the explorers who departed from this place, Louis and Clarke.
Prior to convening here, Meriwhether Lewis wrote to William Clarke asking him to quote
“find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree: should any young men answering this description be found in your neighborhood I would thank you to give information of them on my arrival at the falls of the Ohio”
There used to be falls here. Now it’s just another dammed river.
In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition began. The party included about 30 men, including Clark’s slave, York, and 9 Louisville residents. They canoed, portaged, and walked west for over a year. Eventually arriving at the Pacific Ocean where they spent the winter. I After 3 years of travel, they returned to this river bank where tonight, I’m sleeping in my car.
The car was still hot from driving in the sun all day. So I opened the sunroof and took a stroll. I walked past the concrete levies to the shore of the Ohio river. It was a Tuesday night, no one around. A full moon resting on the cables of the bridge. Soft blue lighting below. The Louisville side of the bridge looked beautiful at night. Not daunting like the skyline of a tier one city like Chicago, LA, or New York. Just a modest validation of American achievement.
I’d been standing still for several minutes and became aware that I had interrupted a beaver’s midnight snack. She had already seen me. But apparently didn’t feel threatened. She was ,after all, in her element Ebbing and flowing with the ripples of shoreline waves. Disappearing and returning with another walnut twig. This one for her child. Who was much less skeptical of the human observing her from the shoreline. Mom’s eyes never left me as she devoured her green woody meal.
The beaver was once a women. She dammed a stream to swim and enjoyed it so much, that her leather apron became a tale.
Part 2. the festival:
Experiences like WG festival are hard to summarize. It will take months for me to process everything. For now, here’s 1 takeaway: My tolerance for Christian language is far greater than my contemporaries.
While I, with no certain conviction, think the Christian stories and characters are fascinating, complex, ancient, my peers cringe at the slightest sniff of christian rhetoric. I understand why. We see main stream Christians who are judgmental, dogmatic, and more concerned with building a larger church than securing a dry place for a homeless family to sleep
I’ve given Christianity a chance, and it’s stories have taught me so much. Poets like Miester Eckhart, Thomas Merton and John O Donohou- revolutionaries like St. Francis, and St. Ignacious- academics like St. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo- and social justice legends like Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa… My contemporaries may never be willing to learn from them. Just because of the negative association they have with the Christian language. It’s disappointing. Close minded. But I understand. It’s time for a new language. A language that doesn’t yet exist.
Part 3. The Bear
The final day of the festival, I woke up in my tent to the sound of the French broad river rolling over shallow stones. In the background, Frank Schaefer spoke about big things like systemic racism- small things like the bugs he and his granddaughter observe on their walks through the woods. Brian McClaren spoke about the 4 types of Churches in America- the complacent, the hesitant, the progressive, and the revolutionary.
Then sister Simone, of Nuns on the Bus, talked about feminism, radical inclusion, and the church institutions she has pissed off
A few departing words were said. We wished goodbye to newfound friends, packed our tents, then drove away.
Less than a mile from the camp site, a small black bear came into a clearing on the side of the highway. I pulled the car over to get a better look. The bear, equally curious, stood on her hind legs to observe me. Her fur was black but her ears were tan, like human skin. They were pointed up. She came back down to all fours, stepped a yard closer, then effortlessly rose again to her hind legs.
Cars lined up behind me, and after a minute or so, she was bored with the noisy hum of air-conditioned cars, so she strolled back into the forrest, towards the river.
Joyed by my strange encounter with Mrs. Bear, I accelerated up the mountain, past a rafting lodge, an abandoned general store, and a crumbling gas station. Wound down the holler, tapping the steering wheel to the beat of radio bluegrass. I was trying to go East but the roads seem to be going every direction but that way.
Rounding another bend there was a line of vehicles stopped in from of me. So I slowed down and turned of the music. Maybe another bear? I don’t think so. Drivers were getting out of their cars to diagnose the delay. A white haired motorcyclist attempted to stand on the guardrail to get a better look. But he couldn’t lift his leg high enough so he almost fell. I turned off my car and waited
Word spread from the front that the accident was bad. One ambulance, two three, Two people pinned, fire truck, head on collision.
Long ago a bear abducted the daughter of an Indian Chief. She was picking blueberries and stepped in some bear dung. Disgusted by the Bear’s uncleanliness, she cursed the monsters, “dirty bears”. A bear nearby, tired of the human’s disrespect, transformed into a handsome man. He approached the women and invited her back to his home. The woman fell in love and ended up having twin bear cubs who, who were also part human. Eventually the women’s tribe came to the rescue and killed her outnumbered bear husband. They returned the women and her children to the village. They tried to adapt but the twins never understood the abstract ideas that influenced the people’s behavior so they ran away to the forrest, never to be seen again. To this day, all members of the bear clan are decedents of these twins.
Legend has it that our brother bear and cousin beaver are of the same kin.
It’s nice to know that even if we destroy ourselves, our relatives may survive. Nibbling on walnut twigs, on the banks of a crumbling city. Now, more than ever, a modest validation of American achievement.