Today from my new home in Bend, Oregon, I’m sharing an excerpt from my creative nonfiction manuscript featuring kingfishers, myth, and a place that will always be another home–Missoula, Montana and especially Rattlesnake Creek where I followed a nesting pair of kingfishers for many seasons.
My fingers trace the faint lettering etched on the squared off boulder set back from Rattlesnake Creek. As the powdery snow falls away, the words emerge:
“In attending to this wilderness I have been instructed for life.” -Henry Bugbee.
Winter can be fierce in northern climes like Montana with snowstorms, iced over creeks and rivers, and face-numbing temperatures below zero. Winter is also the slowing down time. On the Aegean sea in far off Greece, Aeolus the god of winds calms the sea for seven days before and after winter solstice. It is then his kingfisher daughter Halcyon and her beloved kingfisher Ceyx can nest upon the seas. Native Americans throughout North America reserved winter for the telling of coyote and animal people stories, including kingfishers.
On this day, a couple inches of snow dust the Bugbee boulder. The nearby creek murmurs below its cloak of ice. The kingfishers have left Rattlesnake Creek. In their absence, I listen to the stories in the currents and among the leafless cottonwoods and the stalwart, red-gold trunks of the ponderosa pines bearing their bundles of long green needles in three that turn silver on a foggy, icy day.
Even when I cannot see or hear the halcyon birds, I know they have traced every bend of the creek, patrolling fishing territories and chasing away competitors of their own species. In winter, most of the females migrate south and the remaining males fly afield from their nest territories to find the best fishing on ice-free waters—on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers.
My Ceyx (the male) cannot be far. He does have a prime couple miles of prime nesting banks to defend upstream from the Bugbee Preserve. Right now? I suspect he is the one I’ve spotted on the Clark Fork River in the middle of Missoula—my wild bird gone urban.
I often come to the Bugbee Nature Preserve to read the words of the philosopher who once fly-fished the waters and hiked the mountains of this Rattlesnake Creek watershed. Every day Henry Bugbee had climbed up Mt Jumbo’s steeply canted flanks. In later years, he switched to Waterworks Hill, a milder, yet still challenging trek in the lower North Hills. Every walk was a meditation and every step a grounded connection, while Henry examined the realms of the mind.
I miss meeting Henry striding up the mountain with his trekking poles, his silvery white hair flowing in the wind. Never did I feel intimidated by his prodigious knowledge. He was an inspiring professor at University of Montana, where he taught philosophy until retiring in 1978, and before that a professor at Stanford and Harvard. I knew him as outdoor orator and listener.
My brother David, an English major, once vanished for hours in the North Hills on what I’d thought would be a casual run during his brief visit in Missoula from his Colorado Rockies home. When he returned, breathless and animated, David recounted meeting a man of great brilliance high on the crest of Waterworks Hill above the peace sign. They had stood there on the summit where ravens converge on gusty days, discussing Homer’s Odyssey and time slipped away.
Henry reveled in chance encounters with kindred thinkers like my brother. As an avid flyfisherman, he also sought the fast, clear currents of mountain streams laden with wily trout. He had owned this land that he donated as the Bugbee Nature Preserve —five acres of cottonwood, ponderosa , mock orange, wild rose, red osier dogwood, alder, and a weedy lattice of creek bottom plants, situated three and a half miles downstream from the kingfisher burrow.
It’s a sliver of public wilds between Tom Green Park (north) and Greenough Park (south). Pinned in by houses upstream and downstream, the preserve is hardly wild in that grand way of Montana Wilderness areas with the capital “W,” like the Selway-Bitterroot, the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, and the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
Yet, here in this preserve, I’ve watched a belted kingfisher streak past in a dizzying river-blue and white blur, the ringing staccato sound riding the cool pillow of air above the currents. Here, even in winter, a dipper dips for a couple of full body push ups, then hops off a rock and plies the rushing depths on stubby wings to emerge seconds later as dry as if wearing a wetsuit. Here, mergansers raft the rapids, and bull trout nose upstream to ancestral spawning beds.
I feel Henry’s presence always. Listen. Attend. The words stand out white and stark on days like this when the creek glides under snow and ice, and on others when frigid winds send errant leaves skittering among creaking cottonwood limbs. Attend to the wilds. I hear the words in the birds, in the crack of a branch, and in the muffled waters.
(Thanks to my friend Kate Davis for her fabulous kingfisher photos–please support Raptors of the Rockies and her great educational work! http://www.raptorsoftherockies.org)