“Going Native”

“Wilderness is a temporary condition through which we are passing to the Promised Land.” — Cotton Mather, American Witch Hunter


Somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, a purple sky met the green prairie grass, the endless white dashed lines of the flat highway funneling into the storm. Viridescent lightning cracked through a towering cloud anvil, accompanied by an avalanche roar. I stopped at a lone filling station as the sky turned black and hail pelted the hood. Ice bounced from the frost-heaved pavement and a rusted Mobil Pegasus violently swung in the breeze, keeping perfect time with the flipping numbers of the fuel counter while I gassed up my rig.

How did I get here?  Well, it began innocently enough, with a quixotic dream of finding truth in the debate over non-native trout.

The topic of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake is probably best left to zealots, romantics and bar flies. In the context of prized game fish and wildlife, altered ecosystems and introduced species are a dime a dozen, including many trout fisheries in the United States. So what’s the big fuss over yet another trout staking its aquatic claim alongside (or perhaps, atop) another trout species?

Drop the words “invasive species” right now among any group of mixed ecological persuasion and blood boils, fingers point and panties knot, at least in the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park. But why everyone should get so rattled is beyond reason.  Or at least that was my theory for a year as I probed the issues. Turns out there’s enough mission-stating, bioprospecting, microsurveying and promiscuous debating to employ a significant portion of the human invaders of the Rockies ecosystem.  Which would be most of us. After months of research, soul-weary and hunched-of-back, I pushed the papers from my desk, threw a toothbrush and a box of waterproof matches atop a copy of William Burroughs’s Word Virus—a gift from a well-meaning but clueless aunt who used an Amazon search to connect bucket biology to post-modernismin my pack, and embarked on a road trip to get real answers.  Frontline answers.

But back to the highway.

I made a run for the convenience store.  After shaking myself like a dog inside the front door, I grabbed a cream soda from the icebox and selected from the dusty shelves a pack of grape-flavored Big League Chew that looked to be of a ’93 vintage. I ripped open the pack at the checkout, asking the sales clerk between pinches of gum if he knew the way East as he tidily punched prices into the till. He looked at me through a tinted monocle, like a patrician fox hunter disdainfully observing a four-wheeler from horseback.

“I always wanted to be a milkshake,” he remarked.

It was at this moment that I recalled the last time I sampled Big League Chew: 1993, behind the press box of the Tioga County Little League Fields. Petey Treacle stole an unguarded pouch off a bleacher footrest.  We split the pack fifty-fifty.  You know how you can immediately tell when you’ve done something drastically wrong?  You find yourself grasping to retrieve that moment just before, when all was fine, when the world was your non-invasive oyster.  When I saw Petey blow a bubble the size of his head, I knew I had crossed over.  Petey watched curiously as I scaled the side of the press box, wrestled the microphone from hands of the announcer and quoted some long-dead poet, “One wanders to the left, another to the right. Both are equally in error, but, are seduced by different delusions.”

The incident made the front page of the town paper: “Eleven-Year-Old Commandeers Little League Press Box, Spouts Gibberish.”  I spent a few days at home, in and out of touch with reality.

Since then, I had long-forgotten my allergy to butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a preservative used to keep anything from bubble gum to frozen chicken fingers fresh. Though embalmed on that shelf for 21 years, the compound retained its ability to play havoc with my neural pathways.

The clerk flipped a coin in the air and slapped it on the counter, sliding it to me. The Buffalo Nickel landed bison-side up.  I took it and slowly backed out of the general store, all the way to my car.  The storm had cleared. I continued on what was now a long strange trip indeed.

Many hours later I landed in The Colonies.  Virginia to be exact.  This was the birthplace of natural sciences in America, a landscape where our collective notions of the natural world were formed through the habits of European settlers who had, to varying degrees, completely destroyed natural habitats and wildlife through agriculture, over-hunting, over-fishing and over-thinking.

I met with Mr. Croharig Burke VI, currently the most sought-after snakehead fishing guide in the nation.  In spite of a strict “catch and kill” policy, the snakehead fish has at long last established a robust breeding population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, subsisting upon native fish and tap dancing its way across the landscape. (Snakehead are equipped to wriggle though exceptionally shallow water, able to survive in such conditions for days at a time.)

Mr. Burke described his first encounter with the maligned fish in the upper Potomac, much of which sounded like urban myth but bears repeating here.  He was throwing streamers, hoping to hook into a largemouth bass.  As he stripped away, he noticed a beast emerge from the water and make its way up the bank—a snakehead fish strolling to the next suitable body of water!  An enterprising angler, he delivered the fly in the fish’s line of sight and stripped across dry ground.  The snakehead chased down the streamer and ate it, but when the fish ran, Burke realized he had a problem, as the beast zig-zagged between trees, creating a hot mess.

“In the end, I tackled it and tried to hogtie it with some tippet, but it was only 7X.  I had no choice but to pull out my forty-four Mag and blast the beast as it was trying to climb a tree.  I keep its dried bladder around my neck.” Indeed, from a leather cord hung a shriveled nugget. Mr. Burke directed me to his iPhone, flipping through selfies with the vanquished snakehead, his six-weight and handgun laid across its body as if he were posing with a downed Cape buffalo.

He emphasized the need for fisheries managers and other naysayers to accept invasive species as wild sport fish on all lands, public and private: “Once anglers and hunters experience the unique, exhilarating experience of stalking wild snakehead in water and on land, efforts to eradicate them will end.”

I asked Croharig if this wasn’t a dangerously creative interpretation of the meaning of “wild.” ”Won’t the general public come to accept a harmful, non-native species as a natural part of the landscape?”

“Biologists’ invasive species spiel is going to wipe out one of this country’s finest angling targets and collapse the entire sportfishing industry,” he replied. “These fish are migrating to new waters on their own, without human intervention, so how are they not indigenous? Snakehead fish are as American as Bruce Springsteen, Old Milwaukee and pork rinds. Snakeheads have constitutional rights….” Here it got a little too Patrick Henry-meets-Moses for print, but Croharig made his point.  After 100 years and the onset of public amnesia, the snakehead would be as entitled as say, an eastern brook trout, to persist in waterways north and south of the Mason-Dixon.  Before I departed the Old Dominion, Croharig removed the trophy bladder from his neck and clasped it into my palms.

“Promise me you won’t forget all that you’ve learned here, Sarah. Promise me.”

“Yes?” I vowed, sort of.  Satisfied, he released my hands and wished me well. I climbed into my car and locked the doors before firing the engine.

Snakehead fish bladder dangling from the rearview as a constant reminder of my mission, I decided that the Eastern Seaboard might not hold the answers to my questions after all.  One of the “advantages” of a severe BHT allergy is that it also locks the mind in a permanent state of wakefulness until the compound is fully metabolized.  Thus I was able to immediately point the car west and zoom off toward the nation’s Bread Basket to meet with Denise Waddlesmith, a feral cat advocate in Breezy Creek Hickory Hills, a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska.

I scraped a layer of cat hair from my tea as I sat on her couch and listened to her tale.  A Persian dug its claws into a leather ottoman, an Angora knocked a vase from an end table, and a Siamese gave birth to a litter of kittens on the hearth as Denise and I chatted like long lost friends.

Feral cats had proliferated throughout the suburb, stanking up backyards with their spray, infecting domestic pets with rabies, and killing native wildlife, particularly songbirds.  Over the last five years, Denise has saved more than 789 feral cats from euthanization at the hands of county wildlife officials.

“They were trapping and killing them and we (I soon learned that Denise’s “we” is a royal we) found that appalling. We initiated an annual fundraising event and petitioned the county to trap, spay, neuter, vaccinate, lecture and release the cats.”

I then met with Reuben McCrampon, a local wildlife officer, over breakfast at a local diner. He shared his thoughts on the program:  “No matter what measures we take, wildlife managers and feral cat advocates can’t possibly account for every single feral cat.  We’ve received six reports of children who have been treated for rabies due to feral cat bites this week alone. And the released cats still have their claws.  So even if their ability to procreate is eliminated, they can still take birds and other wildlife. And the tax payer dollars to support the release program are considerably higher than opting for alternatives.”

“But Officer McCrampon, don’t other things prey upon birds, like foxes and snakes?  Doesn’t it seem a little silly to blame it all on the feral cats? And wouldn’t dollars be better spent on songbird restoration efforts, rather than throwing resources at the unsavory act of cat killing?  How is killing an act of conservation?”

The warden squeezed an entire bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s onto his pancake stack and crushed the container to the table when the last drop fell, turning a bright shade of blue in the process. We dined in silence.

Dissatisfied, I returned to Denise, finding her in a rocker on the front porch of her home, knitting a scarf from spun cat hair.  I asked if she valued the right of feral cats to live more than that of native wildlife.

DW:  “These are native, wild animals.  Who tells them when to eat? When to sleep? When to defecate? No one tells a feral cat how to be. How are these cats any different from lynx, mountain lions or bobcats?  They have been here at least twenty-five years, as long as this cul-de-sac development has existed. The genocide of this majestic creature represents the overexploitation of a wild creature at its worst. Tearing the feral cat out of the food chain spells an ecological collapse.”

SG: “So you’re comparing the removal of feral cats from the top of the food chain to the mass elimination of sharks and other keystone ocean species to supply seafood markets?”

DW: “Meow! I mean, of course!”

Intrigued with the ecological picture that I was beginning to piece together—whether in my imagination or in reality, there’s no telling which—I rolled toward the next stop, pondering the puzzle in truck stop diners and cheap motels.  I imagined I was the heroine in an unearthed Waylon Jennings’ ballad, “American Indigeneity.”

I made it to Idaho where, at last, I met with a true-blue scientist, Dr. Elsonbrerro Von Phantidae, a wildlife geneticist originally from Turkey and a naturalized citizen of the United States. (Thank goodness the vocabulary employed to describe and designate human migration to the United States is so much simpler.)  Dr. VP is working to establish a breeding population of bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus) in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness Area.  Currently, he raises the ibex—a subspecies of goat—in game enclosures with the hope of releasing them into the wilderness.

In 2010, his entire ibex herd escaped through an enclosure hole and made their way toward mountainous terrain on nearby federal land.  Dr. VP saw this as his big chance, watching from a tower on his compound, one hand holding binoculars to his eyes, the other held to his mouth, which gnawed fingernails to stubs while urging the herd toward freedom in Turklish.  (Turklish, he explained, is the synthesizing of Turkish and English, not as widely recognized as Spanglish, but a viable, hybridized language nonetheless.) But state wildlife officials showed up armed and shot the entire herd in 10 minutes.  They claimed that the ibex could spread disease to native mountain goat populations and potentially breed with them, thereby weakening the wild herd DNA strand.  After the incident, the Doctor went into a year of seclusion, plotting the more secretive release of his next herd.

“Bezoar ibex populations in Asia Minor are teetering on the brink of extinction.  If they can’t make it in their native range, the least I can do is ensure their perpetuation on the North American continent.  I have now traveled twice by wagon, steamliner, freight train, and eighteen-wheeler to transport ibex from southeast Turkey to Idaho.  I vow on my grandfathers’ graves that this next, naturalized herd will be released into the wild.”

“But Dr. VP, aren’t wilderness areas designated to preserve and showcase America’s native landscapes with minimal human manipulation and interference? Had the ibex proven a benefit to the local ecosystem in such a way to deem it naturalized?”

Dr. VP offered me a strip of ibex jerky and a PowerPoint presentation. (For those readers wondering: ibex jerky is surprisingly tasty—better than a Hot Mama but not quite as good as Jack Link’s.) Briefly forgetting the Big League Chew, I suspected the chewy hunk of ibex was laced with something, as Pink Floyd’s “Time” began to play and a screen dropped from his laboratory ceiling.

“You see, this is all a simple question of time—my timeline, to be specific.  In 1974, when I was a young boy, my grandfather took me for a hike in the Taurus Mountains, which rose just beyond our fig orchard. As we neared the peak, I rounded a switchback, and there, spied a male ibex on a promontory. The sun shone down on its chestnut coat and ebony horns, and it wasn’t just flat sunlight, but that light that is heavy and filtered and golden and every illuminated particle becomes a significant messenger. That moment for me encapsulated all that Turkey is and stands for.  The ibex is facing extinction in that part of the world, so it is our moral obligation to preserve it in another part of the world. That is, here in Idaho.”

“But Dr. VP, weren’t scientists trained to think across millennia? Are childhood memories from the 70s justification for preserving the species in a new locale?”

The doctor stood up and began gesticulating wildly.  “Memories, Sarah, I have precious memories of seeing these in Turkey as a boy! How would you like it if I cruelly shattered your memor—”

Here, I interrupted the professor to inquire into his ibex jerky recipe. The world was a shade of pink I had never seen before and which, I suspect, no human being has ever witnessed except those destined to die in a super mall stuffed animal store; it was the pink that was there at the Big Bang, the rose on the cheeks of Raphael’s Madonna, the plumage of a juvenile flamingo at sunset on Lake Nakuru.  It was that pink.

Professor VP scrawled out his recipe: ibex meat strips, a pinch of cayenne, three dashes of Heinz 54 and a handful of indiscriminately harvested wild mushrooms. I took the recipe and found my way out the door, awakening the next day in a field of knapweed, a fuchsia-hued noxious plant that grows throughout the state and takes over native grasses and pastures.  I decided this would conclude my inquiry in Idaho.

From here, my journey took me to Eurasian Milfoil World Heritage Site in California, a purple loosestrife farm in Michigan, Quagga Mussel Lake State Park Recreation Area in Nevada, even back to a lionfish aquaculture operation in Florida.

I headed home with less clarity about what an invasive species was than when I left.  All I really knew was that science was a bendy object, and that selecting a pack of gum off of a dusty filling station shelf can be a bad idea.

But if anyone would like to discuss the matter, you can find me retired from my journey somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, sitting on a front porch rocker, knitting a beret from spun cat’s hair while chewing ibex jerky, snakehead fish bladder hanging from my neck.