On a wilderness search, crashing through brush in the dark, we have little time to make note of the flora and fauna that don’t actually reach out and trip us, bind us, or smack us across the forehead. Terrain on searches is something to be got through. We look at maps and satellite images and try to strategize, frame the hazards for lost persons. We know that terrain may be the problem that caused someone to go missing in the first place. So search and rescue personnel are out there searching, and we’re out there training a great deal, too.
SAR work has brought me closer to local wilderness than anything I ever experienced in the 40+ years I’ve lived in Texas. Sure, some of this learning has been painful. I’ve been stuck by plenty of mesquite thorns and more than once have had to cut myself, or my dog, free of splendid, beautiful wild rose vines and other prickly things less poetic. Sapling trees have seemed downright vindictive as I crawled through low branches following my dog. Puzzle’s center of gravity makes navigation easier, but her coat still bears the evidence of every thorn, burr and seedcoat present in our sector. Wilderness work is rarely easy. It requires a certain amount of stamina, a willingness to overlook puncture wounds.
But in the larger sense wilderness work teaches us about the land’s native tendency. What the wild spaces are, and what we are — for better, for worse — in them.
I have begun to understand the anxious ecology of land struggling through human encroachment. Training sessions where I’m a volunteer victim offer particular insights. As I pretend I’m a downed rock climber for a series of new search dogs and lie uneasily close to the poison ivy, I’m still puzzled by evidence of other humans in the woods. Many times I’m surprised by what’s been dropped — an old reel of red/black typewriter ribbon, far from easy dumping grounds — how did it get out there, and why? A PVC elbow and a rusty metal cheese grater. A croquet ball at the bottom of a slope too hard for any wicket to ever bear. The hardest, saddest thing I’ve ever seen was a duckling, trapped in the plastic loops that bind a six-pack, caught on a bankside tree root and drowned.
Wildlife attempts to reconcile itself to the things we leave behind. But one gets the feeling there’s little room left to adapt. Greasy, flightless birds abandon roadside oil dumps after their casualties and their lost food sources make it necessary. Mice attempt to nibble or nest almost anything. And what of the cat carrier we found in a popular biking-trail-slash-wildlife preserve, its gate wide open, a red tag wound through its handle, a tag labeled with a local shelter’s logo, a hand-written “Charlie” and what appeared to be a euthansia-date? Some little creature had ignored the old scent of cat and dragged in leaves and a scrap of dropped knitwear and attempted to rig home in the carrier. This clearly had not worked (evidence of struggle; no escape route out the back). I wonder about that cat and how he fared, too — long gone and making his second-chance way in those woods.
The wilderness had its little joke. That hat was missing for two-and-a-half years. A teammate, hiding for another search dog, found it in late summer 2008. And the hat had seen a little action. Something had tried to eat it. Something had tried to live in it. And something, seeing no use in it for food or habitat, had marked it in the way an animal will in mating season — a power message beast-to-beast, a piss-and-hormone stench that carried even through the trunk of my car. This seemed entirely appropriate. Shame on me for my negligence. After its disposal, the fug of it hung around the garage for days.
I may have dropped the hat, but the woods got the very last word.