The Long Stillwater

Robert Morris surgery at Bellevue Hospital, NY
Robert Morris operating at Bellevue Hospital, NY, c. 1895

The Long Stillwater is a chapter Robert Morris, M.D. wrote to celebrate a love of nature from a trove of memories. Stillwater is hardly a dictionary word, but it made sense yesterday as I floated on a mirror-perfect patch of still water on the inside bend of Powhatan Creek. A few yards away, tidal water surged upstream to revisit saltmarshes to a terminus in a swamp of bald cypresses. Morris wrote:

When a man retires from the swift rapids of an active professional life he arrives at a long stillwater, but the banks of that stillwater are so alive that his days continue to be brimful. Unlike Gibbon who felt desolate after completing his history, the doctor goes on, for medicine has been collateral to many other interests which were always in the clover field just over the fence. I look forward with almost boyish eagerness to new work and playtime to re-read the old classics and to enjoy choice literature, and time to live in the out-of-doors. I shall stalk the moose and bear, not with a gun but a camera. Now I can go when the Red Gods call.

He must go ― go ― go away from here!
On the other side the world he’s overdue.
‘Send your road is clear before you when the old Spring-fret comes o’er you,
And the Red Gods call for you!

Several years ago, I left a determined bass of violent nature and fancy greenish luster under a crawfish bank in the swift-running waters of the upper Mississippi. I know just where he is this very minute, and I can now go back to him and cast a black raven fly into that white foamy eddy. When corn is in the shock and autumn leaves are falling, Lou Smith and I shall climb over the frosty top rail of a shaky old fence just before sunrise to hear a woodcock go twittering up through the alders. I know an inlet for safe anchorage by the sea where halyards will slap against the mast and the boom will bump, bump, bump while surf is roaring and growling on the outer bar and brant geese go filing overhead.

The saddle will creak monotonously on my broncho as I plod hour after hour through scattered mesquite and cacti in the overpowering, awe-inspiring silence of the desert. Once more, I may enjoy the fragrance of sage brush after a rain and see the ocotillos in bloom with no more hurry than that of a Navajo Indian when he feels like resting. For companionship in the desert, I shall choose a friend for whom hardship is nothing but a diversion.

Then back perhaps to Eastern Canada, where all is green when it is not blanketed with snow. From somewhere among the tangled viburnums and blue Clintonia berries two white-throated sparrows will sing to me and my companion in clear tones in clean air. The wind will be moving in the forest, and gold flakes of sunlight will filter through the birches to the mossy logs. A hermit thrush will send tones of spiritual ecstasy ringing through the silence, modulating from minor key to major key and back again, while evening lights fall slanting through the somber tops of pointed spruces. And neither my companion nor I shall speak, for we have learned that “music begins where words end.” And when the grandest of all music, that of storm, is approaching, I shall go forth to meet it, high up among the crags and peaks.

How I love a storm! The wind slowly dies, and an ominous quiet settles down over motionless gray lichens. From out of the west, bold rolling heads of cumulus come marching with martial front into the afternoon’s clear blue heaven; volume crowding volume, on they come! The sky darkens and blackens. In massive majestic motion, the heavy clouds sink lower than the crags. Darkness is everywhere. My fingertips tingle with electricity for a moment. Suddenly, there is a brilliant flash of startling light; then a devastating crash makes the solid rock quiver under my feet. Reverberations go bounding along in diapason from canyon to canyon—grand organ pipes of nature. Thundering echoes roll on in deepest bass. On to distance, distance, distance—lost! A momentary hush of ponderous quiet, as the affrighted air stands still before the next, the impending crash.

Jove’s message is delivered and his heralds rapidly disband into vast loose volumes of nimbus, shot through and through with long shafts of crimson and titanic fan rays of deeper red. Bright sunshine lights the evening sky once more and high peaks glow, but soon long shadows creep down to darkening vales for night and deeper dark. ‘Tis then I am the mountaineer, and yet at times, when all is still, I seem to hear loud surf—but that is only memory for one who loves the sea.

Extracted from A Surgeon’s Story. The Autobiography of Robert T. Morris. Compiled and edited by Roger Gosden and Morrris’s granddaughter, Pam Walker (2013)

Robert T. Morris

Yarns about Mountain Lions

Mountain Lion
Photo: Zach Key (Unsplash)

Ask local folk if mountain lions (aka cougars/ pumas/ panthers) still prowl the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and you’ll likely get a nod or they might bend your ear to tell a tale. But if you visit the WV Division of Natural Resources  you’ll read the big cats were extirpated over a century ago.

Do people who live in the country know better than wildlife officers who patrol it? It’s a touchy subject. Firmly held convictions about a secretive native species are harder to argue against than belief in the Sasquatch of Canada or Nessie in Scotland.

Few people want an apex predator in their backyard, but we are a quirky species. We want to be in control of our environment, to make it safe and productive, yet at the same time we love to celebrate the romantic mystery of wild places. I dread the day, if ever it comes, when we know everything about every square yard on a tamed Earth or when science completes its journey of exploration. Better the joys of search and discovery that the end of curiosity, where boredom begins. Better the frisson felt on the trail when an unseen beast bolts from the brush into the deep woods than being blind and deaf to nature. Novelty and surprise are sauce for stories to bring home.

A gamecam photo of a mountain lion dragging a white-tailed deer posted on social media prompted the following string of comments from people around Pocahontas County. [My added remarks].

  1. Holy cow! [Perhaps the commentator thought the photo was taken recently and locally, but neither the case]
  2. I saw one in Randolph County 25 years ago and my husband and I witnessed two young mountain lions near Huntersville in Pocahontas County a few years ago ‘mousing’ in a field. Our son had one on his game camera last winter near Minnehaha Springs [nearby].
  3. Saw one at Clover Lick about 15 years ago [also nearby].
  4. We told the game warden about two in Huntersville. She said she knew a momma had a pair in the rocks at Beaver Creek.
  5. I’m surprised they said that. Any warden we ever talked to said it’s impossible. But maybe that’s changing [diplomatic].
  6. My daughter saw one up back of our trailer on Elk Mountain.
  7. If we have mountain lions why bear hunter never treed one. None has been hit by a car. No trail cam pictures. Been hunting here all my life but nave (sic) seen a track. Not calling anyone a liar, just like piece of proof.
  8. And didn’t the game wardens attempt to prosecute the farmer that killed it? It was after his sheep.
  9. I know what I seen. I stopped and looked. It wasn’t brown but black and wasn’t a house cat. [No definite records of wild black panthers in the US]
  10. Wow!
  11. Mountain lions were there when I was growin up. They were in the backyard.
  12. If you killed one ye go 20 years in federal pen [really?!]. That probably why ye never hear of one bein killed.

You don’t need to take sides in the debate about mountain lions roaming the county. Standing on both sides of the fence at the same time is perfectly comfortable.

Some sightings by the public are undeniable, although most cases are probably mistaken identity. Authentic reports are too rare to make hiking there more exciting!

On the other hand, the DNR is also correct insofar that no breeding population of mountain lions currently exists. Convincing reports of individual beasts are likely based on escapees from captivity or deliberate releases into the wild after kittens grow up savage.

I heard a persuasive story this summer by someone I know from four miles away. When she opened her door, she saw a big cat in the backyard menacing her pet cat. She screamed at the top of her voice so loud her father heard it a quarter mile away. Knowing it meant his daughter was in trouble, Keith Mace grabbed a rifle and ran down the mountainside. No one suffered harm that day but the event added another chapter to the ongoing debate.

Keith Mace in Pocahontas County

Today, I draft this post on the first anniversary of the passing of my friend Keith Mace, who died from a tractor accident at age 81. He was born and lived most of his life on Mace Mountain, named after his pioneer ancestors.

Next Post: Peregrine Falcon

On Islands. #1. Home Rum

Isle of Rum
Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides

You don’t have to be born on one to love islands, though I have a double reason, born on an island off another island.

A BBC article about a young couple settling on the Isle of Rum brought back fond memories of staying there for a couple of nights some years ago with a family member. It is the largest of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides with a northerly view of Skye’s Cuillin Hills.

Alex and Buffy were chosen from a list of applicants to join the community of about 30 residents. They sought a change in life, and what a change from Bristol, England! Roaming for days in wind and rain over 40 square miles you may never meet another soul, though plenty of wildlife. Red deer and feral goats on the boggy land; white-tailed and golden eagles overhead; otters, dolphins and whales from the shoreline.  

Life isn’t so hard as for crofters in the past, who lived in ‘black houses’ until 19th Century landowners turfed them out  for more profitable sheep and deer (so-called Highland Clearances). Not even Rum is off the Net nowadays, though off the Grid. There are compensations for leaving conventional jobs, pubs and supermarkets. Fresh air, exercise, no crime and something new and interesting on every hike. Creature comforts can be enjoyed, nestled in a new ‘eco-house’ with scrumptious home baking according to their Instagram blog.

George Orwell chose a hermit life on the island of Jura to the south for writing his novel 1984, but you don’t need to be a self-employed writer or artist to live on Rum. Paid and voluntary work are available for the tiny community and nature conservation.

My first sight of the island was from camp near Arisaig in 1971. We saw a mountain dome 30 miles out to sea in one of those glorious but rare Highland sunsets. Decades later I stayed on Rum at Kinloch Castle, perhaps the most eccentric stately home I ever visited.

Built by an English industrialist who bought the island for recreation, he rests in a mausoleum modelled on a Greek temple, planted incongruously in wilderness overlooking the ocean . His son built the castle in 1900, creating an opulence he couldn’t afford after the 1929 Crash. It had golf and tennis courts, grew hothouse fruit, and had heated ponds for turtles and alligators. Extensive gardens were cultivated by a gang of men said to be paid to wear kilts. I remember the walls of the dark wainscoted hall where majestic heads of deer hung among portraits of the less handsome Bullough family. Painful to see skins of big cats spread on the floor.

After the folly, the island was sold to the Nature Conservancy around 1957 and is now owned and managed by NatureScot to protect internationally important habitats. Among the natural treasures is the Manx Shearwater colony nesting in holes atop a mountain. Perhaps the largest in the world at 100,000 pairs they are at sea most of the year, and in the breeding season only venture back from fishing to their burrows after dark because they are vulnerable to predators.

I climbed to their redoubt, arriving around 11 pm, an hour before complete darkness at that latitude in midsummer. Nothing stirred until midnight when weird croaks from their catacombs alerted me. Then ghostly birds flapped around silently, even in arm’s reach. With an LED headlight I could get inches away before they flew, fearless as they hadn’t seen humans all year.

Some memories never fade, like the first sight of an isle bathed at sunset or the last sight of a Manxie at midnight.

Next post: Black Vulture