the things you dont see

The best excuse I've found so far for sitting around lazy and staring at the scenery is to say that I'm studying the land. And it's true.

The best excuse I’ve found so far for sitting around lazy and staring at the scenery is to say that I’m studying the land. And it’s true. If you do it often enough, throughout the seasons, it burns itself into your subconsciousness: what it looks like, what belongs there, what’s part of it. More importantly, what’s unusual, what doesn’t quite fit in starts to jump out at you.

A nice way to impress visitors – oh, see that bear over there behind the willow? That dark roundish blob? Look, a moose brushed against this broken-off branch, see the hairs stuck to it? The visitors tend to assume that you’re blessed with keen eagle-eyed vision and an uncanny sense of animal movements, when all it really is is the summation of all those years watching the light create different shadows under the trees and admiring the elegant sweep of a mountain flank. Just gazing at the land and soaking up what it looks like, without so much as trying to memorize or analyze anything.

The feeling that there is an animal, usually a large one, around even though you can’t spot it must be connected with that, I think. An automatic filtering of signals that it’s hard to put a finger on – maybe the warning of a squirrel or robin, a rustling of leaves different from when the wind stirs them, the cracking of a branch, a certain tension in the dogs – but often it’s more subtle than that. I find myself running through these indicators when I get the sense that there’s an animal around and tend to come up with nothing. Tracks, smells? A lot of times none, at least in the locations where I check. And yet, as I walk on or a couple of hours later, I do find the fresh bear scat or see a moose.

Similarly, other times the land feels completely empty, as if anything larger than a fisher has packed up their things and left. A bit hard to check on that in the summer, although I always look at the rubbing trees for new strands of bear hair and at the soapberry bushes for signs of harvesting. A couple of sandy spots on surrounding game trails tend to betray any traffic with hoof or paw imprints and the moose’s favourite willows will show if somebody munched on them.

Still, the feeling that nobody is there for miles is hard to verify – an animal could have been just around the corner and I wouldn’t see the telltale signs unless I went there. When there’s snow, however, it’s easy to do a sweep through the woods and find that indeed, no big game is in the area. I like that, the land like an extension of my body, of the cabin, having a feeling for what’s going on. It’s just a heightened awareness, I suppose, a matter of having ones senses automatically open without straining for every little shift out there.

That’s what makes going into town so difficult – when you’re used to the luxury of perception, of not having to tune so many things out, then the hustle and bustle, the smells, the noise hit you like a sledgehammer. Until you begin to filter things out again. When I go to town, it always makes me wonder at what expense it comes, this blocking of signals you have to undertake in civilization in order to function. The adjustment also works the other way round: the bush seems so quiet, so inanimate for a day or two, until the interplay of my senses works again.

So when I lie in the sun as I did yesterday, with the calling of loons the only sound except for the dogs’ rustling as they pulled saskatoon berries off the bushes, and let my eyes wander over the yellow-tipped grass by the water and the patches of cottonwood flaring up brightly in the forest, I’m not being lazy. I’m filing it all away somewhere inside under “Early Fall”; also the fog that is rising from the water this morning and the way the early sun reflects in the dew drops. It’s just a different way of being at work. I could have done worse in life.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.