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Monday, June 27, 2011

In God's Wildness

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
(John Muir)

After it was all over, and I had lived to tell the tale, a friend at church who was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer took me aside and said, “You know they kill more people than bears and wolves combined, don’t you?”

I told him I didn’t know that.

“Crews in the bush,” he went on, listing the sorts of people who had already fallen victim to the half-ton beast, “park wardens, tree planters, loggers, surveyors, backcountry hikers. The animal is absolutely determined and will keep on coming at you until you are pounded into blood and dust. No amount of playing dead will work.” His eyes narrowed as he locked eyes with me. “I’d sooner take on a mother grizzly robbed of her cubs than the thing that charged you.”

The day had been a glorious one, blue skies and sunshine and summer trees thick with green. Our young family hopped in the jeep and drove through miles of forests and foothills country, the Rocky Mountains at our backs, spotting deer and coyote and sometimes, way up a hillside, a black bear or young grizzly. Finally we stopped at a picnic site and sat down at an outdoor table to eat lunch. The kids were only six or seven at the time and were soon laughing on the swings, bouncing on the teeter-totter and zipping down the slides.

I played with them a while then asked if anyone wanted to walk the dogs with me. My son and daughter liked to go on hikes but the playground in the woods was a novelty so they wanted to stay behind which meant, of course, my young wife was staying behind as well to keep an eye on them. She gave me a kiss and bent down to pet Yukon and Nahanni.

“Take care of each other,” she said to them. Then she stood up and smiled. “Enjoy yourself. I wish I could come with you. It’s a perfect day.”

I put the dogs on their six foot leashes. We soon found a narrow path that led away from the picnic area and began to follow it. Yukon and Nahanni were a Golden Labrador and coyote cross – coyotes had come down out of the hills and mated with a domestic dog in Vancouver, British Columbia. The result had been their mother, Sheba, who had looked far more coyote than Golden Lab. But she had mated with another Lab so her offspring were an incredible mix of coyote and Lab features – Yukon’s coat was white with the exact patchwork you found on a Golden Lab and Nahanni’s fur was tawny or fawn-colored. They had big Lab eyes and Lab loyalty and intelligence but their muzzles were coyote long, their ears were up and coyote sharp and their tails were coyote long and bushy with white tips. Often they moved so silently in the yard or when we invited them into the house that I didn’t even know they were standing behind me.

As much or more than any other breed they loved to be in the forests and the wilderness places. The scent of wild animals was intoxicating to them. Unless I had tracks to go by, or a particular scent or musk was especially strong, I never knew what they were getting excited about. I often wished there was some chip in their brain that connected wirelessly to a small laptop in my hand that would instantly read out: they are picking up wolf, mule deer, cougar, fox, lynx, raccoon, jackrabbit. But they sniffed, I took in the fresh beauty of the summerwoods and the scent of sun-cooked pine and spruce resin that I loved and we plunged ahead into a part of the world we had never been in before.

After about ten minutes among the trees we came out into the open and made our way through a large patch of grassland. Glimpses of the mountains in the distance, with that shimmering sea of blue over my head, made me literally thank God I was alive – his creation, as always, filled me with wonder, exhilaration and peace. The companionship of Yukon and Nahanni made the experience that much sweeter. Our trail took us farther and farther from the woods behind us and bent towards a new stretch of forest a hundred yards ahead. We carried on. Everything was perfect.

A sudden crashing of branches from the forest in front snapped me out of my reverie and brought the dogs’ heads up sharply. A huge brown creature hurtled out of the woods at us, its large ears flat, its eyes rolled back white and its teeth flaring in a fierce grin that meant no good. At first I thought it was a wild horse. But my brain quickly checked through the facts and kicked out the word moose. I had seen moose in the wild before but never before had one been racing at me on its long legs looking as if it wanted to bite my head off.
I did not react instantly. For the
longest time – three or four seconds – I watched the moose come barreling down the trail and could not believe it was happening. I half-expected a Fisheries and Wildlife officer to suddenly pop out of the bush, blow a whistle and wave his hands and bring the creature to a halt. One corner of my brain assured me that, just as there was in a zoo or wildlife park, a deep ditch or unseen fence was in place to keep the moose from charging much farther and I was safe. But another corner of my brain shoved everything else aside and said: Release the dogs so they can run for their lives.

I unsnapped the leashes and the dogs took off the way we had come at top speed. No Greyhound or timber wolf ran faster than they did that day. My brain hurled another command at me: Get into the woods. Go. Go. I dropped the leashes and left the trail, racing through the tall grass for a strip of forest on my left. Glancing behind, I saw that the moose had quickly decided it could not catch the dogs but that it had a very good chance of catching me. It roared across the grass in hot pursuit.

In high school I had run the 100 meters, 200 meters and 800 meters. Though I still jogged for exercise now and then the days of hard training and fleetness of foot were in the past. Yet God has invented adrenaline. And it surged through me like a blaze. I didn’t have a plan but somewhere inside me I knew I had to get off the open ground and past bushes and brambles into the thickness of the trees. It would have been nice if the coach had been there with his stopwatch. I made it across the field faster than I would or could have done at 17. I did not even think of gnashing teeth and smashing hooves. But some part of me did.

I was into the trees only seconds before the moose – they can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. I would no sooner get behind one tree trunk than it would crane its neck and chop with its teeth, trying to get a hold of me, and I would dart behind another. Then it would come at me again, its eyes wild, its breath practically steaming from its nostrils, its snorts loud and menacing, always trying to snag my head or arm in its mouth as it bent its neck around the tree. I would run behind another, my hands bracing against the trunk, staring right into the moose’s white and black eyes. This deadly game of tag went on for several minutes. Farther and farther I went into the forest and farther and farther it chased after me, lunging with its head and teeth, striking out with its front hooves and ripping off the bark and wood of the trees I constantly kept between the moose and myself.

Suddenly I saw it glance back over its shoulder. I could see the wheels turning in its head. It was worried about something – what? Then I thought: There must be a baby. There must be a calf. This is the mother and she is afraid the dogs are going to attack her baby while she is crashing through the woods after me.

The moose made its decision. It blasted hot breath into my face in a rage but broke off the assault. Then half-ran out of the trees and back to the open grassland and began to head towards the brush where it had first broke out onto the trail. I watched it go, not daring to move from behind my poplars which, while not the thickest trunks on the planet, had been thick enough to save my life. As I waited and tracked the moose’s movements a white shape came carefully through the trees towards me – Yukon! My male dog had not deserted me but, despite great danger to itself, had lingered nearby and was coming now to make sure I was all right. As for Nahanni, well, as I found out later, she ran all the way back to the picnic area and dropped there at the children’s feet, panting, leaving my wife to wonder, in some annoyance, how I could be so irresponsible and careless as to leave my dogs off leash and unattended in a wilderness area.

Eventually Yukon and I began to make our way out of the strip of trees I had plunged into. The cow moose stood a little ways down the trail, its head bent back and its eyes glaring death at us as we emerged from the woods. I felt it was ready to attack again at any moment and was in no hurry to get too far from the shelter of the forest. I moved slowly. The moose watched for any hint that we were altering direction towards her calf. I walked and stopped, walked and stopped, Yukon staying close. Each step away from her was a step won and she granted us our steady retreat. Finally we reached a point where she didn’t care about us anymore and walked into the trees where her calf was hidden. Yukon and I took to the main trail and were soon back in the forest we had emerged from into the open 15 or 20 minutes before.

Now I took a moment to thoroughly examine the damp mud on the path, something I had not done when the dogs and I had first begun our walk – after all, it had not been a hunting trip. There were my size 13 EE boot marks. There were the paw prints of my Lab-coyote dogs. There were the large sharp points of a mature moose’s tracks – and there were the small sharp points of a very tiny moose’s hoof prints, a moose that was the miniature of a mother that outweighed it by as much as 700 pounds. Later I would walk back and show my wife these tracks and also the spot where the cow moose had left the trail and thrashed through the tall grasses after me. With one wary eye on the bush ahead, I even pointed out the long lunging spread of the moose’s hoof marks when she had been running along the path bent on the destruction of myself and the dogs.
Before Yukon and I carried on to the picnic site I paused to look back at the stretch of grassland where it had been necessary for me to turn into an Olympian for 10 or 15 seconds. I thought for a moment about what my chances would have been had the moose surprised me in an area where there were no trees to hide behind. The answer was pretty obvious – slim to none. At best, I would have been maimed for life. At worst, the front hooves would have become pile drivers that reduced me to splintered bone and brain tissue. Days later I would read about the frequency and lethality of cow moose attacks in North America and around the world I would appreciate that I could never have outrun the assault let alone survive it. The small strip of trees to my left were all that stood between me and a pretty brutal death.

Which has often caused me not only to thank God but to reflect on several things: the way we are put together, the two sides of creation – and how God works to rescue his people.

As I mentioned, I had no thought-out plan of heading for the trees. I might just as easily have followed the dogs in their wild flight down the trail. Why didn’t I do that? What made me instinctively choose the small patch of woods to my left and risk the cross country run I had to undertake to reach them? The moose could have cut me off, especially if I’d tripped over a gopher hole or rock or hidden log. Yet something built into me had known a run down the trail would not have succeeded while a race into the trees might. It was instinctive to flee but flee where? No thought process or logic was involved. Something within had sized up the situation, with very little input from my gray matter, and sent my body hurtling over the field. A couple of verses come to mind from Psalm 139 (13 and 14) when I wonder about this: For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (NIV)

Then there’s God’s creation itself. One moment I’m basking in the sunshine and admiring mountains and woods and sky and the next running for my life from a creature that is part of that godly creation. Why? Because while creation can be incredibly beautiful, the flip side is it can be incredibly dangerous. We live in a fallen world. Eden is long gone and sin has marred the perfection that once existed. There is only the new heaven and new earth to look forward to where God has promised to erase the hazards and allow the wolf to lie down with the lamb and a child to play happily with a poisonous snake. Paul talked about this in Romans 8:20 and 21: Against its will all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. (NLT) Paul adds in verse 22, For we are conscious that all living things are weeping and sorrowing in pain together till now. (BBE)

Finally, there’s no doubt that it was not a day God had any plans on bringing me home so while he did not stop the moose attack from occurring – after all, he built it into the cow moose that she should protect her young – he provided a way of escape so that I could survive it. The charge came at a place where there were trees – it could have occurred at a place where there were none. “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.”(Psalm 91:14, NIV)
So although it was a frightening experience I have never forgotten it was also an experience that brought me a deeper understanding of how I am made and how creation is made and how, despite the dangers and the brokenness, God still works in that creation and through that creation to bring about his perfect will. Regardless of all the risks involved, God’s world remains an excellent place to be and offers a stunning and rugged wilderness for men to discover and explore.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
(Psalm 90:1 & 2, NIV)

1 comment:

Bill L. said...

What a fine relating of one of life's... stimulating moments.
It is helpful to read your follow-up reasoning and analysis; I've experienced similar thinking and reaction after intense moments.

I have noted, more in the last ten years or so, that my thinking often moves on to another set of questions: Is God any less good if the more pleasant "thing" does not come my way?
Is His care and kindness in any way lessened by those I love, or myself, having to face harsh, difficult, or even terminal circumstances? And, is God any “meaner,” or more common or vulgar in His administration of life if those circumstances are horribly messy rather than orderly, sterile and clean (I am thinking of a quiet death in one’s sleep vs. being stomped into the ground by a protective mother Moose)?

Certainly one situation is preferable to the other, maybe, most of the time, I would think; then again, could God really be trusted to know “best” from “tidy” even in such less-than-tasteful moments?

In the past, I knew the "correct" answer was "Of course He is not meaner," and "Of course He can be trusted," but, those were intellectual answers not existential ones. Now, I think and hope I am a bit closer to being able to look a fellow questioner eye to eye and say the same thing without him or her sensing substantial doubt in my heart. Though God need never "prove" Himself to me, yet, in living experience, He has demonstrated to me I can trust Him though I am no closer to understanding Him in any profound way. Trust Him I am too, in my weakness and ignorance, I am living trusting Him to mature me, to finish what He has begun in me.
Some have experienced and observed enough "bad" being turned and showing a reasonable, eventual ending in true good, according to our weak and broken understanding of God's revelation of the real meaning of "good." Some have seen enough to know that what we have not yet seen is of the same nature and caliber – consistent with eternal wisdom and goodness expressed in God's continuing revelation of His will and way in the visible universe.
I have lived sufficiently, and sufficiently involved in that living, to know I may yet again – most likely will – cry my heart out when perceived injustice is done to me (shades of growing up, or even by me). Perhaps the prod to reaching deeper into Holy Spirit may come as some heart-searing emotional pain rips my life asunder and I have to cry out for God to hold me in His arms and rock me to sleep. I may wake, alone, to squeeze my eyes shut desiring to squeeze life out of my pain-wracked being, and from that place, cry out “Please, O God, please put up with my ignorant mouthing of words born in a furnace of personal agony. However, I have a history; I have my small portion of His-story, and because I do, I know He will do exactly that. I know that as He is rocking me to sleep, He will be sharing His beautiful fragrances, bathing me in His garments of light, and sharing the wonders of the music of His being with me in my brokenness. He will be enlightening my heart and mind to see Him more clearly, to love Him more purely and, once I truly wake, to live each hour with more simplified, more child-like, trust in His good heart and wise governance of all that is.
He has loved me and He has loved me very well indeed, so well, in fact, that I am becoming able to love Him, and others, a little bit myself.
In His Name, to His praise,
Bill