Grasshopper Soup: I’m Stickeen to my story
Special to the Sun
TRUCKEE/TAHOE, Calif. and#8212; Tahoe bound on dead reckoning, barely stirring perfectly trimmed wings, a low flying bald eagle cruised level and true. He cleared the dam roof at Fanny Bridge by a few meters. He flew so close I could see his eyes reflecting the Truckee River directly beneath him. They were yellow-green and as sharp as razor blades. It was a rare glimpse into the profound intelligence of a fellow creature.
In 1880, at age forty-two, John Muir realized animals possess intelligence and emotion like we do, and that they are kindred spirits. He was on an epic journey in Alaska with Stickeen, a little black dog his partner brought along, named after an Indian tribe. Muir woke early for one of his usual death defying, potentially suicidal, glacier hikes. He did everything to make the dog stay in camp, but Stickeen prevailed and followed along.
and#8220;And thus began the most memorable of all my wild days,and#8221; Muir wrote 30 years later, about seven years before he died. For Muir, those words packed a powerful punch.
He and Stickeen got lost on the glacier, surrounded by a maze of crevasses, trapped on an island of ice during a snowstorm. Retracing their steps was impossible. They faced an obstacle Muir called and#8220;the most dangerous and inaccessible that ever lay in my way.and#8221; A narrow ice bridge over a dark, hellish pit of a crevasse was their only escape route.
Stickeen was terrified, as if he knew it meant certain death. Muir had a vision of his canine soul. He said Stickeen became and#8220;transparent,and#8221; and he and#8220;could see the workings of his heart and mind like the movements of a clock out of its case. His voice and gestures, hopes and fears, were so perfectly human that none could mistake them.and#8221;
Stickeen is Muir’s best book. It still challenges traditional thinking. Scientists and clergy bristled at the thought of a dog being, as Muir put it, and#8220;and#8230; the herald of a new gospel.and#8221;
He never saw Stickeen again, but Muir spoke of him frequently during his remaining 36 years. At parties or lectures, waiters, porters and servants hid under tables and behind curtains to hear Muir talk about Stickeen. It is a must-read novel for anyone who has any doubts about the sanctity of life in all its forms.
It was last Friday I watched the eagle disappear through the trees near Commons Beach.
We are at least as smart as eagles. We can’t fly, but we can scavenge. How else do you find fresh fruit at this altitude in the middle of February? Not with a bird brain.
It had been my second bald eagle sighting in two days. It was hard to keep that quiet, but not everyone found it interesting. Perhaps they were jealous they didn’t see the birds.
Others told me seeing two bald eagles in a row was a special omen. Something very good was going to happen to me. I don’t know if they spoke out of superstition or not, but, if you ask me, seeing the eagles was the good thing that was going to happen. It was another ordinary, everyday case of divine intervention; a miraculous event, like seeing the Tahoe moon in broad daylight, nearly full, over Bliss Peak. It doesn’t happen every day, like looking at ourselves in the mirror, which is awesome enough, but not always pretty.
We resemble eagles, and dogs, sometimes. In the privacy of their own nest, especially in the rain, eagles can look as ratty as we do when we get out of bed in the morning.
John Muir loved living like an animal. He would take that as a compliment.
No creature lives alone and poor who wakes up on the forest floor. Here in the wild is where souls most free come alive. It’s infinitely more satisfying than wondering how wild you were the night before when you thought you went home but woke up in a strange room with a mangy dog.
You would have been better off waking up on the forest floor.
Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 28 years.