By Tamim Ansary
I went camping at the Feather River this summer, and like every site at that campground, my site had a skinny path leading down to a cove. If you sat in one exact spot, you could feel like you were alone. If you moved 20 feet in either direction you’d see other people. I was therefore sitting perfectly still, gazing across the river at the other bank. A log had fallen there and the end of it stuck down into the water. A squirrel climbed onto the log and stood for a moment, surveying the scene, but it didn’t notice me. Presently, it ambled down to the end of the log for a sip of water. But it misjudged the slope of the log. When it leaned down, it tumbled head over heels into the river. I didn’t laugh, but it was comical. The squirrel scrambled right out, no harm done, but it chattered indignantly for several minutes, shaking drops of water from its tail. I was amazed to see that indignation was an emotion a squirrel could feel when (it thought) it was alone.
It got me to thinking about other animals I’ve encountered in the wild. When I was a boy, I lived in a tiny town in southwestern Afghanistan: desert country.
The landscape was flat and dry all the way to the horizon on every side, but there was a big river flowing nearby, and in the middle of that river a wooded island, and in the middle of those woods a thicket inhabited by wild boars. The thicket was just what the name suggests: brush so thick a guy could lean against it and feel no give: it was like a wall. But the boars pushed right through, and wherever they went they carved tunnels just big enough for us boys to walk through almost upright.
The Americans used to hunt the boars, and sometimes had Afghan guys beat the bushes to flush them out. When I went to the island with my American friends, they had guns and I didn’t, so walking nosily through the tunnels was my job. Often I heard the rustle of brush and saw dark shapes charging off.
Once, however, just once, I had a gun too. I must have been about twelve, and I had gotten hold of my father’s double-barreled 20-gauge shotgun. We boys split up to roam the edges of the thicket in hopes that one of us would get lucky, so I was alone when I heard twigs snapping under a heavy weight, and then, out of the dark maw of one of those pig tunnels a boar emerged. It didn’t notice me standing there quite still. But I was close enough to make out its coarse bristles and its yellowing tusks. What stood out most though was size. I had no idea that up close these beasts were almost as big as cows. I was holding a gun, so I raised it… aimed…
My friend Matt would have pulled the trigger right then; but I held back—not out of some noble respect for a wild animal in its own home. No, I held back because I thought: what if I don’t kill it? And then somehow we changed places. I was the pig, looking at me. I was the size of a cow and had huge tusks, and this skinny little 12-year-old asshole was aiming a gun at me.
I lowered my weapon and waited quietly until the pig had ambled off. Later, when my friends asked if I’d seen anything, I said no.
In 1972, I was 23 and living in Portland, Oregon. One weekend I decided to go camping by myself at Smith Rocks, a spectacular formation in the deserts east of Mount Hood. If you’re ever considering doing peyote, I recommend you do it there. The Oregon desert is as flat and dry as the one in Afghanistan but you don’t see the rocks till you’re right there, because the Deschutes River has carved a wide horseshoe into the earth, bending around craggy orange sandstone monuments. The rocks are hundreds of feet tall but they rise from a canyon hundreds of feet deep, so they barely break the plane of the desert.
Before I left Portland, someone told me rattlesnakes lived at Smith Rocks but I shouldn’t worry, because rattlesnakes make a distinctive sound and if you kept your ears open, you could avoid them. Then the guy added, “Snakes are cold-blooded, though. They seek out warm places to sleep. When you wake up in the morning, don’t stir till you’re pretty sure there isn’t a rattlesnake in your sleeping bag.”
Well, I don’t want to build fake suspense. I made my campsite, went to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, I was alone in my bag. But the warning had set a tone. All day, hiking in that amazing canyon, my senses were on high alert. I was listening for that distinctive sound. But since I didn’t know what rattlesnakes sounded like, I was hearing everything, hearing thousands of distinctive sounds, more than I’d ever noticed before. Grasshoppers rasping against weeds. Rattlesnake? Field mice scurrying through dry grass. Rattlesnake? Birds swooping down to skim the water. River otters, slick and wet, wriggling onto rocky banks and sliding back into the current with a splish.
Finally, the sun was sinking. Time to go. I packed my gear and hauled it up to the parking lot. Only there did I realize I had left my flashlight behind. So I had to go back down. All day, my senses had been needle-sharp, but now the day was over, I had stopped paying attention, I was just jogging obliviously down a path no more than a couple of feet wide, looking for my campsite. That’s when I heard it.
And let me tell you, my friends, there really is no mistaking that sound. A rattlesnake doesn’t sound like a field mouse or a grasshopper. I froze in mid-stride, my right foot planted, my left leg raised, that Mercury pose. The snake was a pile of S-curves in front of me. Had I completed my stride, I would have stepped on it. I was well within its striking distance. Its head swayed from side to side. I stared into its glossy black eyes. During that motionless forever I thought, “I have just met the most dangerous creature in this canyon.”
Then, somehow, I switched perspectives with the snake. And yet I was still thinking: I have just met the most dangerous creature in this canyon. The snake was right. In every scenario except this exact one, the human has the advantage. The most dangerous creature in the canyon was me.
Slowly, then, the tension drained away. After a while, the snake turned and proceeded languidly up the path. I followed along behind it. When it stopped to poke in the weeds, I stopped too. We had come to an understanding, that snake and I. Eventually, we came to my campsite, and the snake had other places to be, so we parted ways.
When I was growing up, the world seemed filled with animals. We lived amongst them and they lived amongst us. There were camels and donkeys in the bazaar, herds of sheep on the edge of town, feral dogs inthe streets. When we drove to neighboring towns we saw gazelles bounding across the land and great flocks of big-winged birds gliding overhead. In the river shallows, after sundown, a billion frogs seemed to croak, and at night, jackals howled under my bedroom window. Now, animals have pretty much disappeared from my life, except as pets. From all our lives, really. The jackals were annoying but I kinda’ miss ‘em. I find myself asking: how did we get to this lonesome place? And I find myself saying—to quote an old song, “We gotta’ get out of this place.” A song by some British band from the sixties: the Animals, if I’m not mistaken.