Six friends and I climbed up to the alpine garden above town a few days ago. We started at the rain forest level, weaving our way through mossy Sitka spruces, gradually, and very slowly, gaining altitude. Our group: two little boys, four women, and one energetic dog, in his “teenage” phase. The boys are brothers, the elder six years old and the younger nine months. The 9-month-old got a ride from his mom, in a baby backpack. Everyone is very fit and capable, and we probably could have raced up to the top of that mountain in less than an hour. But we didn’t. We took our time, eating late-season blueberries, looking for squirrel middens, listening to birds. We found mushrooms and lichens, burls and galls, tracks and scat, wind-dispersed seeds and mechanically-dispersed seeds. In fact, this was a scavenger hunt, custom-made for the 6-year-old. This kid has spent his whole life learning about the forest, the ocean, and the mountains. He’s always had adult mentors who are willing to travel at a snail’s pace on a hike. He knows how to look at the small details. He’s already fluent in the language of Kachemak Bay. It is his native language.
The rest of us participated in the scavenger hunt sort of peripherally. (My own personal hunt was more focused on berries than anything else.) And we talked the whole time as we climbed the mountain, getting caught up on travels and what we’ve been doing for work. They asked me where I’ve been for the last two summers, and I explained that I’ve been doing “bird-related conservation work” — which seems like it leaves out an awful lot of details.
“This summer, I worked in Michigan, protecting an endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover. And last summer, I worked for U.S. Fish and Wildlife on an island down near Sitka. We studied nine different kinds of seabirds. The ones I worked with most were storm-petrels and Rhinoceros Auklets.”
“Why are they called Rhinoceros Auklets?” asked one friend.
“They actually look like rhinos. They have a horn on the top of their bill that looks like a rhino horn. Even the chicks have a little nubbin of a horn when they hatch.”
My other friend asked, “Are they still around? Rhinos?”
“What do you mean?” I wondered if the last northern white rhino had been poached recently. If, as they say in conservation biology circles, the last rhino had finally winked out.
But she said, “I get confused sometimes whether animals like that are real, or if they’re dinosaurs, or what.”
“Yeah, they are kind of strange looking, aren’t they,” I said, thinking of their armor-plated bodies, their low-slung heads, their horns. The conversation moved on, probably interrupted by the dog or a berry-patch or the baby’s hat falling off or the 6-year-old shouting because he’d found the next thing on his list. I didn’t think about rhinos again until I woke up this morning with her words repeating in my head.
“Are they still around?” Implicit in the words she chose: extinction is normal, inevitable. And one great extinction blends seamlessly into another. Did it go extinct with the dinosaurs? When a meteorite hit the earth? After the last ice age? When the sailors landed on those islands in the 1700s? Or last week?
She didn’t ask, “Is it a mythical creature, like a unicorn, or a winged-horse?” Admittedly, a rhino is a weird-looking animal. It could be mythical, I guess. Maybe all the weird ones are doomed: flightless, slow-moving, strange appendages, extra-long teeth or necks or curved bills, horns or tusks (especially ivory), stripes or spots, lives on islands, lives on ice, moves in enormous flocks/schools/pods/herds, smaller than a bread-box, bigger than a Saint Bernard.
Lots of weird critters live around here, too, as the 6-year-old could tell us. From the tentacled denizens of the tide pool to the tardigrades nestled into the tundra, life can give the appearance of being strange — mythical, or even alien. But it all fits. Those appendages and curves are there for a reason, and once you get used to looking at them, they’re beautiful.
Could our fluency and understanding on the local level somehow expand out to embrace the entire global ecosystem? I know it’s a lot to ask. There is so much to learn, even in just one place. Even in just one cubic foot of rain forest soil. Even in just one lifetime.