Mattole Trip Part 6: A Night of Learning

Campfire by Webhamster. CC BY 2.0
Campfire by Webhamster. CC BY 2.0

Now that my finals are complete, I am ready to continue the account of my introduction to qualitative field work in the Mattole Valley. Entering “Mattole” in the search bar to the right will help you get caught up on this series.

Upon leaving the Baker Creek forest my cohorts and I travelled to a small popsicle stand. I had never been to any place like it. The homemade popsicles were delicious, and there were no workers present. The popsicles were housed in a small barn, and the owners simply trusted customers to leave the expected fee in a box. Everyone did. It was remarkable see how much neighbors trusted one another.

Following our brief pitstop, my cohorts and I travelled to an independent homestead. It was occupied by a couple, who looked to be in their late 50s or early 60s. I admit, I was slightly nervous at this meeting. Our professor had instructed us to be mindful of this couple’s privacy, and to not take any pictures (hence the lack of original photos in this post). But they proved to be gracious hosts.

They led us down a steep, forested path to a low river. It was flowing peacefully during this dry summer, and we had a lovely discussion to the tune of its tranquil music.

Low rivers can be wonderfully calming. This is a shot from Black River Reservation in Elyria, Ohio.
Low rivers can be wonderfully calming. This is a shot from Black River Reservation in Elyria, Ohio.

Following our introductory conversation, our hosts led us around their property; describing how they made their living. Everything was drenched in brilliant sunlight, and the temperature was in the upper 90s. The sun was a bit much for me, but I was relieved to be someplace warm. I had been missing the hot Ohio summers!

Eventually the female partner led us on a short hike. We trudged up a low hill, crunching fallen leaves as we followed an old road. After maneuvering around a downed tree, we arrived at the large water tanks that had been installed with Sanctuary Forest’s help. There were at least eight of them (maybe ten), and they stored the couple’s summertime water.

After this jovial visit, my cohorts and I returned to our campsite to prepare for an evening cook-out.

Dinner was a delightful affair. Many of the people we had met were there, as were a few newcomers. Nathan, the hydrologist we had spoken with on day one, lit the fires and helped with the cooking. There was a wide array of food, but my favorites were the savory bratwursts. They were most appreciated after all the walking I had been doing!

In addition to enjoying good food, I was able to meet new people. I ended up sitting across from a local rancher, Bob, whom you will read more about later. He spoke in a quiet, thoughtful manner; appearing to consider each word before he uttered it. He told me a great deal about the wildlife in the Mattole: including mountain lions (Puma concolor). He also taught me an important lesson.

I appreciated being able to talk abut mountain lions with someone who had grown up around them. Mountain lion by Outward_bound. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I appreciated being able to talk abut mountain lions with someone who had grown up around them. Mountain Lion by Outward_bound. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At one point during our conversation, Bob asked me what I would think if someone told me they saw a black mountain lion. I quickly replied, “I wouldn’t believe it,” referencing the lack of confirmed reports of such cats. He then informed me that several of his friends had reported seeing one. I immediately felt that I had been rude. There may be no documented cases of black mountain lions, but it was not polite to so haughtily dismiss the accounts of Bob’s neighbors. That interaction taught me an important lesson: my education does not give me license to be hasty!

Another resident I spoke with was Gary ‘Fish’ Peterson. Gary ‘Fish’ is one of the key players in the Mattole’s salmon restoration efforts, which you can read more about in the book Totem Salmon. As we sat around the campfire, I asked Gary for advice on how to work successfully with people whose views differ greatly from my own. He told me about his experiences during the contentious protests of Redwood Summer, and how taking a moderate position allowed him to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders.

This was my second lesson of the night. As an on-the-ground conservationist, there may be times when I will need to exercise restraint in order to maintain good relations with diverse groups of people. But in some cases, this may not be morally advisable. In those instances I will have to accept the consequences of my actions.

All-in-all, the evening of August 17 was full of learning. The next day would prove to be one of joy.

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