RED SKY -
The sky above the Talkeetna Mountains turned red. For three consecutive days during the first week of September the air was pure, glassy and tinged with red. Each magical day dawned bright and clear with the delicate cast of pink champagne. By noon on each of those dreamlike days a rosy tinge appeared in the sky and intensified. The evenings were crimson. The tundra radiated a burnished gold. Fall colors glowed from patchy forests and bushes along the streams just below tree-line. Sunsets were deep burgundy. Rock faces, loaded with minerals and coated with variously colored lichens, glowed neon red. Snowy peaks were cast in scarlet hues as they caught the last sunlight. Then all was ruby red like wine. The photography was spectacular.
The skies at night were a marine blue where the sun had gone down below the horizon---deep cobalt on the dark side of the firmament.
For those lucky enough to be up in the mountains the pervasive redishness made the air just a few feet away seem like a visible substance. It was as if a fine haze of red pastel chalk dust had become suspended in the atmosphere and was being held motionless. Yet the atmosphere was optically clear---even for a clear Alaska sky.
I had seen such colors before…but never anything like this. And there was something else. Everything was hushed. To the West, behind the coastal range, the Gulf of Alaska barely stirred. The winds from Siberia were not sweeping in as they usually did. The high atmosphere did not contain the usual industrial pollution from China and Russia. Nor did the air carry smells coming up from the warmer lowlands. There was no salty smell of the sea for there was no wind out of the Southwest either.
The big mountain---called “Weather-Catcher” by the Indians---was visible. But not the slightest wisp of a cloud was surfing on it’s usually stormy summit. It was a special time to be in the mountains. It was a great time to be in the mountains.
On the afternoon of the third day, on the West side of Hatcher Pass, an eagle flew from behind a distant mountain ridge and crossed the sky from horizon to horizon. With my dogs I watched the eagle enter our view from the South. The eagle drilled through the sky overhead with big wing strokes---a thousand feet above judging by the mountains. The white head and white tail of the large black female were easy to see in the clear atmosphere. Down in the hushed valley I could hear each wing stroke of the great bird. But the sound took longer to reach my ears than the light to reach my eyes, and the whoosh of her flight was out of synch with the movements of her wings. Time seemed suspended as the eagle crossed the sky and disappeared behind the Northern ridges. There was one insignificant wisp of a cloud on a far horizon.
For those three days in early September the air was so still and clear that forests on the most distant line of ridges crackled with fine detail, as if one could actually see each individual spruce needle.
THE UNPLEASANTNESS -
Within days the unpleasantness came---September 11, 2001. Broken girders rattling in the wind---like bones inside Shiva’s Drum---startled the reptilian architecture of our minds.
Someone called telling me to turn on the TV---small-screen and battery operated. But I was already watching images of 747 airliners parked in rows. Then a skyscraper on fire. Cut back once more to the grounded aircraft. Then the burning towers. I wasn’t sure at first what it was---it looked just like a disaster movie. The movie matinee on Channel 5. But the announcers explained it over and over. Images of the World Trade Center burning and falling, over and over. The Pentagon attacked. An airliner diving into the ground in Pennsylvania.
Another friend called---a gentle soul. He was frightened. He said he had just called PBS Ch. 7 and scolded them for continuing with their normal children’s programming while all the other stations carried the disaster. The children should know, he said. I’m not sure what his point was…he was just scared. Shades of President Bush interrupted by the news and continuing to read “The Pet Goat” to a classroom of kids on 9/11.
All non-military aircraft in America were grounded. Few flights were allowed to leave the country---except for the airliners carrying the Bin Laden family back to Saudi Arabia. Never could figure that one out. Americans seemed incurious about it.
Even in bush Alaska all flights were canceled and bush planes were grounded where they were. Hunters and fishermen were stuck out in the wilderness. A passing plane, already in the air and alerted by radio, dropped a written message to stranded hunters. “There has been an attack. You will be picked up soon.”
The hunters wondered who or what had been attacked. Eventually they found out. The world outside had changed. Or so it is said…
It was a week after 9/11. I was on a mountain ridge at about 4000 feet photographing the sunset. My two dogs lay sleeping.
There was a tremendous roar! The huge bellow swelled up the exponential horn carved by long-gone glaciers that had formed the steep-sided mountain valleys. The roar echoed out of the valley and across the mountain tops. I wasn’t sure at first where it had come from.
The great old lead-dog, Mindy, stone deaf, remained asleep. Roscoe was up and alert. I looked down into the mountain valley directly below…maybe 800 or 900 feet down. There were three grizzlies. The she-bear seemed to be howling at her two over-sized cubs who were headed up the mountain where I stood.
Was the great roar a warning to me, as I first thought? The cubs turned back from the mountain where the contents of my backpack and photography gear were scattered around.
The mother huffed and growled at the cubs and they disappeared with her into a ravine. For the big grizzly cubs it was their last Winter with the mother. She was heading for a den site. Was she trying to make the cubs frightened of Humans? Or maybe to drive the overgrown cubs away from her Winter den?
I may be an animist but I am not anthropomorphic. For only this one time, what I heard was the grizzly saying: “What are you idiot Humans doing?” It was as if the matriarch of the mountains were chiding the Human race for the sum of the events of 9/11. I felt shame for my species.
By the time I stowed the gear in the backpack the sow and her cubs had disappeared, most likely into one of the many depressions in the valley. Though I had the advantage of altitude---looking almost directly down onto relatively open ground---I never saw the bears again. It was getting dark.
For three hours I and my dogs descended the steep upper ridges. The sow would make every effort to avoid the man and the dogs. She had those cubs to worry about so I made sure to present myself at various points along the skyline so she could see that I was heading back to the road and my truck. I climbed down in total darkness for the final two and a half hours. Even in pitch blackness, when I had to feel my way with trekking poles, neither flashlight or gun ever came to hand.
NO CONNECTIONS -
I detect no causal connections between these particular events of Nature and the nasty doings of Humans. No “message” from some “entity.“ No warnings or prophecies.
But there is symbolism aplenty! The red skies could have been a warning---if they hadn’t been so darned beautiful. The great hush---the great stillness---could have been the proverbial “calm before the storm.” But certainly it symbolized the lull in awareness by our government---and the great, self-satisfied feeling of soft comfort and complacency that continues to dull our senses today. The eagle? America, of course---unable to change course.
And the She-Bear! Of course it was all in my mind that she was reprimanding the Human Race for its foolishness. It was all symbolic---no messages from God here. Not to me anyway. These are just the memories I have of 9/11.
Now, ten years later, I am still aware that the terrorist attack was no surprise to me---that same battery-operated TV that had carried the disaster had also previously shown me tabloid television footage of reporters snooping around inside parked airliners. For years I had watched FAA investigators and reporters smuggling full replicas of pistols through airport checkpoints. The only thing that surprised me was the scope and audacity of the attacks of 9/11.
No surprise that America overreacted and began to thrash around, lashing out like the blinded Cyclops in Homer‘s “Odyssey” and tales of Ulysses. What America does remains my biggest fear---not the terrorists. Sure, we got Bin Laden---but he got us to do ourselves in. The Bush Administration used 9/11 to frighten America toward their brand of politics---but like all fear-mongers they also wound up scaring the daylights out of themselves. Plus making healthy profits for themselves in the “Homeland Security” racket---which has become another black hole of government spending.
BEARS ARE THE LEAST OF MY WORRIES -
I was excited but not concerned by the bears. Most of the trouble I ever had in life came from other Humans---and of course, my own doing. There was no danger to me from the bears. The mother grizzly had every intention of avoiding a man and his dogs. The bears were heading for a den site. The cubs were possibly spending their last Winter with their mother---or were about to be kicked loose. The purpose of her incredible roar may have been to let me know she was there; to tell the cubs to turn around, to come back to her, to avoid the Human with his dogs. It was a lesson apparently well learned---one that would help keep the young grizzly cubs alive. For there are still bears in that one place…where all other bears in surrounding areas have been almost totally hunted out by Humans since 9/11.
- Rudy Wittshirk