The Bog (part one): short story
“You’re confined in this place. You…and one relative. Spouse,” he said. “Child, sibling.” The speaker prompted; he spotted examples in the crowd, and pointed. And each of those he pointed to, three or four among a group of reporters, off-duty sheriff’s deputies, and protestors, laughed; by this self-conscious laughter, becoming vaguely united.
“You get four square miles to forage and hunt. That’s your territory. Altogether the woods can sustain ten people. Five separate clans. Of two!” Now he made a comic lunge, pivoting round on his stick at the end of the semicircle he’d been walking. Two girls in shorts collided with one another, backing away.
“There might be other human beings in the world, but you don’t know anything about them. You venture to the edge of the woods, and the landscape you see is frightening, ay-lien, confusing. Now…except if you were starving, or you got the short stick in a territory war with the other humans, or the woods itself disappeared…a fire, say…you’d never try leaving. You’d never search for any other home. It wouldn’t occur to you, it wouldn’t cross your mind, there could be other people, living other places. So…how vulnerable is the human population in our little patch?”
Someone asked a question. It came out in parts, with a crooked elbow, and a hand palm-out, that rose and fell.
“You’re thinking of mice,” he said.
“Mice and toads.” Tentative. She turned to Laurel. “What are they called?”
Laurel gave her sister a face that showed bewilderment. Exaggerated, on purpose. Why did Rachel think she would know this? Today, Laurel had been briefed for the first time by Duffet.
“The Eastern Whitefoot.” He answered Rachel. “Mouse, right? Course the American toad could work for what we’re talking about…but it’s not really endangered. Ask Amanda.”
Amanda shook her head and frowned.
“But the Saw-whet owl, for example. We count two breeding pairs. The Black-backed woodpecker. Habitat here could sustain a population. Never seen one. How about Frazey’s checkerspot? Butterflies can do surprising things.” He paused, and most of them nodded, but no one asked, “What surprising things?” He finished, not ready, then, to discuss the checkerspot. “But you have the right idea, Laurel.”
Well, I didn’t say it, she thought. It was her name Duffet remembered, not her voice. He had locked his eyes on hers.
“Some of them,” she gave him, “can never really leave this place.”
Not good. She was clustered off with two other women: Rachel, and Amanda the Bog Ranger. But why, Laurel thought, am I sarcastic? She’s got nothing to do with it. Amanda the park officer, then. She was in uniform, and unable, without cause, to climb the fence onto the Jenkins family’s property. Laurel supposed the ranger could pursue, though…had a duty, in fact, to keep the suspect in sight, if any of Penfold’s people committed an offense inside the bog.
No one knew where Duffet camped at night. He was a legend, like Bigfoot. Often reported, never verified. Most of the Boggies (Laurel supposed she could now call herself by that name) came out to rally only by daylight. The Jenkinses, owners of a pharmacy in town, not well-to-do, not even militant, except that they were outraged by the Boggies’ contentions, had been driven to patrol their land with shotguns. They had then escalated the trouble in a frightening way, by accepting help; help they probably—their better selves—didn’t want. The Free Landers’ camp was conspicuous, a ring of Broncos and Cherokees, defiant bonfires burning there through the night. And music, that visitors to the bog had complained of.
If Penfold culled Jenkins Woods, built a road and changed the drainage pattern, grinding up the topsoil and opening the canopy, it would change the bog, its biome. There was a borderline of dry, mixed forest, and some of the rarest plants could be found only here. There was competing science.
Harry Penfold had furnished his own ecologist to speak at the press conference. The bog was not a pristine environment, as Penfold’s man pointed out; until the mid-eighties, it had been mined for peat. The bog was in a constant state of restoration, anyway, with only parts open to the public.
“…and you’ve got your plank walks cutting across, you have all the signage, guided tours, there’s a road, packed in gravel, that the Bog Alliance uses to access the dam area. And they have to be coming and going all the time, checking pH levels in the flooded zones…they teach classes out here. My point is, this is not a natural area. Not in any true sense. Otherwise you’d have nature taking its course, trees taking over. The volunteers have to go root those out. My point is,” he’d repeated, “you people complain that Mr. Penfold, who has permission from the Jenkins family to log their land, will encroach on the bog—you imagine this will happen, you haven’t proved it—as though the Boggies weren’t encroaching, as though the Fish and Wildlife service wasn’t encroaching.”
He’d got applause for this. One mayoral candidate had been canvassing sympathy, playing capture the flag with the Free Landers, embracing property rights, galloping away from white supremacy. There would not otherwise have been a press conference…but the gathering had afterwards turned into a picnic/free-for-all.
Now Duffet began to wind up. He stopped to clear his throat, then laughed, in a short-tempered way that made Laurel wary. Duffet’s reputation was mixed. He had been a tree-sitter in the forests of the Pacific northwest, served six months jail time and two years’ probation for repeatedly vandalizing chicken trucks; and his followers tried hard to view with tolerance that question of “normal”, with which the angry Jenkins supporters thwarted most of Duffet’s statements. Duffet was the leathery, sinewy, bearded exemplar of the man who lives alone in the woods. Yet one might fairly have said that with the Free Landers, he shared eighty percent of his genes.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)