Home, for me, is anchored in the wild

For four years, from mid-spring through early autumn, I lived outdoors almost continually in mountain forests. I worked on blister-rust control under contract with the United States Forest Service. With hand tools, I uprooted ribes bushes to try to stop the spread of blister rust, which blew from the bushes and infected and killed sugar-pine trees.

I camped near good water, close to where I worked. I moved camp often, from finished work to new work, in the Sierras of northern California.

I cooked my meals over fires of small dead wood I gathered. When summer dryness proscribed open fires, I cooked and heated water for washing dishes, and for washing me, on a propane burner - outside, no roof. I sat on a log, on a rock, or on the ground. Sometimes I stood and ate what I had cooked.

The longer I worked in the forest, the less often I built fires. It didn't take much propane to cook or to heat water. If I lit a campfire to keep me company or to cook my food, I looked into the flames and didn't see much of the stars and clouds above. When I kindled no fire to blind me to the forest night, I saw a great horned owl, quiet as a shadow, swoop across the sky, hunting the ravine I stood above. I saw a nocturnal flying squirrel launch from one tall pine tree and glide to another, silhouetted against the starlight-washed sky.

I slept in a sleeping bag on a pad on the ground, no tent. I liked to wake during the night and watch bright stars scattered across black mountain sky, the moon on its rapid journey, or moving clouds backlit by moon and stars. I put a tarp over me if it rained.

When outdoors turned too cold and rainy, I unloaded my supplies, covered them with the tarp, and moved into the back of my carry-all. It had plenty of room for me, and was quite dry.

Most days, the sun shone intensely. Every morning, I got up, cooked my breakfast, packed my lunch, and roamed the forest on foot, searching for ribes bushes. Sometimes my day was mostly walking, digging an occasional bush, looking sharp to see that I didn't leave a stray one. I paid out light cotton string to mark where I'd been.

A red-tailed hawk soared above me once. I watched a bald eagle hunt on the mountain. I saw a least weasel watching me. I greeted a grouchy badger, who asked from some distance if I were trying to steal its rightful path through the forest. I assured the growly, sniffing beast that I was merely passing through, trying to improve the forest for both of us. I detoured into open meadow and gave the badger plenty of room.

Geese in V-formations flew above forest and meadows and talked loudly to one another in blue sky. Dozens of species of small birds sang, flew, fed, and nested as I worked their territory.

I woke one morning, barely daylight, when my dog made unfamiliar sounds of distress. I told him to be quiet and stay close, and he was glad to obey. A big old black bear walked around Cub Spring and up the mountain, so unimpressed by us that it neither sped up to escape nor slowed down to investigate.

I finished a contract in Lassen National Forest and drove north on the highway through forest and small towns. I turned off the highway onto a gravel road, 20 miles into the forest.

Most of the afternoon, I explored to decide whether to camp along a wild, clean stream, perhaps on the edge of lush meadow of blooming flowers, or to settle eight miles away, along another stream that begins where water surges forcefully from the ground to form a small pool, then rushed through deeply eroded black stone, down the mountain, in a hurry to see the sea.

Early next morning, I cooked breakfast, cleaned up, and marked the borders of the first lot in that contract. I saw a bobcat ahead of me down an old, grown-over logging road. I saw it briefly, because the cat knew I approached. It faded into the brush. I detoured around a rattlesnake enjoying the summer sun, and climbed a bluff of dark basalt. I looked at all sides of an upthrust stone to see what grew there.

After those four years of working, eating, and sleeping outside in the mountains, I left blister-rust control behind, but the mountains called to me anytime I walked the lowlands too long. I shaped my life toward mountains. Wild forest, wild animals, clean water running wild, and mountain winds anchored me. I felt at home there. I chose that feeling of home, one with the earth. All these years later, I'm still pleased with what I chose.

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