Memories, Monuments, and Mountain Caribou

Photo by  Dominik Lange  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

On Labor Day Monday I was making the long drive home after an unsuccessful attempt to find grizzly bears along a remote river in British Columbia. (Isn’t that an intriguing opening sentence? If you’d like to know more about that serious situation, and the precipitously endangered mountain caribou, read the bottom of this post…)

Aside from my deep concern for local endangered wildlife and ravaging wildfires, it was a pleasant, uneventful drive. I can’t say that I was even particularly focused on the road itself. Some of my brain was occupied with the podcast that was playing, another part was marveling at the scenery, while simultaneously being dumbstruck at the eerie, orange hue that nearby wildfire was producing. It was like driving into a monochromatic, hazy painting. The road travels from the Canadian Rockies, and then twists and turns for hundreds of miles, just north of the Canadian/US border. I was hoping to make it to Manning Park with enough time for a quick hike.

And then...

On an unremarkable bend in the road a sudden, jarring image slammed into my brain. I could *see* an overturned motorcycle, a few people standing around, and a sheet draped over a body with only motorcycle boots sticking out. “WHAT? What’s going on?!,” my mind shouted in its now-discombobulated, time-confused state.

The boots. The motorcycle. The slow, somber procession of a few lookie-loo cars, mine included, driving by. I could visualize all of it. Oh! Yes, I HAD seen this. It was in the past. I had forgotten that entire scene! At least I thought I had forgotten it until it was suddenly remembered with striking detail. When was I here? What was I doing?

I tried to rebuild the context. It had been many years (5-10, maybe?) since I had been on this stretch of road. Back then I had been with a good friend, on our way to an adventure that I can’t recall. But I wouldn’t have even remembered that much unless I had had this experience at this particular section of this particular highway. Back then it was early morning. On Monday it was dinnertime. I had been driving in the opposite direction that day in the past, but I had recognized it anyway.

It was one innocuous bend in road, amongst literally hundreds upon hundreds of bends in the road that I drove last weekend. But it wasn’t innocuous to me. Or to whoever’s loved one was under that sheet. I’m sure they remember that day with crystal-clear precision.


Memory is such a weird thing. Many years ago during an otherwise insignificant jog, I came across an unusual scent in my neighborhood that sent me spinning into a traumatic re-experience of a previous life event. That experience landed me in counseling for four and a half years, and thankfully produced a dramatically freer life. Prior to that event, though, I had had no idea that memories, or our perception of memories, can be sitting latently, waiting for a trigger. Even in an unrecognized idle, memories, individual or collective, can have a dramatic effect on a person or a group.

Last year I learned the term “historical trauma.” A registered nurse, who is Lummi and works in school health care, spoke to a class I was taking about the effects of trauma, past and present, upon members of her tribe. Some trauma of their past included coercion to sign treaties that oppressed tribes even more; forced relocation to one small piece of land thus ending their way of life of moving between seasonal homes and providing for their own food and shelter needs; corporal punishment for speaking their language of maintaining their ritual traditions; being considered less than human; forced poverty resulting in reliance upon government “assistance;” and the list goes on and on and on. Coast Salish Peoples were in this region for thousands and thousands of years before the white person ever came here. The loss of their way of life that they had had since time immemorial is incalculable and inconceivable.

This history of racial abuse remains in the collective conscious and continues to assert trauma on individuals, and it becomes particularly fierce when triggered by present-time racism and well-established systems of oppression. The fact that Lummi Nation maintains such a strong, irrepressible resilience is a testament to their greatness. They, along with scores of other tribes, are now saving our own environmental asses by demanding that governments honor the very treaties that were written to subject them. And yet the history of the wrongs perpetrated against them continues to affect their health and well-being every. single. day. The average life span for a Lummi person in comparison with a white person in this region is downright horrendous (only 11% of the tribe is over 55). They may be damn strong, innovative, proud, and beautiful, and yet historical trauma digs deep. The same is true for African-Americans with the history of enslavement here in the U.S., and the ongoing oppression of people of color –historical trauma is real and valid, and it’s easily triggered by overt and subtle acts of racism.

I can’t help but think about the connection points between my sudden, freak memory, the historical trauma of our local Lummi, and the question of whether or not to remove historical monuments that honor those who fought for the Confederacy.

My memory of the motorcycle fatality is striking evidence of the presence of latent memories. These memories just need some kind of trigger to enter into conscious awareness.

Confederacy monuments are a physical, tangible reminder that many in this nation wanted to keep African-Americans in slavery. Current national (and local) racist overtones worsen the effects of historical trauma. So why do we keep them up? The persons reflected in the monuments are in history books; they are documented for all time. Taking statues down is not erasing history, it’s a feeble, well-reasoned move to try and mitigate some of the effects of racist trauma on people who continue to suffer from ongoing oppression.

Memory is so damn strong. We don’t need monuments to keep those particular memories alive. We need to establish new memories of tearing them down.

We need to establish new memories...

**And for the story to which I alluded in the opening sentence…

The grizzlies were supposed to be at the particular river to which we traveled because the salmon were spawning. Because the salmon were not there, the grizzlies were not there. A ranger person told us that the salmon run had collapsed due to an imbalance in the ecosystem, largely caused by much greater numbers of bull trout, which ate the smaller Kokanee salmon, and also ate their food. My adventure companions, who were local to the area, were utterly dismayed. We did manage to go to a different creek where the Kokanee were spawning – they were glorious! (And cranky; the battle over who gets to spermicize the eggs is real, folks.)

And the mountain caribou…Two of the people I met last weekend have newly produced films on the mountain caribou. These are not the arctic caribou, which are so well known for their mighty migration. No, these are another, related species that sticks to the mountains. They live in forests and survive on a diet of lichen that grows on trees. The trees that support this lichen are old growth; at least 120 years old. Then these trees get cut down, which sustain the ancient lichen, there is literally not enough food for the mountain caribou. But not only is their food source being cut down at staggering rates, the clearcuts have created vast meadows which draw in the meadow-loving ungulates, namely the elk, deer, and moose. These animals, in turn, draw in predators, primarily wolf.  The mountain caribou are easier prey than the deer, elk, and moose, because they didn’t need to develop acute evasion skills, because wolves didn’t live in the dense forests. The forests are both the food source and the protection for the mountain caribou, and their removal has quite possibly pushed the mountain caribou beyond the ability to survive.

One moviemaker, Bryce Comer, lives in the region that contains the southernmost herd of mountain caribou. He started making his film nine years ago, when the herd had 49 members. This year it has 10 members. It is getting wiped out, and logging is the explicit cause. He has spent countless hours in a disguised shelter, trying to capture these beautiful animals on film. His motion-activated cameras have yielded extremely important footage of these elusive animals. I thoroughly enjoyed watching his movie with a few of his friends on a moonlit beach the night before we went searching for grizzlies.

The other filmmaker was the instructor of the wildlife tracking course I was taking, which was the reason I was in BC over Labor Day. Dave Moskowitz produced a fabulous film on the mountain caribou, which was partly funded through Kickstarter. We had the chance to see the movie during the course and it was well done.

Both of these films have the potential to raise awareness of the relatively-unknown plight of the mountain caribou. I hope they do. And I hope these animals can somehow survive; it doesn’t look good. Unless logging is dramatically restricted, it looks like we’re only going to have memories of them.