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Out of the box

Out of the box

By Ana Maria Spagna
Illustrations by Justin DeVine

On the difficult necessity of being where you need to be and doing what you can.

Early last December my wife, Laurie, had to attend an all-employees meeting on the west side of the North Cascades National Park, many miles from our home on the east side, the kind of meeting she usually weasels out of. She’s an orchardist for the park, a field worker, allergic to meetings, but she showed up at this one, and because she did, we got a heads-up — something like a hot tip — that landed us on a wet and rutted logging road, 15 miles off the pavement, giddy with excitement, more excitement than I’d known I could muster in the wake of a week we’d spent camping on the carpet at an assisted living facility helping her parents move. The attraction: fishers. A fisher reintroduction.

Not that I knew much about fishers. I knew they were members of the weasel family, the mustelids. Back when I worked trails, we’d sometimes recite a list of these creatures by size: ermine, weasel, marten, mink, otter, fisher, wolverine. Or was it mink, then marten? This passed as entertainment, since we sometimes spotted a mink or a marten. Never a wolverine. Never a fisher.

Fishers once roamed the Cascades, but had been largely hunted out for their furs. Now, remaining populations face threats from climate change and habitat loss. A familiar story.

When I say we helped Laurie’s parents move, we actually didn’t do much. Or it didn’t feel like we did. We spent three days hand-wringing and painstakingly wrapping dishes and one day speed-tossing items into oversized moving boxes: pillows, books, winter coats, remotes. We watched the movers load the big truck, drove an hour north to the new place, and waited for hours while the truck broke down on the interstate. Eventually, the stuff arrived, the folks arrived, and we all settled in for the settling in: unpacking, arranging furniture, finding a welcoming residents’ table in the dining room, or even semi-welcoming. We hung around for three more nights — me on the floor, Laurie on the couch — and while I suppose this sounds like self-pity or a humble brag, it’s actually a kind of desperate self-disclosure. I felt miserable, near useless, and stayed awake at night fretting about anything fret-able. In the end, my most useful moments consisted of setting up the TV, then watching football with my father-in-law, drinking beer, offering overloud commentary, and wouldn’t it have been more efficient if I could’ve just shown up at game time, then gone home to write, say, or call my congresspeople? But that’s not how it works, is it? You put yourself where you need to be. You hang out and wait. You do what you can.

The road got rougher, the rain heavier. We did not see another car until we caught up with a large government pickup we presumed carried the soon-to-be-free fishers, which only added to our excitement. Was there one fisher? More than one? What was its name? No, no, you mustn’t name wild animals, we knew this, but we made up names anyway. Stevie? Celeste?

When we reached our destination, a primitive campground with moss and ferns and big tall trees, as big around as a trash barrel and so tall I couldn’t wager a guess (later I’d say 300 feet tall, but Laurie tells me that’s an exaggeration) and perhaps 20 people loitering in rain gear. They introduced themselves by affiliation: park service, forest service, conservation groups, tribes. I introduced myself as a “spectator,” which could be suspect, I realized too late. They don’t advertise the locations of these releases for fear of too many spectators (or naysayers or god forbid, trappers-to-be), but the vibe was too upbeat for anyone to worry or judge. Plus, we knew some of the people, since we had worked in this forest service district more than 20 years earlier.

Phyllis Reed greeted us as if we’d only left last week. A wildlife biologist and veteran of the spotted owl wars in the ’90s, Phyllis has the humor of a survivor — at the fisher reintroduction she wore a red Santa hat with her forest service uniform. The spotted owls have largely been crowded out by barred owls, she explained, but the good they accomplished — the owls, the biologists, the activists, the reluctant politicians in the Clinton years — is undeniable. These big tall trees, for example, outside of designated wilderness, would almost surely have been harvested.

You put yourself where you need to be.
You hang out and wait. You do what you can.

The fisher carries no such weight. Not an entire region of ancient forests, nor the health of an entire ecosystem like the Yellowstone wolves. They do, at times, have an image problem, starting with their name, fisher, which suggests they eat fish, which they do not. (The name comes from “fitch,” a European polecat, a creature that the fisher apparently resembles.) Though they are omnivores, they prefer meat, and, frankly, they are badasses. They’re famously the only effective predator of porcupines, for one thing, able to eviscerate them in mere seconds.

At the campground, Laurie and I volunteered to help carry the boxes — the fishers! — from the back of the pickup. There were five of them — five! — and they were indeed named, after characters from the Harry Potter books. The boxes were white, the size of an ’80s-era microwave oven or a child’s bike trailer. Not too heavy for one person to hold (an adult fisher weighs only about eight pounds) but far too awkward. So we carried them one human per side, two fishers per box, duplexes of sorts. Or you could say crates, or even cages.

Little fisher motels, or hellholes. We have no way to know. Just as they, the fishers, had no idea what was about to happen next. Though surely they had an inkling: some desire or desperation, terror or fury, or even, dare we imagine, hope? Surely they could smell the forest smells. Maybe they could smell human excitement. Maybe they wished to eviscerate us straight up, we the way-worse-than-porcupines.

We lined the boxes up on a tent pad and stepped back.

A fisher crate, Ampersand Magazine
Illustration by Justin DeVine

Several years ago, I ran unopposed for elected office, a fire commissioner in my small rural community, and quickly learned one lesson. If you want to get something done, you work super hard and mind the details, be persistent and persuasive, and maybe, just maybe, it will get done. On the other hand, if you don’t want something done, all you have to do is say no. That’s it. Say no. When I told this to people, good earnest people who had cheered my public service, they were appalled. This explains a lot to me about the world, I’d say. And my friends would shake their heads.

Still, I stayed with it.  A dozen years of very hard work. We made some progress. We scheduled weekly fuel-reduction work parties. We worked on radio communications and evacuation plans and acquired used fire engines, painted them with the district motto, trained volunteer firefighters. But over time, we lost nearly all the support of our constituents, our neighbors, friends even, because they believed we weren’t doing enough to stop the big fires. (Who could? Who can?) I wanted to say: I get it. I yearn for big change, and I despise futility. Incremental change drives me batty, but incremental change is all we’ve got. Instead, I quit the fire district. I couldn’t do it anymore. I am not proud, but I had to let go.

My mother, for her part, shared little of my angst. She was too busy running the food pantry at her church, a full-time unpaid position, where a converted garage stores enough food to feed an average of 3,000 people a month. Some of the clients at the food pantry were also volunteers; some lived by the river bottom, which is to say, they were homeless. They’d ride bikes, old clunkers, refurbished river-bottom-style, and they’d lift the heaviest boxes and break down the cardboard for recycling, and my mom bantered with them, thanked them, enjoyed their company. Mom has lived alone now for decades. It’s hard to say, without sounding church sermon cliché, but she benefited as least as much as they did.

Back in the drippy forest, Jason Ransom stepped forward. Jason leads the reintroduction team. A hard task from the start, the process got a whole lot harder after the 2017 mega wildfires in British Columbia. The fires had diminished “source populations,” so in order to keep the project alive, he had to build new relationships between wildly diverse stakeholders: fur trappers, conservation groups, First Nations, and the Calgary Zoo. In other words, Jason had earned the right to pull the first door open. I held my phone at the ready, hoping for a photo, maybe a video.  But I was not fast enough.

The first fisher, whose name may have been Hermione or Minerva, scampered out fast as she could, so so fast. We only caught a glimpse of her fur, a rich calico cat color, orange-brown or rust with some black: fuzzy-looking and if I didn’t know better, cuddly, and did I mention fast?  An orange-brown swish over matted moss and downed logs, under the brush, up a steep hill, out of view.

She’ll be fine, probably. So far, Jason and his team have released 26 fishers in North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and 73 in Mount Rainier National Park and Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and have seen very little mortality. They insert radio trackers under the fishers’ fur, then they track them via aircraft. Biologists climb aboard a fixed-wing to listen for the unique sound each fisher transmits through its collar. (The sound changes when a fisher dies, at which time they’ll land so a veterinarian can perform a necropsy to determine cause of death.) The fishers have roamed for miles, many many miles. They cross interstates and swim major rivers. You can tell this one could — or will — just by the way she sped out of that box like a thoroughbred trained for the starting gate. If there was any trepidation among her fellow fishers or us, the watchers, you couldn’t feel it in the air. Everything, for those three seconds, was pure euphoria.

There she goes!

I admit that when the biologists described how veterinarians at the Calgary Zoo surgically inserted the radio trackers, I cringed. My knee-jerk never-been-to-vet-school reaction is to think: Why hurt the animal this way? Just leave them the hell alone! I am hyper-trained to judge each necessary trade-off: the huge carbon footprint, all that Jet A fuel, not to mention all of us driving up this rain-rutted road.

But it was easy to shut the monkey brain off. Because here comes another!

Lickety-split, she was out and climbing a tree — the tree I’d later call 300 feet tall because boy howdy, did it seem tall. If she decides to stay, Jason told us, she’ll nest in the hole of a pileated woodpecker because it’s big enough for her to fit with her babies but not big enough for the male, who will, if allowed to, eat his babies. (More badassedness, yes!)  This fisher climbed to the highest limb, higher than my neck could crane to see. Even the guy with a camera lens as long as my forearm couldn’t see her. I’m not sure if she was hiding, but if she was, who could blame her?

A fisher running, Ampersand Magazine
Illustration by Justin Devine

Urgency has two definitions: 1. importance requiring swift action; 2. an earnest and persistent quality, persistence. They butt up against each other clumsily. I have always believed in patient persistence, but patience can be a kind of hiding. I have aspired to act swiftly, with courage, to make “good trouble” as John Lewis always said, but I have not wanted to be shackled to the idea either, since this peculiarly American brand of hot-blooded desire — big fast change! — has so often spawned what we might call bad trouble: economic mega-growth, expanding empire, bloody revolution. Or when it’s not achieved: disappointment, discouragement, apathy. At worst: despondency.

Which brings me to what had been the biggest challenge in our lives, Laurie’s and mine, for several months. Neither aging parents nor the ever-escalating cycle of floods and fires, but Laurie’s apple trees. They are dying. To be clear, they are not actually Laurie’s trees; they are yours. They belong to the National Park Service, all 400 or so of them. Most are nearing 100 years old, and over time, as they have slowly begun to die, Laurie has planted and nurtured new trees, and now the young trees have become afflicted by a fungus, Botryosphaeria, which is, yes, killing them. The fungus may have been invited by global warming, too much wet weather in the winter, or by overwatering or pruning in cold weather or by planting a young tree in the same place where an old one died. At night Laurie blames herself. She’s planted these trees in succession for 25 years. She wanted them to replace the old trees, to grow and thrive long after her own death. Instead she watches them wither. The usual treatment for this fungus is to remove the affected branches, but in these young trees the damage is on the trunks, so removing the fungus means cutting them down, and Laurie has had to do that again and again. Talk about cause for despondency. She saw a therapist, who suggested radical acceptance. Laurie understands the need to let go. She is trying. It is excruciating.

Another fisher is released, and one more, until only one remains. The final fisher is named Delores, and this seems auspicious, since Laurie once had this nickname. When they asked for volunteers to open the sliding door, Laurie raised her hand. Now Laurie slides the door up and . . . nothing happens.

Delores comes to the door, sniffs the air, and stops cold.  Phyllis, in her Santa hat, kneels to blow into the air vent, hoping to annoy Delores just enough. Will she choose to escape or endure this eternal huffing?  We’re waiting, and on my phone recording, you can hear me urging her out. Come on Delores. Go Delores, my voice uncharacteristically high, as though I’m sweet-talking a kitten, not a creature that can rip the guts from a porcupine. Laurie kneels down to spell Phyllis. This is the moment I return to in my memory, over and over: the door sliding up, the crowd expectant, the needles dripping . . .

And then?

Midway through writing this essay, Covid-19 arrived. My home in the woods, a place that has always felt safe, no longer does when no place can be. Over the mountains at the assisted living facility where we moved Laurie’s folks (why? why did we move them?) a patient tested positive. In California, Mom closed the food pantry, since all of her volunteers are over 60 and therefore high risk. I call her daily and we play Boggle online. A friend’s father dies, and I buy a gift card. Tom Petty plays on repeat night and day: the waiting is the hardest part. This is where we stand, for now, all of us everywhere, while I write and before you read: pre-scamper, the door open, breath-held, wide-eyed, waiting to see what will happen next.

What moved me to tears, besides the fishers, was the sheer effort of all these people fighting so hard, day after day, until a seemingly small thing became a big thing.

After all the fishers had been released, Laurie and I hung around and tried to make small talk, but it was hard, honestly, to make the small talk big enough. How cool was that? we said over and over. We talked a bit about the old days with Phyllis. We chatted with the biologists, giddy with exhaustion, up since before dawn, who still had to pack their empty boxes and drive many miles back to headquarters or god knows where. Later still, I sent my short shaky fisher videos to my friend Julie, who teaches elementary school in Southern California, and she showed them to her 30 third graders. Her excitement, near weepy, echoed and redoubled my own. Kids who knew nothing about fishers now knew about fishers! How cool is that?

As I wrote about the reintroduction, what moved me to tears, besides the fishers, was the sheer effort of all these people fighting so hard, day after day, until a seemingly small thing became a big thing: the meeting attendees, the paper pushers, the helicopter pilots, the pickup truck drivers waiting at the border crossing, the vets with their probes and scalpels. Did I wish I lived in an era when fishers were just allowed to be fishers and never had to be relocated? Hell yes. I also wished I lived in a country where people didn’t have to live in the river bottom and line up for grocery bags of peanut butter and canned green beans. But. Even though it sounded like yet another church sermon cliché, I felt grateful for everyone who showed up on Tuesdays or Fridays. The battle against inertia, I concluded, is not a solitary effort. The answer to the first definition of urgency, I wrote, importance requiring swift action, lies in the second, earnest persistence.

That was six weeks ago. A lifetime. I knew nothing. I could not imagine a time when earnest persistence would require staying home to distance ourselves from loved ones, to watch death counts and wait for a flattened curve. Make no mistake: small acts of goodness continue apace. The quarantine for Laurie’s parents has eased because the lone case was properly isolated and treated. My mom’s pantry reopened for drive-thru service, busier than ever. But it’s impossible not to note that the urgency feels way way more urgent.

I realize now that every time I thought about the fishers, I saw myself as one of their benevolent godlike liberators when, in fact, we’re all creatures at the mercy of the universe. We’re in boxes — the boxes of our homes, yes, crates or hellholes depending on the situation or, sometimes, the time of day — but that is not what I mean. My box is everything I used to believe, how I moved in the world, all that gave me identity and safety. I know I need to let go. I am trying. It is excruciating. How is it possible that, in the urgency of now, much of what’s asked of us is radical acceptance?

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And what about when it’s time to be liberated? Who will we be? What will we do? Will it be enough to care for elders and apple trees, to manage a food pantry, to nurture fishers and teach kids about them, to practice kindness? Or will anger serve us better? Should we spend our empty hours nurturing fierceness like contagion aimed to eviscerate injustice and greed?

To fight or not to fight?  The answer is yes and yes.

I mean, what would a fisher do?

Sometime in winter, I posted the Delores video on Facebook. I couldn’t help it. Now, whenever I return to the cyber-hellhole — which has become, more than ever, a lifeline and a pall, chock-full of stories of heinous incompetence and spontaneous grace — I can watch again as Laurie pulls up the door and . . . nothing happens.

Delores is stubborn, uncertain. She weighs the danger of what lies ahead, the unknown versus the relative comfort of her temporary home. Laurie pulls a hank of hay away from the door, and Delores sticks her head through the small round opening, gives the world a look-see: newness everywhere, challenges galore.

Nah. She retreats inside. She’s been through a massive ordeal — trapped and jostled and incised — and she longs for the way things were before any of this nonsense. The past is gone for good, and Delores hasn’t quite caught on. I get it. I want to go back too. But we can’t. The wild unknown beckons. What the hell do we do next? How will we respond? Delores comes to the threshold once more, hesitates, and just like that, she’s out like a shot, over downed logs, under low brush, and into the rain-wet woods.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Camas magazine.

Our friends at Conservation NW are fisher champions who have been one of the leaders on the Washington fisher reintroduction project for nearly two decades. Learn more about fishers and Conservation NW’s ongoing success — and how you can support more work like this.