The Bog (part two)
Duffet began to wind up. He stopped to clear his throat, 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.
But one might fairly have said that with the Free Lander, he shared eighty percent of his genes.
“So if I start choking after a while, just ignore it.”
He barked out another of his bitter laughs, and talked himself back to his lost place, “What I’m trying to say…what I’m trying to say…we got a preserve here, we got a refuge two counties over, we got a national forest upstate. Maybe a rock formation gets to be a national monument, maybe an estuary gets to be a bird sanctuary. Thing is…”
He moved his hands, groping after the thing. “The sundew. The sundew drops its seeds right where it blooms. A mouse, a deer…a crow, puts its foot down, foraging, and if it has someplace else to go, it carries the seed packed between its toes in mud, and plants a sundew in some other bog. The crow might have a chance, maybe the deer. The mouse is pretty much stuck at Rust Creek. And the other two, while they may range outside our bog, aren’t that likely to make their way to some other bog. Rust Creek is one of only four protected boglands in the state.”
A woman and her husband, Tara and Dennis…Carpenter, was it? maybe Carter…closed in on Duffet. Tara asked him a piercing question about habitat corridors. One or two in the group tarried at the fringe of their circle, offering over-conscientious nods as Duffet elaborated his point. The rest returned to the line of cars parked atilt along the road, so that their right-hand (some stubbornly left-hand, drawn up nose to nose) wheels were banked on the ditch.
Tara was a type, Laurel thought. People had these intense little exchanges about things they knew already, things they talked about and emailed about…as though to make an inventory of the group’s phrases, touch base on commitment: I say “habitat corridor” to you, you say “tipping point” to me. Tara, introduced to Laurel, had shaken hands; she’d thrust hers out first, but her eyes throughout this formality sought escape. Laurel had thought of a friendly remark.
“I really liked that photo you posted, the sunset and the blackbirds…all the amber light and contrast…” She fell into meaningless praise-words: really great, beautiful…
Because Tara had actively begun to drift off, making what seemed to Laurel a pretext of hailing Dennis, murmuring she had to tell him something. Am I teacher’s pet, Laurel thought, because I’ve been given an assignment? Where is this friction coming from?
She was to camp here for two nights, spend two days counting checkerspots.
“We’re past the egg-laying season, so it’s safe to pin them.” The conversation she’d been having with Rachel before Duffet arrived, late for his talk.
“I don’t want to kill a butterfly.”
“You don’t have to.” She shook her head at Rachel’s open mouth. “No, I mean, I will kill them. You don’t have to.”
“Probably. But the Frazey’s is hard to identify. You know…” She tried this again. “There’s nothing dangerous, camping. I have a GPS…transponder, whatever… I have a phone. The Free Landers don’t come into the bog.”
They might, Laurel supposed. It was easier to envision Duffet stalking around under moonlight. And Duffet the Wildman wasn’t dangerous, either. “If you’re not into it, you’ll be bored.”
“No, I can help. I said I would.”
“You’ll be sorry,” Laurel said.
The sad thing, maybe the ironic thing, was that at the heart of the bog, signal strength, phone reception, looked fine. Two towers could be seen on not so distant hilltops, already—or always—lighted red. It was dusk, and with Amanda, Laurel and her sister were hiking a mile deep along the plank walkways. Soon they would beat their way over dry ground onto the slip, an elevation of sand and pebbles that had avalanched into the bog a century ago. More or less. Somehow 1920 hardly seemed so; but it had been, in the days of canals, a man-made hill, dredge taken from Rust Creek to make passage for cargo deeper and straighter. They had forgotten it, the county fathers, while the mound with its shallow topsoil grew a meadow. Picnickers had spread blankets on the fourth of July. Daisies, bee balm, ironweed, waving grasses; these and others, indifferent to topography, remained on the slip, sowing unwelcome seeds.
Bare spots exited the public zone, climbing through a border of burdock, a young grove of sumac and black locust, to a leveled clearing. A padlocked storage shed, portable toilet, and outdoor table, belonging to Fish and Wildlife. As for tenting, the women had their choice of any clearing on the slip.
“But,” Amanda began.
An awkward moment for the three of them, women failing to take the initiative, watching each other falter instead of hoisting gear. Amanda, of a younger generation, and not owing Laurel her assistance, only her guidance, moved first, grabbing the zippered tube of nylon. Rachel then caught one handle of the cooler, Laurel the other, and the sisters lurched ahead in the officer’s wake.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)