“It behooves all good humans to become ever more effective storytellers.”
I’ve had the good fortune to have sat (and played, hiked, and fire-lit) in the company of some serious tricksters. There was Teets, my old field boss, a wise-cracking guardian of Yellowstone’s northern range; Shan, a fire pixie who taught me to wield a torch like a pen; and Terry, who built from scratch a revolutionary training ground for environmental humanitarians. Most recently there was Pino, an eco-art visionary dedicated to bringing creative interventions to an eco-art-starved metropolis.
What unites these sprites, ravens, mavens, and coyotes—bearers, all, of what astrologer and eco-activist Carolyn Casey calls the “redeeming trickster spirit”—is their willingness to dabble, in their “work,” in the realms of imagination and play, and in so doing to honor beauty, which is the transformative and inclusive antithesis of fear.
I’m about a week into a new job as a park ranger at Jamaica Bay Wildife Refuge, tasked with absorbing information, planning programs, and holding fast to my mentors’ trickster-teachings.
Each day I ride the subway two hours south and east, to a sculpted oasis where five miles of trails circumnavigate a pair of man-made freshwater (now brackish, due to breaches related to Hurricane Sandy and general wear-and-tear) ponds. Sited at the intersection of two major migration routes along the Atlantic Flyway, the refuge hosts more than 330 migratory and non-migratory bird species, along with over 80 species of butterflies—plus diamondback terrapins, snapping turtles, racers, garters, tree frogs, squirrels and muskrats. During the high tides of late spring’s new and full moons, hundreds or thousands of horseshoe crabs—living fossils, 450 million years old—emerge along J-Bay’s beaches in groups, to lay and fertilize their strings of jelly-eggs.
Each morning I watch planes flying in and out of JFK airport, and each day I learn more and more about the complicated, dismal, hopeful, human and more-than-human stories of this place. The marshes of Jamaica Bay demonstrate fragility and resilience, in measures that ebb and flow. The Bay is, at the very least, a human refuge from the density of the city center, a place to inculcate natural wonder in curious minds and hearts, and a space to decompress.
In my first days on the job, I witnessed the first steps and untimely deaths of a pair of yellow goslings. I’ve spied on a mother osprey warming her nest, watched a rose-breasted grosbeak testing the strength of our feeder, and saluted a black-crown night heron holding court over “Big John Pond.” I’ve dived into books and articles about the human history of the bay—little, sadly, on the Canarsie and Rockaway Indians, and more than I wanted to know about the early 20th-century dredging, filling, and flattening of so many of its marshes and beaches. The refuge counts two former landfills, an airport, and a former amuseument park/pier among its numerous non-contiguous units.
I’ve learned about persecution of exotic (imported) mute swans and euthanasia of adult Canada geese, blamed for bringing down airplanes at nearby JFK Airport. (Smaller birds, I am told, succumb to plane engines all the time. Their deaths cause far less uproar.)
I am charged with holding, maintaining, deepening, sharing, and giving life to all of J-Bay’s histories. And I’m terrified.
How to tell the heartbreaking story? How to weep—in public, in uniform—for loss of life, loss of marshland, loss of human connection to the natural world? How will I explain, without defending, management decisions based on antiquated and militant approaches to conservation? How can I generate hope, when the marshes are disappearing faster than volunteer crews can re-seed them?
I look to the skies, to the birds, to the augury of the heavens. I look to story, to fierce and honest reporting, to cackling coyotes and the power of wild words.
In this moment of quiet, before the ranger talks commence, while I am still permitted paid hours for research and preparation, I pray: for peace of heart, strength of voice, clarity of message, and the sacred, irreverent influence of the trickster-storyteller. I pray to be guided by beauty, even in tragedy, and by play. I pray to find ways to rejeuvenate the storytelling practice of a century-old institution, the National Park Service, whose centennial ought to invite both celebration and loving criticism.
This week—this season—I’ll live by the whisperings and incantations of my beloved trickster-storytellers. Here, some words for living, from two true-blue, howling coyotes. May it be so.
“Oh spirit of the compassionate trickster redeemer residing within each one of us, willing to bound onto Earth’s stage: cultivate, magnetize, animate our gifts, and spiral them forth into the world at this time of dire beauty.” -Carolyn Casey
“This is Coyote’s Country—a landscape of the imagination, where nothing is as it appears. The buttes, mesas, and redrock spires beckon you to see them as something other: a cathedral, a tabletop, bears’ ears, or nuns. Windows and arches ask you to recall what is no longer there, to taste the wind for the sandstone it carries. These astonishing formations invite a new mythology for desertgoers, one that acknowledges the power of story and ritual, yet lies within the integrity of our own cultures. The stories rooted in experience become beads to trade. It is the story, always the story, that precedes and follows the journey.” -Terry Tempest Williams