A black shadow, a winter-coated fisher, dashes across the crumbly blacktop a hundred yards in front of me, through a decrepit barbed wire fence into a grove of young maple trees, loping up a hill that plunges down the south side of my property perpendicular to the road falling to the east. Through the older maples and oaks he runs, wild, free, and majestic in his single-minded mastery of his environment.
The fisher, a catlike member of the weasel family, is an indomitable hunter. Similar in many ways to his relative, the much smaller marten, the fisher measures in at a good three feet or more in length when you include his big bushy tail. The Ojibwe of the Midwest have many stories about him, named Ojiig in their language, frequently teaming up with the number one cultural trickster/hero, Nanabozho, a clever rabbit spirit who tricks and schemes all throughout the forest.
Ojiig hangs like a starry necklace in the night sky, otherwise known as the Big Dipper in European parlance, making its way directly overhead as the maple sap begins to run.
It is said that Ojiig went into the Sky Realm to free the flowers of summer that were held captive by a Sky God, in order to end winter and create the seasons that we now take for granted in the temperate belt of the globe.
Folk Tales of all sorts, in particularly indigenous ones, hold within them multiple layers of meaning, like the fleshy skin of an onion. Before science and natural philosophy were invented, The Story was the codified container that held all of our collective knowledge, such as why the sun came up and how the maple buds blossomed.
In many ways, these Old Tales still stand up to the test of time. Somehow they reach with ghostly fingers behind the realm of cold hard data into the warm presence of the beating soul, a place that even an infinite amount of bytes cannot seem to describe.
While Ojiig didn’t necessarily go up into the sky literally, we know that he is a small but fierce hunter, absolutely capable of taking on the toughest challenges that the environment can hand out.
One of the only specialized predators of porcupines, Fishers attack the unprotected face of the porcupine until it is weary and injured, and finally the prickly mammal dies. No other predator has this particular skill, not even the cunning wolf.
If your dog has ever had a nose full of quills, you can see why. Somehow, the fisher evades such misery and gains a unique and meaty prize. They also love to hunt snowshoe hare and rabbits, and will eat any and all other animals, living or dead, that they find on their circuitous journey around their territory.
Fishers, and the weasel family in general, are obligate carnivores — they must eat meat or they will die. That said, if hungry fishers will also eat nuts, berries, insects, mushrooms, leaves, and whatever else that they can find in order to survive, much like dogs. They are known as one of the most efficient predators on the land, and can live up to ten years or older.
Fishers prefer old growth forest with plenty of dead standing trees to nest in, and in that way they embody the spirit of the old forest. They are solitary creatures until mating time, and they tend to roam alone the ridges of heavily forested areas, running their own hunting line each and every night. A male surveys about thirty square miles a day, whereas a female around ten.
In general it takes them about two weeks to make a complete circuit of their range. A female’s journey lasts for three to ten days.
Once impregnated, the female fisher’s pregnancy will be put on pause until an entire year later. Her eggs will not become fertilized unto three hundred and fifty two days after mating, when gestation will finally begin, and approximately fifty days later one to four kits will be born, helpless and blind.
Even though the fisher is one of the most agile climbers around, including being one of the only mammals that can descend trees headfirst, they spend most of their time on the forest floor, active mostly during the dawn and dusk of the day.
The fisher in front of me ran across my landscape, leaving only footprints and occasionally tufts of dark fur and scat behind.
Their wide paws have five toes, retractable claws, and four pads, with extremely agile ankles that can rotate almost one hundred and eighty degrees. Their rear feet have extra hair growing between the pads and the toes, which gives them even more agility and traction on a variety of surfaces.
Here in Wisconsin we killed them all off for their pelts in in the 1900s. Then, realizing our mistake, we added them back into the landscape. Now they have made a very significant recovery here, much like the wild turkeys that we killed off and reintroduced in the same time frame. There is nothing more delightful then watching a “rafter” (group) of wild turkeys roaming the landscape, pecking out all the little bugs and fresh greens that they can find to fill their gizzards on a brisk and sunny fall day.
I tracked my fisher’s paw prints in the snow for a half hour, into the snowy hillside until the snow was filling up my boots. The tracks led to a large dead standing tree, at least twenty to thirty inches in diameter. There was a very clear hole about thirty feet up the smooth trunk of the tree and I expected a little fisher nose to pop out, and wary fisher eyes to survey my intrusion onto his peaceful lands, but no such luck.
Was it a female on parole her acreage, or a male out on the prowl? The fishers body looked enormous as it loped up the hill, so I figured that it was a male at around eight to sixteen pounds on average, as opposed to the females at around four to six pounds. It was almost mid-March, and April is when the breeding season starts. But the weather was warming up during the day and freezing at night, so the sap was beginning to run in the trees. The rising of the sap was a more accurate keeper of time than any roman numerals could ever be.
As I stood there, in that cathedral of silent white snow and creeping shadow, and looked around the woods. I noticed how many dead trees were standing or resting in that area of the landscape. The fisher had led me there, albeit without his intent or knowledge.
I looked around at this ancient tree graveyard, and wondered. In the past, I would have only thought of the utility of the dead wood I could harvest. I would have come in there with my saw and cut all the dry timber down for the bounty of some pre-seasoned firewood. Now, as I stood there in the twenty degree stillness of a Wisconsin pre-spring dusk, I realized that there was an infinite amount of worth in those dead and punky woods, right where they stood.
In the past, I would have looked around and seen an endless habitat for predators of my livestock, which were once primarily birds. Now that I raised only large mammals, I wasn’t thinking about potential hazards. And, with a full two to three cords left of firewood left for the season, I supposed that I was okay for warmth.
Now, I saw the wild area for what it was without my pragmatic glasses and economic perspective. That little patch of older and chaotic wildness was a perfect example of what we need to cultivate in order to let nature thrive. We need to allow the rotting carcasses of the old trees and and dead animals to sit on the floor of our woods. Nature is hungry, and nature must eat.
We need to keep those standing dead trees in the woods to provide housing for our incredibly beautiful and resourceful brethren — the fishers, the martens, the owls, the raccoons, a multitude of birds, squirrels, and porcupines. As the bugs devour the cellulose of the tree, woodpeckers arrive to find meals and raise families there. As the carbon of the lignin decomposes into the forest floor, it builds the spongelike capacity of the forest floor to hold moisture. Soil run-off decreases, and the endless dying things that litter the floor builds nitrogen up in the soils until larger trees take root and began to anchor the entire hillside, sending thick roots down into the bedrock to bring up million year old rock nutrients to the surface of the landscape.
The forest nurtures the fisher, and the fisher nurtures the forest.
My relationship with the fisher had led me to a deep understanding of the importance of the messy, dead, and unkept space that exist within our wild areas. The fisher inhabits the old forest and needs wide tree canopies and old rotting wood to survive — when we see a sign of him, we see a sign of the health of the entire ecosystem.
I like to imagine him, high in that hollow tree, surveying all the land that he roams, and making big plans for the future.
I felt a kinship with that dark shadow that crossed my land. He didn’t know, nor did he care, that this was my property. In a way, on a larger scale of permanence, I’m the one passing through, and yet I am the one that can do the most damage to his world, as well as to all of the flora and fauna that call this little spot on the planet home.
The system is so intricately intertwined that if we remove one dead tree, we remove food and habitat for all creatures, as well as the delicate lacework of microorganisms that tie the food web all together. If we follow the fisher, we can find the most ancient places to protect.