interpreter wildlife expert
was watching Henri the intern flip a rock.
They were partway up a mountain in a forest of towering Douglas firs, working
their way up what in spring had been a raging torrent, but after a prolonged hot,
rain-free stretch had dwindled to a trickle.
The wildlife expert was keenly aware that April the associate producer
had a camera aimed at the side of his head.
He had still not gotten used to that.
April was an ardent videographer. Her right eye socket was a pale stone in a tanned pond. He glanced at her, knowing she was waiting for him to say something that would push this thing along.
He had nothing. He was distracted, had several times in the past half-hour checked his phone to make sure that Vol was set to Max, that it was set to vibrate, that it was on. They were three days shy of the due date and Stacey had been sleeping poorly. He woke up to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, clutching her lightbulb belly. He would be an hour’s drive away in good traffic, flipping rocks. He didn’t want to go, but there was a deadline.
“We’re okay,” she said. “Mom is on standby.”
At the office that morning, April had revealed herself an expert on pregnancy. “It’s her first? Don’t worry. The first ones are always late, usually by at least a week.” He felt a little less anxious for a few minutes, but before climbing into his car he checked his phone settings again. He had insisted they go in separate vehicles in case he had to leave in a hurry.
“You don’t get mileage in that case,” said April.
“Mileage? My girlfriend is about to give birth.”
April raised her hands in surrender and made big eyes at Henri, who was large and stoical. She said, “Okay. You lead the way, we’ll follow.”
He led them along a country road that curled next to the base of a mountain where he knew that if you were lucky you could flip a rock and find something amazing, something that would instantly convert a doubting novice into a rock-flipping fanatic. This was the mountainside where years earlier the flip of a rock had revealed a full-sized Dicamptodon, a copper-stippled salamander big as a bratwurst. It bit him on the thumb and drew blood, which itself was amazing. A biting salamander?
He couldn’t remember exactly where that had been, but pulled over at a spot that seemed about right.
Now on site, April had taken charge, telling the wildlife expert what to do. “Say something about the importance of rock-flipping. The stuff you were saying during the pitch, about why we’re here. Sell rock-flipping to the world. Imagine having it trending.”
“Why the hell should we flip rocks?”
“Oh.” An interpreter’s loop started in his head. He said, “There is a vast and fascinating diversity of animals and other organisms that live beneath rocks. Flip any rock almost anywhere on earth, and you’re likely to find something alive. Maybe something familiar, maybe something exotic and mysterious. It’s like magic, and it’s free. Starting about five years ago, people from all over the world conspired to flip rocks once a year on a day in September, and share their stories, pictures and videos in an internet festival known as International Rock Flipping Day.”
Henri the intern perked up. He said, “I know nothing of this.”
The wildlife expert said, “You don’t? It’s wildly popular.”
For an employee paid nothing Henri was very dedicated, would without complaint attack any task thrown his way. His initial job this shoot had been to flip the larger rocks, the ones the wildlife expert didn’t want to flip.
“I kinda got hurt last year,” he claimed.
Henri was built for the task, with big hands, long arms, and a broad back. After a while he was flipping all the rocks, no matter the size, as the wildlife expert instructed from over his shoulder.
“How ‘bout that one,” said the wildlife expert.
Henri heaved the rock. Beneath was a yellow-spotted millipede and holed, sickly-smelling sheets woven by spiders.
“This is way better than when I was an interpreter and had to flip my own rocks,” said the wildlife expert. “Back then, to keep a program moving, basically I was flipping everyone else’s rocks too. Over the years I must have flipped a hundred and seventeen thousand rocks.”
Henri was shaking out his gloves for the fourth or fifth time. They had stiff, flared cuffs that funnelled in pea-sized dirt clots. He asked, “You counted them?”
April filmed the two men studying each other.
The wildlife expert said, “Ya know what? The stream here is drier than I expected, and the cool animals I hoped were hunkered beneath the rocks have gone somewhere wetter, if they haven’t died. What have we found so far, after about 50 rocks? Wood bugs, ants, earthworms, and millipedes, under almost every rock, and a few scrawny little red-backed salamanders here and there. There’s always wood bugs, ants, earthworms, and millipedes, even in a city park, even in your back yard. We need something sexier for the show. Scrawny little red-backed salamanders, wondrous though they are, probably aren’t TV-worthy. He turned to April. “Correct?”
She didn’t respond. She was a lens being focussed by a hand.
“Stop filming. You don’t have to film everything I say or do, do you? Can you just lower the camera for a minute or two while we figure out what we’re going to do next?”
She stopped filming and said, “I never have a clue what you’re going to do next. I’m not convinced you do either. Best bet for me is to keep filming.” She raised the camera.
The wildlife expert had a Plan B. He stepped forward and placed his hand in front of the lens. He said, “I know that on previous International Rock Flipping Days, some participants have stepped outside the guidelines, have also rolled logs. You know what that could mean here? It could mean rubber boa. A rubber boa would be a grand slam, and a falling-apart, half-buried log would be the thing to flip for that particular grail.”
“A rubber boa?” She lowered the camera.
“Awesomely weird snake,” said the wildlife expert. “Imagine a leg of pantyhose packed with sand, spray-painted in shiny grey-green glossy paint.”
“Are you making this up?”
“This is what the show is about, as I understand it. Rare, strange critters. We could literally be standing on top of one.”
Henri looked at his boots.
April said, “Are you suggesting that at this point we change the shoot to a hunt for rubber boas?”
“Text Derek,” he said. “He’ll go for it.”
April was uncomfortable dealing with Derek, who was the star of the show and a zoologist who knew tons about animals. He was the final arbiter of what animal footage would be included. He had in the past nixed an entire week’s work. He and the wildlife expert were pals.
“They live in rotting logs, eating shrews and baby voles. Our target habitat is fallen logs.”
They scanned the dark depths of the valley that rose up through the forest. April said, “How about up there?” She was pointing at a cluster of busted logs crimped into a dent not far above.
“Yup, that looks promising,” said the wildlife expert. “And it means you can stop filming for a few minutes. It’s easier to clamber up the side of a mountain that way.”
Picking their way diagonally upward across uneven ground, they rounded the logs. This was a place that decades ago had been clear cut, and substandard logs had been left cross-heaped to rot.
The wildlife expert yanked a knot of gloves from his back pocket. He worked them on, approached the pile, bent over and placed his hands on the bark of what seemed the most manageable log. “Henri, if you would, take the other end.”
Henri hesitated, but eventually took his spot. “Ready,” he said.
April’s eye was sealed within the eyepiece.
“C’mon, rubber boa... 1, 2, 3, roll!”
The log rolled.
“Hey, there’s something moving here, something big,” said the wildlife expert, peeling back a sheet of bark that had been the bottom skin of the rolled log.
A fist-sized mass launched into the air. It was compact and furry and brown.
“Vole!” the wildlife expert yelled as it landed on his arm and scurried up it, into the opening of the sleeve of his golf shirt. The thing was programmed to burrow, and within a fraction of a second was scrabbling against his armpit.
He hollered and staggered backwards, pulling at the front of his shirt. He spun on his heel, skidded down the slope a few feet and seemed about to topple headlong the entire way down the mountainside, but at the last second snagged the springy trunk of a vine maple sapling, which bowed and then yanked him back upright at the instant the vole jettisoned from the open throat of his shirt. The rodent soared in a graceful arc and ended up twenty feet downslope in a leafy carpet of salal. It landed with a quiet swish.
The wildlife expert was clinging to the vine maple one-handed, panting. He pulled open the neck of his shirt, checking for damage. “I got lucky,” he said.
April, trying to hold the camera steady, said, “Okay, that was TV-worthy.” She stopped filming. “I think we got the money shot.”
“No. We definitely did not,” said the wildlife expert. “But it’s a good sign. Rubber boa food.” He found his footing, and digging in with the edges of his boots scored his way back up to the log heap. He picked out what seemed to be the next best log, and placed his hands on it. “Over there,” he pointed.
Henri slowly made his way to the far end and took hold.
“Ready, go.” The log half-rolled. The wildlife expert had to jump aside to keep from having the near half land on his feet, but the other end had barely left its nest of compost, displaced only an inch.
“Henri,” said the wildlife expert, puzzled by the lack of effort. Whatever had been under this log was now long gone, hidden within darker shelter deeper down. “We have to roll the whole log, not just part of it.”
Henri said nothing, and kept his eyes down.
“At least help me push it back into its spot.”
Henri hurried over and by himself returned the displaced end back into the groove its slow rot had eaten.
“Let’s try that one,” said the wildlife expert, pointing to a log on the far side of the pile. It looked right, imbedded in the soil, but not too deep. Henri seemed deflated. “C’mon, let’s go.”
This time the log exploded at the wildlife expert’s end. The bark had been firm, but the wood inside had degraded to straw-coloured pulp. Henri’s end was unchanged, intact, with Henri’s large gloved hands planted, motionless.
It was clear that formerly stalwart Henri was unhappy, had for some reason given up.
“What is it?” asked the wildlife expert.
“I’m having trouble with the ethics of what we’re doing.”
“What? I don’t think we’re doing too much damage. We’re replacing the logs pretty much where they were.”
He shook his head. “I think logs are cheating. It’s not International Log Rolling Day.”
The wildlife expert straightened up. He laughed. “Really?”
“Does that really matter? It’s just a fun web-thing to do, to discover and compare what lives under stuff.”
“These aren’t rocks.”
“True, but say you’re flipping rocks, and then there’s a nearby log. You’re not going to roll it over too?”
“Not if the rule is to flip rocks. Plus look where we are now. There’s no rocks. The rocks are all down there by the stream. We’re way up out of the rock zone.”
The wildlife expert turned to April. “We needed an intern. You hired a conscience.”
She twisted her mouth and sustained a long shrug. She said, “The rock versus log issue never came up in the interview process. We’ll have to work around it. Please, both of you, keep going. We have to build a seven-minute compelling story from whatever the hell it is we’re doing here, spending gobs of money.”
“More logs!” The wildlife expert pointed upslope to another moss-mantled heap.
Once at the logs, the wildlife expert turned to look at downcast Henri. The young guy’s weird turmoil was genuine. He couldn’t stand that. He said, “Okay Henri. Last log, okay? Whatever we find here will hopefully be good, but even if it isn’t, we’ll go back down to the streambed and flip rocks.”
“I will happily flip rocks till the sun goes down,” said Henri.
“And, since I have climbed halfway up this stupid mountain, at least the one last log too,” said April.
Henri looked at her with sad dog eyes.
“You can do it,” she mouthed.
The wildlife expert scanned the mass of rotting wood. “My gut feeling says that one.” He pointed.
They approached the log, the wildlife expert at one end, Henri at the other. The wildlife expert said, “Get a wide grip. Reach over far to get the whole thing. We don’t want to just rip off the top half.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said April. “Let me get into position.” She pushed her way through ferns and saplings to a spot beside and slightly behind the wildlife expert.
“Back a bit,” he said. “We have to jump back when it rolls.”
They waited as April stepped back and found sturdy footing.
“Everybody ready?” the wildlife expert asked.
“Ready,” said April.
“Okay,” said Henri.
“One, two, three, roll!”
The log rolled cleanly, exposing a smooth trough of loamy soil veined with pale mycelia. Right in the middle, punching a hole in the pattern, was a flash of polished olive, moving.
Rubber boa! Rubber boa!” the wildlife expert yelled. He lunged over the log, his glove wide, about to grab, but the soil bed failed, collapsing onto other logs lower in the heap. He grasped at nothing. It was gone.
“That was it! Where is it?” He boosted himself back up.
“It went deeper, under that other log there. “It wriggled way down deep into a hole,” said Henri.
The only way to get at it now would be with a crane.
The wildlife expert backed away, into April, and then he stepped around her. He pressed his spine against a tree and rubbed his eyes with his wrists. “I’ve never seen a rubber boa in the wild before. One more second and I would have...” He shook his head and exhaled loudly with his cheeks puffed. He opened his eyes. “The moment is over. Stop filming.”
“It’s my job.”
He pointed at the logs. “Did you get the snake?”
“Maybe. You were mostly in the way. I got something shiny, but it might have been your wristwatch.”
His phone chimed in the front pocket of his shorts. He said, “Oh,” and after biting off his gloves, ripped back a Velcro tab and dug with panicky fingers. He grasped the phone in time and glimpsed the screen. He said, breathlessly, “Hi Sweetie.” There was a pause. “Okay, okay. Is your mom there? Okay, I’m on my way.” His backpack was propped against another tree, downslope, half a throw away. He skidded to it and leaned to undo a zipper.
April lowered her camera and asked, “What is it? Her water broke?”
“We gotta go,” he said.
“I’m not done,” said April. “I still have the wide shots.”
“Okay, you go do that, but I’m leaving.” His head was almost inside the pack.
She said, “Whatever it is, it could take hours. Maybe it’s false labour. There’s probably no need to rush.”
He stood up. “I have to go. Henri, get a GPS reading for this place. I don’t even know where we are, exactly. I picked this spot more or less at random.” He tossed a small plastic device. It spun wide, bounced softly off a stump and tumbled downhill into a tangle of sword ferns. “Aw crap. Can you get that?” He said to April, “So, sorry, we’re probably going to miss the Rock Flipping Day deadline, but we can change the theme of the shoot, and as soon as possible come back here and maybe we’ll luck out on the rubber boa. He pointed at the promising, only slightly disarranged log heap and said, “It’s a perfect species for the show.” He paused. “Why are you still filming me?”
“So it’s clear who screwed up this shoot.”
The wildlife expert rolled his eyes and began his run-hop down the mountainside, catching himself against and pushing off the thick-barked barrels of the trees.
April called, “You’re still wearing your mike pack!”
The wildlife expert kept going, didn’t look back.
“Leave it beside the wheel of my car!”
He kept going.
Watching, Henri said, “His girlfriend is about to give birth? He’s pretty old, isn’t he?”
“I would say so,” said April. “Certainly a lot older than me.”
“So by now they should be married.”
Half an hour after abandoning hope of finding the wildlife expert’s GPS in the undergrowth, and having obtained the wide shots, April and Henri arrived at the gravel at the side of the road. They were alone together in the middle of almost nowhere.
Henri said, “Did you notice on the way here that there was a pony farm about five kilometers that way?” He pointed down the road. “It had little tiny ponies about this high.” He had to bend his knees to demonstrate.
April beamed at him. “You’re adorable.” She stood on tiptoes.
They kissed, softly at first, but soon it became enthusiastic. They dropped to the ground and rolled down into the ditch, stopping just short of the damp, weedy ribbon left over from the early summer run-off.
This story is a contribution to International Rock Flipping Day, generously hosted by Susannah at Wanderin' Weeta. Visit her host-post for links to other Rock Flipping accounts, and see also the Rock Flipping Flickr page.