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Call of the Wilds

I live in a wild place.  In winter there are only a handful of residents.  The wolves howl.  The elk find their way through the snows.  The grizzlies sleep.  In spring the mountains wake and thaw.  On weekends this valley is a favorite spot for locals from Billings and Cody.  ATV’s and RV’s roll in and find their favorite campsites.  Yet the mountains here are vast, the wilderness seems endless.  Its rare to see another person on any given trail.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This has been my first winter here.  I’d been here almost every month of the year, but only for weeks or a few months at a time.  Living here, knowing that these mountains are what I now call home, I find my rhythms slowly changing.  Life seems to be moving fast when I return to an area I’d just been last week and the snows have melted.  Or how did I miss the day when the rivers suddenly turned muddy and swollen?  Just two weeks ago I drove up that draw, but now its flooded.  Changes seems to be happening at breakneck speed.  What looks static to a visitor is a constantly changing kaleidoscope, an ebb and flow of interactions too great and wonderful to take in all at once.

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Aspens starting to bud out.

Aspens starting to bud out.

Ribes blooming just the other day

Ribes blooming just the other day

Alpine columbine just blooming today

Alpine columbine just blooming today

I walk the woods and look for wildlife runs and markings, new smells or droppings, nests or homes, what was eaten today and what was killed.  At first I walked or hiked and noticed a few things here or there.  But now I find it difficult to be aware on all the levels I want to be.  There is the forest floor and its sign–scat, droppings, scratchings.  The treetops are where birds and small mammals also live so don’t forget to check up there as well.  The relics and evidence of the past such as buffalo bones or Native American sign.  If you only look for animal sign such as tracks or scat, you miss the wildlife presently around you.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Better watch for bears, and be careful with your dog as there are wolves around.  The forest and the meadows are alive.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Simple beauty

Simple beauty

A new awareness has also begun to creep in.  It is an understanding of the nature of life and death, of a circle of existence.  This is not an intellectual notion.  Everyday I find bones and skulls, or fresh kills large and small.  Everybody has to eat and you either eat plants or meat or both.  Death is not wrapped up in a nice package in the frozen section, or shoved off to the edges of society.  It is here and everywhere.

My neighbor H__ who has a horse farm, told me a story about the first horse he had to put down.  He was afraid to do it himself and asked our 85-year-old neighbor, a native to the valley, if he would do the deed for him.  JB replied “Its your horse.  You have to do it.”

“He was right”, H__ told me.  This winter he put two horses down in the upper pasture.  The wolves and coyotes were on it within days.

Just as in life, there is beauty and ugliness in death.  I’ve watched the coyote I found this winter in his process of decay.  First the animals ate their fill, but a lot remained and the ground was still frozen and cold.  Now the beetles are finishing him off.  He is food for others, and there is a certain rightness and sadness in that.  There is also a fascination and a repulsion in watching the process.  Yet I find a skull of a winter kill bull elk with both its antlers, the skull already cleaned off and perfectly white, and it looks beautiful to me.

Found winter wolf kill.  Beautiful in death

Found winter wolf kill. Beautiful in death

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Old trees that have died are regal in their appearance, and house insects and the birds that feed upon them.  The ground squirrels in the yard are amusing to watch, yet I admire the Swainson’s hawk that deftly swoops and catches them.

Burnt trees.  Beautiful in death

Burnt trees. Beautiful in death

A deeper ‘knowing’ that I too am part of this whole process seeps into my core.  It may seem ugly or cruel to some, but it is only economical and the way things must be.  More than stark, there is a dreamlike quality to it all.  The animals are not bothered.  They have been born into this acceptance.

I walk with Koda.  He is always alert, on the ready, yet happy and relaxed.  His tension comes from awareness, instinct to check for danger, or to check for the fun of a chase with a squirrel.  I am learning here, in this complete ecosystem, with top predators just like me here, that I must walk and be aware, relaxed, and alert.  That life and death walk side-by-side always, only here they are in evidence.  That there are more levels to this dreamtime than I am yet aware, and that the natural world supplies a plethora of synchronicity and sign, if only one can take the time to deepen, relax, and learn to notice.

One Response

  1. What an awesome parade of Sandhill Cranes! Wow!!

    Did that elk skull still have its ivories?

    The little creeks — especially if the water is filtered through beaver ponds – -should fish real well right now. You can flyfish effectively for trout in small streams, or just fish a worm on a #8 baitholder hook with 1 “buckshot” sinker. Make short (5 – 10 feet) casts upstream, keep a tight line, and flip the fish out on the bank when you feel them tug. Fishing is usually best this time of year late in the day or when it’s overcast. Good luck!


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