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The Past and the Present

You might say that I’m living a life many of my friends would call simple and rustic.  My cabin is small, I’m surrounded by rugged mountains, I hike and live around grizzlies and wolves.  The dangers I have to stay aware of are not car break-ins or being mugged on a dark street, but being stuck in a sudden snowstorm on a trail, or spraining an ankle in an area where no one ever comes bye, not just for days but for months or years.  Some might say ‘She’s living raw, close to the land’.

But frankly, even way out here in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the wildest place in the lower 48, I feel inadequate, modern.  Sure I could probably survive for three or four days in a pinch out in the back country.  I take provisions and precautions for that.  I carry a satellite phone.  I bring bear spray.  I even know some wild foods that could tide me over.   But my upbringing and my life experiences have never prepared me for living like peoples here did hundreds of years ago.  That is cultural knowledge that was passed down generation to generation.  The Native Americans who overwintered for 5000 years at nearby Dead Indian Campground  passed on their life skills as well as their intimate relationship with the Land–lifestyles that have been lost forever.

Those skills are not learned by a single individual in a single lifetime.  Just as much as evolution is physical, those skills were a cultural evolution, breathed and lived by a community.  Larry Todd described to me that by even the very early 1800’s, the life skills and the community of the Native Americans at Dead Indian had already begun to dissolve.  Around here, that was about the time Lewis and Clark came to town.  Their expedition is still the best description of the land and the way things were ‘pre-white’ man.  The land may have not changed much, but the cultures were already disintegrating due to disease and other factors.

300 year old wikiup standing till 25 years ago when destroyed by cattle

You know how your grandparents or parents talk about the past, their past, in a longing way.  That is how I feel, but in a way that goes much farther back to an America that was ‘discovered’ long ago.  Long ago, in the 1800’s, an idea was floating around to give Native Americans the land west of the Missouri.  That, of course, was never Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

I must admit, I am weighted down with a longing for a past no longer present.  I envision the days when bison roamed freely here, when the beaver and the mink were so plentiful that people were able to trap them in the hundreds. When there were more animals than people. When animals whose mere presence in the landscape today is so controversial, such as wolves and bison, were sacred to the peoples.

In each new landscape I consider “What must this have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the white men made their mark here.  What were the native trails like?”  I walk what appear to be these pristine mountains and listen hard for ancient echoes of songs, murmurings of people long dead who knew the ways of living with the earth much better than I will ever know in my lifetime.  Their songs long gone, I wonder how we can learn the secrets it took so long for them to discover and pass on.

I am obsessed with the past and how that past might be brought into this present time. My friends tell me it will never be again and to move on.

I conjure up dreams of how to fit ‘wildness’ into the puzzle of modern existence.  Do we set aside large tracts of unmanaged lands with uncollared wildlife, leave them uncharted and unmapped, to enter at your own risk?  Or is our hope in the advocates of green renewable city living, where most of the population will live, work, and grow their own food, leaving the large acreage of rural unfettered areas?  Unfortunately, the politics of wilderness seems to always involve an uphill battle, with the needs of wildlife superseded by human needs and greed.


A mere 'blip' of the Bison there used to be

Sensitivity.  It is a attribute we must all strive to cultivate as human beings.  What we can do is walk lightly, live in wonder, become increasingly aware that all life is conscious, alive, and part of our connected existence.  If each one of us were to make that our task, then the earth might become renewed again, full of wild existence, of which we are a part.

The Moose

My neighbor just had his 85th birthday.  He’s lived in the Valley all his life.  His father homesteaded here back in the early 1900’s.  I love to hang out with him, help with his two horses, and pick his brain for stories.  He knows this country like I might know all the shortcuts in my old hometown neighborhood.  Except his neighborhood is vast, wild, without roads or trails.

I’ve learned over time that, although his memory for details and names is way better than mine, the time periods and placements of events need to be sorted out.  He might tell a tale like it was last week, until I question him more and find out the events took place in the 30’s.  It took me a while to figure out that most of his Yellowstone stories were from the 50’s (when he worked there) rather than just 10 or 20 years ago.

I’d been seeing quite a few moose lately.  One came into my yard the other day, a resident who likes to hang in the marshy willows nearby.  Moose numbers for Wyoming are really low, only 44% of objective, according to a just published Game and Fish report.  I told this to JB and that got him storytelling.

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose in nearby meadow

Moose in nearby meadow

Young bull moose in front yard

Young bull moose in front yard

“It was a snowy winter and I was at the homestead.  I’d feed the cows at the bottom of the pasture near the trees to get them walking a bit.  That’s good for them you know, especially for the pregnant ones.  One day I was down in the timber when I saw a cow moose and three calves.  There were stuck there in a hole and couldn’t get out, the drifts were so bad.  They were real skinny and starving down there.  When the momma saw me, her hair stood on end.”

“So I brought a few bales of hay on my sleigh over.  Every day I’d come to check on them and the cow moose got used to me.  I’d bring them hay, but each day I’d place it a little bit further out of the timber towards the pasture.  Slowly, they came out.  They spent that entire winter in the pasture with my cows.”

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

“Another time I was way up Dead Indian, you know where the willows are up there?”

I nodded.  I’d seen moose tracks there.  Its about 3 miles or more up the trail.

“I was up there and saw a bull moose.  He’d been shot and was bleeding from the side.  Some hunter shot him but the moose had run off.  He was in real bad shape and the snows were getting deep.  I hauled 20 bales of hay up to him.  I didn’t put it all in one place.  I put it around in the timber where he was at.  Then I left him for the winter.  Come early spring, I went back to check on him.  You know what I found?  He had a friend.  Another bull had come in there and all that hay was gone.  That bull was all healed up and getting around fine now.  I don’t really know how he survived that wound, cause I think he was bleeding on both sides. There had been blood around.  But he made it.”

Dead Indian Creek

Dead Indian Creek

To begin to get a feeling for what’s going on with moose numbers in Wyoming, this is an excellent thesis by Scott Becker.

Only the wind sang

Yesterday I met Larry Todd over at the Dead Indian Campground site.  Larry is an archaeologist working mostly in the Greybull area.  I contacted him several months ago because he was in charge of the dig in the ’80’s at the Bugas-Holding site, a Shoshone winter campground 400 years old.  I had many questions, and Larry graciously invited me to walk around the Dead Indian site with him after he finished an outing there with Cody Middle School.

Next to a creek and protected by mountains, Dead Indian is a 5000 year old winter campground site that had continuous use.  It is one of three archaeological sites in the Cody area on the National Historic Landmarks, the other two being the Horner site and Mummy Cave.  Larry explained that some areas were early Archaic, some middle, and some late, depending upon the topography.  The lower levels around the creek were the latest periods.  He said that when they began work, the entire area had so many artifacts they had to choose specific areas to concentrate on.  The work was done in the 70’s, before he was around to participate.

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

We walked over to a large plateau, an early Archaic period.  Larry painted a picture of a campsite with upwards of several hundred people, living in family groups–a small Wyoming town so to speak.  People living in pit houses that came here winter after winter to hunt the game that was plentiful.  Mostly deer and sheep were killed at this site.  Their tools were made from local materials, sharp and new in the fall, but dulled by spring through continuous retooling.  By spring it was time to gather and trade for new raw materials for arrowheads and other necessities.

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

In this early Archaic period, the big game were gone and more intensive hunting and gathering was necessary  for the equivalent quality of nutrition.  People were settling down for longer periods and returning to the same sites. Deer, much easier to herd and more predictable than elk, were the main large food source, along with sheep.  At Dead Indian, large ceremonies were conducted in honor of this food source.

Larry told me that the Bugas-Holding site was like a still image.  It was used for the duration of one winter only.  Here at Dead Indian the story was more like a novel, with many chapters.  He thought Dead Indian might have gone through periods of heavy use and lighter use.  Having been used continuously for so long, probably many different periods of histories and stories had taken place here.

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Larry talked about the interactions between the land and the peoples.  By the time Lewis and Clark appeared–what we mark as the first interactions with white men in the West–many Native Americans had already been decimated by disease and the landscapes they had shaped were already changed.  The wilderness white people saw at that time was imprinted in their minds as what the land always was. But really it was just a snapshot.   To live winter after winter in these mountains takes an enormous amount of religious, and traditional, training and knowledge.  These practical skills are a cultural phenomenon, passed on generationally.  Thousands of years of accumulated wisdom had been decimated through disease and warfare in a short time.  Larry thought that by the time Lewis and Clark came, enough of that knowledge had been wiped out so that fewer and fewer people could live in these mountains.  The land itself had changed in response. What white men saw as wilderness, was a degeneration of the land through non-use.

Our idea of wilderness is non-use.  Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

Our idea of wilderness is non-use. Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

I mentioned that in Australia, after 60,000 years of aboriginals working the land with fire, botanists weren’t sure if the plants had adapted to fire because of human intervention or vice versa.  He told me that Bison antiquus was a good example of that here.  Bison antiquus, the ancestor of our modern Bison, was much larger than today’s Bison and died out about 10,000 years ago.  The theory goes that the smaller, lighter, and more streamlined buffalo could run faster, giving them a decided advantage from the top predator, man.

Modern day bison

Modern day bison

As we walked around the site, Larry bent down and showed me how almost every square inch, to the trained eye, contained evidence of habitation.  Chippings from chert, quarzite, chalcedon, pieces of bone, a sheep vertebrae–all this he found within a few square feet.  I hadn’t seen anything until he pointed it all out.  I could feel the vibrancy of the culture once there.  We talked about fire and how it can clear a site. He said that a fire can come through, clear all the duff and topsoil, and the site is exposed just how it was left thousands of years before, including fire pits, chippings and all.

“Its like someone’s found an original map or book that’s going to unlock all these new secrets.  But before we even have a chance to organize and fund an archaeological expedition, the looters are there within weeks, days.  The site is stripped and the information is lost forever.”

We walked back to the road while Larry told me a story about Bison, his specialty.  He said that Native Americans didn’t always use all the meat.  It was common to just take the prime parts after a kill.  One time he was talking with a Blackfoot elder about ancient hunting methods.  When he came to the part about how they left parts of the kill, a student listening nearby said “They wasted parts.”

“Would you take all of it?” asked the elder.  “Would you be that greedy?”

The student replied, “I wouldn’t waste anything.  I’d take it all.”

“You whites are so greedy.  You wouldn’t leave any meat for your brothers–the wolf, coyote, raven.”

I looked back at the site.  Only the wind sang.  I tried to imagine what once was.