Tony Vagneur: Living in the moment with the ghosts of nature
October 12, 2018
With encroaching twilight comes the movement of the wild things. A mother black bear sits in the openness of a hayfield, about 100 yards from the house, her two cubs directed to stay under the hawthorn until the coast is clear.
Slowly, almost stealthily, the sow moves farther out, coaxing her cubs into the open, but then a sound, or a smell doesn't seem right and the cubs scamper back out of sight. At last, when the blackness of the night is almost as dark as the color of the bears, they finally scurry across the meadow and duck into the apple orchard. The nightly raid is on again.
Across the creek, the elk are starting their evening migration, leaving the safety of the dense willows in the riparian zone, headed to the openness and green grass of a different hayfield, the calves scampering and running alongside their mothers. The calves are big enough now that to suckle, they must get down on their front knees to be low enough to stick their heads under their mother's haunches for a snack.
This time of year, as it always is, the cows and calves travel first, followed closely by the bulls and spikes — spikes being yearling bulls with one long antler on each side. Toward the back of the herd, the spikes, bulls and cows all mix in together, and you never see a bull leading the advance. The biggest bulls have a tendency to travel way in the rear, or sometimes off to the side, toward the back. It is a parade of dedicated natural imprint, eons old, interrupted only by a threat posed by a predator, real or imagined, including man.
Elk have a language all their own, one that we sometimes believe we understand, but our understanding is limited to human interpretation, lacking the basic soul of being one with the animal and its specific DNA. Several years ago, early summer found me surrounded by cow elk (calves hidden in the brush) barking at me to move on as I moved the irrigation water. The woof is more nasal and lighter than a dog sound and not as harsh, but its message is quite clear, not only from the sound but also from the body language.
The most musical and enchanting of the elk vocabulary is the bugle, or whistle, that bull elk use during the mating season to alert cows of their presence and to assert their dominance over other bulls. If you haven't heard it, it's very difficult to describe, but you might say it sometimes starts as a bellow, escalating to a whistle, finally ending in a grunt. More or less. Not every bugle is the same and when four or five bulls are warring between themselves, you usually can tell one from the other by different bugle styles.
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The other night, as the mating activity intensified, the elk moved slowly through the meadow across the creek, with the bulls bugling and snorting as they worked to keep their harems of cows together and away from other bulls. It was an opera of bass and baritone, each striving for a louder and louder forte than the others, but keeping the same insistent, throbbing beat.
They were no more than 50 yards away and, in the pitch black of the night, unseen. I stood on the cabin porch, hair on the back of my neck rising up and I felt a primeval urge to join the fray, to become an unnoticed observer in their midst, reaching out and touching them. Unachievable, of course, but as I stood there, it was impossible not to give them my best imitation of an elk bugle which, my partner Margaret says, sounds more like an elephant call. It's not certain if any of them answered me as they were fairly busy among themselves, but at least I didn't scare them off.
By morning, they were gone, as they always are, living ghosts of nature allowing us to partake in a bit of their natural world, one they inhabit seemingly without rational thought, living entirely in the moment.
The fog bank lifted a bit with daylight and up the valley, across from the orchard, the mother bear could be seen, sitting on her haunches, observing the lay of the land, her cubs safely hidden in an empty irrigation ditch. Soon, they will slowly clamber up the steep hillside, eating berries and acorns as they go, working toward a mid-morning nap, hidden somewhere deep in the maze of underbrush.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.