Monday, August 5, 2013

Heartsongs

April 2009, Washington, DC.

When this past spring finally arrived in Washington, DC, I reluctantly opened the window near my bed, in my small, studio apartment in Dupont Circle, enjoying the fresh air but a bit irritated by sirens and horns and garbage trucks and helicopters. The view from my place is a concrete alley with buildings, dumpsters and a chain-link fence with barbed-wire on top. But there’s a young sugar maple growing amidst it all, the only “nature” I can see from my studio. The other morning, a crow landed in the budding tree and started cawing away, loud and proud, reminding me of other crows and their cousins, the ravens, back home in Montana; a comforting song indeed. I never thought a small, lonely little tree and a boisterous, scruffy black bird could take on such significance in my life. But here, in the midst of concrete and people, even a touch of wildness stands out, like finding an old hunting knife in the middle of the wilderness.

Last fall, while bulls were bugling in the Bitterroots, I packed up and moved to the nation’s capital to start a new job and get my head on straight. Now, with a half-year of hindsight, I know it was a futile attempt to escape troubles; such things travel with you as long as your head is still attached. Fortunately, that same brain-housing-group (as we called it in the Marines) also carry’s memories of elk country where I frequently find solace as an antidote to the insanity of city life. After a frustrating, maddening day of busy sidewalks and traffic and horns and sirens and jets and helicopters (DC sometimes still seems like a military zone in post-9/11 days) and rudeness and pretentiousness and arrogance (expected in a city laden with smart, ambitious people vying for political influence and power), I return to my apartment, lay in bed, close my eyes and drift off to the places and adventures I cherish most.

There’s a lifetime full, and then some, that gently swirl through my head like a windy September snow in the high country. The maple and crow trigger such memories; sometimes it’s other various sights, sounds and tastes. Like the squealing breaks of a bus that sound (to me) a bit like the bugling of a bull, or walking by the wolf statutes in front of Defenders of Wildlife headquarters on 17th Street across from the wildlife photos hanging from the widows of the National Geographic building, or the pungent odor of white pine scattered through the city, or the frequent dinner invites from my friend in Mt. Pleasant to enjoy elk steaks cut from the bull he killed in Idaho last fall, or a walk to Roosevelt Island on the Potomac where a large monument of Theodore himself helps return me to my hunting and conservation roots.

It all makes me think of an elk calf I met last spring – wondering if she (or he?) is still alive, or perhaps succumbed to cold and snow, tooth or claw, virus or disease or bow or rifle. Perhaps, even as I write, some fortunate hunter is savoring a tender piece of backstrap or rump roast carved from its bones. Such is life in the wilds – the last remnants of the real world, as I like to think of it – where nature, life and death, serenity and violence, splendor and repugnance (judgments, I suppose, from my homocentric view of things) continue on as always.

I met the calf serendipitously, on an unusually warm May day, back in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness in the Idaho backcountry, a half day’s hike from the Montana border. Retreating down from deep, post-holing snow still lingering in the high country, breaking out of a maddening thicket of alder into a dark copse of massive Doug fir, I pretty near tripped over the calf – who lay stiff, silent and scentless in a sunny spot near a large, rotting log. The newborn would have been easy to miss; donning spotted tan, chocolate and cream camouflage -- a level of concealment I could only hopelessly imagine matching back in my stealthful Marine Corps days. There were no cows in site, though I sensed I was being watched, and no sign of other life. Just silence. So I lay next to the calf, a few feet away and, well, just said “hello.” I was met with big black eyes, staring back at me with what seemed more curiosity than fear, which makes sense, since aside from what instinctive notions this new life might be born with there was unlikely any experience to judge what might be harmful, dangerous or not. I have no doubt I was the first human this elk had ever seen. Which brought concerns to mind: Could I be teaching this young elk that we humans are harmless? I even envisioned me stalking elk come fall, bow in hand, only to have a yearling run over, lay down, and expect me to say “hello.”

Lots of conflicting thoughts raced through my mind: I wondered what it would be like to pet him (though I didn’t); I wondered how good it would be to eat him (though I didn’t), and I wondered how his (or her?) life would turn out (I’ll never know). I didn’t linger long. I got up, said “goodbye,” and wished him good luck. “Beware of wolves, and lions, and bears . . . and hunters like me.”

Life’s laden with such seemingly contradictory notions and emotions of joy, violence, love and turmoil. I’ve been coping with a heap of such things myself over the past several years – the death of my father; unexpected twists and turns; confusing matters of the heart; full-blown mid-life crisis. Sometimes, I sought futile, misguided solace in alcohol and other various vices. On my better days, I would head for elk country, year round, by foot, skis or snowshoes, hunting or seeking sheds or just wandering and looking. Well, at least I did during the 23 years I lived in Montana, and now I know I grew to take it all for granted, now that it’s so far away, and I feel like I’ve lost a part of my heart – similar to the feeling I get being on the opposite side of the nation from my child.

With 48 years behind me, I should know better than an elk calf. That young, inexperienced life has no choice but to face up to challenges, do the best she (or he) can do, face life and go on. But I’ve spent far too much time the past few years wallowing in self-pity, avoiding and evading life and responsibilities, drifting from my roots, spending far more time in the 14 bars I could stumble home from than any of the surrounding wild country I used to roam on a regular basis. I had even stopped hunting elk – something that used to passionately consume my life, like an athlete obsessed with triathlons might do; preparing, anticipating, training, visualizing, pursuing, killing, boning out and packing meat, cutting and wrapping and eating and starting again for the next fall. It was the very core of my identity. So friends were surprised, even concerned, when I fell into depression and laid down my bow. For a few years after, I still headed out, rifle in hand, to put meat on the table. But it became routine, and felt more like something I should do because I was supposed to, because that was me. I questioned my motives, and wondered if I hunted for the right reasons, or merely to prove I was a tough, macho guy who could regularly find and kill big bulls. A few times – watching bulls die slow deaths with my arrow sticking from their sides – I was overcome with guilt and sorrow. So I stopped.

I envy that calf I met; no doubt approaching life with simplicity – not overanalyzing and complicating and torturing itself with a crazy human mind. But the longer I live far from the mountains of Montana the more clear things become, and the more I relive the moments that made life so good, so worth living. Like the day I met that elk calf. And a plethora of other memories that run through my brain like a broken record, over and over, bringing me back home. These are a few of my top “hits:”

The crisp fall day in a remote part of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness bushwhacking with my pack on when my chocolate lab, several yards ahead of me, abruptly stopped, hair up, and let out a nervous “woof.” With the breeze in our face I could smell elk, so I hurried to her side to see what she saw, and there, less than 50 yards ahead, stood a stocky white wolf who, when seeing me, sped off in a blur. Another 100 yards ahead we found two dead calves, torn open and blood still steaming, lots of wolf tracks in the surrounding mud. Apparently, we disrupted a feast. Another time, not far from that very spot (as the raven flies) I secured my own winter feast – the largest bull I ever killed (a hefty 6x7) after bugling, and grunting and cow-calling and chasing and retreating and moving back in from dawn till dusk until it finally all came together and I sent an arrow through both lungs. It took me four arduous days boning and packing meat out – something I am not so sure I could or would even want to do today. A few drainages over, I once heard a strange grunt below me, on a steep slope of dark spruce, while pursuing a vocal bull who entertained me with songs most the day but never let me see him. So I reluctantly abandoned his tempting taunts to check out the “grunt.” It turns out the sound came from a black bear gorging himself on elk. I spent an hour or so crawling close, hid behind a hefty spruce, notched an arrow, leaned over and shot him right through the heart. The boar was nearly 7-foot long and from the worn-out teeth I have a hunch he was near the end of his days regardless. The roasts were delicious.

There’s a nameless lake not far from there, far from any trails, where it’s easy to make a meal out of fat, na├»ve cutthroats. I used to lay my sleeping bag out close to the shore, under a thick alpine fir, between days of chasing bulls, and sleep a deep, sound sleep on soft needles like I have never experienced on the best of modern mattresses. One night, I awoke under a full moon and saw a mountain lion, several yards away, looking at me, then quickly slip away like a dream. Then I barely heard the distinct squeal of a bull far, far in the distance. One winter, feeling overly ambitious, I loaded my pack, strapped on skis and spent 10-days making my way through the Bitterroots from the Montana side to Elk City Idaho. Down along the Selway River – one of the only wild, protected winter ranges surrounded still by wilderness – I saw hundreds of elk, struggling through a brutal winter, and several carcasses from the ones who didn’t make it, and I came upon fresh, bloody moose tracks in the snow alongside small lion tracks, laying out a tale of a botched, messy attempt at a kill. I found the moose, still alive, standing and stumbling in an icy creek with her right flank torn up. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, and left her alone, hoping the cat would return and finish it off quick. Such is life in the wilds, where we can all fall prey to the everyday drama of life and death.

I’ve had a few close encounters with grizzlies (which always bring to mind the words of William Kittredge: “We need grizzlies around if, for nothing else, they teach us a little humility”), have come close to drowning in foolish efforts to cross tumultuous creeks filled with spring snowmelt, fell off a cliff once and got caught in an avalanche. Then there’s the days of refreshing naps on sunny hillsides; skinny dipping in clean, cold creeks and lakes or building a fire on a cold November day while boning out an elk, throwing some ribs on the fire, and gnawing on fresh meat while tossing scraps to the friendly grey jays (camp robbers) who have a knack for showing up at kill sites often before I do. Several years ago I loaded a pack and spent ten weeks hiking mostly off trail from Missoula, Montana to Waterton, Alberta, and only crossed three roads; I am not sure I have ever felt so good, so happy, so alive. But the adventure, all the adventures, all the sights, sounds, smells and feel of it all are there, still there, in the grey matter between the ears, helping me through day by day; elk and mountain goats and pine martens and bears and lions and wolves and hawks and eagles and whitebark pine and lodgepole and menziesia brush and alder (that damn menziesia brush and alder!) and wild rivers and trout and fire and flood and snow and rain and sunshine and bugling, bugling, bugling, always the bugling going through my head like a song that won’t go away.

And that elk calf. It’s been almost a year now, and I still frequently think of her (or him?) often. Though my scientific side resists anthropomorphic thoughts, I can’t help but wonder: does that calf ever think of me? If that young elk survived the year there’s no doubt some harsh and valuable lessons have been learned. Such is life. Here’s something I’ve learned from elk country: westerns forests evolved with and are well-adapted to wildfire; they often seem devastating at the time but forests are healthier for it in the long-term. Things always green up. Such is life.

I recently listened to Weezer’s Heartsongs, in which vocalist and songwriter Rivers Cuomo sings of all the music that influenced his life and career --- the works of Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens and Eddie Rabbit and Jon Lennon and Bruce Springsteen and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Michael Jackson and Nirvana.

These are my heartsongs
They never feel wrong
And when I wake, for goodness sakes
These are the songs I keep singin’

And so it is with memories of elk and elk country and wild, remote places; they never feel wrong, and so I keep singin’, until I return. So now I find myself thinking again of fall, and planning my move back home. I want to dust off my bow, clean my rifle, get back in shape, and seek winter meat. Of course, as all us hunters know, it’s more than roasts, steaks and burgers – it’s the constant quest, the total, complete emersion into the predator-prey world of life in wilds that I’ve only felt while hunting. It truly is me, it’s when I feel most alive, it’s a critical part of my very core. Perhaps next fall I will meet that calf again, now full grown, and with a tinge of sadness, but a smile on my face, I would not mind carrying him from woods to freezer. I am, after all, a hunter.

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