the beginning of a story

Last night I paused at the window at the top of the stairs and saw a huge bull elk standing in almost exactly the same place as the big black bear on Saturday morning.

autumn bull

Earlier yesterday I thought I’d heard elk in the woods, two bulls challenging one another in the high-pitched bugle that is unlike anything else. This is the time of year when they fight for their harems and I’ve heard them in our woods before in mid to late September. I haven’t seen a bull right up by our house though. There was a calf behind this bull and maybe other elk in the woods too, though I didn’t see them. I don’t know where the rival is right now or how wide the expanse of his antlers.

The bull stood for some time, watching us watching him. We took some pictures. He sniffed a bit. He turned his head so we could admire his profile. He might have been thinking about a late snack of crabapples or maybe he just wanted to rest.

side look

Years ago, in the 1970s, I lived in Ireland and I had the opportunity to see some of Barrie Cooke’s sublime work. I don’t think I saw his Megaceros Hibernicus until later, though (I don’t believe it was painted until the 1980s so maybe I saw it when I was in Ireland in 2001; and it’s the cover image for a book I keep close to hand: Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, edited by John Wilson Foster), but I remember stories about elk antlers appearing in ancient peat bogs and how the species had become extinct in part because of the breadth of its antlers. They were palmated, like North American moose, and the structures were wide and heavy; they required huge amounts of calcium and other nutrients to create and sustain their growth. (The etymology of the genus is beautifully specific: μεγαλος megalos “great” + κερας keras “horn, antler”.) There’s a haunting image of the elk in the caves of Lascaux:

elk at lascaux

On the webpage of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I read this note on Barrie Cooke’s Megaceros Hibernicus and thought of the elk at the top of the driveway:

For Cooke the elk represented a powerful symbol of pre-civilised consciousness. In Cooke’s painting the elk emerges from the gloomy bog-land with its enormous antlers treated like massive antennae transmitting, as it were, a message from the past. Yielded up by the bog, the elk demonstrates the process of perpetual interchange that occurs in the cycles of nature.

Our woods are dense and an animal conducting love and war among the trees and undergrowth might find itself impeded by the wide breadth of its antlers (along with climate change and big-game hunting). A message from the past to the present: be careful how you move between the cedars and firs. The beginning of a story that might not end happily ever after.

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