“The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods”

morning
some of the herd, last winter

This morning, around 6:30, we were lying in bed, talking, Winter the cat at our feet, when the cat suddenly jumped onto the windowsill, alert. He was watching and listening. And listening, we heard a squeal. Elk, I bet, said John, and I went downstairs to see what I could from the still-dark living room. Yes, elk. I saw two of the great golden shapes, sort of smudgy in the near-light, where our cleared area meets the woods. And on the deck off our bedroom, John saw a couple more. They crashed into the woods.

By the time I came to my desk, I’d forgotten about the elk. I’m working on some essays, lyric essays I guess you’d call them, and right now they’re all over the map. I mean this literally. One of them yearns for the rivers of Bukovina, the Prut and its tributary the Cheremosh. One of them explores the trees of Horni Lomna, one of them remembers the MacKenzie River and my father, who worked on steamships on the river as a young man; and others are located here, including one called (provisionally) “Bitter Greens”. This is the essay I opened this morning, trying to find a way to weave a couple of narrative strands together, trying to find the music in plants, broken fences, and, what? Elk. So they were here all along and that sound, the squeal, should have alerted me to the dangers of trying to keep a garden safe when I’m not the only one hungry for greens.

Red Russian kale, Scotch kale, Tuscan kale, Siberian, Redbor, some unknown or unnamed marriages between two or more of these varieties. Garden arugula, field arugula, wall-rocket, red dragon, all self-sowing. Lamb lettuce (or corn salad, depending…), buckshorn plantain, dandelions (the new leaves for salad, the more mature leaves for pizza or green pie), lambs quarters with its dusty leaves the shape of goose feet, chickweed. How I long for them after a long winter, though I usually have tubs of kale close at hand so I can fill the blender most mornings for a green tonic. But a salad gathered in a big colander, scissors snipping the new leaves of this or that, sorted (because slugs like them too), then dressed with good oil, lemon juice or a light vinegar (balsamic is too robust for the early salads), maybe a tiny smudge of Dijon mustard, the one green with herbs, and it’s a meal I could eat every day.

Looking out the window as I washed dishes, I saw a golden rump and a darker body behind the woodshed. An elk calf, half-grown, eating the suckers from the base of the Kwanzan cherry. I quietly went to the utility room window, the one opening directly to the little deck beside the tree. Five more elk, adults, pulling at boughs, a huge cowwas she actually inside the vegetable garden? Something had come the previous night and nipped all the new growth on the kale plants that had already been grazed by elk (the same elk?) while we were away in Ottawa a week earlier. And a week before that, grazed by the blacktail doe that comes every year with her fawns, yearlings last year, twins this year. My heart sank. But I opened the door and rushed out, shouting. The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, more than 5 (that was only what I could see), and everywhere the smell of them, like horses.

“I go to meet it at the edge of the light”

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The other day John was in the back woods looking for possible Christmas trees. We usually cut ours from the designated area up on the mountain where we walk regularly. There’s a power line up there and (free) permits are issued for tree cutting under the lines. (We always cut our tree on December 23 and let it sit in the woodshed overnight, bringing it to dress on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.) But because we’ve had a fair bit of snow lately, we’re not sure we’ll be able to get to those trees when our family members join us for Christmas so John is looking for other options. There’s a bluff back in the woods and he said that it’s covered with elk droppings. An hour ago I went out to cut (frozen) kale for my morning smoothie, taking a flashlight with me because it was still almost completely dark. I heard a strange sound, a bleat, a whistle. And it was close. Then I heard crashing. The elk had been on the trail behind the garden shed and heard me, I guess — a solitary woman in a dressing gown and flip-flops, gathering kale behind the fence the elk have been known to stand beside to gaze longingly at the garden bounty. The garden is fenced with black mesh, 8 feet high, and although an elk could easily tear it to bits, they don’t. The best theory I’ve heard is that they can’t see it and it freaks them when they touch it with their faces. They’re quick learners. And, fingers crossed, they’ve never broken the fence, though they’ve torn grapevines from the side of the house, eaten fig leaves (wouldn’t you?), broken apple branches and eaten uncaged roses to the ground. So this morning, the sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, probably a dozen of them — we’ve seen a herd recently at various points between us and the Kleindale corner and I think this must be the same one.

Before I went out for kale, I was working in my study, drawn back to the novella I keep putting aside for other things. This morning, my character was spreading her maps on the side of the Deadman River, in the shadow of the hoodoos, inspired about some discoveries she’d made about women and the way their writing echoes the landscapes they love. How they carry these landscapes in their bodies and write from that experience. And while I was doing this, the elk were out just beyond the house, sleeping maybe. (I’ve seen most of a herd lying down on the grass below the Hydro Line near us, one cow keeping watch while the others rested.) I’ve felt so excited to be writing these mornings, before the sun comes up, in the dark, the little lamp on my desk hovering over my computer.

How Poetry Comes To Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

                      –Gary Snyder

Exactly.

on days like today

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On days like today, I think of my dad getting ready to go hunting. Every fall he readied his rifles — and I wish I knew what they were. There were names I heard. Winchester. Remington. His rifles and shotguns were kept in a special rack above his workbench and then later, in a locked cupboard under the stairs. He hated the idea of a gun registry so I don’t know if all of them were registered. When I cleared out his papers, I found one card, for one gun. And I also found cards for his father’s gun. As a former citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my grandfather had to have special permission to own a gun and I believe it was to be used only for subsistence hunting. My father was an amateur gunsmith and frequently rebuilt parts for friends. He had all sorts of little instruments and bigger ones, too, for loading shells and refitting barrels. (These are terms I remember but I don’t really know what they mean.) I remember sitting on the basement stairs and smelling the wood oil he used to polish the stocks. He sanded and shaped and polished and made pieces that were in demand by several outfitter stores. Would the stocks have been walnut? I remember a dark wood with reddish grain. So much I don’t know. So much I never paid attention to. I didn’t really like that he hunted but we didn’t have a lot of money and when he was lucky and brought home a deer, I did like the venison roasts my mother prepared for our Sunday dinners. When he prepared for hunting, he made stews of barley and lots of onions to put in the fridge in his camper. He aired his down sleeping bag. He did his own sewing repairs, long stitches in his camp chair, the cuffs of his old jeans.

I thought of him this morning when the young doe ambled by my study window. She comes most days. Is it hunting season yet? I don’t even know. I do know that when we walk up the mountain in the fall, we sometimes hear gunshot farther up. There are herds of Roosevelt elk in our area and in the past we’ve seen bow-hunters up the mountain, using a trail of beets and apples to try to lure animals out of the woods. My father hated any kind of cheating.

There’s a smell in the air — damp leaves and a thread of something like frost, though it’s warm in the sun. John’s splitting a pile of cedar — good for starting the fire on cold mornings — and I’ve been working on an essay about Mendel’s pruning tools. Another subtle art, like my father’s gunsmithing, I suspect. I love the turn of the seasons, the long scribble of geese in late September skies, and how an animal walking by a window can summon the forgotten years when I listened to my father working at his bench with the kind of care and attention I always wished he’d lavish on me.

the shells of morning

I want to write about the light and cool of this August morning, how I looked just now at the shells John hung above the summer table, how they have something of heaven in them as they shimmer together– their sound echoed in the Adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which I am listening to before going out to do the watering, the vegetable gathering (beans! Savoy cabbages like Dutch still-lifes! Cucumber skins opaque with dew!).

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Last night we returned home from the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts to hear something large crashing over on the other side of the garden and this morning we know that it was an elk breaking down a small chestnut, gorging on the leaves, shattering the branches, and then disappearing into the darkness. On Thursday, in the afternoon, we saw a huge bull elk up at the edge of the grass, eating ocean spray. He had the biggest set of antlers I’ve ever seen, six points on each side, and still covered in golden velvet. In the particular light of mid-afternoon, his antlers seemed to be growing out of the copper beech between him and us, the copper beech under which my parents’ ashes are scattered (beech for Bukovina, my paternal grandfather’s place of origin; and for book; the book of my own origins). I could smell the elk from where I watched on the upper deck. The bulls are readying themselves for the autumn rut and in the past I once heard two of them bugling at each other in our woods, vying for harems. And this morning you can smell him again in the cool air, his breath green with chestnut leaves.

 

summer dramas and ballets

When you live in one place for a long time — it’s been around 33 years for us here in the house we built near Sakinaw Lake (I say “around” because we bought our property in 1980, spent as much time as possible, more than half of most weeks, here until we “officially” moved to our unfinished house in the fall of 1982) — you notice the small and large dramas of those you live amongst. Lately we’ve been watching mud-daubers fill their nests with spiders for the larvae to feed on until they become long-waisted wasps themselves. It’s a bit creepy but also really interesting. Last night we must’ve been right in the flight path as one gathered spiders from under the deck and then flew to the small nest it had built under the eaves of the deck where we eat our dinner. It kept flying right by me but they are quite benign and although I moved my chair a little, I didn’t feel threatened. Not the way I feel later in summer when the vespula wasps (hornets and yellow-jackets) come to the table while we’re eating, landing on any kind of protein. They love the skins of barbequed salmon or roast chicken and they’re quite aggressive. I know, I know. They have a place in the scheme of things (and I love to watch them eat scale insects off my lemon tree) and they mostly go about their own business until late in the season when they seem desperate for meat, even humans.

The Roosevelt elk in our area were introduced in the late 1980s, though most people agree that this was part of their range until they were extirpated in the 19th c. The idea was that the elk would move up and down the big Cheekye-Dunsmuir power line and forage on maple and other brush that was being removed at that point by herbicides. Every time B.C. Hydro applied for a permit to spray or hack and squirt some terrible toxin in what was actually watershed, people understandably got upset. It was hoped that the elk would be part of a natural solution to the problem. And I think they were but no one expected them to settle in quite so happily and make themselves at home in local orchards, a market garden, the golf course…

I don’t like it when they eat the vines on the side of our house or essentially our whole small orchard (this is partly the subject of my work-in-progress, “Euclid’s Orchard”) but it’s always a thrill to see them. They’re huge. Some nights when we’re driving home from dinner with friends, we see them crossing the highway, 20 or more, the heart-shaped yellow rump patch glowing in moonlight. Or we encounter them while we’re hiking, a long fluid line of them disappearing into the woods when they catch our scent or see us in the distance. Last week we saw two cows, one lying down, and the other standing near her. They were on the other side of the cutline but didn’t move. I wondered if there might be a calf nearby. (The females leave the herd to give birth and return 2 or 3 weeks later, once the young one is mobile enough to keep up with the herd.) Elk are creatures of the ecotone, the transistion area where two ecological biomes meet. In this case, there’s a wide grassy corridor under the power-lines, scattered with thimbleberry, salmonberry, elder, wild gooseberry and currant, ocean spray, and other deciduous shrubs, bordered on both sides by dense woods. The grass is as golden as hay right now. Where the cows rested and watched us was perhaps a quarter of a mile away.

This morning we went for a walk in that same area, early, to avoid the heat. We kept an eye out for the elk but didn’t see any. Then at one point on the gravelly trail (the Suncoaster trail system utilizes old logging roads and Hydro access roads), we saw many many recent tracks on the dusty ground as well as very fresh scat. (It was still wet and when we returned that way 40 minutes later, it was dry.) I loved the stories in the tracks. A few really large ones — the bull? — and many slightly smaller ones. And then really small ones, tiny ones, the prints of calves who’d recently joined the herd with their mothers. The air was full of the scent of elk, as pungent as horses. Had they paused to take the sun? Were they watching for predators (there are bears up there and coyotes, the occasional cougar, and sometimes even wolves)? Or was this a social moment, calves shy by their mothers’ sides, and the herd (or harem it is really) accomodating new members in sunlight while ravens circled, red-shafted flickers feeding on ants and other insects in the dry grass, and no bears or coyotes in sight? Here are some notes towards the wild choreography, the fancy footwork. And the score? Oh, something moody and sweet, featuring woodwinds, particularly the flute and the oboe d’amore!

 

while I was away

I was away for a week, in Victoria, and John stayed home to hold for fort. Passing a window one morning, he saw this:

visitors

The one on the left is a young bull so we think this is a break-away herd. There were five of them all together. It’s funny: I dreamed of elk while I was away and woke with an intense desire to see them in the winter woods. This is the next best thing.

Talking to my son…

…on the phone just now, I looked up — I am at my desk — to see this elk standing on the new cleared area, looking at me.

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The photograph is blurry because it’s through glass but you can see the beautiful winter pelage — the yellow rump in particular. And what you can’t see (but they show up on the much blurrier zoomed image) are tiny antler buds. So this is a young bull, in his second year.

And when I went to the back door by the little hot-tub deck, I saw the rest of the herd. They immediately raced into the woods, crashing like, well, the 180-500 kg. animals they are.

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