I sit here this morning on the living room couch, morning coffee in hand, watching the flames reduce dead Aspens to amber-colored heat. I wonder where the four elk cows went when the sun first appeared. At daybreak, the willows on the southern end of the valley are vacant. No sign of them anywhere. Their leave-behinds: Hoof-prints in the dirt, moist from this week’s snowfall. Grasses – long, lain-over – bundled like a soft mattress given by God for the tired body of a few wild spirits to rest in ease under the setting sun. They inform of elk dreams under Orion’s presence the early morning hours before. I like to think that by the break of dawn they rose up, guided by Orion’s dwindling light, and followed him onto higher landscapes.
Rarely is the herd of four ever in our pasture in the fullness of day, the rare exception being in heavy fog or under snowfall. It seems they require atmospheric cover of night or some other weight to feel comfortable making their appearance.
And yet, I’ve seen vast herds of elk in other landscapes. Wyoming wilderness or Rocky Mountain National Park, even, where the elk are so habituated to residents with homes bordering a golf course I envision one picking up a golf club as another shouts, Fore!
Indeed, elk grow accustomed to human presence in the Town of Estes Park itself, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Fifty miles separate our respective landscapes in which the elk dwell. The elk in and around Estes Park are so habituated, they rarely detect the threat inherent in some of the more dark and insidious of human behavior. Just this September, two males adorned with majestic antlers sufficient enough to warrant interest fell victim to poaching in Rocky Mountain Park. Biologists tend to view such occurrences in terms of its effect on the herd, lamenting the increase in elk populations as evidence of need for hunting. Depredating Grey Wolves are absent on our new Rocky Mountain landscape, though the occasional disperser wanders down from Wyoming, often to his own peril. Nonetheless, in a time when people are desperate for peace and order and a sense of moral justice, our society suffers just a tiny bit more when such acts of illegal violence against innocent, vulnerable animals occur.
If there is anything to be said of mountain living, it is the opportunity provided to become better acquainted with nature in its authentic rhythms. Animals not so affected by the abundance of human behavior and its inherent tendencies remain more wary of threats and actual danger. As well they should, for failure to distinguish a golf club from a rifle can mean the difference between living under Orion just one more night, or not.