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Where Elk Take You
When we eat elk … we taste not just the land, but the shape of the land in their muscles, and the shape of the animal, the shoulder so different from the ham, the backstrap anchoring and holding the immense neck and antlers.
The best thing about them is the meat: so dark red as to approach eggplant. In the way that wild salmon does not taste remotely like any other fish, wild elk likewise is incomparable to any other meat. Well-meaning if patronizing dinner guests from places-not-Montana who, after tasting their first bite, say something along the lines of “It tastes just like beef” are expelled from the state, banished. Never have I eaten anything — not fowl nor fish of the sea nor vegetable, not even mushrooms — that tastes so much of the country it inhabits, the country that shaped it. The shape of the hills. But the second-best thing about elk — and of course the number one and number two ranking can shift easily, on any given day — is the places they lead us as we follow them. Chase them. Search for them, as if we misplaced something. Which we have: the place that our kind came from. A way we once were. And in following them, wherever we go, we remember.
So a landscape will summon ghosts. What is a ghost but the echo of desire? What is life but desire? We grow uneasy at this last assertion or hypothesis, with its emphasis on desire, because many of us wish to achieve contentment, where eventually we become pleased not with all that we might have, but all that we do not. With the moment. Some would call this not just contentment, but even happiness.
But look, even contentment is desire, once one realizes one is content, once one thinks, I like this feeling, I want to always feel this way. I want — The land, surely, wants things.
Darwin observed what he perceived to be a frenzy of competition — nature writ with the blood from tooth and claw — when really what he was seeing were the beginnings of a long negotiation, the higher product of which is cooperation and the more sophisticated, complex meshings of interdependence. Such connectivity and cooperation is the signature of a more highly evolved species or society: the unity of craft, where one can barely detect even by touch where the seams are fitted. We see how the bear and the salmon and the cedar fit together, bringing life to the sterile granitic substrate that would remain sterile without them — the salmon bringing protein and marine nitrogen in from the sea, the bears distributing it deeper into the mountains so the forest can grow, the forest cooling the water for the salmon that continue to return, the bears returning to eat the salmon and carry the nutrients deeper into the mountains…
But there is a higher order just above, and just below, that sees so much more. An order that does not have the same names for these things. An order where water is also sky, and where rock is soil, and fire is wind. Where metamorphosis fights desire and certainty in every writhing moment.
In looking to vanquish a competitor, one is smacked down by whatever was following behind. Only by looking ahead to the metamorphosis do the desire and the living continue, and become strengthened.
Part of the epigraph to Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain, reads: “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields.”
— Darwin, 1839 journal entry
Evolution — which is to say, the process whose primary component is life — desires. It aims for, strives for, lunges, leaps, creeps and crawls toward the future. But evolution cannot forget its past; it also longs for, savors, loves, desires even the past. For even when the past can no longer be seen, it is still there, so that in each of our living moments, ghosts wrestle and grapple and strive with and against the desires of the past, and those of and for the future. We pass through the dappled shadows of these unseen but sometimes felt conflicts, as even our own passions — for we are creatures composed of passion perhaps more than anything, as elk are made of landscape — drive us, directing us toward that which we follow. We swoop and swoon, buffeted fore then aft. We ascend, then plummet with the frenzy and mania of hummingbirds on meth. We want to go forward, we want to go backward.
What watcher watches us, and what do they see? An isolated being, I think. Not connected, yet, to earth and sky. Always, we desire, in all directions. What an amazement it is that we can even know an occasional moment of contentment, an eddy between the grapplings of ghosts.
The elk is supremely fitted to all things in its world, so much so that when eating it, we can taste those things. I think we often tend to hunt the thing we wish to be, or the thing we wish to have in us.
But now I have changed my mind, and I think I like the journey better than the taste: the places the elk take us, in our needle-and-thread pursuit. The journey, fueled by passion — ours, and theirs.
In this, we’re beginning to conjoin. Every conjoining, then, is a welcoming and a birth. We will conjoin with other things and survive, or fail to, and be lost. We will become the ghosts of what was, relegated to the past and the waiting. Though, I like to imagine our desires will remain, in the soil and in the water, in the sky and in the stone.
I was formally trained and then practiced as a geologist, but long before that, I gathered limey ammonites from the chalky creek beds and prowled the hills around Austin with a magnifying glass, examining the crystals of hornblende and feldspar in granite — the cooled pink breath of the underground dragon that birthed the world that we lived upon. Eventually, as he hardened, fire crumbled, and became our garden. Despite what the preachers said I knew, even then it was not our garden alone but rather shared by every living thing. Indeed, whether pagan animist who believes we evolved from trilobites and monkeys, or fundamentalist Bible-belters who believe we were created like all else, from dust, but independent of and, well, better than everything else — chosen — we had to share. Sharing was nice.
Even the church-folk understand that, I think. And yet one of their major premises troubled me then, as it does now: that we are not some cobbled-together oddity set far away and apart from the tree of life — an amalgamation of all the crumbs and leftover pieces from all the majesty and wonder that preceded — but instead the grand finale. That all that came before — kestrels and goshawks, giant squids and leatherback turtles, moose and polar bear, bighorn sheep and mountain goats tightroping the abyss, brook trout the color of the polished red and green and blue speckles of the sun-dappled sub-aquatic world they inhabit, horned toads, octopus, bower bird, puffin — all were miserable failures, right? An amateur magician’s warm-up gestures before we finally came on stage roughly half an eye blink ago, as if late, so late, to the best party ever. Almost a week late, if one goes by the seven-day calendar of Genesis.
(And about that Day Seven proclamation where, after all the fishes of the sea and fowl of the air and so forth — where we emerged and God called it good — it occurs to me that the translation is even a little bit off; that what He or She might have really meant was I’m tired or That’s all I’ve got or even, more literally, It’s good to be done!
In addition to geology, I studied wildlife biology. I interned as a biologist in Arkansas for Weyerhaeuser, where there was pressure to discover an economic alchemy by which the company could log and run cattle, and raise deer and turkey for hunting, and all the various flames of life would all get along just fine, each supporting the other, though always and only in accordance with the company’s economic desires and the watchful eye, in each quarter, in each economic season, of shareholders. Little gods with big expectations as fantastic as those of children.
And for a flashbulb point in time, it appeared to possibly be working. But then I moved west, to northwest Montana’s Yaak
Valley in the mid-1980s, and discovered elk hunting, and my brain exploded with purple light. The forest floor was soft beneath my feet, and though I knew nothing about the jungle wonderland into which I’d been drawn, I moved through it at all hours and in all directions; I could not be kept out of it as my body began to learn the shape of the land and the logic that grew from that shape. At first, I did not need to know intellectually where I was or what was happening. At first, I had only to reprogram my body. Gone were the sere, crisp, shiny, glinting bald clearcuts of Mississippi and Arkansas, with their lies of a benevolent gardener. As geology, the foundation of rock, gives rise to soil and then to grassland or forest that nurses on that soil, and then in the dying creates more soil, simply learning the shape beneath me was the first step.
With each next step, my body learned, even if it did not yet know or understand how the land affected wind currents and the flow and disbursement of water, light, sound.
When I first heard ravens cawing in June and July, having not yet experienced a full cycle of seasons in the valley, nor a full cycle of anything, I simply thought that was how ravens always sounded. I did not know that as they howled, they fed in frenzy on the bounty of scraps and leftovers of preyed-upon white-tailed fawns. A buffet for the valley’s incredible roster of predators.
The clearcuts in the Yaak hyper-boosted generalists such as white-tailed deer so that, for a while, predators—lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, fisher—seemed to prosper with them. Though as the clearcuts proceeded, winter range vanished, crowding the already high numbers. Roads, and road hunters, led to the extinguishing of many predators, as roads do.
Those were different days. The timber wars in this forgotten, out-of-sight valley had not even arrived, the word “war” connoting any significant resistance. Roads were being gashed to the top of every mountain, a zipper stitching that bounded from one clearcut to the next. Weeds — oxeye daisy, orange hawkweed, spotted knapweed — colonized the scalded dust where once bunchberry dogwood, lupine, twinflower and arnica had flourished. The pigs had entered the temple and were rooting. I no longer recognized places I had been a mere season or two earlier. How could such beauty be taken away, and from the public treasury?
It’s an old story, and back then it seemed ironic that groups such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation — well-meaning in their inception — had become NRA-style political and were championing even more and larger clearcuts in the mountains, pretending that more clearcuts meant more grass and longer shooting lines.
The money got into that organization, and I turned away. Much like the elk themselves — which had once been almost hunted to extinction (the likely fate, ultimately, of all large animals in the Anthropocene) and had fled their natural habitat of the prairie, retreating to the relative inaccessibility of the high mountains, where they drifted in smaller bands from meadow to meadow, as if hoping and waiting for the storm cloud of Homo technologus to drift past like but a bad dream — I too avoided roads, and people, and embraced the next and deeper steps toward hermithood. The old forests, rather than the brilliant, arid openings.
I loved following the elk through their wandering, self-made hallways, narrow corridors and lanes of light between the bars of lodgepole, over the carcasses of rotting larch giants, into the willows and then to the steep, rocky slopes and the tiny alpine meadows fringed by Douglas fir. Following them by scent, or track, or sometimes the glimpses of butter-and-orange mosaics moving slowly through the forest, into the breeze — following them wherever they went, a shadow to each next moment determined by them. Determined by their new landscape. Determined by the genius of their desire to love. It was evolution in fast-forward, as if they carried the prairie with them, into the mountains and into the forest, where they sought what we all seek, in the brief burning of the Anthropocene, solitude.
When I was a younger hunter, I used to hear older hunters, who had not yet been fortunate enough to find an animal that year, say how they were grateful for not killing an animal early in the season, or even that year at all, for it allowed them to keep hunting, to keep looking, following for as long as possible. All the way to the end. I understood, intellectually, what they meant, but my body did not understand it.
One of the best hunting tips I received was that when you find yourself in or near the company of elk, you should go after them “with blood in your eyes.” Such tactics worked, though it took me a surprisingly long time to understand one could hold both ideas simultaneously — kill an elk; do not kill an elk — so that you can keep following them (with blood in your eyes). Hunger in your heart, mountain and prairie.
The elk carried the prairie — the fire ecology of grasslands — burning within them, like an echo, up into the cool, shady forest. And now in the Anthropocene, the burning is following them. As if the sparks were not metaphor but a truer burning, in those enormous hearts, crumbs of which spilled onto the forest floor and ignited the fires that thinned the forests and grew the grass.
Of all my favorite places to hunt, the high burns stand out the most: the blackened spars leaning or fallen, the pinegrass such a new, deep shade of green, cooler and lusher, the two colors, new-green and new-black, all but guaranteeing the presence of elk.
They brought the prairie with them. The yellow belly of the bulls is still the precise color of the autumn tall grass during the bulls’ most vulnerable time of year — the rut — serving as an echo. The shrill high wild music of their lust, likewise. Out on the prairie, where sound waves can travel long distances without striking any obstacles that would cause them to ricochet and distort or disintegrate, higher frequencies are the way to broadcast, to communicate. In the forest, however — think of forest elephants — a lower pitch allows the slower sound waves to creep and roll over and around fallen logs and standing trees, resonating further, farther. The past is always grappling with the future.
We like to tell ourselves these days, amidst so much whirl and change, to be in the moment. Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest allure known to hunters: the incandescent necessity when entering the kill zone, of being “in the moment.” One is not fantasizing about backstrap medallions, nor anything else. Time is frozen. One is never more connected to everything else, so much so that our damning sense of self, which plagues our relationship with time, and much else, vanishes. Yes, more of that, please.
When we eat elk, more than any other animal I know — with the possible exception of the enormous mountain acrobats, bighorn sheep — we taste not just the land (phosphorous, calcium sweet nitrogen, sunlight, charcoal, pinegrass), but the shape of the land in their muscles, and the shape of the animal, the shoulder so different from the ham, the backstrap anchoring and holding the immense neck and antlers. Eating an elk — and I do not believe this is hyperbole — you can taste the scent of shale and larkspur in the morning, before
the day warms, and the dark hoof-cut soil of the dim forest as the herd vacates their nighttime river-drink, back up to the cooler mountaintop of September days. Eating an elk, you can taste, or almost taste, not the kestrel, but the flight of the kestrel that followed the herd briefly in its September passage across a south slope of yellowing fields, grasshoppers clicking away from beneath their hoofs.
The ghosts of the elk we have eaten are no longer ghosts but instead are the muscles in our arms, backs, legs; they are the collagen in our joints and the blood in our brains. The ghosts of the elk we have chased but not caught, however, are more real than the ones we caught, for they are still traveling ahead of us, which enables us in turn to keep chasing them, with desire. And they are the ones we learn the most from. The things — extraordinary things — they will do to keep living, to defeat even us, the penultimate killers on this small blue pearl. We know, of course, the ones we are fortunate enough to catch up with, because they have allowed us to. They have, in the end, presented themselves to us. Have been present. Present, as in here and accounted for. Present, as in, ladies and gentlemen, may I present. Pre-sent, as in, it was meant to be. Just as the ones that we did not catch up with were meant to keep traveling. All is well.
If a person has any interest in grappling with the existential question of fate, hunters know perhaps better than anyone that the largest bulls have the most luck. I do not mean skill (and, perhaps more importantly, experience) in evading hunters, but instead, incredible luck. Or what we call luck but is likely just destiny made briefly, starkly, visible. The bullet that does not fire. The empty breech. The alarm-chatter of a squirrel. The shift of a breeze, even on a still day. Almost always, a crazy kind of luck attends to the largest bulls, and the giant bucks. The earth desires for these magistrates to keep going.
I don’t mean to make it all sound completely predetermined. There is always a struggle between any two things. An electricity. That’s what makes it — life, not just following elk — interesting. I wouldn’t quite call it destiny.
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork