It was supposed to be a straightforward adventure. And then my path turned to water and light, life and death, and deep time.
My best laid plans always leave room for surprise.
It was supposed to be straightforward. I would take another road trip to a bison destination to gather blog and story map content. I would add to the project I sweated over for 18 months to publish– and then recovered from , letting it languish online for a year. My day job swelled with opportunity to innovate and lead. I suddenly found myself mentoring two college interns. I needed to divest myself of the whole Barbie Western Ranch kit after my last horse died. The country descended into surreal chaos. Too much going on to think, write, draw, communicate anything personal.
This trip, I would take time to decompress. The interns would be back at school. I would spend more time traveling, four days driving to Northwest Territories and Wood Buffalo National Park and three weeks on the road. I meticulously penned the plan on a pre-flight wait in March. I scheduled the trip for September to avoid mosquitoes and crowds. I left an itinerary and emergency numbers with my sister, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I would check in regularly. All set.
But my journeys, no matter how strategically planned and defined in scope, always lead somewhere I don’t expect. This time, it was meant to be about wildlife, documenting travel tips, history, updating neglected blogs with new stories.
And then my path turned. The journey became all about water and light, the randomness of life and certainty of death, and deep time.
It will take me awhile and a few posts to unpack this journey. I packed not only my gear but also a strange and dangerous organism that dogged me all summer and almost won. I drove across a national border and turned off the news to ignore my country in historic chaos, anger, and agony. The unexpected changed my perspective at every stop.
I’m not superstitious, but I will always carry a small wooden square carved from an ancient tree, pressed into my hand by a Métis man who struck up a conversation with me. He insisted I take the square with me to ensure my survival and safe return to Canada in the future. He asked me to look up the real history of St Paul des Métis, where the tree once lived. He wanted me to share the story as far as I could. People needed to know the truth, he said.
At the time we spoke, I wasn’t sure I could do that. There might not be another trip. Ever. By that point in my travels, I felt overwhelmed, almost done in by a microscopic pathogen, and meaningless in the face of time. I wasn’t sure it mattered what happened to me. This was supposed to be a simple adventure and now I felt like a kayaker spilled into infinite rapids, grabbing a breath anytime I surfaced in the sunlight.
Then, after that conversation, the tide turned- suddenly, finally.
Here is the path I followed, a route that landed me in a place unimaginably old. Watch for updates as I set out on the road for my first destination: Blue River, British Columbia.
(A) Snohomish, Washington
(B) Blue River, British Columbia
(C) Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Grande Prairie, Alberta
(D) Sixtieth Parallel Territorial Park, Northwest Territories
(E) Hay River, Northwest Territories
(F) Peace Point, Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta
Sometimes, being a runaway and accepting the kindness of strangers brings you home again.
You look up from your breakfast cereal as a 7-year old and your mother tells you you’re a helium balloon.
“You will always need a hand to hold that balloon string,” she says. “Or you’ll just drift away on the breeze.”
My mother knew early on that I would never really be settled. To make it in this rigid world, I would need ties to something solid. When her steady hand vaporized in a terrible accident, I knew those ties wouldn’t likely be human anymore. I made it on my own, and settled in with what I could live with: horses, dogs, wildlife, career.
On left are the first horses of my life, strolling through small town Midwest like you do. On right is the last horse, when he and my nephew were about the same age.
I earned my way and gave back a lot of volunteer time. I traveled, learned new outdoor sports, and almost bit the dust a few times. When my first career betrayed me, I found a new one to support my home, hobbies, and animal companions.
Then slowly, I lost one animal after another to age and illness. After awhile I didn’t replace them; it was tiring being the Noble Queen of Death. Twenty years after he arrived, my last horse died in agony at my feet this spring. I watched him chained up into a truck bed and hauled away. Now it’s just me, the wildlife, my doubts, and my job.
After Larkey died, my unmoored balloon went adrift. The first week, I donned my barn clothes by habit every morning, but there was no one to feed. I didn’t go out to his paddock when I got home from work. There was no one to turn in, and nothing but signs of struggle there.
I was wracked with guilt about the ten thousand lost moments when I could have done something better for him after his brother died. All the times I worked too long, rushed chores, and left him to eat dinner alone. Sometimes I left him alone for my travels.
I tried to reimagine the barn. I planted flowers in his feed bins. I left the doors open day and night because closed, it looked like a tomb that might trap him if he ever decided to come back.
Still, nightmares drove me sleepwalking to feed ghosts in the barn. Reassuring daily routines ended. I had failed Larkey. I failed all of them. Everyone and everything.
Before I drove myself crazy, I did what comes naturally: pack up and go. I’m guessing most folks don’t take two back-to-back 1000- mile road trips to Saskatchewan just to get away. But that first drive in June meant hours to daydream, the ghosts disappearing in between the highway lines flowing past the rearview mirror.
And Saskatchewan welcomes wandering souls looking to lose themselves to endless sky and mysterious lands. The northern reach of the Great Plains, southern Saskatchewan is scoured by ancient glacial floods and swept constantly by wind. Where the land is not broken for crops, dinosaurs sleep in shallow soil beneath the bones of bison and the stones of tipi camps.
On a few high plateaus, forests cluster against potential invasion by the surrounding plain. The Frenchman River bends upon itself in a tight ribbon, winding through dry country on its way to meet the Milk and the Missouri.
After storms roll over the land, emerging sunlight light illuminates the rivulets of long-evaporated torrents. After the wind and lightning, sometimes stinging hail, you can step into the low sun and let grief rise on the wind and draw into the retreating clouds.
Lest you think I wallow in drama, know that I am damn good at putting on a face and going through the motions. I made it through college finals two weeks after my mother was killed. I lent a shoulder and an ear to anyone who needed it when a friend shot herself. I’m a pro. I don’t cry.
And I know how to occupy myself while the worst of the hurt fades.
So it made perfect sense to return to Saskatchewan when a budding Parks Canada paleontologist told me that Grasslands National Park hosts a fossil hunting week in August. Hunt for dinosaur fossils? Sure, never done that. Never met a live paleontologist. Hang with the visitors and locals who come for barbecue and music on Saturday? Perfect. I could have fun playing science tourist, put on a face, and forget.
Then my mask got knocked a little sideways when the horses started arriving for the Saturday wagon rides. These are tourist rides. Not long rides, but long enough to make you wonder how the backs of westward-bound pioneers did not break as their wagons rumbled across on the prairie. At the turnaround point, a young interpreter gives a short talk about grasslands. Other local folk bring their horses and ride along.
A rancher with one arm packed in a sling rode a white horse. No, they don’t need shoes here, she answered. It’s dry enough that their feet don’t go soft and sag, get bruised by rocks and then abcess. And shoes would be terrible fire hazard, with metal spraying sparks from rocks. Of course, I said. She knew what rain rot is, and why our West Coast horses wear blankets when the skies cry all winter.
Then there was the dun horse. I know what dun is: a gene that dilutes the hair color but leaves a pattern of dark hair in a dorsal stripe and ear tips. Tail and legs can be dark, with a “primitive” zebra pattern on the lower legs. I know this from books, but I’d never met one. It’s a different color, subtle, maybe not flashy enough for some of the more chrome-conscious horse folks I’ve known.
I asked Mr. Norris if he was raising his horses, but no, he said they were bought. The family had given up on horses and used ATVs. He still rode. He asked me if I had horses.
“No, lost the last one. Likely bad colic, couldn’t do anything by the time I found him. You know how it goes.” I looked away at the hills.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
We got back from the short, joint-wracking ride with time to spare before the barbecue. I sat on the porch of my rental tent cabin and watched the wagons and riders leave again. After they returned, a jackrabbit thought triggered me to grab my camera and go down to the gathering place. I found Mr. Norris and his dun horse.
“Do you mind if I take a photo or two of your horse?” I asked. “I do some art, and I’d like to sketch your horse. I’ve never seen a dun before.”
I couldn’t tell him I lacked the heart to put my own to paper or canvas.
He helped me get the horse’s attention, because a horse will always back its ears up and lay them flat when it sees a camera. They’re not like kids today, who spring into a pose when a lens appears. It’s beneath horses to clown for cameras.
Then Mr. Norris handed me a rein and just said, “Here, hang on to this.” He walked away.
I wouldn’t get on someone else’s horse unless expressly invited, but I wondered anyway. Instead, I did post duty and held the horse, carrying out what even the most outwardly polite, well trained horse appreciates: ear scratching.
“Getting on that widow maker?” asked a wagon driver.
I smiled and rubbed the horse’s neck, watching for the eyelid droop that signals a polite horse is grateful.
When Mr. Norris came back, I handed the reins back and thanked him.
He swung up into the saddle for the next ride along and said, “You know what Winston Churchill said, right? The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Or in your case, a woman.”
And it finally stopped. The bleeding inside, the catholic guilt. Something closed up, something quieted down. Without meaning to, Mr. Norris and his dun horse rode off with my ghosts and buried them somewhere in the sunburnt grass, the dusty ancient floodway, lying out there with the dinosaurs and the bison bones.
I went to the barbecue, and sat peaceful for the paleontology talk and music by local folk. It was like being back in small town Midwest again, only with science.
When I drove into my yard a few days later, the barn stood peeling in the sun. It was just a messy, neglected building needing painting and a good cleanout. Barn swallows, garter snakes, and bats ruled it all summer. Mud nests bulged from rafters. Occasional domes of guano ate at the concrete aggregate in the aisle. Feathers drifted in puffs of breeze.
Dusty water buckets and empty brush bins leaned unsteady in crooked stacks. The tarps still laid balled up on the floor from that last numb run to the dump with blankets and halters.
It was just a barn again. Labor Day was coming. I could start cleaning it then.
Coyotes are survivors with jackal-like smarts and extreme adaptability. And they’ve learned to work with human behavior.
We often think of humans as the eternal enemy of all wildlife. It’s natural to go there. Right now, we are causing the biggest mass extinction since the meteorite that tipped the dominoes, ultimately killing the dinosaurs and letting mammals prevail.
But some wildlife adapts to us and our behavior. A contractor on one of my projects says that gunfire is a dinner bell for grizzlies in Wyoming. The bears learn to associate shots with gut piles left behind by hunters field dressing game. This has caused bear-human conflict when the grizzly doesn’t wait for the hunter to finish processing game.
I see wildlife adaptability every time I rent a tractor and mow my fields. I’m renting because it’s cheaper than owning for the amount I mow, and I don’t want to get stuck hauling out a tractor if it floods. I rent just often enough to be cost-effective and to keep the grass from becoming too long to tackle. In between mowings, it grows thigh-high and shelters a population of rodents and insects.
Many raptors follow my tractor, for good reason. The rumbling and vibration of the machinery sends mice and voles fleeing through the grass, where they become easy prey. Those that don’t survive become dinner for scavengers.
Coyotes also figured out how to work around and with humans and our machinery. Canis latransfollows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets. Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America. As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded. They grew bolder.
Coyotes evolved away from the jackal lineage about 800,000 years ago. Today, they live across the continent, and not just in rural landscapes. They defy our attempts to exterminate them. They prowl cities and business parks. They have been sighted in New York’s Central Park. They aren’t picky eaters: insects, fruit, garbage, rodents, anything they can find. They may offer free rat control in large cities.
If you are on Nextdoor in my area, or walking our roads, you will see lots of “lost cat” notices. Outdoor cats in our area can fall victim to eagles, dogs, and coyotes; unlike the first two predators, coyotes rarely leave a trace behind.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government and property owners annihilate a half million of them a year, they are not at risk of extinction. They have figured us out.
After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half. They abandoned the apex predator behavior they developed when wolves were absent. Sure, they might sneak a bite of a wolf or grizzly dinner, but they know to hightail it when the owner takes notice.
My corner of the Snohomish River Valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time. They would yip and howl in winter far back in the fields. I would see them occasionally. Once in awhile, they would nab something from my yard at night and launch a raucous coyote party.
Then my hobby-farmer neighbor turned sheep out on his land without adequate protection from predators. His lambs got nabbed by coyotes, but instead of enclosing them, he went on a rampage after the coyotes with a gun the law says he couldn’t own.
He eventually gave up on the sheep like he gave up on everything. He killed the goats. A local butcher field dressed most of the pigs one day as I was driving home from work. the chickens vanished, most likely killed by eagles. Weeds have taken over and the few remaining animals roam unmanaged. They would be everywhere if he had not installed mesh fencing. Animal Services forced him to downsize and confine wayward cows that triggered too many complaints of property damage.
A year after the revenge killings for lamb nabbing, the rabbit population exploded. Rabbits frolicked in my driveway and destroyed my garden and landscaping. The coyote pack was gone, and the few animals around couldn’t navigate the mesh maze my neighbor installed.
Hope returned in June 2016, in the form of scat with cherries and occasional hair on the road and in my horses’ paddocks. I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was mowing thigh high grass.
This young pup is on her own early. In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.
At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance. I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet. She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles.
Most coyotes aren’t brave enough to follow the tractor like that, but they quickly learn that the sound means easy food, like the sound of gunfire to grizzlies. Every time I mow, they show up sooner or later. This year as usual, a young coyote showed up after a day of mowing to work the fields for voles exposed by the short grass.
The coyote was young, and very wary; the tractor was fine just as long as it didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to interfere with its job. Coyotes are here out West because they adapted to us and our ways. They thrive because we removed their enemies and we waste so much. These coyotes, like their ancestors, have learned to maneuver around us in the shadows, to use our paths and roads, to live on our leavings.
I drove solo to Death Valley National Park one year and spent the whole trip looking over my shoulder. I committed no crime more serious than extremely distracted driving and hiking in a rich visual landscape of surreal abstraction and surprise. I would pull over or wander off trail for unnatural colors, unusual textures, or just a small shrub full of butterflies sitting in the middle of a barren.
And once, passing a coworker and friend on the way into the women’s room, she asked,”Hey, do you want to go on a kayak trip in Tonga?”
“Sure, sounds cool, sign me up,” I replied. “Where’s Tonga?”
That’s my temperament, orientation, and wiring: wandering, curious, focused on nature, taking in the world through my eyes. I think I hailed from nomads, following food across the landscape. It is not the best fit for today’s linear, boundary-defined, man-made world. But it is natural for me to be attracted to grasslands, where I can wander and find little surprises everywhere.
For most, this scene disappoints: no towering mountains or trees, no sparkling azure lakes, no man-made stuff. For people like me, it’s an invitation to explore. What’s more, I have permission from the ranger, who says that Grasslands National Park allows people to roam everywhere. Hilltops welcome after dinner strolls from camps, and tempt you from a track.
And navigation is not challenging here, even without a device. The land is heavily sculpted by water, with a distinct orientation and flow, and landmarks easily visible from the ridge tops. On Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, the yellow trail markers guide hikers down a path, but you can roam without fear of wandering up in the wrong drainage, as can happen in my area. Perfect.
One of my challenges hiking Broken Hills was catching up to prairie butterflies. They are really petite and speedy. This makes sense if you think about what they face: drying sun, a lot of wind, and no shelter from any airborne insect eaters. Wing size needs to be large enough to absorb heat and fly, but limited to avoid moisture loss and predation. At least that’s my amateur butterfly scientist hypothesis.
At any rate, I know that some butterfly flowers like ridge tops, and they attract butterflies. This happens in Eastern Washington, and sure enough, it works in southern Canada, too.
I also know the dark side of butterflies, as we humans interpret them. We poeticize them as flying stained-glass angels alighting on nectar-filled flowers. But they need protein, too, and will find it in carnivore poop, blood, rotting meat, and so on. Grasslands has its coyotes, as you can tell from night time howling and occasional deposits. I never find butterflies on the furry scat, but they will land on more moist scat.
Larger animals and birds frequent these areas. Wolves and bears that roamed the land were extirpated by settlers who couldn’t imagine coexistence with predators. But smaller herbivores are stalked today by coyotes that spread across North America with human settlers. Wary, they give hikers a chance to leave, then bound gracefully away.
An herbivore that doesn’t need to fear coyotes-and can injure feckless or ignorant humans-is the mighty bison. I’ve personally seen one stand off a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park despite a clearly broken leg. After awhile, the wolves gave up and ambushed an elk.
You can find traces of buffalo throughout the prairie landscape, including poop, laydown areas, and tracks dried in once muddy areas. As a prairie detective, you can take notes on where they sleep and what paths they use.
This buffalo bull at Grasslands appears unconcerned about either the weather or people.
People have long wandered these lands; Parks Canada literature says the park includes 12,000 known tipi rings, and drive lines that people used to direct bison (or perhaps antelope) into traps.
I’m not a good enough prairie detective to determine whether piles of bones are a result of natural death or hunting, or how old they are. This is a harsh environment that can fatally tax young and old animals.
The bone at lower right looks really lacy and weathered, and many appeared cracked. I could make up a whole pile of stories about these, but really, they could even hail from the previous use of the area for ranching. Note that I moved nothing, and just took pictures.
If it doesn’t work out for an animal (or you), there are always patrolling vultures to clean up the aftermath.
Other random finds on my Broken Hills investigation include a shed antler and various flowers.
Like people long ago, I become nomadic in grasslands. Unlike those resilient, skilled people, I am not dependent on the landscape and its inhabitants. I’m just a prairie detective, with ancient genes directing me to root around for suprises hidden in the grass.
I thought I would return from back-to-back trips to Nebraska and France brimming with stories. Instead, I came home to bathe the dead.
I was going to sit down after two disparate but rich trips, one to Nebraska and one to France, and write blog articles about amazing sights, perspective shifts and unexpected connections between the two places. I have thousands of photographs to sort, dozens of stories to tell.
I did not expect to find myself washing the dead a week after getting off a plane from Paris.
The namesake of this blog, my last horse, succumbed to apparent catastrophic colic on a sunny May day. I returned home from work on a warm spring evening, walked to the barn with a cool drink, planned to give him a good bath to scrub off shedding hair and layers of dust that brushes don’t lift. Instead I found him near death, staggering and foaming at the mouth, his eyes swollen shut. I struggled to get him to the barn, then watched him drop onto the ground as I frantically called the vet. My neighbors came to help, but it was too late. I held fingers to his neck as his pulse vanished.
Shock launched my brain into that vague survival space that protects us after trauma. The next day, I numbly wandered with my neighbor around my little town trying to find a heavy equipment operator to move Larkey so his body could be collected.
Livestock disposal is increasingly tough in an area with explosive development. Fewer facilities accept the remains. Fewer haulers service barns and veterinary clinics. They don’t like to pick up on Fridays and get stuck with carcasses in our legendary traffic. Burial is not an option where I live, right by a river in an estuary and floodplain.
So this is the second time I have lived with a deceased horse over a weekend. People like me still want to touch farm life and buffer ourselves against endless sprawl, condo buildings blocking out the sky, and metastatic subdivisions. People raise everything from urban chickens to llamas, goats, cattle, sheep, and horses. But end of animal life poses a challenge.
To pass time while waiting for help, I anxiously collected Larkey’s supplies- blankets and brushes and first aid and washing supplies. I loaded the truck and drove to the transfer station. My phone rang as I left the dump: someone in the rental equipment business had called someone else, and he called to tell me he could help me move the horse the next morning.
Back home, I started to focus. Larkey would go away soon, and I would never see him again. When I lost his brother, the veterinarian had clipped a portion of tail. A couple weeks later, a braided segment with charms arrived in the mail.
This time, there was no veterinarian with skilled hands to help. It was only me, and I have never been “girly”. I’m a hard-wired tomboy, with wash and wear hair and casual dress. I can do it up if needed, and I own business and formal wear, but my dress up doesn’t extend to hair.
The only time Larkey ever bit me was over my ineptness with hair dressing. It was the first Quarterhorse show we attended together, far from home. As a late foal, he spent his first winter in Idaho fighting with mares for food, and was always defensive about food afterward. At the show, while Larkey watched other horses eat their dinners, I struggled for over an hour to part his mane into segments and braid them. Finally done, I raised my hand to remove his halter and he unleashed his pent-up anger on my wrist. I made enough of a point that it never reoccurred, but I also never again toiled over his hair during dinnertime.
So now, 15 years after we left the show ring for a peaceful life at home, I needed to braid again. This time, there would be no biting, no matter how long it took. But first, I needed to wash the mud and blackberry canes from his tail, one terrible reminder of the struggle he went through alone. As I looked at him, I decided I would wash whatever I could reach, especially his bruised face.
Before institutionalized handling of the deceased, families and friends prepared the dead for final rest. Some cultures and religions still call for bathing protocols, perhaps with purified water infused with plum or herbs. For the rest of us, our loved ones are carted away, handled in an approved facility by licensed and trained individuals wearing appropriate protective gear. Our deceased reappear as ashes or as a neatly dressed body carefully made to look natural by a stranger’s hands.
For time immemorial, horses have held powerful symbolic meaning for peoples across the world. The Uffington White Horse was created by Bronze Age peoples who dug trenches up to 3 meters deep and filled them with white chalk.
Horse burial was practiced by peoples across the world, sometimes in sacrificial ritual, other times to provide the deceased person with a ride to the next world or life.
A Scythian burial mound in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia dates from the 7th century BC. The mound includes 22 horses carefully arranged. Chariot burials occurred in Rome and China, and the Nez Perce and Blackfeet peoples had specifihorse death rituals.
(Sketch of the Kostromskaya kurgan, or burial mound; public domain.)
Surely some people living on the margin of survival simply ate them; they may still have blessed the animal or performed a death ritual.
I would not be following ancient peoples by skinning Larkey and stuffing the hide or creating a frame with his bones. We have regulations about those things.
But I could wash him, and now I understand the power of the bathing ritual. Running my fingers through Larkey’s tangled tail, now clean and fresh with the scent of lavender conditioner, gently scrubbing the star on his forehead white again- it is what I would have done the night before had he lived. He would have been tied out after a snack, arching his lip when I scrubbed itchy spots, shifting his feet to pinch off the hose, squirming if the water got cold.
Washing the scuffed body clean felt like goodbye to my old, reliable friend. It felt like respect for my grumpy old gentleman, who endured my life’s twists and turns and the loss of his brother. Scrubbing his dead body would never cleanse the agony he went through, but it was the least I could do to apologize for not being home to help.
The braiding part came no easier for my clumsy fingers, but I had time to do it carefully. Plaits of black, brown, blonde, and auburn wound together slowly. For once, I was focused and calm as I twisted his thick tail into a tight braid. Sharp scissors sliced the braid clean below the tailbone. I hung the section in the house and unbraided the tail to dry.
Back in the paddock I placed Larkey’s bobbed tail on a clean white sack. I washed and dried his head one more time and laid it on a dry towel. I draped another white towel over his face and eyes. It felt like he went to sleep forever.
Rest in peace, grumpy, loyal Larkey Skip. I hope to forget your final hour, but I will never forget you. I will need to take a road trip, go to the prairie in a few weeks, to watch the sky and reimagine my life after 30 years with horses. And this blog remains a dedication to your companionship for the last 20.
Why I’m driven to bring a voice and face to the erased.
It’s Thanksgiving and time to be grateful. I’m grateful today for fellow blogger @historyboots for her recent article on the proper name for the big, shaggy creatures that I’m slaving to promote.
I’m in the last lap of this ESRI Story Map package on the North American buffalo. It’s long past the story shaping part that I enjoy the most. Now it’s editing out extra spaces, finding better words (the best words!), trimming sentences and content, checking whether the visuals tell the story. Shaun is making the pretty maps; I’m helping out entering coordinates, photos and descriptions for the simple ones.
I wouldn’t dare put this on an equal footing with my niece-in-law’s pregnancy, but I have a smidgeon of the same anxiety that something could go wrong at the last minute (with far less consequence, of course). I obsessively back everything up, screenshot, and capture text. I worry that when I launch it, the photos won’t show up and the links won’t work. Or it won’t load as a published product. Or no one will care.
This project has become far more consuming than I expected, but I’ve become more determined as this story has revealed itself. The last lap of this marathon is now driven by listening to Japanese Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and even the deaf and blind communities talk about “historic erasure” at the National Association for Interpretation conference a couple weeks ago.
Erasure is using semantics in a magic trick that makes people’s histories completely disappear. Take the term “wilderness”: poof, and all the footsteps that fell on the land vanish! European Americans did not “discover” anything, really: there were people here already, and their feet touched many parts of the country with only an oral record of their passage. If you ignore that record, then voila- “wilderness” and “discovery”.
I even realized how rarely I see people with hearing impairments in communications products like video. This Smithsonian video welcoming two bison back to the National Zoo is an exception, because one of the bison is named after an alumnus of Gallaudet University, established for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I was on a bison road trip , visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park ,when I discovered the story of how three native men and Canada spurred bison conservation in the United States. I recently learned from Harvey Locke’s “Last Buffalo Returns to the Wild” that the oft-told tale of Samuel Walking Coyote rescuing buffalo calves may ignore an unsung hero: Walking Coyote’s stepson, Latatitsa. Locke says that a “robust tribal memory” credits Latatitsa, and that Walking Coyote sold the small herd to Pablo and Allard when his stepson was away.
If I have gained anything besides the ability to make gifs and simple maps from this experience, it is the ability to detect, almost by echolocation, discrimination by semantics. And a drive to do what I can to bring voice and face to the erased, whether they be people or great brown shaggy beasts.
For a great article on the power of words, read Lauren’s blog post (and see the awesome photo of the bison wearing stick bling):
You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!
It’s taking me forever to unpack from my last trip to Montana. I’m recovering from the fourth trip in a year following bison, North America’s largest mammal. I run one more load of wash, bundle up tent cord, sort bins and stuff sacks, and clean camera gear. I struggle through re-entry again, obsessively returning to my computer morning and night to work on this story map project, tracing the trail of bison from past to present.
And a voice in the back of my distracted head asks why this is happening again.
Part of the problem lies with me. I finally confessed in a recent presentation to a fundamental characteristic and character flaw. Something out of pattern catches my eye, and if it piques my curiosity, I follow it, getting caught up sometimes for years. This behavior can lead either to enlightenment or to despair, if you think about it.
My neighbor from the Conservation District got me signed up for the annual bareroot plant sale 14 years ago (maybe 15). I was hooked when my red flowering currant became a beacon for hummingbirds. A sort of mad scientist/greedy gardener took over and I spent years buying and propagating thousands of plants to get more wildlife. I became a Native Plant Steward, and volunteered to give workshops and classes to thousands of people. I blogged about my backyard wildlife, gave away plants, took thousands of photos, started making videos.
Blame this chapter on the stoic and infinite bison, and the human history they drag behind them like clattering cans tied to a wedding limousine. Only this wedding, it turns out, is an arranged marriage where the bison might need a divorce from an abusive spouse.
I planned my first trip to Yellowstone National Park to explore America’s oldest national park and to see grizzly bears. I did my homework to stay out of trouble around wildlife. When a large herd with agitated bulls spread across Mary Mountain Trail, we high-sided the slope, skirting through the woods where grizzlies might lurk. The grizzlies seemed lower risk compared to the snorting, pawing bulls. Whenever we arrived at a new campsite, we waited out the customary giant bull resting in the shade.
The last backpack trip journeyed into Slough Creek Valley. I was comfortable enough around bison to bail out two New York fly fishermen who got pinned on top of their bear box when a big herd took over their camp. One evening, I sat eating dinner on a hill overlooking the valley watching a big herd flow slowly through the valley. The low rumble rolling across the herd and through the valley reminded me of some National Geographic image showing herd migrations in Africa or the Arctic.
Of course, Yellowstone treats visitors to a perspective on co-managing large wildlife and people. I came away realizing how disconnected most of us are from nature: we view the outdoors as a zoo, a playground, and a fitness trail. I realized how poorly wildlife mixes with roads and cars and our impatience with anything that creates traffic disruption.
During a wolf workshop at Lamar Buffalo Ranch the next spring, it became apparent that bison tolerate us but don’t need us. A lone bison bull hung around the ranch, resting on the shoveled paths and scratching his rear on the cabin railing. He seemed to be taking advantage of what we build, but it didn’t mean he and his brethren need us. On a field trip, I watched through a spotting scope as a bull hobbling on a broken leg stood up to a hungry pack of wolves. Surprisingly, they backed down from the injured bison and ambushed an elk instead. That’s tough.
Then I wandered onto American Prairie Reserve, where the future vision is as expansive as the prairie horizon. APR envisions a 3-million acre fabric of private/public lands for bison, other wildlife, and people to roam free. The bison were boss in the unit I visited. There were no bison jams. I could wander across grasslands on all-encompassing treasure hunts to see rocks, fossils, and flowers. The skies were big, uncrowded. I found peace.
Watercolor sky, American Prairie
Dusk, American Prairie
Buffalo Camp, American Prairie Reserve
I happily spend most of my free time alone, but I like to communicate. So I wanted to tell about this place, put bison in a natural conext and beckon people to the ocean of grasslands they are missing. A simple story, right?
And then I stumbled on the winding and overgrown trail into bison history. See, I bought into the Yellowstone narrative of a few years ago. The U.S. government saved the remaining 25 bison after twenty years of intense and deliberate extermination. The army helped save them from poachers and founded the National Park Service. Today, they’re doing just fine- almost half a million on the ground.
Then I found out most bison are in commercial herds, and they have leftover cattle genes. Over a century after the slaughter ended, there are only an estimated 8,000 pure bison in the wild.
And there isn’t just one heroic bison savior story rooted in the right intentions. Profiteering played a role. Then I found out how three men with native blood and the Canadian government triggered the establishment of public herds in the United States. I followed the Pablo-Allard herd to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, but found no Hallmark Holiday Special ending for these animals. Those animals, along with elk and moose, were destined for long-gone Buffalo National Park. When they overran the park, animals were shipped to Wood Bison National Park. Cross-breeding with their cousins and disease almost doomed wood bison to extinction. Buffalo Park failed after 31 years. The Department of Defence took over the property and today keeps a small herd in memory of the past.
I discovered the tsunami effect of western expansion across North American, and how hubris and profiteering triggered the near extinction of bison. The perspective is chilling given the federal government’s current drive to go back in time.
My bedside table is stacked with books and papers. Some chronicle history and others propose strategies to preserve truly wild bison into the future.
Bison don’t need us; they can take care of themselves. They just need land to grow and roam, and water. Aside from a few large herds, there are 80 bison here, 100 there. Wild bison survival depends on big herds in big places, shaping the land and being shaped by nature.
Bison may not need people, but we still need wild bison and wild places. We need them to remind us there are healthier, more viable alternatives to an urban life dominated by the technology explosion. We’re careening blindly toward a future of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and chat bots managing us via social media. We need to remember we’re not that far from our roots, that we are still governed by nature. We need bison to teach us some history lessons so we don’t repeat the worst of the past. We need them to school us in patience and give us peace.
And while I need to come up for air and take care of everyday things, I really need to get this story out. It’s haunting me now.