Sacred Ground, Sacred Trust
“The country knows. If you do wrong things to it, the whole country knows. It feels what’s happening to it. I guess everything is connected together somehow, under the ground.” – Lance Williams, Koyukon Elder, 1975
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.
Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.
More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.
I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.
Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.
The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.
The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.
After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well.Still, innocents abound. Only recently, a woman stopped to talk to me on a chilly and uneventful evening. She wanted to tell me her story of a deer, closely reliving it as she spoke. It was standing on her drive as she left the house, passing very close to her driver side window as she drove away.
Se had my undivided attention, as I am happy to talk deer. I was happy that she was happy to talk about a deer. She was captured by the sight, describing the encounter with wide-eyed animation. Then she exclaimed, “scarrreeeeey!”. Scary, I thought. You were scared….of a deer. A pie eyed yearling doe, harmlessly chewing grass and ready to bound away at the slightest provocation. Did I hear correctly?
I stood speechless and dumbfounded, and I am sure it read on my face, though I tried to hide it. What could I say to this nice lady? How could I respond in a manner that would make any sense? My mind could not work fast enough to process the statement or understand all of its pregnant ramifications. We were two ships passing in the middle of the impenetrable black night, and our cargoes could not be interchanged at sea. I had no frame of reference to draw from, no common ground to reach for, nor stable platform to commiserate from. I could only offer a curious smile, left to cock my head, and ponder how anyone could be so tragically out of touch from the natural world.
It reminds me of a similar story, from a similar place, told to me several years ago by a security guard who had manned his lonely outpost for more than a decade. The gated community was unfenced and surrounded by tens of thousands of brush and forest and home to a variety of rocky mountain wildlife. The entry gate was not a security gate at all, consisting of one bar which could be raised or lowered by the guard. He told of a homeowner who called late one night to inquire if he had perhaps had a sighting on her cat, which had been missing for several days. He jotted down the information for his report, doing his best professional security guard imitation. Trying to help, he sadly and patiently informed her that, since the cat had been missing for an extended period of time, she might want to consider the possibility that the cat had been captured and killed by one of the area’s many coyotes. She grew quiet on the other end of the phone line, than disconnected. The guard felt bad that he had been the one to broach the subject of bad news.
A short time later, the woman called back to yell and scream expletives, and then added “How dare you let that coyote through the gate”. She demanded the phone number of his supervisor, which he promptly passed along without additional comment, not wishing to add any additional flame to the fire. He never forgot about the incident though, and laughed gleefully as he told it, still not quite believing himself that it was true.
He said he wished he had told her that he would now be sure to interrogate all coyotes arriving at the gate. By the way, this is the same man who tracked Ted Bundy, a noted serial killer, through the snow at night after he had escaped from the county courthouse in Aspen, but that’s another story.
Coyotes are bad actors as far as many people are concerned. They receive a lot of press in our neck of the woods, most of it not favorable to the coyote. Not long ago our security office received a complaint. A coyote had grabbed a small dog from an unfenced yard in full view of the owner. There was nothing they could do. The dog was not seen again, and it was a traumatizing occurence for all concerned, particularly the dog. apparently, there had been a report of a suspicious coyote submitted the previous month. The homeowner wanted to know why the security staff had not been on top of the situation. Why had we not done more to prevent the incident? Why, indeed? It was just being a coyote, and doing what a coyote does.
It can be said that gated communities have complex and conflicting issues all their own, mostly because they lack exactly what is most obviously missing – community, and the comforts and security of it. People often become isolated, separate, and disconnected from each other. Money only magnifies the distance between them and it cannot save you from yourself. A pile of currency may humor the fantasies and massage the ego, but in the end the burdens of wealth may make real things worse.
You cannot contain nor confine the natural world, no more than you can hold it out. You can try to hold her at bay and at arm’s length, but in the end fences and guards cannot accomplish the desired effect and will only delay the inevitable. Humans can deny their interconnectedness to nature, but that does not make it true.
I think about these things while on patrol. I can not help it. Perhaps I think too much, and read too much meaning into circumstance. I see a vacant lots with elk standing on them, and think about the homeowner who sent in a photographer to take a picture of his property. He thought it would be a great selling point to pass around to prospective buyers. I wonder if he had considered that once sold, and house built, there would be no room left for the elk to stand. I drive about, stop to rattle doorknobs, check windows, look for coyotes and other suspicious characters. What do I say when I find one? Will they listen? What would they like to tell me?
I wonder what other people see and why they see it. They see elk tracks on expensive turf, ripping away and tearing at their summer fun. They see elk chewing on expensive trees and ornamental shrubbery. They see a sales pitch, a paragraph and photos in a glossy brochure in a carefully crafted promotional campaign. They see a nuisance, or an asset, depending on the need. They see competition, and not cooperation. They see profit, but only for themselves. Elk are something they own and can do with what they choose.
I see an animal having more and more trouble finding solid ground on which to live. I see an animal searching for the critical winter range of a valley floor, wondering where it has gone. I see a field where tall grass once waved in the wind, now smothered over with choking and lifeless asphalt. I see an animal staring at a tall wire fence near the shoulder of a busy highway, dodging cars and trying to find a way to put its nose in the river for a drink of water.
In my mind’s eye I see a mystical creature walking in a frost covered autumn meadow. I see young elk calves frolicking and playing tag on the green grass of summer, some with light spots on their skin. I see hunting camps and friends, animated and laughing. I see tired men sweating under heavy loads of meat and horn, winded and worn out from a hard day, but energized. I see steaks sputtering on a hot aspen fire, with good, smoky whiskey and cold, clear, creek water to wash it down. I see a young boy, now a man, describing his first kill while beaming with a grin so wide that it fills the sky. I see a father standing behind a boy who is so proud that he can not speak, but says it all with one look. I see more than I can comprehend. I do not have the words. I see way too much, and maybe not nearly enough.
Some time ago I walked around to the back of an empty, imposing house and came upon the sight of elk tracks on the concrete patio and walkways of a protected, hidden yard. Tall evergreen trees surrounded us like a natural cathedral. It had just snowed, and the tracks stood out like a beacon in the dazzling sun.
The sight stopped me quite dead in my stride. It was as if I had walked squarely into the solid concrete walls of some plainly obvious yet unseen building, as a great hand with extended finger descended from heaven to point them out in quivering disgust.
Kneeling in the snow by a gleaming steel barbecue, I felt light-headed and unsure. The earth moved beneath me as I did my best to control my revulsion and rising anger. Why the full force of it hit me so hard that day and at that particular moment I do not know. But it was real, and it was painful.
There is something terribly striking about the placement of elk tracks on concrete. It is an assault on the sensibilities of common sense and a great festering wound upon all that is spirited and free. It screams of wrongness and wrong-headedness, and of cleverness driven past it’s acceptable limit. The tracks document a trail of horrible mistakes and destructive paths. It is a unconscionable sacrilege.
No man should have to witness it, nor bear it. No man should have to try. The snow will melt and the tracks will disappear, leaving behind them only the promise of what might have been. I can read meaning into most kinds of animal tracks, but no matter how hard I may try I can find no sign on the cruel and heartless soul of concrete walks and driveways. I am, and have always been, a hunter. I must have fresh tracks to follow.
At that moment I see through other eyes, from some other time. A hint of memory flashes and reveals this place as it looked long, long ago. I see the ancestors there, huddled in the mist beneath heavy robes of fur, watching, waiting. I see their spears and primitive weapons, eager to sink their sharpness into hide and flesh. I feel their footfalls and their labored breath heaving in their chest. I feel the spear’s blade upon my hand, at the razor’s edge of all things. They are but a heartbeat away. They walk upon sacred ground and I can see no concrete under their feet. They may wish to look you squarely in the eye and disagree with your opinion as to owns this place. They told me so themselves.
This I know. The earth is the most patient of all living beings. She measures time in a fashion quite incomprehensible to our limited and mortal minds. The putting greens of the once great golf course will soon vanish into the recovering landscape, reverting to more normal flora and natural grasses as tall as a man. The houses will fare badly in the coming storm and other elements, and will eventually succumb to leak and decay as they list and slide to their knees upon the welcoming ground. Even the unforgiving concrete will crack and crumble, to be pounded into sand by the hooves of countless four leggeds, then carried away effortlessly by the healing winds. The land cannot and will not be owned, only borrowed for a brief moment along with the nurturing grace of god.
We do not own the elk, the eagle or the fish. Left to their own devices, they will remain here long after we are gone. Yet, if we are not careful they will disappear on our watch, to die the death of a thousand cuts and little insults. Our race will leave behind only the foul memories of a petulant child. Our legacy will be defined by the actions of disrespectful tourists, scratching impetuously and carelessly atop an improbable blue ball as it hurdles and spins through the limitless universe. How can we be so unaware of the magic at our feet?
Mother Earth asks only that we treat her with reverence and respect, and she is happy to provide all that we need in return. “It’s not to late”, she whispers. Can you hear her? Her heart is our heart. It is our choice.
Either way, life on this planet will continue in one form or another, with or without the puzzling, and sometimes troubling beast, called human. I will follow her track until then.
“one of the best aspects of our community is that we have the freedom to control access” (anonymous homeowner). Categorized under the ever more popular category – “You can’t make this stuff up!’.
“You live in a place full of light bulbs and chrome and rare fillets and box top contests. But when you die, you die in a place of mountains and sky, earth and fire, stars and the sea.” – John D. MacDonald, All These Condemned.
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*This unique collection of new nature essays forthrightly addresses the environmental conditions and concerns of the 1990s. The contributors include an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and several novelists and fly fishermen and women as well as established nature writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Bill McKibben. Subjects range from hiking in Alaska to viniculture in France, and the tone and style vary from the Swiftian satire of Robert F. Jones to John Murray’s personal meditation and Wendell Berry’s passionate biblical rhetoric. Yet these diverse essays are bound by a single theme summed up succinctly by Mary Katherine Bateson: “Ethics follow efficacy.” Because we humans have become so many and so powerful, we must become environmentally responsible; we must reform our greedy, exploitative relationship to the natural world and learn to share the planet’s wealth with other species and future generations.
– Joan S. Elbers