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The picture of me looks like this: gangly legs with tall white knee socks, black and white saddle shoes, misshapen faux horn glasses way too big for my face, and a plaid, pleated skirt with a gigantic decorative safety pin, something you’d find on a Halloween costume. 

Understandably, there was always a sort of insouciance about going back to school. Unlike earthquakes, it was just something that happened every year when the hottest days of summer had run their course and my mother ditched the tube tops and started wearing normal clothes again.

Pregnancy lasts for nine months because this is about an adequate amount of time to learn every thing you need to know about childbirth, newborns, sleep “training”, every manner of disciplinary option available to you in your future parenting years that will not land you in prison, and finally, how to successfully raise an accomplished, respectable and civilized person of the world.

And then the baby is born. And you learn about all the things you didn’t know you needed to learn about: preschool waiting lists, dual immersion educational options and vaccinations—which ones, in what combinations, at what age, and how often?

Right about the time that kids learn to sleep properly—something that befuddlingly takes years—then they need to learn how to wake up early and get dressed, be breakfasted and alert enough to pack up the previous day’s completed homework to meet the school bus, usually before the sun comes up.

This whole “childhood” thing is not for the inexperienced.

Which brings me back to the first day of school. As I looked at my friends’ Instagram posts of their kiddos' “First Day of School” pictures, hashtagged #iwontcry and #summerisover, complete with wheeled backpacks and brave, toothless faces standing tall on their front porches and sidewalks, I felt a little pang of regret, envy even.

And then I leaned over and looked at my six year-old, still asleep at 8 o’clock, her eyelashes dancing with a dream, the filtered morning sun throwing patterns across her cheeks—and stole away to walk the dog in the dew heavy grass before we started our first day of school, in pajamas, over hot chocolate, first grade books already littering the kitchen table.


 
 
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In the end, he spent the better part of two weeks in the backyard, screaming at night. At first, it sounded like a wounded deer, or a baby, or a trapped raccoon. I knew it couldn’t be a baby, but there is something about an animal making desperate human sounds that pulls you out of bed and into the night. It had happened before.

I left my baby--no longer a baby, really, but almost as vulnerable--in the house. She peered out of the window into the darkness. I told her to watch for my headlamp, that I would call out to her when I made it to where she might see the light’s strobe, streaking against the moonless sky.

August nights beckon winter with abandon, a shameless cold. My warmest robe and Rainbows, flip-flopping through dew-heavy grass, taking off the sandals to wade the creek, robe pulled up, creek muck sucking feet down, rinsing feet, stalking.

My child shouts out from the window, “Mama, I’m scared about you!”

She has seen my light disappear into the heavy brush and it’s not until I am hip deep in grasses that I consider the reality of living on the edge of a golf course. This is no place for sissies. Here and there, daybeds, matted grasses telling of mama moose and baby moose, the proclivities of bison, their hulking shadowed masses still as an abandoned automobile, and lethal.

The crackling scream is nearly above me now, and I am just so close that I can almost see this creature, and even though I know what it is, I need to see it to reconcile the aching cry it makes over and over again, pained and imploring, ceaseless.

Several more paces. My daughter yells again from the window. I marry her tone of voice with my imagination and come up with a grisly image: a child watches her mother disappear on a simple lookabout; standing guard in the window, as instructed, she listens closely as the silence turns to chaos, her mother being trampled to death.

I retreat.

My girl is relieved, the bed is warmer than it has ever been. We leave the curtains open, and talk about the creatures outside: the wolves we saw less than one mile away, the bird feeders hung high to discourage bears, buffalo larger than the back door. No wonder the poor child never wants to hike.

And then, the scream. It is nearer than ever, an arm’s reach away, just outside the glass. Together we hold our breaths, both of us waiting for it again, and then, it is the sound of a conch shell held to your ear, the rush of ocean suddenly, magically in your palm: the fireplace a megaphone to this expanse of feathers spreading, giant wings pushing air, bringing body to a halt.

A clamor of talons, the tinny echo of claws clasping the metal flashing around the chimney top. My quarry has landed, and if we could just crane our necks out the window and look up, we could see him: massive, unmistakeable, crying out ten feet from our pillows.

 
 
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Paw print at the crossing
On Christmas Eve, one of my best friends sent me an iPhone video that was nothing but blackness. “Make sure the volume is up” he told me.

Off in the distance, echoed and hollowed sounding, the howl of wolves. I imagined them, large paws padding the fresh snowfall, wending their way between the river-bottom firs.

What I know of wolves are speck-sized dust spots in my scope, the Lamar Valley, and so many head of elk running to and fro, careening like a flock of waxwings across the snow.

I was taught early on as a birder that the secret to identifying species is silhouette and context. The details get lost in the distance, the absence of glass to bring their barred and bibbed patterns in close a missed opportunity to tick a lifer off your list.

Nine o’clock in the morning. Late. The traffic of daily living already quieting. Sun high and a ribbon of inversion knitted together by the cold and rising. Priceless, but here, commonplace.

Click. Beautiful. Again.

The iPhone is a poor tool for such moments, but as the saying goes, a bad camera is better than no camera at all.

Besides, you don’t drive your preschooler to school thinking that on the way you’ll see wolves.

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Black wolf, zoomed
The car was stopped. They came from the south. After two, I knew to wait. Accustomed to the ways of migratory shuffles, there are always more.

Black wolf. White snow. Cottonwoods. Grey wolf. Road. Grey wolf.

Three in all.

Lumbering and leggy, their run is a rocking-horse rock, their mouths the open mouths of carousel animals, bridleless. It’s full-out or nothing at all.

E watched along with me, speechless, a witness.

Much later, on the way home, we searched out the tracks, the place where the wolves crossed the road. I sunk, thigh deep into the sage flats and compared my palm to their paw, the way their tails cantilevered their gait against the awkward pull of the snow, wet and spring-like by midday.

I was still half-thinking we had somehow, the two of us, conjured the whole thing.

It wasn’t until later that I realized there, in my iPhone camera, in the big, wide view, the first black wolf is there. You can see him!

Not at all a ghost: opaque, pricked ears, that wild tail.

 

Meat

8/28/2012

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Image courtesy of (c) Timothy C. Mayo
Seasons have sharp edges in western Wyoming. These days, it's all about firewood and hunting, making plans to provision for winter. In our family, we have the firewood-gathering down pat. But the hunting, that's another story. Both of us grew up in the milder confines of the suburbs, a BB gun was about as rough as things got and meat was something scored from an occasional McDonald's visit, or popped out of a package on the nights my mom wasn't making her "delicious chicken"--a thawed breast covered in Mrs. Dash and broiled to a dry puck of a thing. S's mom fancied simmering her meat in various Campbell-soup bases.

Some of my dearest friends are not just vegetarians, but animal rights' vegans, which means animal products anywhere on, in, or near their persons are verboten. I admire almost to the point of envying the discipline and conviction behind such a statement and wrestle with feed lots, the unethical treatment of furred and feathered sentient beings and all the rest, but I am nowhere near as restrained to make such a choice a reality in my life. Plus, my body just does better when it can run on what it needs. And many times, that's meat.

The other night we had friends over. The kids played while the adults talked about adult things, like business time, and the funny things the kids come up with and how to respond. Things like "What does beef taste like, elk or buffalo?"

See, their kids have been raised on mostly all wild meat. But this year, they've gone halvsies on a steer from a local rancher: "Imagine, grass fed organic beef for less that $1 pound." My Venice Whole Foods-shopping friends quiver at the very idea.

More hunting talk and I learn that another friend in common has already got her bison for this year. "She went out before dawn on opening day, called Tag-and-Drag and it's done."

That friend was 37 weeks pregnant. She had her baby ten days later. The bison isn't even processed yet.

So now we're looking for someone to go in halvsies on a steer. "$1 a pound. Even with a license, I don't think we can beat that deal," S tells me. See, he's about as excited, not to mention willing, as I am to shoot a beautiful large game animal.

Which means that now all we'll have to do is order the deep freezer.

 
 
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E and I talk a lot about death these days. It must be a four-year-old thing. And while we said goodbye to her cranky-beloved granddog two weeks ago, it was this old mess o'bones that made the entire life cycle a bit more tangible in her eyes.

We found it, like all great discoveries, by accident, exploring a special place near our home, tinder-dry grasses scratching our flip-flopped feet, eyes peeled for random spiky thistle tops sure to bring a halt to the day's adventure. The coloring looks more like a ring-tailed cat, which we don't have in western Wyoming, at least according to the experts. Raccoons have blacker tail bands and the skull is so long that it doesn't look like either of the above really, or a housecat, which would be another plausible guess given the size.

One of the things I love the most about where we live is how one minute the place seems so civilized and genteel and the next, this. (Just like middle-of-the-night coyote howls I heard last week in Brentwood.) The contrasts, animal wildness rubbing against human efforts to tame it, are everywhere, and even seemingly humdrum suburban backyards yield the greatest of finds. Just ask E. O. Wilson.

Children are especially fine lamplighters of these discoveries, if their unadulterated curiosities aren't squelched by the very adult ridiculousness of labeling things as "gross", "disgusting", "nasty" or "filthy"--any of which these things may actually be.

We made it home before dark with just one thing to add to her collection: a chunk of vertebrae that E can hold up to the small of my back, understanding how we are put together, and what it looks like when that's all that's left.