Once, after a public reading of pieces from my In a Heartbeat chapbook, I was left sputtering in reaction to a question, “What made you write poems about animals?” The reasons, I thought, should have been obvious, especially to someone who’s embraced Buddhist teaching. I didn’t know where to start. How could I even discuss an incredible weeklong conference I’d once attended, the Power of Animals, hosted by Copper Canyon Press at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, Washington, with Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Howard Norman, and David Lee among its luminaries?
I’d had a similar reaction to a quarterly editor who dismissed five of my elk poems as “disgusting” paeans to hunting in her rejection. I still think she missed the point, as you can determine for yourself in Elk Matter, the opening section of my new collection, Bright Sweet Crude.
Nearly eradicated from the wilderness of the Cascade Range, elk have returned in force, an emblem of a restored ecological balance in which hunters, as conservationists, did indeed play a crucial role. The ones I knew, for the record, were anything but gun-toting fanatics.
Typically, when you first enter a forest, you see very few animals. Maybe a squirrel or two in the shadows, and then flitting birds. It’s mosquitoes or other insects, mostly. You might as well be looking for fish. Even in a desert, where the range is wide open, this happens. Pay attention, though, and they appear, albeit largely second-hand – a snap or cracking branch, the cry of a blue jay or crow, the high-pitched exuberance of peepers in spring, the work of beavers, a feather on the trail, a tuft of fur caught in a snag, the small tunnel opening of a den, a pile of bone, a curl of snakeskin. Tracks and scats, especially. To say nothing of roadkill, along the highway.
Thus it was in my initial forays into the high country west of Yakima, where I was puzzled by deer-like pellets and tracks everywhere in the undergrowth. In time, I learned how widespread elk had become again, after being decimated a century earlier – and how crucial hunting and fishing organizations were to the conservation efforts. Although I neither hunt nor fish, I came to respect those who do so with a sense of humility and admiration. At the office, especially, Jim Gosney and Wayne Klingle told of intimate encounters in the field, while others, speaking of the occasions when they’d eaten the meat, could have been describing a sacramental meal. Heard their derision and disgust, too, regarding others who come only for slaughter. Heard, too, that the best places to observe elk were at the back of the Rez, south of town – an area off-limits to all but tribal members and their guests.
That understanding was only a small step from timeless Amerindian lore, the insights and practices arising where survival or death hung in the balance. Even before my move west, I had begun running across these stories, however haphazardly; by now, the Native American myths directly touched me in ways I found more compelling than the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies that fill so much of our literature. More pressing, in fact, than the Hindu and Buddhist stories I’d devoured before heading west. My poems “If a Man Goes Wild” and “True Practice” both draw on this trove, even if some poetic license is applied; besides, the stories themselves no doubt become varied as they pass from one locality and time to another. Here, though, the animals are no longer inferior creatures but can speak and interact in equality with humans.
From this perspective, whether we’re considering elk, moose, or bear, the reappearance of large wildlife expresses not only a healthy forest or range, but a healthy society as well. I cannot think of elk without also thinking of what’s been lost and is being lost from the North American continent. Recently, returning to my native Ohio in winter, I looked across the shorn corn and soybean fields and realized how impossible it is to imagine the endless forest my ancestors entered, when elk and wolves and Indians were still present – nor the ecological catastrophes that followed in their first years after.
For me, elk are an emblem of what I learned living in the foothills of central Washington state. Here, then, are moments when the intimacy resumes, one way or another. Elk matter, indeed.
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