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Shadow Mountain
A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman, and the Wild
Written by Renee Askins

Shadow Mountain
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Category: Nature
Imprint: Anchor
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: January 2004
Price: $16.95
Can. Price: $18.95
ISBN: 978-0-385-48226-4 (0-385-48226-4)
Pages: 336
Also available as an eBook.


EXCERPT

 
One

On this cold night

winter's last rally

rakes across the fledgling breast

of spring like claws. The last white bear

turns, hungering,

northward.

We put on layers of sweaters again

and light a circle of lamps

deep in the heart of the house. But

we are restless, keep listening.

You are the first to get up.

You pace a few silent steps

then go. Upstairs I find you

perched at the window,

an early stork

staring from the slender chimney

of your bones down

at icy slivers of teeth

slicing into tender garden growth.

Without thinking why

we gather the afghans

and carefully fold our long limbs

down into them.

With a soft ritual clicking of bills,

necks twining, wings rising,

we begin

the ancient migration

back to the place

of our birth.

"storks,"

marcia casey


My first memories are of meadows. Evening meadows, when the sun's honey-warm rays turned the long grasses and birch borders into an enchanted and radiant secret. It is the light I mostly remember, when the dark was seducing the day and the shadows would flicker and splinter in a spectacle of courtship. It was the hour of whimsy and expectation. Perhaps it was the melon light that beckoned the deer. They emerged like druids from the forests, miragelike in the tall shimmering grass, unable to resist those last lingering moments of summer sunlight to warm their shadow-cooled backs.

My mother would count them. Two, three, four, ten, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. My older sister Robin and I would listen and watch, two small daughters perched beside their mother on the liver-colored seat of a plump black Volkswagen Bug. There was no television in our remote cottage in the Thunder Bay State Forest of northern Michigan, and my father had to travel for his work, leaving my mother in the silence of those white pine forests for days at a time.

That's how the summer evenings of my early childhood passed, our Volkswagen parked alongside some meadow, with its nose edged into the tall summer grass like a huge Lab sniffing the dirt, with my mama counting the deer. It's also how I learned to count, but for years I would be confused about what numbers really followed others because my mother's voice would drift off at fourteen or thirty-seven, like the sun slipping behind a darkened cloud into some secret shadowed place that concealed the loneliness of a young mother, and then suddenly her voice would reemerge brilliant and warm on twenty-six or forty-three. I doubt that it mattered to her how many deer there were, the numbers were only a mantra to give order to the loneliness, to arrange an eternal evening according to a knowable rhythm. Occasionally she would remark on how large a fawn had gotten, or on the limp of a doe, but mostly she would just count, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty . . . and the light would fall and her voice would trail off and the deer would slip back into the shadows.

It was in this way the wild would be made intimate, the outside wariness transformed into some sort of interior attentiveness. In my early childhood I unconsciously absorbed the notion of reciprocity--the idea that as we enter the realm of animals, offer our presence, and bear witness to the lives of creatures, they in turn offer their own gifts, their own example and accompaniment through the loneliness of our human existence. For millions of years animals lived without humans, but we have never lived without animals. Edwin Muir said, "Long before man appeared on earth he existed as a dream of prophecy in the animal soul."

Even four decades later those early images of long grasses and the arch of evening light, the silhouettes of deer melting into a darkened border of shadowed trees, the comfort and caress of my mother's voice, and the warmth of my sister's body pressed against me illuminate my life like moonlight through stained glass. Partly due to the clarity of hindsight and partly because the power of my childhood experiences with the wild still resonates in my life today, I have grown to appreciate how important, how formative, childhood contact with the natural world can be. It is the foundation that is laid by early interactions with the wild that give us an understanding of "otherness," and a context beyond one's self. Early contact with animals and wild places can help to develop a matured empathy and capacity for human relationships, for our connection with a sense of place and landscape, all of which are critical to the unfolding of our personalities and our feelings of belonging to a greater planetary community of creatures, places, and people.

As I believe in the power of wildness and wild things to guide us, so have I come to believe in the importance of place and its potency in our lives. I feel with certainty that everything follows from place, that place makes us who we are, that landscape carves out a certain character and community, and that ultimately the places in which we choose to live govern the unfolding of our lives. And so it was, nearly thirty years after leaving Thunder Bay National Forest, I would discover a place that provided a counterpoint, an adult analogue, to the enchantment of those lovely Michigan meadows. For ten years I lived there with my lover, and came to cherish it. It was my shelter, my solace, my home. It was a place called Shadow Mountain.

Our little log house nestled into a stand of aspens at the base of the mountain like a child leaning into the soft folds of a young mother's skirts. Shadow Mountain was a sensuously curved goddess of a mountain in comparison to the hard-lined granite pinnacles encircling our valley in northwest Wyoming. The forests of pine and aspen that draped down her gentle slopes fell like long unruly tresses, spilling from her shoulders into the sage meadows at her base in a resplendent cascade of arboreal curls and crescents. She stood like a solemn guardian behind the north shoulder of our home, her shadow engulfing us at dawn. As the sun rose behind her it first lit the western horizon of the Tetons, enveloping the peaks in shades of coral and crimson. Cascading down the dim slopes, the sunlight raced toward us across the hazel meadows of Antelope Flats like a wave of radiance. We would often sit drinking our morning tea as the dawn light melted the lingering pool of darkness around us, ushering in the day.

Our little compound at Shadow Mountain, which was comprised of our home, a few tiny cabins, sheds, and an old barn, had become a gathering place for wild animals, from badger to bald eagle, coyote to curlew. Fifty yards from our door the bison had created massive wallows which in time had became watering holes. Except at the height of winter, it was rare for a day to pass without having at least one and often several hundred bison drift through the yard. Sometimes during rut they would gather for days, their rutting growls so deafening it was impossible to sleep, a circumstance only made worse by their habit of rubbing on the log ends of the house, which made it rock like a boat in a storm. A weekly chore, listed between vacuuming and emptying the garbage, was the cleaning of bison snot off the plate-glass windows where the ever-curious bovines stared in and the slightly anxious hominids stared out. Our animal visitors included mule deer, an occasional moose with a gangly legged calf, black bears, a few grizzlies, weasels, once a great gray owl, ravens, coyotes--the list reads like a passenger manifest for the Ark. During the spring and fall migrations there were large gatherings of antelope and herds of elk that numbered in the thousands. The winter before we left the wolves arrived, but therein lies the story to come.

The place was aptly named. There I was forced to confront and accept the dark side of the wild, a concept that seldom clouded my Michigan childhood. The luminosity and grace of Shadow Mountain's wildness were matched by her ferocious darkness, harshness, and isolation. Glorious nights of falling stars were countered by wildfires that almost swept away our home. The delights of gentle summer evenings, being lulled to sleep by the songs of coyotes and awakened to a dazzling morning by the clatter of sandhill cranes, were often forgotten in the hardship of subzero temperatures and blizzards that shut us off from the world for weeks at a time.

Living at Shadow Mountain taught me about both "the nature of shadow" and "the shadow of nature." Recognizing and embracing the darkness that accompanies light is at the heart of understanding the wild. During the time I lived at Shadow Mountain I gave my heart to working for wolves and the wild. When I left there I discovered how Shadow Mountain had given me the wild wisdom of its heart.

Two

The future enters into us,

in order to transform

itself in us, long before it happens.

rainer maria rilke

I will start in the middle, because often it is in the middle that we see that there is an emerging shape to things, that there was at some point a beginning, that events are unfolding toward a still uncertain end. The thread of life bends back over itself, and connections are made. In the midst of the amorphous flow of daily events we sense patterns beginning to form, we realize there is a resonance to certain things that went before, and try to peer through the murk to discern the shape of what is to come.

Just as the faint dawn rays pierce the lingering dark of an interminable April night, I awaken to the snuffling, searching wet muzzle of a six-day-old wolf puppy burrowing under my chin. Cramped and aching, I lift my head up from the long wooden plank that forms the desk at which I'd been working, and over which I'd slumped into a guilty sleep. With mild dismay I notice I've drooled all over the papers strewn across the desk's well-worn surface, carved and stained over the years to a comforting patina. Natasha, the mouse-size wolf puppy, had been asleep on the frayed remnants of a favorite Egyptian cotton towel wound and plumped into a sumptuous, albeit thread-worn and frayed pastel nest at the corner of the desk.

Sometime in the night the puppy had abandoned the cotton bowl I had painstakingly created, and instinctively scuttled across the plank to nestle into the cranny of my sleeping chin. She had been awakened by the sound of her own pack stirring and stretching outside the little shack we occupied. The sounds of canine reveille were broadcast inside our glass-sided hut by a sophisticated system of microphones mounted throughout the one-and-a-half acre enclosure surrounding us.

Bleary and sleep-clumsied, I reach for my thermos of warmed Esbilac, an infant animal formula, and a tiny nursing bottle. Now fully awake, Natasha's wee body is squirming and rooting in a frantic nipple-search, and I struggle to hold her and fill the narrow-necked bottle simultaneously. After dipping my little finger in the formula to check its temperature, I offer her the fingertip, which she latches on to, sucking voraciously while I attempt to pour the creamy substance into the bottle with the other hand. Inevitably, it spills and warm milk spreads across the drool-smeared ink on my once neat pages of data. I curse; the art of combining science and suckling surpasses my capacities. I grab the beloved towel to mop up, remembering at that moment to flip the switch which turns on red-tinted lights in the enclosure. The scene outside, bathed in the warm merlot glow of the red bulbs, is dreamlike. I stop to stare. Natasha, still attached to my little finger, doesn't. Barely discernible long-legged wolf silhouettes unfurl from shallow hollows of cool earth. The alpha male stands and bows, his rump arched high and front legs locked in a long stretch that curves his belly in a furry crescent, echoing the silver moon's shallow smile in the dawning night sky behind him. Scratching and scuffling noises fill the hut, followed by the canine meow-grumble of an early morning yawn.

As Natasha greedily gulps and suckles at the tiny bottle, I watch her pack moving around us outside the hut. I can make out the great pendulum swings of the yearling wolves' lowered tails sweeping wide suspended arcs as they crowd the alpha male in their morning greeting rites. The rest of the pack rises stiff-legged and dew-damp to join the yearlings, forming the canine version of a football huddle. I hear the snuffles and high-pitched whines, the hushed swish of hair rubbing hair as the wolves lean into each other and brush past one another like courting cats.

I have come to think of these greeting ceremonies as part of the grace of this wild creature's habits; called "rallies" by behaviorists, they precede most activities of consequence within a wolf pack: waking, hunting, leaving, returning, reunion of almost any sort. In this ancient and wild canine culture, ritual marks the intricacies of bonding and surviving. We humans are not unlike them--witness our snuggling, squirreling behavior with our lovers in the early dawn. Our kisses, hello and good-bye, our hugs and hovering and hand-holding, our calling out and coming out and letting go and leaving. The ritual of greeting and parting is woven through both canid and human species.

I had been guiltily fighting to stay awake for the last few hours as the wolves slept. Obviously I had failed. I am awed that even at six days old, blind and still deaf, this small creature demonstrated such sensitivity to the stirrings of her own kind and, thankfully, had awakened me. Was it the speaker vibrations? Scent? I don't know, but I'm relieved that the wolves are up, putting an end to the monotonous waiting. Throughout most of my watch the wolves had been inactive, making the night's long hours stretch endlessly. As I tumble into the day I can't help but mimic their languorous stretching and yawning, settling back in at the observation table, Natasha now in a sling hung from my shoulder, to record what I see and wonder at what I don't.

I am a college student, recently arrived at this wolf research facility to complete my undergraduate thesis. This part of my job is to record the interactions and individual activities of the different pack members on an ethogram, essentially a catalog of behaviors detailed enough to record interesting behavioral anomalies and specific individual interactions between the wolves. My low student standing assures me the graveyard observation shift. Although the hours are exhausting, I love the early morning solitude. Watching the wolves awaken and play in the predawn light, courting and tackling each other, makes this the premier observation period.


From the Hardcover edition.





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