Fauna and Flora, Earth and Sky Brushes with Nature's Wisdom By Trudy Dittmar University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2003 Trudy Dittmar
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-87745-872-2 Chapter One Pronghorn
TO KIRSTEN DEHNER
It was a good-sized band, considerably larger than any I'd ever seen before. That was all that struck me as unusual about the antelope when I first spotted them. We were on our way out from a camping trip in the forest, in open country for the first time in a week and driving straight at the blaze of sunrise, when I caught a squinting glimpse of them not too far back from the Forest Service road. Since so far in our travels K had seen just a few small bands of pronghorn, and those at a distance, I pulled up for her to get a good look at them.
The size of the band seemed impossible. It looked to be fifty strong. In winter, all pronghorns - does, fawns, and bucks of every age and sexual status - join in large herds, and at that time it's not unusual to see a hundred antelope together now that they're coming back strong in this part of the state. But this was not winter, and the pronghorn had not yet formed herds. This was just the end of September, the heart of the rutting season, a time when they were still moving in small segregated bands - bachelor bands of young males or bands comprising an older buck and his harem of does. Eight does were generally considered a good-sized harem for a buck, but it seemed to me it would take about twice that many, each with her offspring of one to three fawns, to make up a band of such heroic proportions as this. In a grassy field at the foot of red badlands, they stood in tawny clusters, their white bars and patches flashing in the early sun.
* * *
Back then, if you'd asked me, I'd have complained that in Wyoming pronghorn antelope went unappreciated. Their elaborate, curious beauty goes largely unheeded here, and at a knotty juncture in my life I was peculiarly stung by this. Of course, the reason is just that there are so many of them. They're like the magpie and the fireweed. If a local cowboy were to see a bird with the magpie's plumage and stature in a tropical jungle, I'd bet he'd ooh and aah and snap fifty pictures. But in Wyoming the sight of magpies is so familiar the accustomed viewer just doesn't see the green-ember glow of their feathers anymore, or the sleek, bold cut of their tails, and so instead of an admiring gasp at the electric white flash in their wingbeats, all magpies get is disparaged as scavengers. As for fireweed, favoring soil that's been burned, or ravaged by human activities like logging, and finding such soil in abundance in this part of the state, they're snubbed for being so common, seen as weeds instead of as stately tall-plumed fuchsia flowers. The old "familiarity breeds contempt" law is all that's at work here, nothing more, but that was one of a few truths of life I was having trouble swallowing back then.
Once in a saloon, its decor an array of taxidermy common in Wyoming bars, I stood looking up at the head of a big pronghorn. "Funny looking stunkers, ain't they?" an old cowboy said. "All painted up like that and them big eyes bulging out, I always thought they looked like a clown."
I thought the white bars on the throat were beautiful. Ditto, the rectangular white side patches, the white rump, and the big luminous eyes. It was bewildering to hear pronghorns called clowns. The first day I ever entered Wyoming, the first animal I saw was a pronghorn, on a rise by the road in the afternoon sunlight, looking down on the cars going by. Their hairs are hollow, against brutal plains winters. The fastest creature in the Western Hemisphere, they run like the wind.
The first settlers must have been dazzled by the spectacle of the pronghorn, but now they get called clowns and goats, a fact which bears witness that an everyday spectacle is a contradiction in terms, and that no matter how rare a thing is in the world at large, and how marveled at there, its beauty fades in everyday eyes. Be that as it may, back then, if you'd asked me, I'd have had pretty bitter words for this state of affairs, but the heated way I deplored it was probably extreme. After all, what did the pronghorn, or the magpie or the fireweed, know or care if their beauty should fade in some human's eye? If I found this situation so poignant, it was probably just an oblique way of singing some personal blues. I was entering a new season then, and something of my own was fading, something which at that stage of the game I identified as my "looks," and so the disappearance of beauty, real or imagined, or even just in the beholder's eye, was a thorny issue for me.
* * *
It was a big band all right, but as it turned out, that was not the most striking thing about it. There was something going on in their midst that we hadn't picked up from the road. The band fell into two main groups, a large crowd of scattered does and fawns to the west, up to forty maybe, and about four hundred yards to the east of them a smaller bunch, this apparently of does only, perhaps eight or nine in all. Normally they would be ambling about browsing, but they weren't. Instead both groups were focused on a spot midway between them, where two bucks labored in combat.
As if fused head to head, they moved as one entity, like one drunk, multilimbed, tawny body staggering back and forth, side to side, in the middle of the field. First the westernmost part of the body was back-stepping, driven by the easternmost part, and then, the tables turned, the western half would be the one pushing forward, and the eastern half, hind legs angling sharply in an attempt to hold footing, would have a turn at stumbling backwards for a while. Sometimes when both bucks managed to hold ground at the same time, they sashayed to one side and the other together, like an eight-legged creature in an awkward angular dance, until finally one of them lost his footing and they started backward and forward again.
For a while it was exciting. I'd never seen a pronghorn fight at close range before, and at no range had I seen one like this. The few I'd watched had been brief, a matter of swift admonishment and flight, but this one was long and tangled and vivid. The morning sun broke the horizon. The frost melted along the fence rails. Against the eroded red spires of the badlands the bucks toiled and toiled, as the rest of the band looked on. It was a nice piece of luck that we'd happened upon it, I thought while it lasted. A fine spectacle of nature for K to see.
* * *
An old friend from back East, K had come out to kick me up a little after a situation of mine had flopped. An intense situation of three years, with a man nearly half my age. My old friends had never grasped the attraction. " What are you doing with a guy half your age?" they said. But my new friends, the ones I met only after I was with him, didn't seem to have a problem with it. After all, I looked young when I met him, and felt it, and I still looked and felt young three years later when we went down in flames. Some months afterward, though, one particularly bad day I glanced in the mirror and I didn't look the same anymore. I looked again, and again, trying to see what I was used to seeing, trying to get it right, but it wouldn't come.
"We turn corners," K said on the phone, from New York. Coiled up, tail a-rattle, I said baloney to that. I was temporarily derailed by this break-up, was all; in a few months I'd get my old stuff back. In fact, once out of sight of him (the hard, smooth-skinned rounds of his shoulders; the cords standing up in his arms) I saw pretty clearly that my lost beau and I had been on mightily different wavelengths. Day by day I worked back into my old life, slowly working him out of my blood, and as far as he went, I can say that in a few months I was making good progress at getting back on track. And I was out in the hills almost daily, getting my color back. Certain days, in the mirror, I would note this color, and I would note other things, too: I had the same cheekbones as ever; I was as straight-nosed as before. So, what had changed then? What was the tragedy? Could just some lines around my eyes be the source of this dire leaden pool spreading in my chest?
Whatever it was, I still couldn't shake the mirror business. I was either nagging at it for the image it threw me or avoiding it, but never at home with it anymore. Sometimes there was an annoying frustrated feeling, like beating your fists on a wall. Sometimes there was something chilling, unbearable, that I wanted to run from fast. "How about I come out for a while," said K. I said no, she should come next summer, as we'd planned. "It's just some weird vanity trip I'm on, for some reason. No big deal," I said. But K came anyway.
* * *
As the sun mounted from orange to yellow, the bucks kept at it, scrambling backward and forward, legs bent at distressing angles, hooves jabbing into the clay. Heads tossing in unison, they grappled from side to side. Because they moved as a unit, while it went on the object of our watching was only the fight. But then they broke, turned their backs to each other and moved apart, one east, one west, and at that point the object of our watching became the fighters instead of the fight. It was a shocking moment. They seemed so unevenly matched. By the looks of them, it seemed a threat from one should have sufficed to send the other packing, no need for a fight, much less one as long and tough as this.
The one for whom it seemed a threat should have sufficed was lean, almost spindly, and small enough that if it weren't for the cut of his horns, I'd have taken him for a doe. His opponent was by far the more robust and regal. A tawny bulk, heading into the morning sun, his white bars were gleaming, and his black horns were polished with light. Broad of chest and barrel, and wide of skull, he had such big horns it looked like just one of them might fill both my hands at its base, and the points of their boldly forked prongs were so deeply hooked we could discern their little curls at 150 yards.
But what we also discerned was that the big buck was in trouble. Two hundred yards is a distance to hear such a thing, but we could hear the sound of his breathing, a high-pitched rasping, and then we noticed his sides, the big white rectangular patches heaving so hard it looked like his heart was going to burst. The spindly buck had jogged jauntily to the west end of the field where he stood with the large group of does, but the big buck moved only haltingly eastward, in a series of starts and stops. Facing into the gaze of the smaller harem, he stood wheezing laboriously. Then he stretched his neck out straight and almost to the ground and in a fit of gasping and coughing lost all his elegance.
When he came upright again, though, he headed straight for the little bunch of does. He jerked his head up, high and stiff, and moved quickly and sharply, his effort forced but focused, to round up this remaining lot. For less than a minute they let him. Then while three stood fast, still acquiescing to his worthiness, the other five or six dodged south around him and took off toward the large group to the west.
The scrawny buck, lord of the group they ran to, had not so much as cocked a front leg. He just stood looking out as they came over to him, as he'd done earlier when all the scattered does had flowed in from afield, tightening the band around him as if to be close to his power. The big buck swerved back to catch the fleeing does, but they were long gone, and the instant they joined the large group, the little buck dashed out at him again.
It didn't last long this time. In not much more than a minute the big buck turned away huffing strenuously. Still, he wouldn't throw in the towel. He made a quick recoup of wind and then, ready to cut his losses and accept what was left, he darted eastward again toward the handful of does at that end of the field. He wasn't to have even that, though. The last three took off too, streaking to join the rest of the band, leaving the big buck behind in the empty end of the field.
He looked regal to us, but his inside no longer matched his outside, and if we couldn't see this, the does could. With his fine head, his bold bars, and the eloquent points of his horns, he might cut the same grand figure he had all the years all his does had entrusted themselves to him, but they knew something in him had changed. He'd passed out of the season of prowess for which they had known him. It was time to find home elsewhere.
Slowly, the compact, focused mass the band had formed while watching the fight began to spread out, as the does and fawns returned to their browsing. As they drifted westward away from him, the big buck made a few purposeful looking strides in their direction. He stopped, watched, then made a few more purposeful looking strides. The little buck glanced back over his shoulder at him once or twice, but that's all - he didn't even bother to threaten - and after another few steps, successively more tentative, big buck stopped. For what seemed a long while, he stood and watched as the band meandered back toward the badlands, till all you could see of them was a dotting of white rumps against red buttes. When he turned east again, I felt a pain beyond all reason. He blurred in my sight as he picked his solitary way through the field toward the sun.
* * *
Back in the jeep, as K spouted a flurry of reactions to what we'd just seen, I thought of another time, showing this country to another friend, Jan, then new to Wyoming as K was now. On our drive up the mountainside home her first evening here, the sky was a panorama of weathers. To the northeast, across the valley, it was nighttime, the sky black with storm and pulsing with lightning over the mountains there. More than fifty miles distant, their round peaks flashed hard-edged every matter of seconds against silver sky, and sheets of rain hung in grey smudges over the plain below. To the southeast it was still daytime, the air placid and temperate, the sky clear, and the rising moon looked insubstantial against it, translucent even, a frail white disk on pale blue. To the west the sun was descending, a half hour to go yet, in a pale glowing sky of indeterminate color, yellow with pink in it, yellow with green in it, peach/lemon-lime/tangerine - all of these colors yet none of them either, a color just outside the grasp of mind's knowing. Trying to label it got you right-on-the-edge-of-your-tongue frustrated. A color without a name.
When we rounded the switchback at eight thousand feet we could see all these weathers, these colors, these risings and fallings, all at once all these processes and effects of atmosphere. Jan jumped down from the jeep and stood at the edge of the gravel. A sage-covered slope dropped steeply before her and hills capped with stands of black trees rolled beyond. She stood watching the storm as it drifted along the horizon. She watched the distant black mountains slowly turn gold. She looked long at the storm and the moon and the pending sunset, turning and turning from one to another. "If you could grow up here -" she said from the road's edge. "It teaches you you can get through it," she said.
It teaches you you can get through it, if there's a way through it, I thought that morning of the antelope. But sometimes there's not a way through it, and when there's not, it teaches that too.
* * *
"Can you beat it!" K said. "That beautiful big creature had that whole herd stolen away by that little puny thing."
That was how we both felt it, although we had no grounds for feeling that way. We hadn't seen the fight from the beginning, didn't know how the does and fawns had been grouped at the start. It could have been that the little buck had his own harem to start with, maybe even the larger of the two, and coming upon the big buck with a harem of seven or eight decided to try to annex a couple more to his band. Given the size of the band it was much more likely, in fact, that it had been two bands at the start and not one as we had for some reason assumed. We were anthropomorphizing like crazy, projecting elements of human melodrama onto the scene. The "beautiful big creature" and the "little puny thing" were in fact not the handsome (and supposedly therefore deserving) hero and the worthless upstart we made them out to be, but instead an old buck, just going over the hill, and a healthy young comer, just starting out. And nobody'd "stolen" anything. They'd had a fair fight, and the does always picked the true winner, the one whose victory proved his worth. It didn't matter what he looked like. And it didn't matter that one ended up with nothing while the other got it all. That was how things kept going. A wildlife biologist might have had a good laugh over us. A couple of cornballs sucked in by the handsome hero stuff of old movies, imposing sentimental morality and trivial theatrics on a simple case of nature taking its course.
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