Originally published at Substack, 11/2/2020
Hank has been carrying this elk bone around on our morning walk most of the week. He’ll hide it, then find it again, then hide it someplace else.
It’s one of the things that surprises people, how many bones there are. The outdoors here is full of bones. We live among one of the largest herds of wild ungulates left, and eventually, each of them dies.
Just last week, we rented a Forest Service cabin for a couple of nights. On the way home, we stopped so Himself could check out a side stream. I was behind him when we smelled it. A gut pile. A large rib cage. An elk. He turned, waved to me to keep the dog off. Later, he said he thought it was a grizzly kill. We were maybe 25 feet off the road. Someone had taken the head already. No antlers.
Usually, the bones are from less dramatic events. Animals just die, or hunters kill them. The elk bone Hank has been carrying around is from one of 2 skeletons at the beginning of our walk, elk that seem to have been poached several years back. Wasted. There’s a reason that’s an offense out here. You’ll lose your hunting rights for life. You can go to jail.
It’s Dia de los Muertos as I write this. A day of bones. A day of festive skeletons. A day when we lay out altars, cook our beloved dead their favorite food, try to feel them through the veil. This year, it feels like there are so many hungry dead. All those who have died in the pandemic. All the funerals we haven’t had. I watched my first Zoom funeral last week. My first childhood friend. My running buddy. We were the two oldest and for several years we ran the world together, bossing our younger brothers and neighbors, making the rules for all the games. I haven’t seen him in years, although I stay in his parents’ house when I’m “home.” He’s on my altar this year, as are my brothers, both of them. There’s Denny, who I led trips with and who I loved in my teens and twenties. There’s Gail and Mme. Chau, the mother and mother-in-law of my oldest college friend, the one who has lived in Taiwan all these years. Women I loved, both of them. We have at least three in our social circle here in town, friends who died but for whom we’ve not been able to have funerals. It wasn’t COVID, but COVID meant we couldn’t come together, couldn’t bring food, couldn’t wake them at the Elk’s club with booze and speeches. We’re good at this here. It’s one reason I stayed after my brother died all those years ago — because the community came together, held me for years.
This morning, walking the dog down along the Yellowstone river, it was as beautiful as it ever is. Blue skies, white snow on peaks, rustling leaves, the reassuring sound of the river. I took a picture of Emigrant Peak to the south, the mountain that rises from the yard of Himself’s cabin, the mountain we watch through the skylight as we drink coffee in bed on mornings when we’re there. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Last time, I assuaged my fears by driving to Yellowstone the morning after the election. I went to see the bison. I went to sit among the bison, those enormous beasts, who our government tried to wipe out as part of their larger genocidal campaign against the indigenous people who lived here. The bison survived, but their gene pool is dangerously narrow, and the local cattle ranchers are still at war, still trying to keep the largest native ungulate confined to a mere 3000, locked in the Park and a few acres of grassy lowland just outside the Park. It’s the only animal managed not as wildlife, but as a type of cattle. Which is absurd. Nonetheless, they persisted.
When Himself and I first started dating, we were hunting mushrooms in the spring, up a drainage in the southern part of the Paradise valley. “Hey!” I said from atop what I thought was a small hill beside the stream. “There’s vertebrae up here. What is this?” Himself looked around, then started digging somewhat frantically below me. I was standing on the buried skeleton of a bison, a bison whose skull Himself dug up. It was huge, and very very heavy after being buried for who knows how long? Decades? Centuries? It’s a drainage where he’s found arrowheads, and chips. It would be a good place to trap a bison if you had to, if you were trying to kill it with hand weapons.
We have so much work to do, and so much damage to try to fix. This morning, as freaked out as everyone else, all I could do was look at that mountain shining to the south, and think about how the woods are full of bones because they are still, improbably, full of animals. We still have elk, and two species of deer, and antelope here. Elwood saw a moose cow and calf last week when he was hunting. He sent around the video. Improbably awkward creatures. We have bison and wolves, coyotes and foxes, mountain lions and bobcats. We have raccoons and skunks and generations of bunnies who live under the pallet on which the garbage can sits. We have bears. We have eagles both bald and golden, and hawks, and owls, and Sandhill cranes.
And so, this Dia de los Muertos, I’m going to decorate the photos of my beloved dead with the last of the calendula and marigolds from my garden. I’m going to try to stay off the doomscroller. I’m going to try to center myself, and ask my beloved dead to give me strength for what is to come.
May we all meet up on the other side of whatever we’re about to experience as a nation. May our better angels prevail.