a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
In 2014 I lost Fenton Johnson the Wolfhound—Mother’s Day weekend was his last—which, I know from experience, will make all the Mays from now on a little sadder.
Eleven years is a big number for an Irish Wolfhound, and Fenton had made excellent use of every one. I named him after my dear friend, the writer Fenton Johnson, and as Fenton the dog grew up, he revealed more and more ways the name was apt. Like Fenton the human, he was wise and reticent, the best kind of grandfather even when he was only middle-aged. He wasn’t big on asking for affection, wouldn’t wiggle up to you like a Black Lab or a Bernese Mountain Dog, wouldn’t even very often bump his head up under your resting arm for a pet. He preferred to sit nearby, keeping a loving and watchful and ever so slightly skeptical eye, as if the humans were always potentially on the verge of making a really bad decision, and he would be ready, in that case, to quietly intervene.
When Fenton was a young dog, he would bound through deep snow with an expression of such pure joy on his face it could make even a non-dog person laugh out loud. He would only drink water out of the very edge of a bowl, and only then with his top teeth pressing firmly against the metal rim. When he wanted something he would come over and scratch on the chair or the couch I was sitting on, as if it were the wrong side of a door. When he was happy—for instance, if I rose from a chair with a leash in my hand—he would wag his tail heartily, but when he was ecstatic, like when I came home after a week of working on the road, his tail would make huge happy circles, the scope of his happiness too big to be contained in a movement that only went from side to side.
To say Fenton was intelligent, to say he had a wider range of emotions than anyone I dated in my twenties and thirties is really to only scratch the surface of what a magnificent creature he was. He was the ranch manager, hyper vigilant but not neurotic, keeping his eye on everything—animals, people—making sure no one was out of sorts or out of place. Because of his watchfulness, he had perfected the art of anticipating what would happen next better than any person could have. He knew all of my tastes and my tendencies, and he was always ready to be of service in any undertaking—moving the sheep from one pasture to another, walking the fence line to look for breaks, riding into town to drop off the recycling, cheering me up on a sleepless night by resting his heavy head across one of my ankles, reminding me to get up from the computer after too many hours of writing and go take a walk outside.
This last year, though, the arthritis that first made itself known when he was about eight years old was getting severe. He’d been on Rimadyl—the canine version of Advil—for years. We had had good results from acupuncture, massage, and glucosamine chondroitin. Doc Howard had shelved his country vet skepticism to give a laser gun a try and had been surprisingly impressed with the results, using it on many patients for pain relief, as well as on his wife and himself. Once a week I loaded Fenton in the 4- Runner and we drove to Doc’s, donned our Keith Richards goggles (Fenton got some too) and Doc’s granddaughter gave Fenton six shots of laser light in his back end. Lately, even the laser gun treatments were reaching the point of diminishing returns.
I’d been away for a few days, in Boston, when I got the call from Kelly, my house-sitter, that Fenton was down and didn’t seem to want to get up anymore. A wolfhound isn’t meant not to be able to stand and walk around, however comfortable we might be willing to make him.
Months before, I had written on my calendar the following words, “This weekend keep free in case Fenton…,” and there was the old boy, as obliging as ever, doing everything, even dying, right on time. I flew to Denver immediately, and invited some of Fenton’s closest friends to the ranch for the weekend, knowing that in order to come, they would have to brave the predicted Mother’s Day blizzard during the five hour drive from the Front Range to the ranch.
In Boulder, at the Whole Foods, I bought dry-aged organic beefsteaks for everyone I thought might make it, plus a mountain of other groceries. I figured if we were going to be sad—and we were going to be sad—at least we were going to have good food to eat. When I selected the steaks, the Whole Foods butcher, whose name is Jerry (and whose dog’s name, I would learn later, is Gristle) took a lot of time and great pleasure describing the dry-aging process, and when I asked for six T-Bones, one for each of the potential guests and another for the old boy himself, Jerry said, “you must be having quite a party.” And since he had been so kind and thorough in his explanation, I said, “Well, what I am actually doing is having a kind of living wake for one of the best dogs who has ever lived, and I want to buy the very best for him, and for his friends who are making the drive up to my ranch in Creede to be with him.” Jerry lifted one of the massive T-bones off the top of the pile sitting on the scale.
“You should have said so to begin with,” he said, “In that case Fenton’s is on me.”
My friend Tami Anderson had a wonderful dog named Taylor who she was as deeply connected to, I believe, as I was to Fenton. I have loved all my dogs, of course, but there is the rare dog—I have had two so far in my life—that asked me to transcend my human limitations and be, at least occasionally, a little more evolved, like them. Fenton was such a dog, and so was Taylor. Taylor and Fenton were puppies together, and they loved each other truly all their lives. When Taylor was coming close to the end, she and Tami would often lie on the bed together and look into one another’s eyes. One day, Tami told me, almost in a whisper, they were in such a position, and Tami said, “Maybe next time, I’ll be the dog.”
But Tami couldn’t be there for Fenton’s weekend, and neither could my partner, Greg, so it turned out to be me and Kelly, and Linda, who had cared for Fenton so often over the last five years of his life he belonged to her nearly as much as he belonged to me. She had flown in from Reno and met me at the Denver airport and we had driven together. The storm had kept everyone else away.
The weekend was everything all at once. It rained and snowed and blew and eventually howled, and I slept out on the dog porch with Fenton anyway, nose to nose with him for his last three nights. The storm seemed to have been ordered especially for the old boy, who loved the cold and snow most of all, who hated the wood stove and preferred it when we kept the house in the 55-60 degree range, who all his life would literally raise a disapproving eyebrow at me the moment he suspected I was going out to chop kindling.
Linda and I gave him sponge baths and rubbed his face and ears until he didn’t want us to rub his face and ears anymore, and then we sat quietly beside him. I will admit to even loving cleaning him up, changing his dog beds, washing and drying him, fine tuning my attention to meet his every need.
When I could stand to tear myself away from him, I cooked—giant pots of soup and pesto and grilled vegetables and salad. I had no appetite but the kitchen was warm and smelled good whenever I walked into it. Fenton ate Jerry’s giant dry-aged t-bone in three sittings over two days and enjoyed the bone as much as I’ve ever seen him enjoy anything in his life, even though he’d mostly lost interest in other food by then. There were times I was sure we were doing exactly the right thing by Fenton, times I thought that if my last weekend could be like his, it would be better than pretty much anybody’s last weekend I had heard about in the history of the world. Other times, I was in a flat panic. How could I be trusted to make this decision? What on earth gave me the authority or the wisdom to decide when his quality of life had crossed over some determinate line? And all that aside, how would I live in a world without him, without his tender presence beside me, without his increasingly stiff rear end galumphing down the driveway to meet me, without his quiet vigilance as I sat in a chair and did my work?
Fenton was my seventh Irish wolfhound and my tenth dog overall. I was not new to being the decision maker, but no amount of times down this difficult road made it any easier. At one point I got myself so freaked out I thought maybe we would get in the car together—just him and me—and drive and drive and see if we could outrun death.
On Monday morning I saw he was getting the very beginning of tiny sores from sitting still for so long, and I knew Tuesday morning would have to be his last. My friend Kae called from Denver and said she had tried to make it on Sunday, but they had closed highway 285 because of black ice and so far it had not reopened. She asked me if I was okay, and I told her I was. I have always called Kae the moral center of my large and wonderful group of women friends, in part because she was raised by preachers, in part because she has so much backbone, but mostly because she has a remarkable way of orienting toward true north.
Kae and I have the same exact Prius—year and model—and when she pulled in the driveway ten hours later Fenton got more excited than I had seen him all weekend, even though I was sitting right there beside him. Like there might be two of me, and I might come home all over again and start caring for him as I already was. This was another unexpected gift of the weekend. How many hundreds of times had I seen Fenton at the bottom of the driveway, his tail going in giant crazy circles? But because I was always the one in the Prius I had never before witnessed that moment of recognition, the moment he became sure that car was my car. Who in your life has ever been that ecstatic over your arrival? Someone, I hope. Some living being.
But of course, it wasn’t a second me who got out of the Prius. It was Kae, and when he recognized her, he danced and danced, on his front legs only, because he loves her too, and he knew she had come to see him. As a culture, whenever we want to treat someone or something inhumanely, we declare they don’t have emotions, but anyone who thinks dogs don’t have emotions should have been on the porch that night in the snow.
Kae had driven ten hours in whiteout conditions, doubling the length of the drive. When I asked her if it was awful, she shrugged and said, “You never ever ask for help, so after we talked, I figured I needed to get here.”
I said, “I don’t think I asked for help this time.”
“Maybe not,” she said, “But you were close.”
We bedded down on the dog porch in sleeping bags under the swirling snow. She said, “You are doing the right thing, Pam. He’s not going to get better.”
I said, “It feels like a betrayal no matter what I do.”
And she said, “I don’t think betrayal is a word that belongs on this porch.”
I teach sometimes with the Colorado writer Laura Hendrie, and she gives a craft lecture on something she calls the Jaws-Of-Life character, the person who sweeps in and pulls your protagonist from the burning car just when it seems all hope is lost. Kae Penner Howell was my Jaws-Of-Life character that weekend. She came just when all my intrinsic strength and broad-minded philosophy about the cycle of life was about to fail me. She drove ten hours in a Prius on black ice to sleep on a hard wooden porch in a poorly rated sleeping bag with Fenton and me on his last night on earth.
I didn’t want to go to sleep because the hours were short now and I didn’t want to miss a minute. After we had been quiet a while, a coyote barked and another howled back from a greater distance. Before long and for the last time, Fenton joined their song.
A few hours later, when it was barely getting light, I lay nose to nose with him and petted his perfect ears and said, outloud, “You did such a good job, Fenton. You did such a good job taking care of me.” He looked right at me, right into me. He wanted me to know he knew what I was saying. “And I think you already know this,” I said, “but you don’t have to be afraid.” I didn’t know where those words came from—if it were me getting the shot in the morning, I sure as hell would be afraid—but I knew when I said them they were the most important ones. In the gathering light he looked in my eyes not with fear exactly, but urgency. He said, now it’s my turn to trust you and I said, you can.
An owl hooted, some geese honked, and Kae stirred in her sleeping bag. One of the lambs started baa-ing, Queeny, probably, the one with the higher voice. I heard Roany nicker softly, heard him walk around on the crunching snow. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of a woodpecker. All the sounds the ranch makes every morning.
Doc Howard came at ten am, through the snow, to give Fenton the shot. Doc is getting older and had told me he would be sending his granddaughter in his place, and I didn’t protest, though I know he heard the disappointment and fear in my silence, so I was unsurprised and very grateful to see his small grey head behind the wheel. When I saw he did not have the sedative most vets give initially, before they give the drug that stops the heart, he again heard my unasked question. Doc said, “What’s in this syringe is the world’s biggest sedative. I don’t like to mess around with lots of reactive drugs.” Fenton was calm—almost smiling—for the very few minutes it took to put him to sleep forever. I believe he knew what was happening. I believe he was ready to put his head down on my lap one last time.
Everybody cried, even sweet Jay, Doc’s brand new vet tech who had only met Fenton a couple of times. When I found my voice again, I told Doc the story about Jerry and the steaks, and he said, “Pam, it turns out there are a lot of really good people in the world.”
After we loaded Fenton’s body into Doc’s truck to be taken to the morgue for cremation, Kae and Linda and I took a pasture walk in his honor. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground, and the Rocky Mountain bluebirds who had returned recently hoping for better weather were almost too beautiful against the freshly whitened pasture to bear. The sun came out, and we fed all the equines apples and carrots from our hands.
Eight hours later I found myself back in the Denver airport which was full of opportunities to do the things I hadn’t found the time or the wherewithal to do all weekend: drink water, go to the bathroom, eat food. My plane was delayed two hours, and the corn chowder at Elway’s Bar tasted miraculous. I was riding on something I recognized as “having lived through the thing you thought you might not live through” adrenaline. I marveled at all the people around me who weren’t grieving, who had had a normal weekend with their families at home. I wasn’t sleepy exactly. It was more like the insides of my eyes had been scoured with a Brillo pad.
Fenton the human sent me a text saying Fenton the canine loved and was loved all his life, and there is no condition in all our living and dying that could be more satisfying. Months later he would write Fenton a eulogy that quoted both Thomas Merton (What we have to be is what we are) and Whitman (Life is the little left over from the dying), and saying, “Fenton the canine, was a teacher…he taught through the simple fact of being who he is, who he was…. In the losses lie the lessons…. if we would only embrace death as another aspect of life—if we would let the animals teach us how to live and how to die—we might just treat each other and our animals better than we do.”
As I waited for my plane I found myself thinking back, as I had many times that weekend, to Jerry at the Whole Foods pulling that steak off the top of the pile. He might have thought what he did was a small thing—though the price of those dry-aged steaks make it at least a medium thing, even by the most objective measure—but the relative magnitude of his kindness to me, at that moment, was frankly immeasurable—and I held onto it all weekend, and for the weeks of grief to come.
Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two ten-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. I hired a series of house-sitters to tend the ranch while I was gone, often former students who needed a place to finish a book. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and Xtra Tuffs for corduroy and linen. Twice yearly, I became a teacher who rode her bright yellow bike to school, who formulated sentences containing phrases like “contemporary fabulism” and “Paul Celoyn-esque,” who had regular meetings with the Dean and the Provost, and who usually brushed her hair for them. I read my colleagues’ books on Noir Cinema in a Post Colonial Age and Situatedness and spent a fair amount of time apologizing for my 4-Runner and the percentage of my clothes bearing sports logos.
In Creede, there is no movie theater and no drug store and no one who would ever use a phase like “Paul Ceylon-esque.” In Creede I talk to my neighbors about shrinking water tables and bingo at the Elks on Saturday night. When I go to the Monte Vista Co-Op to buy sealant to shoot into the water trough, and mineral licks, and big tubes of Ivermectin horse wormer and Carhartt overalls, I notice how different it is from the Davis Co-Op where I buy organic turmeric and homeopathic allergy medicine, and where people take their groceries home in environmentally friendly macramé nets. To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated, and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake, and far too earnest to even believe.
In Creede, people believe in hard work, the restorative power of nature, and, in many cases, God. What stands in place of belief within UC Davis English is something you might identify as extreme verbal agility and analytics. God has been replaced by literary theory, of course, which has rolled all the way over, in the seventeen years I have taught there, from Deconstruction to Marxism with brief side trips into Feminism and the Post Colonial. In Creede there is no need for literary theory of any kind because there is such an overabundance of things that are actual. Cold, for instance, sometimes minus fifty degrees of it, and wind and drought, and wildfires that can chew up ten thousand acres in a day.
When I began teaching at UC Davis, it was still the home of the poet Gary Snyder. It was then, and still is, one of the finest environmental literature departments around. But times change, and over the years the talk has changed from riprap and plate tectonics to cyberspace as environment, Prius commercials as representations of nature, the suburban lawn as (and here I quote) “a poetic figure for a space, or spacing, around or under figurality—The lawn therefore a figure for what is excluded in the idea of figure itself—the very substance and/as dimension in which figurality can emerge in itself.”1
My colleagues are brilliant, and so is their research, which proves to us, mostly, our own absurdity—tending our lawns, saving the earth with our Prii—the hollow chuckle aimed at ourselves. Departmental lectures focus on global systems and global currencies—the yen and the yuan hot topics in recent years. Last winter, a colleague taught a class in something called “distant reading.” Because I have spent half my life teaching close reading, when the grad students first told me about it, I thought it was a joke. But distant reading, according to the New York Times is “understanding literature not by studying particular texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
“It’s not actually done by people,” my student Becca told me. “You take a body of literature, say, all the books set in Paris from 1490 to 1940, plug them into a computer, and the computer can tell you how many mentions of the Pont Neuf there were.” It was, I understood, an attempt to repurpose literature. As if all beings are best understood only in terms of their aggregate, as if by making things less particular, one made them more powerful or clear.
I thought about the books that had shaped my sensibility as a young writer: A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Silent Spring, Sand County Almanac, Refuge, A River Runs Through It, In Patagonia and Desert Solitaire. When I asked my classes, as I did each quarter, how many people had ever spend a night sleeping in the wilderness there were diminishing numbers of hands these days, usually only one, or zero. For the first time in my teaching life I was finding myself standing in front of a room full of students for whom the words elk, granite and bristlecone pine conjured exactly nothing. Was it feasible, or even sane, anymore, to write unironic, non-dystopian books about the natural world?
One answer, of course, was no. My colleagues are realists. They understand as far as the earth is concerned, we are way past game over. In recent years, our government has launched what Robert Redford and others have called the most sweeping legislative attack on our environment ever. The earth is lost, and all that’s left is to study the simulacrums, the Man Versus Wild Video Games and Survivor. To write a poem about the loveliness of a newly leafed out aspen grove or a hot August wind sweeping across prairie grass or the smell of the air after a three-day rain in the maple forest might be, at best so unconscionably naive, and at worst so much part of the problem, we might as well drive a Hummer and start voting Republican. If we stand back for just a moment and think about what effort it has actually taken to destroy a whole planet that hadn’t even been correctly mapped a couple of hundred years ago, it really staggers the imagination. And now, as we head for the cliff, foot heavy on the throttle, doesn’t it seem pointless to write a poem about the essence of a tree? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe this is the best time there has ever been to write unironic poems about nature.
I have spent most of my life walking in nature, but for the last twelve months, I have been walking five miles a day, minimum, wherever I am, urban or rural, and can attest to the magnitude of the natural beauty that is left. Beauty worth seeing, worth singing, worth saving, whatever that word can mean now. There is beauty in a desert, even one that is expanding. There is beauty in the ocean, even one that is on the rise.
And even if the jig is up, even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally wounded at our hands. Aren’t we more complex, more interesting, more multifaceted people if we do? What good has the hollow chuckle ever done anyone? Do we really keep ourselves from being hurt when we sneer instead of sob?
If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the Earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness, we can still decide not to let her die alone.
I have always believed that if I pay strict attention while I am out in the physical world—and for me that often means the natural world—the physical world will give me everything I need to tell my stories. As I move through the world, I wait to feel something I call a glimmer, a vibration, a little charge of resonance that says, “Hey writer, look over here.” I feel it deep in my chest, this buzzing that lets me know this thing I am seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting on the outside is going to help me unlock some part of a story I have on the inside. I keep an ongoing record of these glimmers, writing down not my interpretation of them, not my imagined connection to them, not an emotional contextualization of them, but just the thing itself. Get in, get it down, get out and move on to the next glimmer. Then, when I have some time to write, I read through the glimmer files in my computer and try to find a handful that seem like they will stick together, that when placed in proximity with each other will create a kind of electricity.
I try to keep my big analytical brain out of this process as much as possible, because I believe my analytical brain at best only knows part of the story and at worst is a big fat liar. I believe—like religion—that the glimmer, the metaphor, if you will, knows a great deal more than I do. And if I stay out of its way, it will reveal itself to me. I will become not so much its keeper as its conduit, and I will pass its wisdom on to the reader, without actually getting in its way.
In addition to being my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.
On Memorial Day weekend, 2015, I drove the dogs back to the ranch after ten weeks in California. They were good sports about our time in Davis but there was no mistaking the smile on their dog faces when we crested the top of Donner Pass and got back over to the leash-less side of the Sierras. We stopped every four hours for walks along forest service roads or multi-use trails all the way across Nevada and Utah, but nothing is better than the first pasture walk back at the ranch.
On Sunday morning, we did what we call the large pasture loop, out to the back of my hundred and twenty acres and then over the style into the national forest, up Red Mountain Creek and across one edge of my neighbor’s twelve thousand acres, and then back down alongside the wetland and back over my fence again. It was me, William, Olivia, the pup, and the writer Josh Weil who would be watching the ranch for the next several weeks while I went off teaching in Vermont, Marin County and France.
We were nearly back to my fence line when we heard a high pitched cry, which I first thought was a red tail hawk, until it cried a few more times and I realized William had found himself a baby elk. We ran up the hill, called off William, and watched as the calf took a few sturdy steps and then settled back into the underbrush where she had been hiding. Satisfied she was unhurt, we went another 100 yards down the hill only to find a dead cow elk, the blood in the cavity still wet where the coyotes had pulled the guts out.
I tried to make the hole in the neck look like something other than an entry wound—the tooth of a coyote perhaps or the peck of the little known round-beaked vulture. I did not want to believe one of my neighbors would shoot a cow, illegally, at the peak of calving season, right here at the edge of my property where my horses spend summer nights grazing the edges of the wetland. I didn’t want to think anyone would shoot an animal for practice, for pleasure, and then leave the meat to spoil.
“That baby doesn’t have a chance,” Josh said, as we stared down into the cow’s pecked out eye, as we kicked at the wet grass that had been pulled out of her stomach. “It’s probably starving already.”
We both knew the rule of thumb was to leave abandoned calves alone; we also knew we might be in the presence of an exception. Those unspeakably long legs, those airbrushed spots, the deep brown eyes, and slightly pugged-up nose.
“I wish we hadn’t seen the cow,” I said, stupidly.
“I do too,” Josh said, “but we did.”
We were both thinking of the two rejected domestic lambs my previous house-sitter had been feeding, and the mudroom full of milk replacer. We were both looking at the sky, which had begun serving up one of Colorado’s famous May blizzards: the temperature was dropping, the snow was sticking, and the wind was starting to howl.
“Let’s take the dogs home,” I said, “and heat up some milk and bring her a bottle. If she is still here when we get back, if she lets us approach her, maybe you carry her back to the barn.”
We took our time getting the bottle. If her mother was still alive we wanted to give her plenty of space to react to the distress cries once we were out of there. We drove the 4-Runner around to the closest road access, so Josh would have to carry her 300 yards instead of 3000. We found her easily, and she blinked up at us sweetly, apparently unafraid. Maybe she was already too weak from hunger to save, I thought, and yet she had jumped right up to get away from William.
I sat down beside her and offered the bottle. She wasn’t too keen at first, but when I gave up and drew it back across my chest she stretched herself across my lap to give it another sniff and chew a little on the nipple. She’d only take a little at a time but before long we’d gotten about a cup down her. She put her head in my lap and started to go to sleep. Josh said it might be a good time to try to transport her.
She did not love being carried. She wiggled and squeaked like she had when William had found her, and I prayed a giant elk cow would come crashing through the trees to fight us for her, but the woods were quiet and Josh held on tight and once we got to the 4-Runner she curled up in the dog bed in the back like she had been doing it all her life. Back home, Josh carried her the short distance to the barn, where we made a bed of straw for her, which she rejected in favor of the dirt floor, and I went inside to heat some more milk. That time she drank almost two cups. She shivered in the cold, and I rubbed her warm with my jacket. It was at that point Josh named her Willa.
The Internet said it wasn’t uncommon for cow elk to leave their babies for several hours, because the babies could not keep up with the herd at the pace of their daily grazing. It said the calves were scentless, and would not attract predators, and the herd would come back and pick them up around dusk.
“If the dead cow isn’t her mother,” I said to Josh, “we may have just done a really bad thing.” But it was snowing in earnest now, the wind screaming, and mistake or not, Willa was warm and dry in the barn.
I did what I always do in Creede when I don’t know what to do and that’s call Doc Howard. He said there was a sanctuary near Del Norte that would take her and raise her. He told me to call Brent, the wildlife officer, and that Brent would come get her, take her to the sanctuary, and while he was at it investigate the shooting. He said, “There are several other things you could do Pam, but not without being in violation of all kinds of laws.”
I knew everybody had gotten freaked out about elk since chronic wasting disease became a thing in Colorado, but I also knew we had never had a case of it in Mineral County and they checked every elk the hunters took out. Still, I didn’t really want to raise an elk baby with a bottle. What I wanted was for some yahoo not to have shot her mother. The website said to feed your orphaned elk four cups every four hours, so I left Brent a message and went out with more warm milk. This time she was interested and drank with less coaxing. She followed me around the stall, and when I would sit down in the straw with her, she would touch her nose to my face and hair.
Josh and I spent another hour with her, watching her walk around on her long long legs, greeting her when she wanted to make contact, feeling what it was like to be in her presence—which had a mystical quality to it, a visitation from some other-worldly being. So calm, she was, so delicate and full of light.
“Now, Pam, I’m going to need you to trust me a little bit,” Brent said on the phone, and because of the tone in his voice when he said it, I did. “The sanctuary in Del Norte won’t take elk anymore because of chronic wasting. There’s a place in Westcliffe I might get to take her, but her best chance at the life she is meant to have is if you put her back out there, exactly where you found her. There’s a good chance the herd will come pick her back up.”
“Even if the dead one is her mother?”
“Even if,” he said. “If the herd has another cow nursing, she’ll probably be okay. I’ll come up at seven in the morning and if she’s still there I’ll put her in a kennel and take her to Westcliffe.”
It’s hard to put a week-old elk calf back in the woods at sunset within a hundred yards of a ripped-open elk carcass the coyotes already know about, but by the time we talked ourselves into it, I had gotten two more cups of milk down her, it had stopped snowing, and the last sun of the day was warming things up a bit. Josh carried her back to the 4-Runner, we drove her around to the back fence and Josh carried her, kicking squeaking, back to the exact tree where William had found her. We didn’t know what we were going to do if she followed us, but she didn’t. She curled back in right where her mother had put her, and waited, we hoped, for the herd to come at dusk.
“What a story she’ll have to tell her friends,” I tried, as we turned our backs on her.
“Oh, she just thinks this is what happens to everybody,” Josh said, “On the seventh day of being an elk you get to ride in the back of a car.”
The next morning, I had to leave for the airport at four-thirty, and the air was clear and full of stars and twenty-nine degrees on my car thermometer. I said another prayer the herd had come back for Willa, that her mother had not been the shot one, and nobody minded she smelled a little like humans and the back of a 4-Runner usually occupied by Irish Wolfhounds. “We might have messed up,” I said, to whoever I thought might be listening at that hour—some genderless Druidic earth power, I supposed, perhaps the mountain itself—“but we talked it out every step and tried to make the best decision.”
I watched seven come and go as I drove father away from Creede and closer to the Denver airport. I knew news wouldn’t likely come until nine, but every minute after seven was torture. Finding her dead would have been the fastest outcome; loading her into the kennel and sending her off with Brent the next fastest after that. Searching the woods for her would take the longest. It was hard to even know what to hope for.
Finally, when I was sitting at gate B23, Josh called. The cow had been shot; that was certain. They had looked long and hard for Willa and found no sign of her. They had also looked up and down the road for a shell casing to help identify the poacher and had also not found one of those. Brent would go up to Spar City and ask around, but he wasn’t hopeful he would find out anything more.
I have decent intuitive skills, which have improved with the onset of menopause, so I tried to quiet my mind to get a sense of Willa. For whatever it is worth, she did not feel dead to me. I know how potentially self-deceiving that sounds. But she was, among other things, a magical being. Josh and I gave her up to the mountain, and I believe the mountain took care of her.
It is hard to be ironic about a dying dog. It is hard to be ironic about an elk calf when her nose is touching your face. It is hard to be ironic when the young writer who tends your house and cuddles your dogs and who you know loves the earth with the same passion you do is walking behind you down a dirt trail with thirty-three pounds of baby elk in his arms. It is hard to be ironic when your pasture erupts after an unexpected May blizzard into a blanket of wild iris. It is hard to be ironic when the osprey who returns to your ranch every summer makes his first lazy circle around the peak of your barn.
Last January, I was speaking with an environmental scientist who said he was extremely pessimistic about the future of the earth in the hundred-year frame, but optimistic about it in the five-hundred-year frame. There will be very few people here, he said, earnestly, but the ones who are here will have learned a lot. He also said the carbon driven period will be looked at as the most barbaric, most irresponsible period in the history of the world.
There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from. Times when seeing the world’s bright beauty is almost more than I can bear, when my mind is running the grim numbers the scientists have given us right alongside. And it is also true, had I never laid eyes on Willa, I would not have spent five sleep-deprived hours weeping—often sobbing—in the car that morning on the way to DIA. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you. And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the Earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact. The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, we are left with only a hollow chuckle, and our big brains who made this mess, our big brains that stopped believing a long time ago in beauty, in everything, in anything.
What I want to say to my colleagues is that the Earth doesn’t know how not to be beautiful. Yes, the destruction, yes, the inevitability, but honestly, Doctor Distant Reader, when was the last time you actually slept on the ground?
How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe…? I don’t know. And I imagine sometimes, often, we will get it wrong. But I’m not celebrating the Earth because I am an optimist—though I am an optimist. I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?
 Morton, Timothy, “Wordsworth Digs The Lawn”, European Romantic Review, Vol.15, No.2, June 2004, p.318.
Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers, is professor of English at UC Davis, teaches in The Institute of American Indian Art’s Low-Rez MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.