Today I get a disheartening rejection. This is nothing new for a writer—at least not for this writer—but that’s beside the point. Today’s rejection hurt. So I did what any other rejected writer might do under the circumstances: laundry.
Bending to the machine to lift out wet Wranglers, I saw through the window a large yellow clumping in the field. When I say large I mean…big. The circling of many large animals. Not our cows—no, this was a herd of elk cows and yearlings and about three still-antlered bulls clumped tightly together on the lower side of an electric fence. They stood, they milled, they looked west, they circled.
I forgot laundry and the earlier disappointment as I went outside with my decades-old fieldglasses. Soon more elk joined the original thirty-three, flowing out of the juniper trees and across the field with the grace of water pouring and reaching and pooling with other water. Eventually a few younger cows stepped out, creating a gap instantly filled by the main body, and in this way the herd slowly leaked west. When my eyes and head hurt from the binoculars I went back inside and glanced out different south-facing windows, pretending to clean but really just milling and circling myself.
For two hours those now a hundred elk moved yards west then retreated east, and it occurred to me finally that this is their first spring migration since the neighbors purchased acreage adjoining ours and built a house. And dog pens, which house two huge Rottweilers. I was deciding it was those big barking dogs and the new structure that kept the elk pooled there in our lower pasture when my two young grandkids showed up. Lacey wanted to play a storytelling game so we scrunched together on the living room floor and she began pulling painted blocks from a pile, pairing an image from one block side with another, connecting them with words.
Their dad called to tell me the elk had moved up and were now in the pasture to the east of our houses, so Lacey, Lucas, and I put our boots on and snuck around onto the deck to watch the elk. The herd must have retreated to the junipers and followed the fenceline north in the cover of trees, but now they had to cross another open field and confront another damned damming fence.
I think my despair escaped in a sound because Lacey said, “Shhh.” And then she took my hand and said, “I feel sad.” Now we scrunched together on the bench on the deck and watched the flow of elk as the dark ruffs of their necks blurred with their winter-tan hides and the few antlers and there was one blond cow elk in the middle, and the herd moved up across the pasture to a corner fence and back to the trees and up again and finally one, two, three, ten at a time jumped the fence—our fence—and moved into the next stand of trees, mountain bound.
Did Lacey understand that the elk just wanted to go where they wanted to go and they couldn’t, because of us? Because of our continuing human encroachment into their backyards? I think she didn’t get that last part; I think I didn’t say it aloud. I think I just said it was sad because they wanted to go to the high country and were having a hard time figuring out how, or maybe I didn’t say that at all and she’s four and smart and tall, her body fitting tightly to mine for those long moments of watching wildlife try to figure out how to be wild and I felt through her body that she understood what she was seeing even if I didn’t give her the words. Which I hope I didn’t.
Or maybe I hope I did. The way my mother and aunt gave me the names of trees and wildflowers; the way Mary O’Hara gave me horses and greengrass in My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming; the way Sally Carrighar gave me deer and ants in One Day on Beetle Rock. And Laura Ingalls Wilder and all writers of place and wildlife and wildness, right up to Ellen Meloy and beyond, their words carrying me like water over the pitfalls of writing to the joy.
Today’s elk will appear in Lacey’s storytelling, I have no doubt. But will their liquid beauty or their confused struggle be at the heart?
After writing the above (and finishing laundry) I stop in at Ken’s house. The kids are getting ready for bed; Lacey is seated on the couch with her dad. She can see the refrigerator through the kitchen door. “Oh,” she says, pushing off the couch, “I forgot to give this to you.” She disappears into the kitchen for a moment, reappearing with a yellow sheet of the same kind of construction paper with which my mother raised me. “I made this for you,” Lacey says.
On the yellow paper, painted Popsicle sticks arc over a field of green. In the sky above the rainbow green and purple and orange Popsicle sticks fly randomly, and it is easy to see that the outlying sticks are Lacey’s version of Ken’s deliberate, schematically colored rainbow.
Ken points to the sharp green blades and rounded humps in the field drawn at the bottom of the page. “What’s this?” he says.
“It looks like grass,” I say.
“Animals,” Lacey says.
Ken: “What kind of animals?”
With the duh intonation of a four-year-old in her voice, Lacey says, “Elk.”
Though the Popsicle picture was made days before, Lacey sees in the grass of her imagination the moving herd of elk under a rainbow sky. And so do I.