Close encounters with other species

Column by John Mattingly

Outdoors – February 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

Close Encounters With Other Species

DURING THE LATE SUMMER of 1973 — the year the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed and became a contentious topic in our local coffee shop — a prolonged rainy spell shut down haying operations in our area long enough for me to read Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda. The book was a gift from a neighbor, a dairyman named Ross whose son had given it to him, claiming (hoping) it would “blow his mind.”

“Can’t say as it blew any of m’gaskets,” Ross said, handing me the book with a dismissive nod. “Truth be told, I didn’t get past the first chapter.”

But I did, reading the entire book in a single sitting.

Because the ESA and Castaneda’s first book of Don Juan’s teachings appeared at about the same time, in my thoughts they became unlikely bedfellows. The ESA gave legal standing to non-human species. That this legal standing was administered by the human species created an inevitable conflict of interest (that nearly left the Act legless at various times in the future), but the underlying nobility/humility of the ESA’s effort to limit human expansion into the territorial spheres of other species remained standing. And that impressed me.

So did Castaneda, who invoked magical realism to breath imaginative life into other species, giving them interactive, relational intelligence, bringing them into the human community, extending human consciousness to earthy companions.

Over the last 30-some years, I’ve had a few encounters with other species that united my idealism for the ESA with the imagination of Don Juan. . . .

AN OWL IN THE BRUSH. In the summer of 1990, I was grazing 5,500 ewes and lambs on a Forest Service permit in the sub-alpine meadows near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, north of Bristol Head. For optimal forage utilization, the herd had to be moved periodically from meadow to meadow, some of which were separated by patches of salix.

One late afternoon, I was scouting a possible path through a particularly dense patch of salix — a brush that grows four to eight feet tall with whip-like branches that flail all who pass through it. If the sheep dispersed randomly in the tangle, it could take days — if not the life expectancy of a ewe — to extract them. Thus I was looking for a short passage through the salix that had already been well trampled by larger game. I embarked on the journey alone, leaving the other herders with the sheep, and didn’t bring my rifle because it would have been awkward in the brush.

At a turn in a wide, promising trail through the salix, I came face to face with an owl on the ground. He stood about a foot tall, with whitish face circled by a thin, dark rim. His mottled brown feathers were highlighted with occasional, bold white spots. He had bright yellow eyes, his entire body framed by half-spread wings. He greeted me with a hoarse screech: whoooitch, whoookrtich. (I later checked a book to learn it was a boreal owl, but at the time I simply stopped, a bit surprised to encounter an owl at this elevation.)

After exchanging stares for a bit, I flapped my hands at the owl, then rattled nearby branches in hopes of encouraging him to be on his way. I stamped my feet. I lunged. I did something resembling a disco dance (something I would only do in the wilderness). But the closer I got, and the more animated I became, the more imposing the owl became in response, leaping off the ground a foot or two with wings spread full, eyes fierce, intently blocking my passage. After wagging a branch directly at him, only to be met by an unconquerable ferocity, I decided I really didn’t want to have a fight with an owl.

So I back-tracked out to look for another trail. The next that showed promise led up a small incline that merged onto a mossy rock outcropping. From that vantage point, I looked down at the trail I had briefly shared with the owl. The owl was no longer there, or at least not visible, but in a small clearing not more than fifty feet from where I had encountered the owl, I saw a sow bear rolling about on her back, a pair of cubs tussling on her belly. My first thought was that the owl was, in Don Juan’s vocabulary, my ally, a creature in the wild who could guide me in unfamiliar territory. This particular owl may have saved my life, as I have no doubt if I had walked into that small clearing, startling the family of bears, the sow would have attacked. Unarmed and in thick brush, my chances would have been slim.

That night as I slept in my tent, .30-06 at side, I heard a pair of owls speaking to each other, a string of familiar who-whos breaking out into wooo whooood followed by a surprising exchange of oowhack and zjuck and kraika screeches that raised hairs on the back of my neck. After hearing these exchanges, it dawned on me that the owl’s actions on the trail — turning me away from the sow and cubs — might have had more to do with something in the owl’s life than mine. The owl might have been protecting a nest or establishing a mating territory. Perhaps I had merely wandered along as an accidental beneficiary.

Nevertheless, ever since then I have paid close attention to owls, and though there hasn’t been a repeat of the extraordinary encounter in the salix, it isn’t a stretch to say that owls have swooped around my activities with surprising, sometimes alarming, prescience.

THE ODD BUCK. Antelope rut in the fall, responding to the shorter daylight hours after the September equinox, an adaptation that, with a five month gestation for does, ensures antelope fawns will be born in the early spring, just ahead of summer grasses. By late fall or early winter, a number of antelope bucks, who have failed to make the gene pool during mating season, roam the range. These rejected males have sometimes butted heads with the dominant bucks a few times too many, and stagger about the range like lonely drunks.

On a frigid December afternoon I encountered a lone, scruffy prong-horned buck wandering aimlessly in one of my alfalfa fields, with no does or fawns in sight. His prongs were bent in opposite directions, one ragged and missing a couple of inches, confirming my suspicion that he was one of the unrequited local males. However, as I drove down the field road to check something at the center pivot point, the buck took off at an angle calculated to intercept me. That gave me a bit of a start, as antelope are notoriously spooky, darting off at a startling clip at the merest hint of threat. Even the rejected bucks usually take flight, though I had encountered an occasional buck who hung back from the flight of the herd to stamp his feet and rock his head in a display of largely Thespian machismo. Not this buck. He showed every intention of taking me on. I stopped my truck, momentarily losing sight of the buck, only to then feel the jolt of his prongs colliding with the passenger’s side door.

I jumped out and came around to face the misguided male, at which point he backed up a few paces, pawed the earth with gnarled, cloven hooves, and charged. Stepping aside, I almost laughed, until I saw the determination in his eyes when he again turned to face me. I decided it would be best to be in the open, away from the truck, so I walked boldly into the field. The buck came at me full speed. I easily sidestepped his charge, tried to grab his prongs as he passed, but missed.

Tightening my gloves, spreading my stance, I awaited his next charge. I’d lived in the West all my life, and this was the first time I really understood the lines from Home on the Range: “where the deer and the antelope play.” This buck thought me a playmate of some species, certainly not human. On his next charge I got hold of his prongs for a moment and gave him a gentle fling, which made him shake and shiver as if he’d rammed something totally unexpected. After charging at me several times, he stopped to catch his breath, steam bursting from his nostrils. He stared at me appraisingly, neck stretched taut to one side, ears pricked, and then did a sideways dance that could only be described as The Dance of the Lunatic Buck. I tried to imitate what he had done, jog-jigging, lifting my legs with a flail of arms. When I stamped the ground ferociously, he jumped back, and suddenly, his eyes widened and his head reared way back, nearly touching the upright hair on his spine. He turned heel and ran, disappearing over the stubble like a furry white missile, never looking back.

Relieved though I was that he had come to his senses regarding our respective species and their protocols for dominance and territory, I enjoyed a flash of flattery for being mistaken, however briefly, as an antelope buck worthy of a challenge.

BEEING ON ICE. After a gratifying Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, I took a needed walk by myself. The farm lay still in stubble, the afternoon air surprisingly warm, though stitched with intermittent stings from a thin, chilling breeze. Sunlight spoked through a layer of thick lenticular clouds overhead, underlined in blood red, namesake of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that provide the eastern frame of our farms. A wet snow earlier in the month had mostly melted, leaving patches of snow and small ice ponds throughout the field.

As I walked along, grateful I hadn’t eaten that last piece of pecan pie, I heard a buzzing sound near one of the small ice ponds. Looking closely, I saw a bee who apparently had been stimulated by the warm afternoon sun to fly a mission from the hives — hives placed by our beekeeping neighbor in the corner of the quarter section. Perhaps this worker bee became thirsty, and thinking the ice pond water, landed for a drink, only to gather enough ice on his wings that he couldn’t manage a departure. But he was trying. In his struggle he emitted a variety of buzzes — high and low pitch, slow and long amplitude, and occasionally a slow, long buzz that was nearly a groan — all the while skimming valiantly across the frozen mass. Sometimes he tipped upward and nearly reached escape velocity, only to fall back alternately on nose or stern, which made him give out a severe, irritated buzz.

If he had skimmed off the ice to nearby frozen ground, he might have dried off and had a chance, but instead, every time he approached the edge of the ice, he skidded to a stop, reversed, and headed toward the center point of the mass of glistening frozen water. Eventually, his buzzing subsided and he listed to one side, like a small boat taking on water.

Because I was to drive friends home later that evening, I had my wallet, from which I removed my driver’s license. As I carefully slid it between bee and ice, he resisted, windmilling his wings back toward the ice, sensing predation rather than rescue. Only with a deft move did I finally lift him sunward, perched on the license, where, after considerable fussing, he situated calmly over my face photo. It seemed to dawn on him at that point that he was now free of his predicament. Basking in the sun, lolling fore and aft to dry his wings, he buzzed a bit from time to time, then awkwardly levitated on his way.

Years before, I recalled my high school physics teacher telling us that from a strict ærodynamic standpoint, bees weren’t supposed to be able to fly. When this bee launched from my driver’s license, I fully expected him to fall flat on the ground, so unlikely did it seem that his pair of small wings — transparent filaments no thicker than spider webbing when viewed in the slanted sunlight — could create enough lift for take-off. But take off and fly he did: at first toward the hives, then back toward me. He circled round me several times, buzzing that variety of buzzes I’d heard before, until I speculated he was trying to buzz me.

Not as bee to human, but as bee to bee.

John Mattingly, who abides in greater Moffat, is a recovering farmer.