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The geese have got me pondering the nature of gifts.

We live on a flyway. In bad weather, the planes pass directly overhead en route to and from the nearby airport. Spring and fall, though …

I hear their honking before I see them — dark specks like iron filings drawn across the sky by an unseen magnet. For weeks they pass, funneling themselves into the long valley between the Adirondack and Green Mountains. I cannot hear their voices without dropping everything — stopping mid-sentence, hurrying to the door, throwing open the window.

And so I stepped out one night, heeding their calls — to conjure an image — to catch their long-necked silhouettes crossing the face of the full moon — more than half believing that my desire would make it so. Their voices filled the air, my eyes pierced the darkness, but their forms remained hidden against the blackdrop of space. The countenance of the moon remained clear. I see, I thought, sometimes the answer is no. But as I stared into the night, I heard the quiet whistling of air slipping over beating wings — and a whisper — there is always an offering.

Two thousand miles away, as the goose flies, The Lamar Valley, in February, is nearly the end of the line. Go a little further and you get to Silver Gate, Montana — winter population of about six. Three more miles and you come to Cooke City, where from November to April, the road stops in a wall of snow.

A one-room schoolhouse sits on a back lane of this one-time mining town. Eight grades, eight students, a computer, and a wish list. Moose Drool is on tap at the Miner’s Saloon and if you stop in at the Pine Tree at 6:30 in the morning, they’ll fix you a cup of coffee even though they’re not officially open yet. Snowmobiles appear in the parking spaces that line the main street. One morning, an aluminum canoe materializes in their midst. The Soda Butte Lodge posts a sign in the lobby requesting that car keys be left at the desk to facilitate snow removal and a waitress can be overheard helping a shocky-looking snowmobiler with a dislocated shoulder. I used to be a vet tech and that’s the best you’re going to be able to do for the moment.

To this human setting, I came in the winter of 1998 to spend a week working and learning with a group of researchers studying the impact of wolf reintroduction on the ecosystem. It was here that the dark hours were spent.

But daylight drew us into the deep snows and vast silences of the Lamar Valley — to the foraging herds of elk and bison — and the predators that stalk them. To the intricate and intimate cycles of life and death and life.

Armed with telemetry equipment, handheld computers, topographic maps and compasses, spotting scopes, binoculars and snowshoes, we’d spend our days crouched on a hillside observing and documenting the numbers and behaviors of the scavengers feasting on a newly-killed bull elk — coyote, golden eagle, bald eagle, magpie, and raven. Or hiking a steep slope to examine and retrieve the remains of an earlier kill, or following and recording the behaviors of a single coyote.

...following and recording the behaviors of a single coyote...

photo by Isaac Babcock

coyoteIB.jpg (34284 bytes)

But we’d all come to see the wolves. They proved elusive. Sometimes the answer is no.

The morning of our last day in the field, I stand outside our tiny cabin at 5:00 A.M. in my night shirt, boots and parka — trees cracking like rifle shots, the star-shot sky dark and deep. In Lamar, steam rises from the open waters of the river. The sun catches the crystalline face of fresh snow, and the day is born of a million diamonds. The slope rises before us, brushing the sky, a massive expanse of height and white — a clean slate and ours the only tracks.

I want to climb up and up in this thin air — to lose myself in the silence — to shrink to a tiny speck against the shoulder of this mountain.

Wooded now. A distant, solitary howl. Coyote, someone says. My bones feel wolf.

Then down through fir and lodgepole pine, back to open meadow, to find our earlier trail crossed and recrossed — an intricate maze. Our paths interwoven. My hand, full-stretched, just spans one print. I pick one set of tracks — my new companion — and follow down the curving slope. Paired in space, but not in time. A wolf has walked in my footsteps.

It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been back to Lamar. It calls me, still. But just the other night my husband and I were out walking the dogs. The full moon had risen over the mountains to the east and the air was still and cold. We heard the honking of the geese overhead and the beating of their wings. With each passing flock, I’d stop and crane my neck, peering into the darkness, daring again to call the image. And suddenly I realized that this night my timing was right. In a whisper of air and black silhouettes, a perfect formation of geese crossed in front of the moon.

There is always an offering — and sometimes the answer is yes.

Kristin Kenlan has been a member of three research expeditions evaluating the impact of wolf reintroduction on Yellowstone National Park.  In 1998 she organized a group of Vermont students who traveled to Yellowstone to participate in this research.  She teaches mathematics at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont.



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