A Wilderness of Bones

In the latest from our Other Kingdoms series, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman encounters bears, bison and death on a journey through Paradise Valley, Montana, to reflect on the legacy of things left behind.
writes from Livingston, Montana. She is the author of .Place Last Seen (Picador USA, 2000). Publications include Dark Mountain, Terrain, Big Sky Journal, Montana Quarterly and The Best Food Writing of 2010. She is a graduate of the UC Davis (M.A) and University of Utah (PhD) creative writing programs.

It surprises people, the bones. 

The woods, the roadsides, the hayfields all around us here in the Paradise Valley of Montana are full of bones. People don’t expect it, the thigh bones and vertebrae and scapulas that show up on every walk. People from elsewhere that is. People who are visiting. It’s a tourist economy. Surprises me every time, when someone says “oh gross!”

The dogs though, the dogs love it. Hank, my sheepdog mix, finding some treasure: a thigh bone like something from the Flintstones; a deer foreleg, still articulated by dried tendons; and sometimes in deep winter, up at our cabin, the tiny hoof of a coyote-killed fawn.

In late October, a couple of weeks before the 2020 election, when I was nearly hysterical with anxiety, we rented a Forest Service cabin up the Boulder drainage for a couple of nights. The Boulder River cuts through Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, and is an old route across the plateau from Big Timber to Slough Creek in Yellowstone Park. On the way home, we stopped so Chuck 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 Hank off. Later, he said it looked like a grizzly kill. We were maybe 25 feet off the road. 

Someone had taken the head already. No antlers. Chuck collects antlers, hiking all up and down the public lands on our side of the range in the spring. The basement is full of them, beautiful racks of brown elk antlers, stacks of mule deer and whitetail racks, smaller weathered whites, not worth much on the resale market, but so pretty that he couldn’t pass them by.

Mostly, the bones are from ordinary deaths. Animals just die, or hunters kill them. The elk bone Hank, my sheepdog, has been carrying around on our walk these past few weeks is from one of two carcasses 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.

Dia de los Muertos 2020. A day of bones. A day of festive skeletons. A day when we lay out altars, cook our beloved dead their favorite foods, try to reach across the veil. I’m not Mexican, but when I left the Church many years ago, I took the Virgin of Guadalupe with me. She guards the entrance to the house, and it’s to her I turn, lighting candles against the darkness. 

Dia de los Muertos, the first of November. As the first pandemic year comes to a close I can feel the crowds of hungry dead. All those who have died in the pandemic. All the funerals we didn’t have. Covid brought my first Zoom funeral. Someone for whom we would all have flown home, gathered with food and drinks and stories. Instead I watched through the computer as the parents and siblings of my earliest childhood friend mourned alone and spaced apart from one another in an empty church. My running buddy. We were each the oldest sibling, and for several years we ran the world together, bossing our younger brothers and neighbours, 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 was on my altar, as were my brothers, both of them. Michael dead at two, in 1972, and Patrick, my beloved Patrick, dead in a single-car wreck in 2003, my first year in Livingston. Denny was there, who I led wilderness canoe trips with and who I loved in my teens and twenties. 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. 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 Patrick died all those years ago — because the community came together, held me for years

We spend so much time talking about the Sixth Extinction that sometimes I worry we forget to celebrate what we still have

When Chuck 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?’ Chuck looked around, then started digging with his hands below me. I was standing on the buried skeleton of a bison, a bison whose skull he unearthed. It was huge, and 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. On the eve of the Biden/Trump election, as freaked out as everyone else, all I could do was look at Emigrant Peak shining to the south, and think about how the woods are full of bones because they are still, improbably, full of animals. We spend so much time talking about the Sixth Extinction, as we should, that sometimes I worry we forget to celebrate what we still have. The Paradise Valley, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area, the Gallatin Range, and Yellowstone National Park are home to some of the last great herds of wild ungulates left on earth. We have elk, and two species of deer, and antelope. 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 our cabin garbage can rests. We have bears. We have eagles both bald and golden, and hawks, and owls, and Sandhill cranes. We have kingfisher and hummingbirds. We have voles and kangaroo mice. We have packrats.

Two days after the election, while we were all still waiting to hear what the result would be, Chuck suggested we go to Yellowstone for the day. US presidential elections are in November, hunting season. The woods are full of hunters, armed with rifles or crossbows, looking for deer and elk. That time of year, the park is the only safe place to hike, and I needed to be offline. I’d heard that morning from the man I didn’t marry in my 20s. His sister, a funny, kind, smart woman died. Too young. Cancer. Leaving two kids under 15. 

We drove out across the Blacktail Plateau, and when there were no cars at Slough Creek, we parked at the trailhead. On a Thursday in November we lucked out. No one was there except for two rangers.

We headed up the creek, getting off the trail as soon as possible. Chuck hates a trail, and so we usually head up to some high point, then meander back toward the car. Just as we were climbing up out of the creek bottom, he stopped. 

It was a bison skull. An old one by the looks of it. Right off the game trail. Moss grew from the eye sockets. Because it was in the park, we couldn’t pack it up, take it home, and hang it safely up under the eaves of the cabin porch with the other one. But there it was, another bone in the wilderness. Another sign that animals still roam this part of the world. 

Bison skull, Yellowstone National Park (photo: Charlotte Freeman)

The creek was noisy, and we were in thickish tree cover. We hike to see wildlife, so we’re quiet in the woods. Hiking quietly is, however, the textbook condition in which people run into trouble with grizzly bears, so I was a tiny bit nervous.

And this is when you start paying attention to shit in the woods. What scat are you seeing? How old is it? Scat is the most crucial sign by which you can tell who has been in that patch, and how recently. We started seeing very large elk shit almost at once. Chuck said it was some of the largest he’d ever seen, meaning there were big bulls in there. At one point I heard a bugle. There were bison tracks, and pies as well. Years ago we were up in that drainage, poking around, when we came around a rock outcropping to discover we were in quite a small clearing with two very large bison bulls. We apologised, didn’t look them in the eye, quietly slipped back around the outcropping, then climbed a small ridge.

We worked our way up the river until we ran out of ground. Blocked by cliffs plunging into the river, we turned and scrambled uphill. At the top, we found ourselves in lovely open country, islands of fir surrounded by grassy parklands, all rolling gently back downhill toward the trailhead. And that’s when we started seeing bear scat. We weren’t seeing giant ones, nor piles that seemed recent enough to be worrisome, but we did come across one patch where the bear must have been eating rosehips, because the pile was that bright orange-red. It was startling. You’ll often see bear scat full of huckleberries, or chokecherry stones around here in the autumn. I’d never seen one the colour of rosehips before though. 

It doesn’t go to waste. The coyotes and foxes had been on it, and in a tree nearby, there were five bald eagles, waiting for us to leave so they could get back to scavenging.

Bones and scat and blood. Outside the park it’s hunting season. Not only do you have to wear blaze orange, to stay out where you’re easy to see, but you have to keep an eye out for carcasses and gut piles. Carcasses are one of those other things that freak people out who aren’t from here. On our dog walk the day after Chuck and I went to the park, I had to stomp across the bottomland where I walk the dog to call him off a carcass. You see that more and more these days, hunters field dressing a kill by stripping the meat, leaving the skeleton behind. Hank was tugging as hard as he could, trying to get a fibrous strip off from between the ribs.

It doesn’t go to waste. The coyotes and foxes had been on it, and in a tree nearby, there were five bald eagles, waiting for us to leave so they could get back to scavenging. Magpies and ravens too, and the smaller critters. Everyone does their part. 

Bones and shit and blood. We thought we’d solved these problems. We thought we didn’t need to think about them anymore. But if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic year, from these past few years on our heating planet, it’s that we are all still animals. There’s no ‘disrupting’ our animal natures. If we’re going to get through whatever is coming, we need to read the signs, to pay attention to the tracks, to keep our wits about us as we move forward through the world.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

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