We were ill spirited
the first three days
Although this would normally be the off season for National Parks, plenty of Americans had the same idea in 2020: if you couldn’t travel beyond our borders, how about a National Park within driving distance? Our Yellowstone tent sites were surrounded by RVs and jumbo trailers pulled by trucks. Did their inhabitants pity or envy the minimalism of our gracefully ageing green Subaru and dome tent, seeming like Hobbit accoutrements huddled amid shining space pods? The carbon footprint of our trip would have certainly been less than their shockingly high petrol consumption, Yet for all we knew, those metal caravans might have been their only homes in the plague year. Conversations were rare and brief.
We ‘happy’ few
Along with bedding, books, first aid kit, lantern and axe, we packed the messy emotional baggage of our city’s notorious summer of dumpster fires and rage. Portland is a city with a terrible record of racist police violence in a state founded on white supremacy: ‘Indian hating’ and Black exclusion laws. Portland’s police had killed Black residents with impunity: Kendra James in 2003, Patrick Kimmons in 2018, names on a long list. Then in 2020 the city experienced an uprising respecting Black anguish, heeding the calls to action of Black orators.
For over 100 days people of Portland, outraged by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, marched, made noise and occasionally threw things to protest police brutality and the recalcitrant paradigm of racist law enforcement that produces it. Instead of a meaningful reduction of Portland’s police budget to be used instead for much-needed community programmes, we received increased brutality at a level unparalleled in the rest of the country and infamously compounded in July by the arrival of Federal law enforcement officers.
John and I went from a hesitant presence (not Black, not young) on the periphery of a 29th May George Floyd vigil, to marching with thousands, filling bridges and shutting down a freeway, to showing up regularly at direct action events that would be officially declared as riots. As local Black activist and magazine editor Mac Smiff put it: ‘We came out here dressed in T-shirts and twirling Hula-Hoops and stuff, and they started gassing us, so we came back with respirators, and they started shooting us, so we came back with vests, and they started aiming for the head, so we started wearing helmets, and now they call us terrorists. Who’s escalating this? It’s not us.’
By August the direct action marches were usually down to perhaps 200 participants each night as unrelenting beat-downs from the police, the threat of right-wing violence and just plain stress took a toll on the numbers. Sometimes I thought of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt, ‘we happy few’, although it was a grimly unhappy cause we marched for, constantly chanting the names of Black people murdered by police in other places as well as in Portland. Patrick Kimmons’ mother was often there, distraught, impassioned.
Kent Ford, a 77 year old who had been a founder of Portland’s Black Panthers marched nearly every night. Medics, legal observers, clergy, veterans, Moms, shield makers, artists, musicians, poets were bound together in this effort to keep the unspeakable oppression of Black people visibly opposed. A mutual aid group called The Witches gave us hand sanitiser. Children marched in the daytime. ‘Plant bloc’ shared garden produce. Scientists took samples of teargas and crowd control munitions.
We saw statues toppled, barricades set aflame. On one apocalyptic evening our comrades, as if pirates on the high seas, hauled down the flag of a police precinct and burned it.
The 100th consecutive protest night (5th September) started out with speeches, songs and free doughnuts in Ventura Park. Police halted the march a block from the park and the frontline rapidly erupted in teargas + flaming petrol + fireworks. John and I retreated into the neighbourhood, joining an ad hoc bloc that included a guitar player singing Woody Guthrie’s 1941 ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’ accompanied by a jazz trumpet player and a rapper. We had a too-close encounter with an advancing line of riot police but escaped. There were 59 arrests that night.
Then the nightly Black Lives Matter demonstrations were scaled back to minimum level when September’s wildfires caused Portland to experience the world’s worst air quality. In a city where hardware stores advertised ‘protest supplies’ it was not uncommon to keep a cloth mask for Covid-19 prevention, a respirator with changeable filters for teargas and an N95 mask for wildfire smoke. Protester support groups pivoted to offer supplies and other practical help for firefighters, evacuees and houseless people living outdoors.
Only one small wildfire burned in Yellowstone National Park while we were there, a closely-watched smoke column. But Yellowstone was already a climate crisis case study, drying out, its snowpack ebbing ominously. In 2018 the New York Times predicted, ‘Over the next few decades of climate change, the country’s first national park will quite likely see increased fire, less forest, fewer expanding grasslands, more invasive plants, and shallower, warmer waterways – all of which may alter how, and how many, animals move through the landscape.’
The Sacred Elk
Any little thing, a wrong turn, a forgotten piece of equipment, set us on edge. John and I had intervals of calm, breakfast gazing at the jagged Teton Range, but were too often letting the serrated edges of our emotions cut and scrape us. We griped, bickered, shed tears and did not sleep any better in nights of owl calls than we had in nights of police Long Range Acoustic Devices.
Our bison (American buffalo) sightings began in Yellowstone with the first one lurching up to scatter the crowd at the Old Faithful geyser, then a couple more among the bleached trees of adjacent Upper Geyser Basin. Next a grazing herd. Near our campsite we saw moose, antelope, deer and bison all within about half an hour. We started to feel as if when we were at our worst, fantastic animals were somehow being placed in our sight, like toys proffered to placate a disconsolate child.
We drove north before dawn, winding through the pass below Bunsen Peak, emerging in Mammoth Hot Springs, the park headquarters. There a bull elk loomed on a lawn, bringing a bronze Portland riot icon to sudden life. The Thompson Elk statue, installed in 1900 to much derision for its inaccurate anatomy (the sculptor having had no experience of the animal in life) extended its absurd neck above a long-defunct fountain on a traffic island between Jamison and Lownsdale Squares. The parks’ locations across from Portland’s main police station and the Federal Courthouse made them 2020’s mutual aid and free barbeque hubs, relentlessly teargassed.
A family member remarked, ‘I always wanted to sit on that elk,’ and during the downtown protests quite a few people followed that impulse. The stone fountain/plinth of the elk became a bonfire pit, producing such dramatic images of the antlered beast against a background of flames, teargas clouds, firework spangles that the black-clad downtown protest regulars began to refer to it as ‘the Sacred Elk’ (with its own Twitter account).
In July, with its base too eroded by bonfires for the statue’s stability, the Sacred Elk was hauled away to a storage facility by its nonprofit owner, the Regional Arts and Culture Council. That led to a false notion that protesters had maliciously destroyed their beloved elk, conflating it with various statues of slave-holders, ‘Indian fighters’ etc., which protesters did knock over. An anonymous artist installed an expressionist welded metal ‘Nightmare Elk’ statue where the Sacred one had been. A right-wing militant group called Patriot Prayer then stole the Nightmare Elk but by late December it was liberated from them.
In predawn Yellowstone, the bull elk seemed a dream apparition as massive as an Ice Age Irish Elk, impossible antler rack balanced on such mist-snorting bulk, if you can’t have mastodons or megatheriums you can have these. More elk showed up in Mammoth Hot Springs in the afternoon, bulls and ‘harems’. The bulls bugling and all studiously ignoring the humans buzzing around with cars and cameras.
In predawn Yellowstone, the bull elk seemed a dream apparition as massive as an Ice Age Irish Elk, impossible antler rack balanced on such mist-snorting bulk…
At some point we got over ourselves and Portland and 2020 and we just were nature people in nature. Our day hikes coalesced around Yellowstone’s geothermal features: vivid boiling pools and gushing sulphurous hells. Microbial liquids cooking on a vast geo-stove. Seething ponds and lakes giving the lie to that cliche ‘colours not found in nature’ – printer ink cyan, DayGlo orange, ‘80s hologram magenta, mod eyeshadow chartreuse. Milky mud of Earth’s crust gaping open into baby blue and peachy pink. Blobs of travertine in vapour hiss. Equal parts pretty and horrifying.
Lucky kids were home-schooling in the outdoors. Covid-19’s freeze of international visitors to the US had diminished the park’s demographic variety but still I heard Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese. Some park-goers wore masks, some didn’t. A Black woman wore an ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirt, a goth couple looked fabulously lupine near the Grand Prismatic Spring, a guy hiked in his MAGA hat.
Shedding the crowds, shedding our layers, we followed aspen leaves like gold coins past Fairy Falls to intermittent geyser spurts. Bear attacks became an actual concern. You don’t want to surprise them at the bend of a trail. They don’t like surprises. So we shouted our Portland protest chants as we hiked through the forests, ‘Stay together, stay tight, we do this every NIGHT!’, ‘What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? NOW!’
We carried capsaicin bear spray. Back in Portland, bear spray was frequently used by right-wing brawlers to attack anti-fascists, which was not something the police ever cared about. It would also be a right-wing weapon of choice when some of those same habitually violent people launched themselves into the US Capitol on 6 Jan 2021. In Yellowstone our spray canister stayed holstered, our only bear sighting a safely distanced black bear eating rose hips on a hillside.
Some Ice Age dauber in me is a bit obsessed with unusual bovines. Having sketched gaur in the wild in Tamil Nadu, painted the yaks of Golmud and filmed mithuns in Burma’s Chin State, I had my colour pencil box loaded for bison. One evening we ventured northeast into the Lamar Valley (‘America’s Serengeti’) where I drew heavy-headed, wooly-coated bison in their sprawling herds on the prairie, in their dirt bath patches, with their jittery calves, their obstreperous bulls.
Yellowstone’s bison, like its elk, went through bust and boom population cycles in the 20th century. The park is currently home to about 4,000 bison and a 2020 Oregon State University study found that in the Lamar Valley they ‘disrupt species distribution across shrub steppe and grasslands. They do so via what they eat, trample and rub their horns and bodies on.’
Dozens of vehicles were pulled over on the valley road. So we parked, climbed a bluff and looked where the people were looking. ‘Wolves over there,’ explained a woman with a spotting scope. We only had 8x birdwatching binoculars so it took a while to get a bead on hints of motion within dry grass on a distant slope.
A dark shape against a green patch turned out to be a bison, away from its herd – why? But what was moving through the grass? Canine, unmistakably. And another. Popping up and down. Stalking. Getting closer to the bison. A brave and stealthy leader. Half a dozen others in the pack, black wolves in high, golden grass.
In turn we told people who arrived where to look. A kid, about ten, asked some well-equipped wolf-watchers, ‘Where do you get binoculars?’ and was dismissed with a curt ‘In a store.’ We let him look through ours. As the bison stalking continued we would lose sight of the pack, then find it again. We looked at those wolves so hard it was almost painful. The bison of their attentions was still unharmed when we left.
During much of the 20th century wolves had disappeared from Yellowstone National Park and grizzly bears were in decline. Without predators, elk would reproduce beyond habitat capacity, be culled or starve there. Yellowstone’s wolves, reintroduced in 1995, have plenty to kill, tear apart and devour. Wolves intelligently vary their kills of cow and bull elk, depending on climate conditions and seasonal phases of weakening. This carnivorous thinning of the elk population has stabilised it within Yellowstone. Wolf kills benefit a variety of secondary feeders: smaller mammals, birds and insects. Their targeted cervid (deer and elk) control has been credited with improving entire riparian ecosystems in the park by preventing overgrazing of young willows and other trees needed by beavers for their water flow engineering projects.
Chronic wasting disease which dooms cervids is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a brain prion infestation like mad cow disease. Animals affected transform into wobbling, lost, self-starving ghost creatures. Some researchers think wolves, with their appetite for invalid and injured animals, might be valuable in controlling chronic wasting disease. It’s possible that wolves can recognise the ailment by smell or observing elk behaviour and kill stricken elk before the disease spreads from herd to herd.
Deer and elk are found in many habitats, including predator-free zones where population surges become a stress on habitat and their own survival. But apex predator reintroduction is endlessly controversial with ranchers’ contempt for sheep-killing wolves and the ancient human fear of fanged marauders. Without them it’s up to humans to manage cervid populations. Elk are undeniably fine hunting – you can live for quite a while off the meat of one. Fighters themselves, elk seem like fair prey for us, or wolves or bears.
That elk statue in Portland kept insisting on metaphor. Were protesters in black clothing and protective gear fair prey for a wolf pack of riot police, always separating the small ones to tackle in a pile-on? The tactic is known as a ‘bull rush’. Protesters are milling around in the street, chanting their chants, lobbing the odd water bottle and then a line of armour-wearing riot police appears at a swift trot, batons forward, ‘less lethal’ guns ready, charging into whoever can’t get out of the way fast enough. Grabbing random protesters (and sometimes bystanders, journalists or Legal Observers) for arrests performed with a bone-jarring body slam to the pavement.
That elk statue in Portland kept insisting on metaphor. Were protesters in black clothing and protective gear fair prey for a wolf pack of riot police, always separating the small ones to tackle?
This tactic inevitably victimised the weaker runners and the less-experienced just as a wolf pack separates out an injured elk or a bison calf for predation. But really, wolves are good and elk and bison are good. I can’t say the same about those Portland police in their racist system. So no metaphor there.
The last attraction we visited was Artist’s Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River as watercolour-sketched by Thomas Moran in 1871. Moran brought his sublime vision back east and oil painted it twice on epic scale, the impressive waterfall, glowing cliffs and somewhere in there a tiny, wistful depiction of a ‘Plains Indian’. For this was stolen land, of course. Indigenous peoples including Mountain Shoshones, Bannocks and other Shoshones, as well as Blackfeet, Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) and Crows (Apsáalooke) knew the volatile plateau, river valley and forests as places for finding special plants, particular animals, obsidian, beauty, sites of ceremony.
Influenced by Moran’s paintings, the US Government declared Yellowstone its first National Park in 1872. Indigenous peoples (‘Indians’) were deliberately excluded from this and many subsequent parks. As Isaac Kantor wrote in 2007, establishing National Parks shifted perception and policy ‘from an Indian dominated wilderness to that of an uninhabited wilderness.’ Mountain Shoshones remaining within the park’s boundary were soon forced out to reservations with other Shoshones where, as the National Parks Service website puts it, they ‘suffered the partial collapse of their traditional lifeways.’
‘Wilderness’ is considered a separate thing, preserved but ahistorical, a static relic and sometimes a grand kind of zoo for our entertainment or reassurance. But despite being such a popular park, Yellowstone is in some ways so spiky and scalding as to defy tourist gentrification. Its bison and sulphur pools can interrupt a photo op by killing us.
In 2020, a year during which many of the things that could go wrong did, I became more than ever convinced of the need of climate-crisis-mitigating rewilding everywhere. Rewilding with people in it. Weeds and bees, thorns and stings. Wolves, or at least coyotes, on our doorsteps. Rewilding ourselves. After extreme domestication, we need wilder children, unschooled in the outdoors. After decades of the taming, controlling, racist Wars on Drugs and Terror, we need an end to police power.
Who are we? We are the anarchists of the pandemic,
the antlers, the canine teeth, the boiling acid pools, the sharp peaks.