In 2014 I lost Fenton Johnson the wolfhound—Mother’s Day weekend was his last—which, I know from experience, will make all the Mays from now on a little sadder.
Eleven years is a big number for an Irish wolfhound, and Fenton had made excellent use of every one. To say Fenton was intelligent; to say he had a wider range of emotions than anyone I dated in my 20s and 30s is really to only scratch the surface of what a magnificent creature he was. He was the ranch manager, hypervigilant but not neurotic, keeping his eye on everything—animals, people—making sure no one was out of sorts or out of place. Because of his watchfulness, he had perfected the art of anticipating what would happen next better than any person could have. He knew all of my tastes and my tendencies, and he was always ready to be of service in any undertaking—moving the sheep from one pasture to another, walking the fence line to look for breaks, riding into town to drop off the recycling, cheering me up on a sleepless night by resting his heavy head across one of my ankles, reminding me to get up from the computer after too many hours of writing and go take a walk outside.
This last year, though, the arthritis that first made itself known when he was about eight years old was getting severe. He’d been on Rimadyl—the canine version of Advil—for years. We had had good results from acupuncture, massage and glucosamine chondroitin. Doc Howard had shelved his country vet skepticism to give a laser gun a try and had been surprisingly impressed with the results, using it on many patients for pain relief, as well as on his wife and himself. But lately, even the laser gun treatments were reaching the point of diminishing returns. I’d been away for a few days, in Boston, when I got the call from Kelly, my ranchsitter, that Fenton was down and didn’t seem to want to get up anymore. A wolfhound isn’t meant not to be able to stand and walk around, however comfortable we might be willing to make him.
Months before, I had written on my calendar the words “This weekend keep free in case Fenton … ” and there was the old boy, as obliging as ever, doing everything, even dying, right on time. I flew to Denver immediately into a weekend that was everything all at once. It rained and snowed and blew and eventually howled, and I slept out on the dog porch with Fenton anyway, nose to nose with him for his last three nights. The storm seemed to have been ordered especially for the old boy, who loved the cold and snow most of all, who hated the woodstove and preferred it when I kept the house in the 55–60 degree range, who all his life would literally raise a disapproving eyebrow at me the moment he suspected I was going out to chop kindling.
When I could stand to tear myself away from him, I cooked—giant pots of soup and pesto and grilled vegetables and salad for the friends who had braved the storm to say goodbye. I had no appetite, but the kitchen was warm and smelled good whenever I walked into it.
There were times I was sure we were doing exactly the right thing by Fenton, times I thought that if my last weekend could be like his, it would be better than pretty much anybody’s last weekend I had heard about in the history of the world. Other times, I was in a flat panic. How could I be trusted to make this decision? What on earth gave me the authority or the wisdom to decide when his quality of life had crossed over some determinate line? And all that aside, how would I live in a world without him, without his tender presence beside me, without his increasingly stiff rear end galumphing down the driveway to meet me, without his quiet vigilance as I sat in a chair and did my work?
When it was barely getting light, I lay nose to nose with him and petted his perfect ears and said, aloud, “You did such a good job, Fenton. You did such a good job taking care of me.”
He looked right at me, right into me. He wanted me to know he knew what I was saying. In the gathering light he looked in my eyes not with fear exactly, but urgency. He said, Now it’s my turn to trust you, and I said, You can.
An owl hooted, some geese honked, and one of the lambs started baaing—Queenie probably, the one with the higher voice. I heard Roany nicker softly, heard him walk around on the crunching snow. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of a woodpecker. All the sounds the ranch makes every morning.
Doc Howard came at 10, through the snow, to give Fenton the shot. Fenton was calm—almost smiling—for the very few minutes it took to put him to sleep forever. I believe he knew what was happening. I believe he was ready to put his head down on my lap one last time.
Last semester, when I asked my class how many of them had spent the night sleeping in the wilderness, the answer was zero.
Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch in Creede, Colorado, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two 10-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and XtraTufs for corduroy and linen. Twice yearly, I became a teacher who rode her bright yellow bike to school, who formulated sentences containing phrases like “contemporary fabulism” and “Paul Celan—esque,” who had regular meetings with the dean and the provost and who usually brushed her hair for them. I read my colleagues’ books on Noir Cinema in a Postcolonial Age and Situatedness and spent a fair amount of time apologizing for my SUV and the percentage of my clothes that bear sports logos.
In Creede, there is no movie theater and no drugstore, and no one who would ever use a phrase like “Paul Celan-esque.” In Creede I talk to my neighbors about shrinking water tables and bingo at the Elks on Saturday night. When I go to the Monte Vista Co-Op to buy sealant to shoot into the water trough, and mineral licks, and big tubes of Ivermectin horse wormer, and Carhartt overalls, I notice how different it is from the Davis Co-Op, where I buy organic turmeric and homeopathic allergy medicine, and where people take their groceries home in environmentally friendly macramé nets. To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake and far too earnest to even believe.
In Creede, people believe in hard work, the restorative power of nature and, in many cases, God. In the English department at UC Davis, my colleagues believe in irony, analysis and verbal agility. God has been replaced by literary theory, of course, which has rolled all the way over, in the 17 years I have taught there, from deconstruction to Marxism with brief side trips into feminism and the postcolonial.
In Creede there is no need for literary theory of any kind because there is such an overabundance of things that are actual. Cold, for instance, sometimes minus 50 degrees of it, and wind and drought, and wildfires that can chew up 10,000 acres in a day.
In Creede, there is no movie theater and no drugstore and no one who would ever use a phrase like “Paul Celan-esque.”
When I began teaching at UC Davis, it was still the home of the poet Gary Snyder. It was then, and still is, one of the finest environmental literature departments around. But times change, and over the years the talk has changed from riprap and plate tectonics to cyberspace as environment, Prius commercials as representations of nature, the suburban lawn as (and here I quote) “a poetic figure for a space, or spacing, around or under figurality—The lawn therefore a figure for what is excluded in the idea of figure itself—the very substance and/as dimension in which figurality can emerge in itself.”
My colleagues are brilliant, and so is their research, which proves to us, mostly, our own absurdity—tending our lawns, saving the earth with our Prii—the hollow chuckle often aimed at ourselves. The earth is already lost, they reason, and all that is left is to study the simulacrums, the Man vs. Wild video games and Survivor. I understand that this is the new environmentalism, and I respect it as such.
Last semester, when I asked my class, as I do each quarter, how many of them had ever spent a night sleeping in the wilderness, the answer was zero, and I realized for the first time in my teaching life I might be standing in front of a room full of students for whom the words “elk” or “granite” or “bristlecone pine” conjured exactly nothing. I thought about the books that had shaped my sensibility as a young writer: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Silent Spring, A Sand County Almanac, Refuge, A River Runs Through It, In Patagonia and Desert Solitaire. Now, amid the most sweeping legislative attack on our environment in history, a colleague wondered aloud to me whether it was feasible, or even sane anymore, to teach books that celebrate nature unironically.
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe this is the best time there has ever been to write unironic odes to nature. I have spent most of my life outside, but for the last three years, I have been walking five miles a day, minimum, wherever I am, urban or rural, and can attest to the magnitude of the natural beauty that is left. Beauty worth seeing, worth singing, worth saving, whatever that word can mean now. There is beauty in a desert, even one that is expanding. There is beauty in the ocean, even one that is on the rise. And even if the jig is up, even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally wounded at our hands.
On Memorial Day weekend 2015, I drove William the wolfhound back to the ranch after 10 weeks in California. He’s a good sport about our time in Davis, but there was no mistaking the smile on his dog face when we crested the top of Donner Pass and got back over to the leash-less side of the Sierras. We stopped every four hours for walks along Forest Service roads or multiuse trails all the way across Nevada and Utah, but nothing ever feels better than the first pasture walk back at the ranch.
On Sunday morning, we did what we call the large pasture loop, out to the back of my 120 acres and then over the stile into the national forest, up Red Mountain Creek and across one edge of my neighbor’s 12,000 acres, and then back down alongside the wetland and back over my fence again. It was me, William, and another writer friend, Josh Weil, who would be watching the ranch for the next several weeks while I went off teaching in Vermont, Marin County, and France.
We were nearly back to my fence line when we heard a high-pitched cry, which I first thought was a red-tailed hawk, until it cried a few more times and I realized William had found himself a baby elk. We ran up the hill, called off William and watched as the calf took a few sturdy steps and then settled back into the underbrush where she had been hiding. Satisfied she was unhurt, we went another 100 yards down the hill only to find a dead cow elk, the blood in the cavity still wet where the coyotes had pulled her guts out.
I tried to make the hole in the neck look like something other than an entry wound—the tooth of a coyote perhaps or the peck of the little-known round-beaked vulture. I did not want to believe one of my neighbors would shoot a cow, illegally, at the peak of calving season, right here at the edge of my property, where my horses spend summer nights grazing the edges of the wetland. I didn’t want to think anyone would shoot an animal for practice, for pleasure, and then leave the meat to spoil.
“That baby doesn’t have a chance,” Josh said, as we stared down into the cow’s pecked-out eye, as we kicked at the wet grass that had been pulled out of her stomach. “It’s probably starving already.” We both knew the rule of thumb was to leave abandoned calves alone; we also knew we might be in the presence of an exception. Those unspeakably long legs, those airbrushed spots, the deep brown eyes, and slightly pugged-up nose. “I wish we hadn’t seen the cow,” I said, stupidly. “I do too,” Josh said, “but we did.”
We were both thinking of the two rejected domestic lambs my spring ranchsitter had been feeding, and the mudroom full of milk replacer. We were both looking at the sky, which had begun serving up one of Colorado’s famous May blizzards: the temperature was dropping, the snow was sticking, and the wind was starting to howl. “Let’s take William home,” I said, “and heat up some milk and bring her a bottle. If she is still here when we get back, if she lets us approach her, maybe you carry her back to the barn.”
We took our time getting the bottle. If her mother was still alive, we wanted to give her plenty of space to react to the distress cries once we were out of there. We drove the 4Runner around to the closest road access, so Josh would have to carry her 300 yards instead of 3,000. We found her easily, and she blinked up at us sweetly, apparently unafraid. Maybe she was already too weak from hunger to save, I thought, and yet she had jumped right up to get away from William.
She did not love being carried. She wiggled and squeaked like she had when William had found her, and I prayed a giant elk cow would come crashing through the trees to fight us for her, but the woods were quiet and Josh held on tight, and once we got to the 4Runner she curled up in the dog bed in the back like she had been doing it all her life.
Back home, Josh carried her the short distance to the barn, where we made a bed of straw for her, which she rejected in favor of the dirt floor, and I went inside to heat some milk. She drank almost two cups. She shivered in the cold, and I rubbed her warm with my jacket. It was at that point Josh named her Willa.
The internet said it wasn’t uncommon for cow elk to leave their babies for several hours, because the babies could not keep up with the herd at the pace of their daily grazing. It said the calves were scentless, and would not attract predators, and the herd would come back and pick them up around dusk.
“If the dead cow isn’t her mother,” I said to Josh, “we may have just done a really bad thing.” But it was snowing in earnest now, the wind screaming, and mistake or not, Willa was warm and dry in the barn. I did what I always do in Creede when I don’t know what to do and that’s call Doc Howard. He said there was a sanctuary near Del Norte that would take her and raise her. He told me to call Brent, the wildlife officer, and that Brent would come get her, take her to the sanctuary and, while he was at it, investigate the shooting.
“Now, Pam, I’m going to need you to trust me a little bit,” Brent said on the phone, and because of the tone in his voice when he said it, I did. “The sanctuary in Del Norte won’t take elk anymore because of chronic wasting. There’s a place in Westcliffe I might get to take her, but her best chance at the life she is meant to have is if you put her back out there, exactly where you found her. There’s a good chance the herd will come pick her back up.”
“Even if the dead one is her mother?”
“Even if,” he said. “If the herd has another cow nursing, she’ll probably be okay. I’ll come up at seven in the morning, and if she’s still there, I’ll put her in a kennel and take her to Westcliffe.”
It’s hard to put a week-old elk calf back in the woods at sunset within a 100 yards of a ripped-open elk carcass the coyotes already know about, but by the time we talked ourselves into it, I had gotten two more cups of milk down her, it had stopped snowing, and the last sun of the day was warming things up a bit. Josh carried her back to the 4Runner, we drove her around to the back fence, and Josh carried her, kicking, squeaking, back to the exact tree where William had found her. We didn’t know what we were going to do if she followed us, but she didn’t. She curled back in right where her mother had put her, and waited, we hoped, for the herd to come at dusk.
The next morning, I had to leave for the airport at 4:30, and the air was clear and full of stars and 29 degrees on my car thermometer. I said another prayer that the herd had come back for Willa, that her mother hadn’t been the shot one, and nobody minded she smelled a little like humans and the back of a 4Runner usually occupied by giant dogs. “We might have messed up,” I said, to whoever I thought was listening at that hour—some genderless Druidic earth power, I supposed, perhaps the mountain itself—“but we talked it out every step and tried to make the best decision.”
Finally, when I was sitting at gate B23, Josh called. The cow had been shot; that was certain. They had looked long and hard for Willa and found no sign of her. They had also looked up and down the road for a shell casing to help identify the poacher and had not found one of those. Brent would go up to Spar City and ask around, but he wasn’t hopeful he would find out anything more.
I have decent intuitive skills, which have improved with the onset of menopause, so I tried to quiet my mind to get a sense of Willa. For whatever it is worth, she did not feel dead to me. I know how potentially self-deceiving that sounds. But she was, among other things, a magical being. Josh and I gave her up to the mountain, and I believe the mountain took care of her.
It’s hard to be ironic about a dying dog. It’s hard to be ironic about an elk calf when her nose is touching your face. It’s hard to be ironic when your pasture erupts after an unexpected May blizzard into a blanket of wild iris. It’s hard to be ironic when the osprey that returns to your ranch every summer makes his first lazy circle around the peak of your barn.
Last January, I was speaking with an environmental scientist who said he was extremely pessimistic about the future of the earth in the 100-year frame, but optimistic about it in the 500-year frame. There will be very few people here, he said, earnestly, but the ones who are here will have learned a lot. There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from. Times when seeing the world’s bright beauty is almost more than I can bear, when my mind is running the grim numbers the scientists have given us right alongside. And it is also true, had I never laid eyes on Willa, I would not have spent five sleep-deprived hours weeping—often sobbing—in the car that morning on the way to DIA. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you.
And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact. The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have, and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, we are left with only a hollow chuckle, and our big brains who made this mess, our big brains that stopped believing a long time ago in beauty, in everything, in anything.
What I want to say to my colleagues is that the earth doesn’t know how not to be beautiful. Yes, the destruction, yes, the inevitability, but honestly, when was the last time you slept on the ground?