The cat has a hard time breathing sometimes. He has a heart palpitation but we don’t talk about it; we just try to be a little more graceful about letting him sit on our laps and drool. I’ve been reading this book on taxidermy and at a certain point I imagine stuffing him when he dies.
This morning, Mom had her pre-op consultation at the hospital. She spent yesterday watching YouTube videos of knee replacement surgeries. She says that in Chinese culture, each time you go “under the knife,” you’re a step closer to death. As she and the doctor discussed the surgery, my mind was still on the taxidermy book, so I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to cut the knee open, move her muscles aside, break apart and recreate the joint. I started wondering if I could do it, out of love, like a service. But I arrested this thread of thinking as I had with the cat: there’s something hurtful about imagining the insides of someone you love.
Last night, I went on an OKCupid date with a six-foot-one guy with extremely nice teeth. Ever since I learned that I habitually grind my teeth at night, teeth are all I see. We met at the southwest corner of Washington Park and walked to South Broadway. Over pizza and beer, he used large words like “expound” and “synecdoche.” When I got home, Mom and Dad were both asleep on the couch, trying to watch the movie-musical “New York, New York,” in which a young sailor falls in love with a blonde, impossibly thin, New Yorker. I tried to compose a text to the OKCupid boy, apologizing for dating him and then leaving immediately for Wyoming. Dad made me a plate of cake and ice cream before they abandoned the movie, and I spent the rest of the evening scrolling through the Instagram of the girlfriend of an old friend that I used to love a little. It was Valentine’s Day.
Tonight Dad helps me load things into the car. Tomorrow he will drive with me to Yellowstone. Mom oversees to make sure I don’t carry anything heavier than a tote of canned beans. This will be her third replacement of her four major leg joints, although she’s still relatively young. She blames it on men who didn’t carry things for her. Her left hip and left knee went first, of course, being the side she carried the babies on. I feel bad for Dad, wrestling my huge pack into the trunk, pillows strapped to the side. But we both know that, later, out of Mom’s sight, I will carry many heavy packs, for many miles, so for now it’s his load to bear.
Ky, a biologist, holds up a bison mandible—the lower jawbone—fresh from the field, with gums and dried blood still lodged between cracks. Tar-like plaque rings the teeth. The molars are threaded with layers of yellow enamel. The front incisors reach up at us, curved and visually elongated by their missing, eaten gums. It is our first day of training and we are learning how to age ungulates. In Yellowstone, ungulates are the tall elegant horned animals with round terrified prey-eyes: the elk, bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats, deer and antelope, the elusive moose.
Ky touches the white edges of the teeth with his thumb. “To tell how old a bison is,” he says, “is simple. An older bison wears her teeth down over time until the teeth are sloped together, the lowest ones nearly reaching her gum line. In extreme cases, food will lodge in her teeth and rot through her jaw.” Ky touches the rotted bone of this 12-year-old animal. To reach this age is a big deal for an ungulate.
If predators are primal fear condensed into quick, powerful bodies, then ungulates are Yellowstone’s living sculptures, icons, idols. Their horns vibrate like symbols in different languages for the same words: I live, I live, I live. Over time we will age many ungulates, learn to differentiate the sexes and the way they died. We will forget our old fear of dried blood, ripped tendons, and burrowing insects. But our primary job is to watch the wolves.
We sleep in a wooden dorm with croaking heaters and kitchen sinks that only run hot. Because we are out all day, the dorm seems to exist only in the dead of night, weak fluorescent lights pressing into the black squares of the windows. Boots line the hallways, melting. The common room is filled with abandoned reading material—mycology guides, natural histories, the Hunger Games, Yellowstone reports, coloring books. We are separated by gender. We eat from plastic bowls with camping spoons. Our faces are windburned and our hair is tangled and flattened from wearing hats all day. Nights when we feel festive, we clear the table for board games and wine. When the winner of the board game finally plays their last cards, we are half asleep already, and clear the game with a sense of tumbling inertia.
We leave the dorm in the pitch black before dawn, our bellies hot with oatmeal and hand warmers beginning to burn the insides of our pockets. We drive through the town of Mammoth, where the road is melted from below by the hot springs. Floating luminous orbs are the eyes of bison traveling by the side of the road.
We listen for wolves. Our white government SUV has an antenna on the roof, which sends signals to the collars hanging on wolves’ necks, somewhere in the darkness. The white noise of the listening antennae is soothing in the early morning. When a wolf comes into line-of-sight, we pick up quiet beeps. The antenna is omni-directional, so we don’t know where the wolves are, just that they’re close. Sometimes you can tell the direction they’re travelling by paying attention to the topography and the quiet signals. 970, our alpha female, has an especially high-pitched beep, and because this is slightly easier to hear, we use her as our beacon and follow her, like her pack.
The sky gets lighter as we go, the mountains seeming to open it up. The silhouettes of conifers and burned forests prick the dim but brightening sky. We memorize not just the curves but also the frost-bumps in the road, caused by swelling frozen earth. By the time we get to our territory the signals come in strong, the sky becomes stark white. Someone said that things are coldest right after dawn.
It can take a while to find the wolves. We drive from observation point (OP) to OP with our telescopes, expanding and collapsing our tripods, scanning the mountains and valleys and drainages for tiny canine bodies, or freaked out ungulates, or, sometimes, a pair of ears in the sage. We become like the wolves. As they travel, we drive along the road or hike to keep them in view. When they bed down to rest, so do we. We have foldable chairs and tarps, always seeking out little bare spots to sit on between snow. Wolves preferentially sleep on snow because their fur is so warm. We observe them for as long as we can, every day, for thirty days in a row.
There is a trail sign that looks like a pagoda. A topographical map pinned to it like a Zen line drawing. Meditations on how to evade bears. A eulogy for a man gone missing in a waterfall. It marks the entrance to the place we give worship and spend many hours sitting on the bases of our spines, collapsing and expanding ourselves.
One of my partners tells me she has dreams of tracking wolves through an endless land of snow. There are other figures in the dreams, though she can’t always tell who they are. She works year-round as a Yellowstone bird biologist, and she will point birds out as we sit. The blue birds come out early this year. She says that blue birds aren’t actually blue, they just reflect the color of the sky. She says that to be a good wolf biologist, we have to be good naturalists. Connect everything to the larger weave. “If you tug one string, everything moves.” She also says that the more you learn about ecology, the more the larger rules break apart. The more the answer becomes, “it depends.”
Sometimes, sitting in the field, staring at sleeping wolves, I’ll get flashes from my dreams. An animal, unspeakably large, like the size of a major city or a mountain range, that I travel to see with my family. To get there, we travel along a bright-pink road on some sort of safari vehicle. There is not just one animal but several. The animals are four-legged, maybe some sort of ungulate, yellow, and sectioned like a robot or an action-figure dinosaur. In my dream-mind I understand they look that way because their size requires them to have different proportions than smaller creatures. That morning, my gums are bleeding a little when I wake up.
On my day off I drive through Paradise Valley in a light morning rain. The only radio station the car can pick up plays an orchestral elegy for the Japanese tsunami that struck Japan five years ago today. Images of cherry blossoms, flooded yards, and orphans compete with the pastoral places I pass. Horses, some with white faces and black bodies, spread over a yellow field. Silver-blue rivers lined with orange willows. The lack of sleep makes me feel manic and physically ill. If I can find a coffee shop and transform my winter mammal self into my human girl self, I’ll feel so much better.
On the way back to Yellowstone I’m hit with a dangerous wave of nostalgia. Everywhere I go I drop seeds and they tie me down. I get attached to things easily. I have a heightened fear of loss. I am attached to antelopes and to tall conifers in wind. I’m attached to snow in the sun. I’m attached to Nordic skiing, to spring in Denver, to Canada geese, to Minneapolis, to agricultural landscapes and wind farms. I’m attached to Indio, CA, to the Yellowstone volunteer dorm, and to burned college coffee. I’m attached to driving around with my best friend to find a place to drink a gas-station beer. I’m attached to waking up before dawn—to fire the wood kiln, or to photograph birds with Mom, to fish, to track wolves. I keep leaving bits of my heart in different places, and, like an invasive plant, it takes root, grows, multiplies. People migrate and take my heart lodged in the bottom of their shoes, transferring it to places I’ve never been, will never go. My heart grows in Boston, in northern California, in New York. I need to find somewhere I can leave my heart safely so I can stop carrying it everywhere I go, leaving it behind on airplane seats, bus stations, living rooms, coastlines, coffee shops.
As I drive, the sun sets and the landscape turns blue then black. Instant Deaths pass me in the other lane, their headlights boring holes into my head. Beside the road, groups of deer and elk graze, unaware that Instant Deaths pass them, blinding, burning-hot metal, a few feet away. Some of them step onto the road, oblivious, instantly transforming themselves into Probable Deaths, and I, not wanting to become an Instant Death, drive with my jaws locked, my fingers tensed, sweating.
Sleep is like a slowly decaying resource, trying to sustain too large and vociferous a population of human girls. My toes are cut and bloody from hiking. I have blisters on my hips where my backpack sits. I am sunburned. I am always hungry. But my body temperature is going full tilt. I can wear a couple layers and sleep in the middle of a snowstorm. I wake up warm; I sweat at the slightest activity. My body is a tool designed to walk up mountains. I pee preferentially on snow. The world is humming with colors and poetry, but I am too tired to do anything but watch and listen. And burn.
Patterns on rotting bones and exposed roots give me pause. I have a distinct vision as we walk through snow that the flakes are suspended in the air, and that the only perceivable motion is caused by our movement through the landscape. For a moment, watching the wolves sleep on a riverbank, I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the river. My mind seems unable to function at a higher level without grinding like worn gears. But on a slightly lower level, above sleep, latching onto simple sensory perceptions, it glides. My body is a container with no mass in itself, filled by the sound of the river.
I try to nap by curling up in a small corridor of grass between two rocks. I can’t sleep because I keep imagining ball-joints bending and tearing, bones cracking, tendons stretching. Sometimes, at a carcass, you can tell if a bear was there because he will turn the skin inside out. We check the hip joints of the ungulates to see if they have arthritis. Animals are designed to make it into sexual maturity—anything else is bonus. When a wolf breaks its leg, it learns for the rest of its life to run on three legs. In Yellowstone, you live and die by your skeleton, the color of your bone marrow, your teeth.
There is a sage forest I learn to love. The feeling of sage normally is that of frustration, because when walking on snow crust, sage represents islands of air where you will fall through. When walking over a field of dry sage, it doesn’t break or yield, but it’s brittle and constraining. It grabs bootlaces and pant legs. In a sage forest, however, the spaces between are large. The grass, the quiet, and the perfume are luxurious. I have been gathering bison wool that snags on the plants, tiny brown and tawny tufts caught as the bison, like me, take advantage of the open corridors between the sage trees.
One day, in the forest, my friend calls me from eastern Montana where she is birthing lambs. I lie down in the yellow grass between the sage trees and we talk. She knows I like to hear about her romantic life, so she tells me about a girl she met in Boston on Tinder, right before she took a two-week gig on a sheep farm. They talk each night on the phone. The girl is a midwife, and I wonder, in so many nights of talking, how much they’ve discussed the mechanics of birthing. Lambs in the predawn. Babies in bathtubs. My friend will work on another farm in the spring, and I had a vision of her working on farms with her partner for many years, practicing midwifery and farming, moving to strange places all over. From the badlands of eastern Montana to the suburbs of Boston. Birthing things. Midwifing crops and cultivating pregnant mothers. Animal husbandry. Husband husbandry. The smells of soap, blood, and wool.
I am so tired. Always. But now it is a tiredness with the promise of long sleep in the future. The fatigue of before was resolute and growing, a roaring white backdrop, an expanding tunnel. The base level for the endless humming of all my organs. But now I approach the old problems. Joblessness. Directionlessness. Tension with the people I love. Self-deprecation and general morbid despair. The little problems, the unique and sort of beautiful problems of the Wolf Study, are no more. Problems like keeping pace with my partners up a mountain. Problems like light, temperature, the slope of the rock I sit on for seven hours. Problems like wind, sage, the rigidity of the snow beneath my feet, during this step, right now. Now I return to the challenges of normal life: when I need to buy tampons, google jobs, buy gas.
On our last day, two pups chase some elk herds around on a huge, yellow slope. The groups of elk move like schools of fish, expanding and contracting along the hills and gullies, running and turning together. The wolves sprint around them like loosed arrows. The speed is mind-numbing. They hardly touch the ground. Using the slope to their advantage, diving downwards, heads up. The elk bunch and spread out, their white rumps flashing in my scope. The world is silent. The pups run without reason, without thought, only joy, not understanding that their joints are grinding towards mortal arthritis, not worrying about crippling gopher holes, not thinking about traveling uphill. Just flying in their animal bodies, on their animal bones.
Mom picks me up a few days before her surgery. We are in eastern Montana when I learn that she didn’t legally change her name, as I’d always thought. She just started spelling it differently at the age of 13. Nancy to Nanci. We stop at thrift stores and antique shops, searching for treasures. From Gardiner to Billings, we accumulate a saddle, a rattlesnake skin, the scalp of a deer with antlers, a terrarium, books on fortunetelling and Mesopotamian art.
Finally we make it home. Mom has her knee replaced and all goes well. The procedure is censored, sterilized. There are no snapping tendons or sprays of blood. As she recovers, I count pills, organize ice packs and meals, dispose of vomit and blood. The whole thing is deeply ritualized and almost festive, the nurses cycling through with syringes and fresh dressings. The wound has forty-nine perfect chrome staples that wind up her knee like a tiny ladder. When we transfer her home, there are balloons and flowers and pot roasts waiting. She sleeps for a couple of days. Seems to be on the way up, aging, as she does, in peaks and valleys—nonlinearly.
One day she decides she wants to take the cat to the vet, to check on his labored breathing. The afternoon sunlight in Denver hits us like something physical. When we enter the animal clinic, Mom’s crutches echo against the fake hospital walls. I’m carrying the cat in a cardboard box, and he seems like he’s about to have a heart attack against the breathing holes. Mom has always been a powerful presence, but her crutches lend her power more urgency.
They tell us the cat has congestive heart failure, showing us an X-ray of his tiny lungs, blooming white with either water or cancer. Make him comfortable, they say. And so, back at home, we start the death watch with cans of salmon and cups of milk.
Ellie Schmidt is a visual artist and writer working from Sitka, Alaska. She is interested in how storytelling can be used as a tool to investigate the emotional sides of human-caused climate change and wilderness degradation. In the past year Ellie has worked on a commercial salmon fishing boat, began work on a documentary film about herring, and sailed from Seattle to Sitka on a 35 ft. junk rig schooner. She is working on the fifth issue of the eco-feminist Selkie Zine that she founded with her friend Annika Ord, due for release in the fall.