Thursday, July 19, 2012

Walking the Elk-Veins

The grass was pale with summer and the fog galloped up everywhere, like herds of elk-ghosts. On Sunday my dear friend Lara and I walked the Tomales Point trail from start to finish. The fog stayed with us the whole time, moving close to the ground, holding us in a small circle the whole time. We couldn’t see very far ahead or behind, to the right or left, sea or bay, so we felt like we were walking out of time, down a tawny dust trail, through light gold grasses that hissed in the wind, past herds of tule elk, mostly females and their growing-up babies. Their backs and bottoms are exactly the color of the grass, so when they bend their heads to graze, they almost vanish.

The cows (as the females are called) travel in “harems” that are constantly shifting in numbers and composition. Bulls, right now with a gold dusting of velvet all over their antlers, fight each other for dominance and then take over whole harems. Part of their job is to keep as many cows near them as they can manage, but the ladies may wander off any time they please, if they get bored, if they find him not quite up to the job of mating with all of them, if his antlers aren’t quite large enough or his bugle lacking in that eerie piercing strength. He will try to impress them by bowing his head into the grass, the tips of his antlers into the dirt, and dragging up dry roots and flower-stalks and dirt clods, so that his rack looks even bigger than it is, topped with four fingers on each side.

As we walked with the fog all around us, a little bit dizzy with the dry gold land and the gently rolling trail (once the path used by dairy men at Pierce Point Ranch to horse-and-cart butter, milk, potatoes, wood, nails, children, up and down the Point), it felt like we were actually walking on the body of an elk. Female, probably. Walking along a winding vein or muscle that lay against her spine.

Ghosts of the elk that used to be here, before they were hunted to death in the late 19th century and then re-introduced to the Point in the 1970’s, moved up the long sloping canyons from the ocean in the form of fog. 

I took the following two photos of a bull elk in a previous summer, a little later into the rutting (mating) season, when the velvet was all rubbed off his antlers. 

He was not very pleased at my nearness, nor at my camera. Right after this moment, he started to charge me, because I was starting to get too close to his ladies and their calves. Although I turned on my heel (with two friends) and fled, panic flying through my body at the thought of those antlers, later, I thought of him again and again. It was contact, direct, visceral, even if all that had been communicated was-- get away from my herd. Okay, I'm leaving. Okay, I'm sorry.

To imagine the land as one big elk body, her heart and liver the stones and hardened magma inside the peninsula, the grasses and brush her fur, the rocky end of the point, spilling off into ocean and cormorant roosts, her nose, her strong swift legs plunging somewhere far below into the tectonic crust, her womb, hidden where we can’t find it— this dream is as old as the human spirit, as old as rock art. 

Reindeer rock art from Alta, Norway

Great herds of elk, reindeer, buffalo, bison, these are the deepest roots of fecundity, of sacredness and plenty, in the human soul and the human biological-system. Somewhere still in our subconscious, herds of elk stir up the reverence and the need reflected in those rock carvings and caves—Chauvet and Lascaux in France, the Chumash Painted Rock in California, Alta in Norway. Hunter-gatherers probably co-evolved with ungulate herds— we shaped each other, in patterns of migration and forage, in the development of the human imagination. 

Her vein, her spinal cord, her artery.

Her fur.

Her strong square jaw and nose.

In the far north, the Arctic Circle region, caribou, or reindeer, the elk of the polar lands, who can smell lichen through snow banks, have been semi-domesticated for millennia by Arctic peoples, such as the Sámi of Scandinavia. Unlike the laden prairies and forests of California, where food of all sorts was plentiful and therefore native peoples never needed to herd elk and bison, the reindeer is one of the only reliable food sources in those glacial lands. The reindeer holds in its body almost everything a human needs to survive—meat, fat, blood, bone for structures, sinew for rope and string, fur so warm it banks out the chill, hide for shoes, milk. In some Sámi creation myths, the world is made from the body of a great golden reindeer doe. In the myth-time story of Meándash, rivers are veins of blood with livers and kidneys for stones, and tents are made from the skeletons and skins of reindeer.


Swimming Reindeer, male and female in their autumn coats, carved in Mammoth Tusk 13,000 years ago.
Sámi man, Lyngen Troms 1909
Sámi lavvu shelter made of reindeer hide, tripod poles hung with a cooking pot.

Sámi reindeer herd
They hold magic in their velvet-tipped antlers. The story of the human species, I think, is held inside that thick fur, those tough hooves. They've watched us and run from us and, some of them, depended on us, since the beginning. They've heard our hunting songs, they've given us milk, they've been captured and abused and revered.

Some other beautiful things from the rest of the walk, along those elk-veins on Tomales Point, with the fog holding us in an otherworld:

 A barn swallow mother kept flying in and out of the torn window-netting. When she entered, a flash of blue and orange, we could hear the babies cheeping away to be fed.

 A vole home, in an abandoned garden area at the ranch complex— Pierce Point Ranch, of which I have written so much!

 Two boats, maybe fishing boats, maybe steamers, carved into the wall of the bunkhouse, where ranch-hands used to all sleep, in tiny snug quarters. They are painted over several times, and still the carving shows through. Who made them?

An abandoned machine, all rust and periwinkle vines. I love truckbeds, barns, stone walls, that are overgrown, falling into the earth again.

The pathway, once used by ranch carts, all those old wheel ruts.

 A wildly twisted tree, right above where the Lower Pierce Ranch once was, halfway up the point.

 A bit more of the tree, with an ancestral dusky-footed woodrat nest to the right. They pass on these nests for generations, one rat living inside at a time, hoarding shiny things and acorns. Sometimes many nests are clustered together in one area, like a village.

 Cobwebby thistle, that silk around it the color of the fog, the down the color of a heart.


  1. Wow! Such a very beautiful post, Sylvia, thank you.

    1. My goodness, thank YOU so much Rima! I'm very honored you've mentioned it on the place of Twittering... :) And so happy to hear you've enjoyed it-- these elk-beasts really get to my heart, with their strange shrieking bugles and velvety horns. I always like to imagine what it was like here in California only 300 years ago or less when the whole place was swept with elk and antelope and bison herds....

  2. I second Rima. Very beautiful indeed. Thank you.
    You know, I'm sure, about the Deer Stones in Siberia and Mongolia. There's a magic to them that is mesmeric.

    1. Oh, wow, I didn't know about the Deer Stones. How fabulous, thank you so much. Wish I could come hear you and Rima tale-spinning in Scotland, sounds just magical. Have great fun.

  3. I third Rima!
    You spin such soul-singing beauty with your words and images.
    Thank you. It's always a treat to stop in.