Thursday, May 7, 2015

Taking Elk Lines to the Elk Lines

Under the Beltane full moon, under the milk moon, I took the nearly completed manuscript of Elk Lines out to a little cabin on the Inverness Ridge, in Point Reyes, to walk it among the real elk lines of the land. It has been a wonderful and enlightening and sometimes challenging experience to send a novel out in parts every six weeks; it's the way Dickens and other Victorian novelists first wrote some of their own stories, and they too learned, long before me, that a novel written thus needs a good tighten once it's done. 

I edited with red pen on the shores of ocean and bay, hoping that I was leaving space, by carrying the manuscript out thus, for the land to have its say. To make sure my words do as much justice as they can to this place. 

There were flowers to be gathered on roadsides to honor the big old moon, and little clamshells to be treasured, for their humble history of nourishment.

The fog was in thick, so thick out on Tomales Point that it did indeed walk with elk hooves, holding everything in a damp palm.

I left bits of juniper from the Sierras in the pawprints of a gray fox I sat beside for an afternoon, pen scribbling away, tightening and cutting and smoothing the story into a new whole. It is a precious place, where a gray fox paw has touched the earth. 

The irises are still a riot of bloom. I don't know how they sustain their delicate purple petals under as much a sun as we've been having. They are so hardy.

I contemplated the three mile, ten foot tall elk fence which bisects the southern portion of Tomales Point, keeping the tule elk in. This fence was erected due to the fact that there are dairy ranches right on the other side, and a tenuous relationship between park land and dairy land, environmental interests and ranching interests... and elk, roaming totally free, eat the grass meant for cows! But something very sad has happened in the last three years, something I only learned in the past week. Over half the 500 tule elk on Tomales Point have died. That's 250 dead elk, in a span of three years. The reason is the drought, but it is a manmade reason-- since the elk can't leave to find year round streams, they're stuck with old cattle ponds that have since gone dry. So over three years, half the elk have slowly parched to death. This is really quiet cruel.  (Note also that the elk that roam free in the southern portions of Point Reyes, near Muddy Hollow and Limantour, have survived the drought in a more regular fashion, since they can travel to find water. In those areas, however, they come into frequent conflict with dairy farms, because they're good at jumping fences! It seems to me that the cows have more than enough room... I'm sure you can guess whose side I'm on here!)

People will argue-- oh, they don't have enough predators out there, some are bound to die in a drought, etc, etc. This may be true. But there's a deeper point--one of relationship, and of responsibility. We make the elk our responsibility by unnaturally fencing them in. And yet a cow, or a dog, would never be left to die of thirst. What does this say about the family of things, and attitude toward it? What is the "value" of an elk, and what is the "value" of a cow?

There is of course the even deeper issue-- who has the right to this land? Yikes. A big topic, a controversial topic. There is a lot of pride around the heritage of dairy farms throughout Point Reyes, and I respect and support this heritage, and all the families it has supported. However, cows may have been here for 200 years, but elk-- thousands, thousands, thousands. Who has the right to this land? It is a question that hurts in me; I love this place deeply, but I don't feel I have a right to it. If I could, I'd give it all back to the native people who cared for it best, people who are almost gone. But then, what would I love? Where would I settle down? It's an unanswerable riddle, but just airing it sometimes feels helpful. And it seems we can only earn our place somewhere if we love and respect all of the beings to whom it belongs, human interests only an equal slice in the pinwheel of needs and niches.

Anyway. I had a startling thought as I studied the elk fence from afar, noting the stark line of shorn grass on the cow side. I wondered if, a year ago when I visited this place with Asia Suler, the first stirrings of Elk Lines just beginning in me, when I first asked the place to guide my writing hand with whatever new project needed to come through-- I wondered if the elk, already dying of drought, had in some way spoken. Tell our story. Tell our story. Asia and I buried a quartz crystal in a patch of iris where we watched a herd of female elk and their calves graze. I knew with certainty on that day that my next story would be about elk. It became very clear. I thought of that quartz often as I wrote, hoping I was writing true. In my story, the elk are dying of disease, spread from the cows. I had no idea the elk of Point Reyes were truly dying in any unnatural way at all, until now. I wonder if this is partly why this story came.

I hope desperately I can do them justice in whatever humble way I can manage. Even if it is "all in the balance," and the "natural order of things," half the population here is dead. Brother elk, sister elk, son elk, mother elk.  Dead too fast. Don't think they do not mourn one another. It is dangerous, when we forget this. When we trick ourselves into thinking animals have no emotions, and therefore death by thirst is no big deal. I read once that when Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, heard a father beaver discover that his dam with mate and babies inside had been destroyed, the keening sound he made long into the night, circling and circling, was the most heart breaking noise Krause had ever heard. It reduced him to tears. He instantly recognized, in the part of him that was no different than the beaver, the sound of animal grieving.


  1. This post makes this animal grieve, as well. And it makes her wonder what kind of prayers and love she can send to her Elk cousins. What kind of wishes for water.

  2. What a heartbreaking story. I began reading your post with such a comfortable happiness - having left it to the end of all my internet reading, so I could settle in with a cup of tea and really luxuriate in the beautiful writing - but you've taken me deeper than I expected, into the mist and earth roots and heart of your land, the heart of the elk. I truly believe if farmers allowed elk to share with their cows, there would be no lack, and probably much good. Why are so many of us afraid to give anything away?

    I often wonder the difference between a cow's value and that of a dog or cat. We would not slaughter our pets under hideous conditions (in factory farming, that is - not all farmers do this) in order to eat them, how can we justify doing it to a cow also? But then, I guess we can find a way to justify anything if we want to.

    By the way, congratulations on coming to the end of your novel. I know the unique issues of writing in serial form, and the wild, magical feeling when it's all done.

  3. This is so sad to read. And there are too many other stories and situations like this. I will send prayers for the elk and your thirst land into the ethers. Interestingly, I spent this evening journalling about how the landscapes that we find ourselves in tell their stories through us and inevitably shape our experiences and therefore our writing too. I'm in awe of the synchronisity because your story is testimony of that.

  4. I keep trying to leave a message, and it's not working! So sorry if you suddenly get lots of messages appear.
    This is so very sad. What a funny world we live in that we go into space etc. but don't do the simple things well. Here in England often gamekeepers see Buzzards as vermin, because they eat the young pheasants they have bred for rich folk to drive around shooting.... beyond my comprehension to shoot for fun! Oh dear me.....
    You treat every topic however sad with such beauty.
    Much love and blessings to you. X

  5. I echo these words, Sylvia. I'm reading a book right now that I think you'd enjoy too; it's called "Make Prayers to the Raven" about the relationship the Koyukon people up in Alaska have with the animals and forests. I'm sure you've read "1491" yeh? Parts of that book really shocked me!

  6. Sylvia this is profound. I am deeply touched by your words, and by the depth of your own instinctive connection. I remember our day together so well, a fogtorn bit of it took up residence inside me and I've never been quite the same. To think, to see, to hear that you, songstress of this land, were already picking up on the heartcall of these Elk... well.... it gives me chills of awe and hope. Thank you Sylvia, for being the precious medicine listener, creator and weaver that you are.