Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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I left Roosevelt for Lamar a little after 6:00. Beyond the bridge construction site, where they were setting up for the day’s work, the road curved through Lamar Canyon, then spit me out into the wild space of Lamar Valley. At this hour, with no other vehicles on the road, the road seemed irrelevant. Certainly it was irrelevant to the buffalo spread over the vast landscape, spilling onto the road, across the road, down to the river. The buffalo know the road is incidental, some odd surface put down in the heart of wildness.

The beginning of the rut, the herd’s restiveness is huge. Bellowing, huffing, moving restlessly, urgently, bulls chase cows, chase bulls, while this year’s calves, some still red, attempt to nurse, attempt to stay near their mothers. A bull moves in on a cow, sniffing and licking the cow’s genital area, raising his upper lip, rolling back his eyes, ecstatic, ready. Are there a thousand buffalo here? I weave slowly through the animals on the road.

I stop at a line of vehicles parked along the road. Wolf watchers, the line-up the sign that wolves are present. Bundled up against the morning chill, everyone’s eyes are on scopes and binoculars. Parking quickly (and not legally), I grab my binoculars and join the group.

An injured buffalo lies in the grass in the distance between road and river. Wolves approach from the river, six wolves, three black, three grey. They move toward the buffalo, a black wolf in the lead. The others hang back while the black wolf moves in close to the buffalo. At the buffalo’s side, away from the horns, the wolf bows in play posture, the posture that would be an invitation to play on the part of a dog. Is it a test of the buffalo? Is he daring the buffalo to get up? To move? The buffalo rises. And stands. Not moving. Not backing away. Not anything but holding his ground. The other wolves approach closer, forming a semi-circle fronting the buffalo. I think they will attack as a group. The buffalo does not give way. He faces them squarely, the way a buffalo faces into a storm. He will die, but it will not be the wolves that kill him.

The wolves, who have been eating well the last couple of days, move off. It was a test. A practice. A bluff. The wolves lope off toward the hill slightly to the west. One gives chase to a pronghorn. Two others follow, but I’ve lost sight of the remaining three. The pronghorn outruns the wolf to join a herd on top of rocks on a ridge a little farther beyond. A small herd of buffalo graze a saddle not far from the antelope.

I’m told I must move my car. Finding a pullout half a mile back the way I came, I deposit the vehicle and walk back to the wolf watchers. Mary Ellen and Sue, the friends with whom I’ve come to the Park, have arrived from their campsite at Pebble Creek. Although they missed the moment of the buffalo, they are in time to see wolves. Mary Ellen asks one of the watchers if he’s been here long.

“Ten days,” he says. “We’ve seen all the megafauna.”

“What’s megafauna?” she asks.

“The big animals. Bears, bison, wolves, everything but a cougar.”

The glamour animals. Once, not long after wolves had been reintroduced into the Park, I was with a group of people involved with wolves, but talking about their totem animals. One man, who with his wife had taken on the care of a wolf born in captivity, said his totem animal was a slug. (The wolf had been used in commercials as a pup, but was scheduled to be euthanized because, as an adult, she was too hard to handle for commercials. For her handlers she was a commodity rather than a living being.) I can’t remember what the man said about the slug, but it had to do with the fact that a slug is not a glamour animal, not part of that megafauna whose power we presume to share merely by sighting the animal. The man did not need power. He had a wolf.

I know a couple who named their wolf-hybrid pup Totem. No question there about the animal’s meaning . . . but I do question taking on a wolf-hybrid as if it was a dog. It isn’t. No matter how affectionate and amenable wolf-hybrids are, through no fault of their own, they are a distortion of wildness. Nevermind that all dogs are descended from wolves, wolf-hybrids do not know who they are and can, at any time, turn. If no one took them on perhaps the business of breeding them would dissolve. Inventing an animal to serve some image we have of a kinship with wildness isn’t fair to the animal. And it isn’t necessary. Our kinship with wildness is part of our biology. We hardly need to look outside ourselves.

Three more wolves appeared across the river to the east. Two cranes flew over. A rainbow appeared to the west. Thunder. Stillness. As I walked the half mile down the road to my car in the beginnings of rain, a Yellowstone tour bus stopped along side so the driver could ask if the grizzly bear was still at the carcass where he’d been seen yesterday. “No,” I said, “but there are wolves.” I continued down the road, empty now that the bus had passed. No. Not at all empty. The wild essence of this place, the Lamar River, the grazing buffalo, the dying buffalo, the running pronghorns, the loping wolves, the swooping cranes, the grey morning sky, the green meadow, the hills and ridges dissolving into wild backcountry -- the Yellowstone world through which I used to ride, and which I miss—filled all the space there was. The road existed no more for me than for the buffalo. Neither buffalo nor I acknowledged the paved and manufactured world. We only knew the scent of things, the scent of the wild meadow before a rain, the scent of rain, the scent of the cow, the scent of the dying bull, the scent of an eternal world.

It has been a long time since I’ve walked alone in early morning Lamar. And yet, it is the purpose of my life.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner