A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rock 'n Ride and The Hearts of Horses

Rock 'n Ride claims to be the website for "all things horses." They might be right. I stumbled onto the site about a month ago and was immediately drawn in. According to the home page, "Rock 'n Ride is a place for profiles, forums, articles, videos, blogs, etc....a community of horse people sharing and exchanging ideas."

I sent the publisher an email and the next thing I knew, she wanted to interview me. The interview, a Member Spotlight, is the February feature. You can read it in its entirety at Ride 'n Rock. Meantime, here's a bit of the interview:

Question: How did you first find horses … or did they find you?

Answer: As a little girl, I lived in the same mountain community where I live now. We had a black and white paint named Bingo. My mom used to sit my sister and me on his back, with our boxer dog Ben-Ben walking alongside, and take us for rides. When I was 14 years old, I bought a half-Arab, half –quarter horse strawberry bay 4-year-old mare. I named her Romie. You can read about her in my memoir IN SEARCH OF KINSHIP: MODERN PIONEERING ON THE WESTERN LANDSCAPE. The book is the intimate story of transplanting 6 generations of Colorado ranching roots north to Wyoming, and starting a small family ranch. We had several ranch horses, but my favorites were Black, who we bought from a rodeo cowboy, and Tee, who we bought from neighboring ranchers. They were inseparable buddies until Black died last year. I’m no longer on the ranch, so having my new horse Farside is a blessing.

Question: What's your favorite horse story?

Answer: That’s a tough one. I read THE HEARTS OF HORSES by Molly Gloss last year when I was judging a national writing competition and was blown away by it. If I had to name a childhood favorite, it would probably be BLACK BEAUTY. Before this May's horse retreat in Wyoming, I’ll be compiling a list of the participants' favorite horse stories, and I’ll be reading and teaching using excerpts from these books while we’re at the Vee Bar ranch. It’s great. For 5 days, we get to live and breathe HORSES!

Read the entire interview on Rock 'n Ride.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coyotes, Sharp Shooters, and the Balance of Nature

Last Thursday, February 5th, Rocky Mountain National Park began their new culling program to thin the Park's elk herd. Sharpshooters will be used to thin about 100 animals from the herds this year, which if allowed to overgraze might destroy many of the Park’s aspens and willows.

That same day, in response to safety concerns when a 14-year-old had to fight off a coyote in the Denver metro area, the Greenwood Village City Council passed an ordinance allowing coyotes to be shot. A contractor will be paid $60 per hour, or $200 per day, to cull the habituated coyote population.

Two years ago, a disoriented coyote was found huddling in a Chicago Starbuck’s next to the drink cooler, perhaps the closest thing to a cave he could find. More than ever before, we are being asked to explore what it means to co-exist – with one another, with the land, with the animals.

When the Louis and Clark Expedition first encountered a coyote, they called it the Prairie Wolf. To many Native Americans, Coyote is known as the Trickster. The coyote is both scavenger and hunter, opportunist and predator.

In my essay of seasons on a small Wyoming ranch in the book Ranching West of the 100th Meridian (Island Press, 2002), I wrote these winter entries about coyotes:

JANUARY: “Eighteen below zero when feeding the cows this morning, the air crisp and clear with four inches of fresh snow on the ground. The Bear Lodge appears black and white, snow layered on the branches of the stark oak trees. The cows’ breath rise in vapors. When I feed the horses, their long eyelashes are white with ice. Coyote tracks, traveling fast, try to outrun the cold, but Winter has everywhere marked his territory. Embrace me, or die trying, he seems to say. Finally, he claims Romie, my beloved old mare of thirty years.”

FEBRUARY: “We visit the black Angus ranch of close friends. A.R. shows us a Lakota horse stick he has made from a single-bitted ax handle. Three raptor claws hang, with feathers attached, as decoration. The stick honors the Lakota tradition of honoring their war-horses, while ornately painted skulls speak to the transciency of the flesh. He tells about rescuing a coyote from a trap (not his) that the animal had been dragging on one hind foot. The trap became snagged on a barbed wire fence, painfully tethering the coyote. A shovel kept the coyote’s head pinned down while A.R. freed the animal’s leg. “I had a long talk with that coyote,” he tells us with dry humor while holding the horse stick. “I spun him around five times, then kicked him in the rear and said, ‘Go get the neighbor’s sheep, but don’t let me see your ass back here.”

MARCH: “Snowshoeing today I find a coyote’s den dug into the snowdrift up at the bone yard. The coyote has started an early spring cleaning, kicking winter debris from the den. The entrance is covered with deer hair, bones, teeth, and hide. It is ten below zero; still, the land is my constant companion, my deepest yearning. I am connected to the land in all ways, at all times—to the coyotes who flush white-tails from the forest, to the flick of my horse’s ears as he listens to the coyotes, to the wind that lifts our scent and swirls it among the barren branches of the oaks.”

And then this final winter entry: “It’s night. My son stands on the deck and howls at the coyotes. They howl back. In the morning, a brazen coyote follows the cows and calves in off the hay meadow. He is so brazen he doesn’t run off when he sees Mark, just crouches in the grass and watches. Matt howls again that night, warning him off. We don’t shoot the coyote, but we do claim the calving pasture. The ridges and ponderosas and grasslands we share.”

Now, it is not only the grasslands, but the parks, greenbelts, and watersheds that we humans must learn to share. Ironically, at a time when many of us seek out the wilderness, the wilderness seems to be seeking out us. We are reminded of the delicate balance between predator and prey, between grazer and grass, between the need to co-exist and the perceived need to dominate.

Ask Sister Coyote and she will tell you, perhaps with a glint in her eye, that she is a survivor. She will wait patiently with her Brother the Elk for government budgets to fall victim to the economic crisis. “Sharp shooters laid off,” the headlines might read. "And then what?" we will ask ourselves?

Read Living with Coyotes by Stuart R. Ellins
Read Denver Post article "Greenwood Villages wages war on coyotes"
Read Rocky Mountain News article "4th elk culled in park"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bison! Bison! Bison! The Red Canyon Ranch, the Vore Buffalo Jump, Artist Sarah Rogers, and Lessons of the Past

Mike and Kathy Gear, authors of a gazillion novels and owners of the Red Canyon Bison Ranch in Wyoming, just received the Bison Producer of the Year Award at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Their latest book, People of the Thunder, made the New York Times bestseller list within four days of release. Kathleen is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas (Department of the Interior), and Michael holds a master’s degree in archaeology. They can tell you not only where the great bison historically roamed, but they can also bring to life the pre-history characters whose lives depended on the buffalo.

Speaking of pre-history, I’ve been a board member of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation for several years. The Vore Buffalo Jump is one of the most important archaeological sites of the late-prehistoric Plains Indians. Discovered during the construction of Highway I-90 in the early 1970’s, the Vore site is a natural sinkhole that was used as a bison trap from about 1500 to 1800 A.D. In order to procure enough meat and hides to survive the harsh prairie winters, the Native Americans drove the buffalo over the edge of the sink hole. The animals were then butchered. Before horses arrived on the Great Plains, dog travois’s were used to haul the meat up out of the hole, where much of it was dried and made into pemmican.

Within the site are the butchered remnants of as many as 20,000 bison, as well as thousands of chipped stone arrow points, knives, and other tools. The materials, contained within 22 cultural levels, extend downward to a depth of nearly 20 feet. The Vore Buffalo Jump is open to the public during the summer months and visitors can learn about the larger picture of the cultures that Plains Indians built around the buffalo.

I’d be a lax board member if I didn’t encourage you to check out our website and think about becoming a member of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation. Part of our vision includes the building of a world-class interpretive site. Come visit! Kids love the site, so bring the whole family.

The site is only about 20 minutes from the ranch where my son and daughter grew up, and where I lived for 18 years (near Sundance, Wyoming). When I was writing the historical novel Shifting Stars, it was the spirit of the peoples of the Great Plains that most informed my writing.

Artist and friend Sarah Rogers, also of Sundance, Wyoming, finds inspiration in the animals of the Great Plains. Sarah paints with watercolors combined with graphite to produce the brilliant, opaque tones that her fans love. I’ve always dreamed of owning an original Sarah Rogers, but for now I’ll have to be content with a long-distance friendship. There are galleries all over the West that represent her work, though, so don’t let distance stop you from enjoying her paintings.

Archeologists believe that the Vore Buffalo Jump was used by at least five major tribes – the Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Plains Apache, and Kiowa, and possibly the Sioux during the most recent usage period. Today, many of these tribes, some ancient enemies, have united in a common purpose: to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands to heal the spirits of tribal peoples and of the buffalo nation. More than 57 tribes now belong to the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, and more than 15,000 bison now roam the tribal lands.

“To Indian people,” the IBC writes in their literature, “buffalo represent their spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature. In the 1800's, the white-man recognized the reliance Indian tribes had on the buffalo. Thus began the systematic destruction of the buffalo to try to subjugate the western tribal nations. The slaughter of over 60 million buffalo left only a few hundred buffalo remaining.”

A few years ago, when I was living in Santa Fe, I attended the graduation ceremony at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where my partner John Gritts (Cherokee) was the Director of Admissions and Enrollment. Graduation is a big event on campus, and in the Indian tradition, they put on a big feed. Louis LaRose of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska was asked to provide the buffalo meat for everyone. He considered it an honor to be asked.

When we first arrived, and all during the outdoor ceremony held in the “heart” of the campus, we could smell the buffalo cooking. After the diplomas had been handed out, and the guest speakers had finished, Mr. LaRose was asked to bless the food we were about to eat. Louis is a great story teller. He had a captive and hungry audience, and he wanted us to know something about the animal we were about to eat. He spoke of how, on the morning he went out to select the animal that was to die, a young bull separated himself from the herd….

This story is not really mine to tell, so I will stop here. As storytellers, it’s important that we understand which stories are ours to tell, and which belong to another. But I will tell you that the animal who fed us that day was the son of the lead cow, the animal the rest of the herd trusted to guide them.

A small buffalo herd lives within a mile of the mountain community where I live. I get to see them nearly every day. On my way to the grocery store. To the post office. Or on my way down the mountain to attend book signings or meet with clients. People pull off the highway to look at them. Parents hold their children up to the fence for a closer look (not recommended). Buffalo fascinate us. Perhaps because, like many tribal people believe, we are all related. And we are drawn to stories of survival.

Perhaps we see our own future written in the swirls of the bison’s massive coat. Perhaps we are drawn to a creature that reminds us that we can only move into the future if we remember to plant our feet firmly in the lessons of the past.

To learn more...

Read what the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says about the controversial culling of Yellowstone National Park's bison herd.

Read the February 3, 2009 article "Yellowstone bison could go to Wyoming reservation" in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Read the best-selling book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, "a hunt for the American buffalo—an adventurous, fascinating examination of an animal that has haunted the American imagination," by author Steven Rinella (Random House, Dec.2008).