Research is not a dirty word. Or: A story about an elk, an eagle, and two-hearted women

Bull elk on Lookout Mountain
 in snowstorm
Writing is not just about what we already know.  It's also about what we wish we knew.  At this juncture, where facts and experience meet curiosity, inspiration takes root.  Passion and our emotional connection to a story may form the heart, but research gives a story legs; it keeps the story moving forward and keeps writer and reader engaged.  Research is exploration.  It is venturing into unknown territory, and the tension created between knowing, and not knowing, like a taut rubber band, can catapult us into someplace new.

Take this elk, for instance.  Large antlers serve bull elk well during the rut, when they're sparring to test strength and endurance and hopefully gather up a harem of cows. But twice this winter, my neighbors and I have seen big bulls tangle with the orange plastic mesh fencing used on construction sites. This particular bull is a member of the large herd that lives here in our mountain community, and we've all been concerned about him. "When do elk shed their antlers?" a neighbor asked. "March or April," I answered, then I called my son in Montana to confirm.  "Yep," he said, "late winter or early spring." 

I call this grassroots research.  And it piqued my curiosity.  Eventually the antlers end up on the forest floor where they provide calcium for chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. You can tell a rodent-chewed antler by the teeth carving. I found this ornamental tine when hiking on our Wyoming ranch several years ago.  What causes elk or deer to shed their antlers?  Lowered testosterone levels (which vary from animal to animal) cause the bond where the antlers join the pedicle to weaken.  I learned that
Deer tine found in the Black Hills
when I was involved with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but I went online to verify.  Since I'm not a wildlife biologist, I also have to trust what my wildlife biologist friends tell me.  I call these second-hand resources, which lead to half-assed but well-intentioned and oftentimes reliable research. 

Even Jack London had to rely on second-hand research.  Many of the tales he wrote, and we love, he first heard sitting in the Klondike bars up at Dawson in the Yukon. 

Photo by Gary Caskey Photography,
Vee Bar Guest Ranch, Wyoming, during 2009
Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat
Here's another example of second-hand research.  Yesterday, I was sifting through my journals looking for passages that explored the sounds of the Colorado Plateau through the written word.  We are quietI wrote last year at Black Rock in Westwater Canyon, even before we see the eagle's dark mottled body enter the blue breath of morning.  Then the young eagle whistled, a long high-pitched piping that echoed from the canyon walls.  Only I hadn't written the word "piping" in my journal.  That word made its way into my revised journaling only yesterday, when I happened onto Cornell Lab's site, All About Birds. 
What is familiar is comfortable. What is unknown, is worth pursuing, at least for writers. Writers are, if nothing else, hunters of words and story.  We are studies in contradiction, enjoying our comfort zones yet always yearning to move beyond them.

This dual dynamic exists in our most memorable characters, too, who are often contradictions with opposing forces pulling at them.  Years ago, when a female character began forming for my novel  All the Water Yet to Come, I heard Colorado poet Anita Jepson-Gilbert read her poem "Everywoman" (the title poem of her new and powerful collection). 


harbors two hearts one    faithful and
Roxanne Swentzell & Rose Simpson
during 2009 river trip with Page
wise as swallows
who return each year
to churches    barns
to nest with mate    and
brood solidly against the wall
shielded from shearing wind
the storms of chance

but deep beneath the bones
encased and bolted tight
she bears another heart
flapping raptor wings
that ache for solitary flight
to scale the sky
to heights unkown
then plunge to earth
in wild pursuit.

As writers, we must explore - we must allow our creative vision to soar, but we must then tether our words to the rock-solid earth with research that will give our stories and poems a lasting foundation.

To purchase Everywoman, contact Anita Jepson-Gilbert.
Post a comment about this article by Page Lambert.


Wild_Bill said…
I liked the pace of this Page. This short piece of writing was both informative and heart felt.

I am an ecologist, and I still have to research much of what I write about. Even if you think you know something ideas change. It is always wise to make confirmations about facts and even the reasons behind opinions.

The orange snow fence caught up in the elk antlers gave me a chuckle. It looks they are wearing hunter orange to avoid being harvested during hunting season. Hopefully this gruesome color didn't keep the ladies away. After all its not very manly, er, bully.

Thanks for sharing this I really enjoyed it.
Hi Bill. Glad you liked this short piece. I like your comment about "the reasons behind opinions." Adds a new element. The photos of these bulls were taken post-rut, just a few weeks ago. The bull that was seen earlier with netting caught in his antlers might have had a harder time with the ladies, as that was several months ago. The fear, of course, is that the plastic will get caught in a tree, literally tethering the elk. Not a good way to die.
Nanette Levin said…

Honestly, I was drawn to click through (I subscribe to your newsletter via e-mail) because I couldn't figure out what was on the Elk's antlers, so this was a great way to pique my interest (from a marketing standpoint). To me, it looked like some kind of Christmas decoration and I figured he was someone's pet.

Personally, I'm a big believer in primary research (which would include the talks you have with others). Sometimes direct experience offers greater insights than what you can cull from outdated studies and learned journals.

I very much enjoyed your blog post and will continue checking back.
Heidiwriter said…
Wonderful, Page. I love your take on research. That's one of the things I love about writing--you are always learning!
Nanette, so glad the photo of the elk piqued your interest. We worry about the plastic getting caught on the antlers because it can become caught on fencing,trees, etc. I'm also glad you made the comment about primary research including direct conversations we have with others. Guess there's a difference between courtroom hearsay, and personal experiences that reveal information. Thank you.
That's one of the things I love about writing too, Heidi. We are always learning something new!
Millicent said…
I really enjoyed reading about the elk and the shedding of their antlers. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to two things: rodeos in Cody, Wyoming and nature films.

Millicent Borges Accardi
Injuring Eternity
Millicent, thanks for sharing your Wyoming memories. I'm looking forward to reading Injuring Eternity. If it's anything like the poems you shared with me when we were fellows at Jentel, it will be great!
Pat, Colorado said…
Page, I appreciate the reminder that research is not a distraction, as I sometimes find myself at some obscure site on the Internet. It does fuel our full expression. As I'm writing about Thailand I find that even relating my personal experience I need to search for that fullness.
Hi Pat. Oh, that is the tricky thing about research – sometimes it is a distraction! The skill (and discipline), I think, lies in staying focused and realizing when we have ceased to pursue research pertinent to our task at hand, and are off on some fun but perhaps wild goose chase. I try to tamp down my curiosity at times like this by keeping track of interesting links, articles, etc., for future use. At least that way I feel I can go back to them at a later date and return to more relevant research. But your Thailand project! Yes, research will fill out those personal experiences and make them more accessible to others. Good luck!

Linda said…
Thanks for this great post. I don't think of myself as much of a researcher, but because I'm always afraid of getting the details wrong, I'm always verifying that which I think I know. Just as you point out, the process of verification often leads me into new and interesting territory.
Linda, thanks for taking a moment to read the new post. The new territory is always fun to explore, yes? Good luck as you venture forth!
Karen O'Connell said…
As always I'm taken by your writing in several directions branching off from your thoughts. From the worry about the impact of humans on the world (and elk) to the beauty of a rodent-whittled antler to the question of "What is research?" It was very thought-provoking.

It's the latter thought that made me stop and read twice. As writers we can't be contained at what we know, or even at what we hope to know. We may get some of the 'facts' wrong. The 'facts' may change. We may see them differently than someone else.

But the curiousity, the passion and joy of going down the rabbit-holes of research. A chance conversation at the BigO Tires, talking over live coverage of the rescue of trapped minors becomes a thirst to know about the Niobrara Shale formation. A rabbit hole? A waste? Maybe. Or maybe it's research. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
Karen, what a great comment - I love your "rabbit hole" image and the way you share your own thoughts as they jump from one idea/concept/image, to another. Thank you!

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