Friday, March 5, 2010

Day Five: "Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Wary-eyed mother, watching over her infant, 2009
Mother and baby walking together at LARS - 2009
Mother & infant, taking a rest, LARS - 2009

Day Four, 2009 - evening:

No muskox made an appearance at the farm again today. I stood out at the road's edge for as long as I could bear the sub-zero temperature and, again this morning, nothing moved in that field except the wind. I begin to despair that I won't see them on this trip. I leave tomorrow night on the red-eye flight home to Pennsylvania and it will be summer when next I return to Alaska. To see the muskox then, I'll have to stand with the crowds of tourists at the fence, all taking photos of the distant beasts grazing in the green fields or staying in the shadows of the boreal forest that borders the farm. Visitors will be brought in by the busload and van-load during the summer months, and there will be noise and chatter and pleasantries and the strong attar of Cutter's mosquito spray. A summer visit to the muskox won't be what a winter visit will be.

Photos on the LARS website today show three new muskox babies born in April to the dams that staff members affectionately call Yakutia, Ravn, and JalapeƱo. These photos of their new babies must have been taken earlier, sometime in August maybe. By September, there would have been less green foliage on the ground, maybe even a dusting of snow, and certainly less strong daylight.

Within forty-five minutes of their births late last April, the babies would have been standing on their own and nursing. They'd have been handled, weighed, and checked over thoroughly by the staff of the farm who would have been careful in their examinations, making certain the newborns were "viable" and thriving. If needed, medicine would have been given, and vitamins. All three of this year's babies had weighed in between 18 pounds and 21 pounds, and they'd all seemed hardy. The staff at LARS would have been particularly diligent about caring for those babies, about making certain they were well and thriving. Not one of them can bear even the thought of another winter of grieving mothers.


Big babies, all three of them, and yet so babyish, so sweet-faced, looking up at the camera while their wary-eyed mothers watch the photographer for any signs the baby might be in danger. It is easy to be smitten with affection for the big-eyed, softly-furred babies; it is also easy to be smitten with affection for the muskox mothers who are tender and attentive, and always watching the crowd, wary of strangers, of humans in general, when the babies are outside with them. They look, to me, much like human mothers look after giving birth to their young: an odd mix of tenderness and latent ferocity.

They may be domesticated, these muskox, but they are not domesticated in the way cows or sheep or goats are domesticated. They have a deep vein of ancient wildness running in them, something that does not easily tame or give over to human notions of what it takes to survive. They are reluctant participants in this domestication project. They do not trust humans. They are uncomfortable too with people, even with those who tend them and feed them and watch over them at LARS. No wonder, given their history. . . .

Continuation: Day Five, 2009

Today is my last chance to see the muskox. I am being brave about the possibility that they will not appear again, that I will be hanging there, at the edge of that fence, knee-deep in snowdrifts, waiting for something that came to me once but which does not come again when I need or want it most. It's a wretched day: -13 degrees and sunny enough to melt the top layer of snow into a hard crust of ice. "Back-breakers" is what we used to call days like this when I lived and worked here. Back-breakers. Pelvic-busters. Spine-shatterers. Even when we strapped the ice-grippers onto our boots, we knew they weren't sufficient to keep us intact if we took that spill on solid ice. We held onto cars and to rails and to each other, whatever was available. If one seemed to slip or stumble though, we let go. That was the rule. Better only one go down hard than the whole group end up busted to pieces and in traction or surgery.

To console myself today, in the face of what is looking like inevitable disappointment, I am going over what I know of muskox and their long history in the arctic and with humans. It's a story I know well enough by now. I'm holding to it today like a child holds to a story when he's lost in the woods. It may not end happily-ever-after but, even as children, we'd mostly known that part of any story was untrue. I hold to that story today, and tell it to the waitress in my favorite local restaurant – The Bakery – where I have come to warm up and have my morning cup. I have known her for many years now, that waitress, and I have come here, this morning, to say hello to her again – and to say farewell to her again.

I know it could be otherwise: I could come here one day expecting to see her moving from table to table, smiling, chatting up the regulars, making a fuss over their children and babies. I don't know her last name or where she lives. This restaurant where she works is our only meeting-ground. She is accustomed by now to my fickle comings and goings. Still, she greets me with that bear hug that sends the air rushing from my lungs. Still she brings me, without asking, hot coffee and two little bowls of half-and-half creamers because she remembers I like my coffee sweet with lots of cream.

We play the same game we always play: she asks when I'm coming back to stay. I say, Who knows? Maybe one day. Maybe not. She says, you gonna tell me that story about the muskox again sometime? I nod and say, Sure. Anytime. When's your break?

But she can't afford a break, not with work like this. Not with the measly tips I see on the tables here: pocket change. A few silver coins. Big meals. Big appetites. Small tips.

So I look beyond the almost-daily injustice of her job and the bone-weary exhaustion she must endure in her work, and she stands there smiling down at me at the table's edge, holding her near-empty pot of coffee, listening to the story I tell as if she's not heard it fifty times already over the past eleven years, and she listens again as if it's the most astonishing thing she's ever heard. That's how I tell it here again for you, for her, as if it were a new story and I am telling it for the first time. . . .