Saturday, March 6, 2010

Day Six, Final Entry: Two Stories ("Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Muskox in defensive position, Nunivak Island, 1935

Close-up of muskoxen in defensive formation

Muskoxen in the wild, 2005 (Photo courtesy of Loretto Jones)

Day Six, Final Entry: Two Stories

In what will be the final hour of daylight here today, I will take the slippery curves of Yankovich Road and drive out to the Muskox Farm, hoping to get a farewell glimpse of the muskox. When I get there, I will pull the car to the shoulder, far enough off the shoulder to be out of the way of any other driver who might be driving this road near sunset, or as far out of the way as the snow berrn allows. I will have to make my way over that 3-foot high berm if I want to stand near enough to the fence to get a look at the herd, or any remnant of the herd that might venture in my direction. Since the farm has 130 acres of fenced pastureland and boreal forest, there is only a slim chance they'll be near the fence along the roadway or within eye-shot of it. But I'll be there, bundled and shivering in the late light of a day whose temperature sits stubbornly at the -13 degree mark, and I'll be there because only there it is still possible to see this animal living in a hospitable "refuge" today whose ancestors roamed the high arctic steppes over 20,000 years ago alongside sabertooths and wooly mammoths.

How the muskox endured and how this particular remnant of the species has come to live among humans in the 20th and 21st centuries is a story not meant for the faint-of-heart. Much of the story is riddled with starvation, hardship, attacks by natural – and unnatural – predators, forced relocations, disease. It is something of a heroic tale, this journey, and worth the retelling even if some of it is cloaked in myth and science, even if it comes forward out of prehistory and can only be deduced.

Here is an Inuit story about the muskox that was told to me when I first arrived in Fairbanks:

The people of western Hudson Bay tell how two hunters went out one day to find something to kill in order to feed the people who were hungry. On their way, two muskoxen appeared to them. These muskoxen had taken off their skins and were standing rubbing the skins to soften them. While they were rubbing, they were singing praises of their country. They sang of the beauty of the land in winter, how they wandered and slept and foraged in the long dark days of winter and how they always stood in light in summer. The two hunters stood apart from the muskoxen and listened to them singing, and they marveled at the beasts.

While they were singing, the muskoxen heard a pack of dogs and quickly put their skins back on and ran up a hill where they could defend themselves against the dogs. Soon after they reached the top, the hunters found and killed both animals, taking for their own the carcasses, the hides, and the song.

Here is another story about the muskox:

Fossil evidence suggests that early ancestors of the muskox crossed the Bering land bridge to North America around 90,000 years ago. During the early Ice Age, muskoxen could be found as far south as modern-day Kansas, but as the ice and tundra receded and moved northward, so did the herd. It survived what remained of glacial time by exiling itself to the ice-free areas in the northern arctic islands and Greenland, away from prehistoric peoples who were, primarily, hunters and gatherers. The early natural predators of the muskox were wolves, grizzly bears, and the prehistoric dog, all of who hunted and feasted on them.

Back in the Paleolithic warming, when the glaciers receded, giving way to boreal forests, other prehistoric animals moved south, as did humans. The muskox, however, retreated farther north, into the arctic tundra and the barren steppes. So, too, did its early natural predators: wolves, grizzly bears, and the prehistoric dog.

Muskoxen are similar in size to modern-day bison: 4 – 6 feet tall at the shoulder and 6 – 8 feet in length and the bulls are significantly larger than the females, just about the size of a Volkswagon. They have rounded hooves which allow them to move through shallow snow without sinking, to be agile on rocks and rocky steppes, and to aid them in foraging under the snow crust. They also have sharp horns – both the male and female – which curve downwards and then upwards, like large hooks. They use these to dominate other muskoxen (usually during mating season, in August and September) and to fend off predators.

Evolution has also equipped the herd with a way to survive in the harsh winter environment of the arctic: a coat of hair and under-hair. The coat consists of two parts: long, coarse outer hair – called "guard hairs" – that grow from the back and sides and reach almost to the ground, covering the short legs and protecting the animal from rain and snow. The second coat is known as qiviut and it is the lightest, warmest wool in the world, insulating the animals against temperatures that can reach as low as -100 F. This qiviut goes for $175/pound on the knitter's market and is known to those from Alaska, colloquially, as "Arctic Lace." It is in high demand and rare to come by since each adult muskox sheds only about 6 pounds of qiviut each spring. Still, 6 pounds of this qiviut is sufficient to make around 60 scarves or "smoke-rings," those one-piece, round head scarves that drape to the shoulders.

If the old adage holds – the one about a rose being a rose by any other name – then perhaps the terrible misnomer of "muskox" is a minor one after all. The muskox is not an ox nor does it have musk glands. The Latin name, Ovibos moschatus, is derived from the words ovis (sheep), bos (ox), and moschatus (musk). In truth, the muskox is closer to the sheep than it is to the ox and, while it does not have musk glands, it does have preorbital glands which secrete a scent used to warn members of the herd that danger is approaching. The Inuit call the beast by a more accurate name – oomingmak – which means "Bearded One."

Muskoxen are social animals, living amiably in herds, in each other's company. The survival rate of those who wander too far from the herd is, predictably, right around zero. The Alaskan wilderness is filled with tales of lone wolves and rogue bears, but there has been no evidence of a single muskox which survived while living apart from its herd.

The muskoxen are herbivores, feeding on sedges, grasses, lichen, and willows. Since green plants are only available in the arctic for a brief few months each year, the herd must paw through the frozen snow to feed on dried grasses that remain underneath. Often, the arctic ground is filled with craters where the larger bulls have broken through the snow with their hooves or, if needed, with their heads, to forage. Even under starvation conditions, musk ox will not eat meat or fish – and for the muskoxen, winter starvation has visited the herd often.

Late winter and early spring are critical times for the herd's survival: in spring, fat reserves are low after the long winter and, even in winter, such factors as worn teeth, old age, parasitic infection, and unusually fierce storms may force the herd, or much of it, into starvation.

All of this affects the mortality rate of the herd's offspring. Muskox females generally bear their first young at the age of three, living in "harems" of other females who are all under the protection of a dominant bull. The mating season in August and September means that the 8-month gestation ends sometime in mid-to- late April. By then, a hard winter and lack of food may have put the mother and her unborn calf at risk.

When time comes to give birth to the offspring – typically one calf – the female separates herself from the herd. This is dangerous, since it means the mother and the infant are susceptible to predators. But within a few hours of being born, all else being equal, the infant is able to suckle, to stand on its own, to eat grass, and to follow its mother back to the herd where it will have a few months of available food and milk, as well as the protective attention of the mother and the herd.

The Fatal Flaw

Every heroic tale I have ever heard or read turns around a single strength of the hero which, in the end, also becomes his fatal flaw: the thing which makes him great is also the very means of his undoing. The muskox is no different. The story of muskox survival is that it beat the odds in predation for so long because of its instinct to "close ranks" when danger approached. The herd, sensing encroachment or an attack, formed a stationary line facing the predator and then backed into a circle, or semi-circle where the rumps touched. Protected inside the circled herd were the young. If wolves or a bear came close, the agitated muskoxen would stomp and roar, and the dominant males often were seen rubbing their heads against their forelegs: a gesture that both warned the herd of imminent danger and also terrified the approaching predator.

The muskoxen, both males and females, would leave the circle only to rush at the attacker, often driving the predator away with a show of united aggression. If the predator got close enough or lucky enough to fatally-wound a musk ox, the herd would instinctively move to enclose that dying, or dead, one in the circle. The herd never leaves one of its own to be taken or eaten. That behavior has an almost-sacred primacy in the social order of the herd. Because of this – because muskoxen never left one of their own to the mercies of the predator and would fight to the death to insure it remained untouched or uneaten – they often simply wore out their predators who gave up, limping off in search of prey that was simpler to take down, one more likely to be terrified into scattering, a prey who would more likely let one of their own be "sacrificed" in order to save themselves.

But their story doesn't end happily. Not here anyway. The very strength of the herd – that ability to form a unified front, a tight line, which protects the young, and to stand against its natural predators – was the very behavior that made it more susceptible to its rifle-bearing predators. In the 1850s, whalers and trappers slaughtered whole herds of muskoxen, down to their young, in order to obtain the meat and skins they wanted. It wasn't simply a matter of being greedy, of trying to take that many animals at once; it was just that, as long as even one beast stood against them, they could not get close enough to gather their kill.

By the late 1800s, the muskox was extirpated in Alaska, disappearing here as it had earlier in Asia and Europe; its numbers were also declining in Canada and Greenland by the early 20th century. The muskox was moving, like other Paleolithic beasts had thousands of years ago, into world-wide extinction.

A Post Script to the Story:

In 1930, 34 muskoxen in Greenland were captured and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska. Once there, however, the herd was troubled by disease, by high infant mortality, and by general bad health. So in 1935 and 1936, all survivors and their calves were transported to Nunivak Island and released. Nunivak Island is a permafrost-covered volcanic island: tundra spotted with dwarf willow trees. More than 40 rivers drain the tundra upland. Brackish lagoons ring the eastern and southern shores, and steep volcanic cliffs dominate the northwestern shores. It seemed a perfect environment for the muskox, but a mysterious virus continued to plague the herd for many years. In 1979, Dr. Robert White isolated 16 muskoxen on Nunivak Island and flew them to Fairbanks where they were quarantined for a year in order to determine that the virus was no longer viable. They, and their successive offspring, settled into the Farm on Yankovich Road – 134 acres of homestead land donated by Mike Yankovich – where they became a part of the "muskox domestication program" conducted by the Large Animal Research Station, funded in part by a 1979 grant of $411,000 from the National Science Foundation for Polar Programs.

Even so, the muskox may not have continued its steady return from extinction had it not been for an ingenious idea by anthropologist John J. Teal, in 1964, an idea to "marry" the on-going well-being of the muskox to the Native Alaskans of the state's poorest coastal villages. A cooperative made up of 250 women knitters from these villages spins and knits the qiviut into scarves, smoke-rings, and hats, which they then sell on the open market. Because of the warmth of the qiviut and the beautiful texture – superior to that of silk or cashmere – the knitted goods bring in top dollar prices on the world-wide market and the money from the sales is returned directly to the villagers who support themselves with the revenue.

"Most of the animals [at LARS], except muskox, are tame and therefore extremely useful in nutritional, metabolic, physiological, and behavioral studies."
- Large Animal Research Station website

Even in captivity, it seems, the muskox resists "domestication." Even in captivity, something in the muskox resists "being extremely useful" for the studies of others, even the most well-intended others.

Saying Farewell:

Just as the sun is setting behind the treeline, just as the field grows shadowy, I spot something in the distance, something dark moving through the ice-fog. They are just far enough out that I can't quite make out the details of whether they are male or female or some mix of the two but, given their large size and humped shoulders, they are, clearly, muskoxen: three of them moving across the field towards something only they can see.

In this brief moment, the exhaustion and the cold fall away, as does the sense of impending disappointment that has been building in me for six days. My heart shudders in my chest and it is difficult to breathe. I push my numbed, gloved fingers through the fence to steady myself long enough to watch them move over the far rise, passing into the thick fog again and disappearing, flickering in and out like ghosts, like apparitions from some ancient time.

I feel tonight much as I did ten years ago when the muskoxen first lumbered into view: as if I have seen something that visits a human life only occasionally, something that goes on, as always, keeping to its own ways which are not my ways or yours, something so wholly itself and separate from me – like love or God – that I cannot fathom it, something that could both do me in and could save me somehow. And maybe that is the beast's best gift: that we – who are a people who so need certitude and assurances and guarantees before we invest any part of ourselves in anything or anyone – cannot know which of those two, at any given moment, it will be.