The bull elk was strutting his stuff, showing off for his harem, warning others off, in the fall yellowed meadow near where we were camped. This being Yellowstone National Park our campsite is in an improved and approved campground. We are in the Norris campground to be specific and the bull is the famous Norris Bull. For years there has been a Norris Bull, not always the same animal but always a big, dominant, massively antlered specimen of natural selection. And at this season in his life, wholly crazy.
We are in the midst of the elk rut, middle of September, trending toward October. The bulls are bugling, showing off their size, dominance or hopes. We have come back to our site as evening stretches into the darkness of night. It is usually getting into the end of day when we end our photo forays and settle in till dawn. The Norris Bull continued bugling, but seemingly with less intensity. The bull that answers sounds more like “I’ll stay here if you stay there” rather than “I’m coming for you and your ladies”.
Don’t mean to give the wrong impression, the rut is a 24/7 show. Night normally changes nothing. Here’s an example. In the mountains of Colorado, at night, once again near where we were camped, a bull elk is bugling and thrashing willows, polishing up his antlers and taking out his crazy on defenseless shrubbery. He was accosted by another nearby bull. They locked antlers and the night was full of crashing brush and cracking antlers. Not a good time to be out stargazing.
A near full moon shed it’s chill, pale light on the meadow and the now silvered and shadowed bull. In the quiet between elk song came the yip and yodel of a coyote. Not too far off, but then quiet. The bull bugles again and the coyote answers. At this point we are about as happy as we could get, warm sleeping bag and wild night music to sleep by. Bull bugled, coyote answered and then, in the space between, seemingly left open in anticipation, a wolf raised it’s voice. Hair lifts from the nape of my neck, an involuntary reaction, seems to be in our DNA, but thrill overides any ancient, long buried fear. Actually the fear is for the wolf, not of the wolf. Ours has not been a loving species. The trio continued their night songs, sometimes the notes would flow over one or the other but at other moments a singer had the space to itself. A solo that illuminated the normally silent dark with power and life and enchantment. What made this even more remarkable was that it continued until first light. This confluence of voices, discordant and beautiful is, perhaps, what Aldo Leopold termed the numenon, the “imponderable essence” of a place. That essence or spirit, if missing, would make that place seem wanting.
We have emptied too many places of their voices, of their true essence, landscape is a balm to our “civilized” world but it’s not wild, not alive without the “imponderable essence”.