Early October, aspen leaves almost down.
A storm has swept through the mountains leaving first
snow on the peaks like a billboard announcing winter to
town. Today is the day to go into the high country, dig
osha roots and bid farewell to the fading light of summer.
The Forest Service road I travel is quiet, just a few
preseason hunters scoping out the territory behind rolled-down
windows of American trucks. We exchange obligatory waves
– hands raised in quick salutes – scrutinizing
each other as our trucks pass on the road, perhaps wondering
what the other wants from this land.
Is it as simple as wild meat and healing roots? Maybe
we have not strayed so far from our hunting and gathering
wind plucks yellow leaves from aspens and returns them
gently to the forest floor. A view of the La Plata Mountains
opens up to reveal first snow on the peaks, a light dusting
from this morning’s storm. The snow is startling
after a long, luxurious summer, but familiar, too, like
once again seeing your friends in the wool caps they don
each winter. These mountains are where Dan hunts, tucked
away in the shady fir trees below timberline. In three
days, start of first rifle season, he will be out here
moving silently through dawn, hoping for a shot at an
I park the truck and with shovel in hand and osha prayers
on my lips, I head down an old, overgrown logging road.
The plants, zapped by weeks of frosty nights, are brown
and tattered, tangled together as they lay down for the
long night of winter. This may be one of the last days
to dig osha, soon it will be indistinguishable from the
other decomposing plants, or buried under snow.
My hands are cold on the shovel under the shade of old
spruce trees. The soil easily loosens around the base
of the osha plant, and I squat in front of it, following
the root runners with my fingers, prying them from the
earth. It is a small plant I have chosen, just enough
for one year’s medicine: potent antiviral and respiratory
tonic. I break open a root and bitter resin smears onto
my hand like the plant’s very blood. The taste is
strong, earthy carrot.
I am always surprised at how difficult it is to snuff
the breath of a wild plant, to slice into the earth and
pull out life. I smooth the dank earth back around the
wound I’ve created and scatter an offering of a
powerful herb from my home garden.
With my treasures in a bag, I continue down the logging
road, not yet ready to leave the land and last vestiges
of summer’s reign. Chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers
narrate my slow stroll, singing the dirge of summer passing.
The logging road opens into a large clearcut studded with
young spruce and fir emerging through the ruddy grasses.
Beyond the clearcut, the Hermosa drainage has settled
into winter gray with the exception of two bright patches
of yellow, autumn’s flame almost extinguished. Beyond
the leafless aspen groves, white peaks – Grizzly,
Engineer, West Needles – rise into the sky, reclaiming
their imposing winter stance over the land.
It is quiet here. In a few more days, the woods will
be filled with hunters and explosions from their loud,
high-powered weapons. How do the animals make sense of
this invasion? How is it to be stalked, tracked, pursued
while you are simply trying to live? I think of the mama
elk and their young calves fleeing from gunshot and a
deep sadness clamps onto my chest.
And yet, Dan has brought home elk and deer from these
very woods, and I have eagerly helped butcher, cutting
garnet flesh from snowy bone. On winter nights, I wrap
a thick elk skin blanket around my shoulders, and in all
seasons every meal of rich, wild meat is savored. I am
slowly learning what the animals have always known, that
joy and sorrow, life and death, all live in the same house.
I can only hope that my heart is open enough to hold both
the gifts of living and the pain of loss, not like opposite
sides of a coin, but as equal parts of a whole.
Looking out over the vast Hermosa watershed, I offer a
prayer to the animals, for their safety and well-being
this hunting season. May the deaths that occur be swift
and the lives taken with respect and gratitude.
It begins to snow. Graupel they call it, compact balls
like cold, wet styrofoam. I walk slowly back, feeling
the coldness wrap around me like a shawl and the land
closing in on itself, becoming winter. The few birds that
were calling have stopped, and the land is silent and
still. I reach the truck though remain outside caught
by the snow’s glitter, falling in my hair, collecting
on the ground in shallow piles of white balls.
Then, like the most natural thing in the world, a coyote
crosses the road in front of me, tail fluffed out behind
her like a furry flag. She stops on the other side of
the road in a clearing and sniffs at the ground. Her coat
is the color of spruce bark, grayish-brown stitched with
threads of red. But it is her tail that mesmerizes me,
thick and luxurious, like a banner of flagrant wealth
in this muted, winter landscape. I imagine her laying
it across her babies as they sleep.
The coyote digs gently into the earth, scraping up pieces
of dark soil. She lowers her snout to the ground and sniffs,
bringing the secrets of the underworld up through her
nose. Occasionally she looks up at me through the falling
snow and I freeze in the place she’s caught me,
leaning forward in concentration, blowing on my hands
to warm them.
She presses one ear close to the ground and pauses for
10 beats of my heart. Then, like an expert yoga practitioner,
she rotates her head in the opposite direction, probing
the ground with her other ear while keeping her body perfectly
still. Her motions are smooth and fluid, ages of instinct
choreographed into a dance of the hunt. She stops and
sits on her haunches, eyes clinging to this spot of earth
like ice on the north slope of a mountain. The snow falls
harder, pressing on the withered, roadside stalks of yarrow.
Watching the coyote hunt, I am let into an intimacy outside
of my realm. For this moment – as I am locked on
the coyote, and she on her prey – we are the only
creatures alive, and the snow draws us closer like a curtain
sealing off the rest of the world.
Suddenly the coyote pulls back onto her hind legs and
then springs forward and pounces. I hold my breath, waiting
for her head to emerge. She immediately rises with a long,
gray squirrel tail hanging from her mouth. The spinning
world stops, and my mouth falls open. The coyote walks
a few feet away and, without taking the squirrel out of
her mouth or using her paws, she begins eating the animal.
In less than a minute the squirrel is devoured: fur, bones,
eyeballs and all. The coyote glances up at me and then
walks back to the hole from where she pulled the squirrel,
squats over it and urinates (this is how I know she is
female). She then trots back across the road and disappears
into the spruce trees where I had dug the osha.
I thank the coyote for her presence and for showing me
one of the oldest, most natural relationships, that between
predator and prey. From death, life again is sustained.
I get in the truck, turn on the heat and head back to
town; the smell of osha roots, earthy and pungent, fills