We arrived an hour before sunrise. 14°. Too cold to simply park and wait. Usually we don’t have so much time to spare. Usually we go park by the Observation Deck where always other cars are parked. There we stand by water’s edge, our hands thrust deep in our pockets, our breath emitting small clouds of frosted of vapor as we wait the few minutes till the sun and geese rise across the water.
Instead this morning we slowly drive the Northern Loop.
Years ago, on our first visit to the Bosque to see the famous snow geese, we didn’t know where we were or what we were doing. All we knew was to be there at sunrise, when supposedly the geese rise up en mass. But that first morning we were clueless as to where to find the snow geese. We didn’t know the roads or the layout of the land. We arrived ridiculously early in the blackest hours of morning and drove around blindly, trying to figure out where to go. Realizing that no other cars seem to be where we were, we turned around to head back toward the entrance and look for cars of early morning birders, who surely knew more than we did.
We accelerated, backtracking down the dark dirt lane, only to have something in the distance catch our headlights:
Two enormous bull elks crossing the road.
In our scores of visits to the Bosque since, we’ve never again seen an elk. Snow geese and cranes and raptors and ducks and songbirds, turkeys, javelina, and deer, bobcats, and even — yes — even mountain lions, we have seen. But never again have we seen elk. We’ve spotted their tracks — we know several places they clearly frequent. But not since that first dark, dark morning a decade ago have we seen elk.
I was thinking of this as we made our way down the shadowed lane, passing the place of that one and only elk encounter ten years ago. “I wonder if we’ll ever see an elk again?“ The road narrowed into turns, as red willow and leafless trees drew in close. The road then curved west, and opened up as large fallow fields extended from either side of the lane. There, just ahead, in the north field on our right were several large four-legged beings.
Could it be?
My heart beat faster, as I grabbed my binoculars.
Damnit, just deer.
Sighs of resignation.
We rolled on quietly, past a loosely gnarled line of trees and brush that cut midway through the north field, perpendicular to the road. Daylight was advancing softly, as the fields glowed with tawny tones of rust and bronze, copper and gold. The sky was a cloudless slab of palest rose marble.
Something moved off in the distance of the field – a large dark shape with an area of pale. Near it was another dark shape, and beside that, another.
Five magnificent elk.
Four bulls and one cow.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we emerged from our car to lean against the side. The elk froze as they watched us. We held our breath, only breathing easily again as they returned to grazing.
In the field between the elk and us was a slightly elevated area — an old grassed-over road that cut through the field. As we watched the elk, something on the old road moved.
She was trotting toward us, away from the elk, when suddenly she stopped. Ears pointed upright, she stared at us. Then she darted east, her brindle coat blending and disappearing into the dried stalks of the field.
All was silent as we stood watching the elk. No tires on gravel. No voices or car doors opening and closing as we usually hear. Nothing but an occasional bird trill. A distant owl.
Then suddenly the hush sound of wind through tree leaves rustled overhead. Except there were no trees anywhere near us.
We looked up as a wave of ducks moved just a few feet over our heads — 20 or 30 of them in a wide vee formation. Not another sound came from them. Nothing but the soft wind sound from their wings. Barely open your lips and softly, slowly, exhale. That’s the sound, we heard overhead.
We watched their graceful line undulate over the elk and then disappear in the pale sky.
A minute later another whisper of ducks moved over our heads.
Again, and again, and again and again.
Off in the distance from the woods at the far edge of the field we heard the sound of gurgling laughter.
The hair on the backs of our necks tingled.
We beamed smiles at each other, grateful for arriving “too early.”
Grateful for this blessing of the Bosque.
* This post is inspired by the Maria Popova’s offering: “Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable….a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.”
~ Maria Popova, The Marginalian
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my post from September 2022 A Benediction.
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~ Dawn Chandler
Santa Fe , New Mexico
Free from social media since 2020