Nature Lesson

(Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife)
(Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

It’s 6:33 a.m. Most of Anchorage is on its way to work. I’m on my second cup of coffee. Three moose lie sleeping in my front yard. The cow and one of the calves awaken now, their heads raised, ears alert to something at the end of the street. The other calf is laid out flat on his side. It’s the most Zen moose I’ve ever seen.

I had planned to get in an early morning walk, which has been reworked into a second cup of coffee and respectful viewing of my night visitors.   Let them rest. I do not want to be the cause of irritated moose in the neighborhood.

Children raised in Alaska learn about moose sooner or later. My learning began with my mother’s folk sayings and my father’s alcoholism that kept me attuned to the emotional climate in our house. By the time I was eight years old, I was an expert indoor weather station, hiding in my room during storms, and cautious to appear during periods of calm. But, always watching for signs of change.

The weather outdoors was always more consistent and predictable. I was required to come home from school, no dawdling, take care of what homework I might have, help set the table for dinner, and eat, quietly. Afterwards, I was freed!

Quickly, I struggled into my snowsuit, pulled on boots, mittens, and a hat and stumbled out the door! Armed with my vivid imagination and eight-year old energy, I rocketed off the front porch into the snowy yard, transformed during the leap! No longer a sub-standard human child, I was a gray wolf, wary, watchful, lone renegade from the pack.

I dug out a den in a snowy hillBringing more snow to the hill in my red sled created a lot of tracks across the yard that looked like marmot trails. I followed those marmot trails, my imagination now transforming me into a small, furry, survivor. In the midst of collecting twigs and spruce cones for a winter cash in the previous wolf den, now marmot hole, my best friend Janey appeared. Janey did not appreciate my imagination, so I stopped and asked if she wanted to go sledding.

The last thing I wanted was to have my best friend spread a rumor around class that I was acting weird and running around on my hands and knees collecting sticks. We were school-aged girls. Your best friend was the person who could and usually would do you the most social harm. This did not change until well into adulthood.

We headed over to a sledding hill about a quarter mile away. B & J Family Store’s sold red plastic sleds along with nearly anything else you could imagine. I still see the same shaped plastic sled in a variety of bright colors. But, in 1968, Janey and I had red ones. My dad gave us generous lengths of parachute cording for pull handles.

On the way over to the hill, we goofed off, stepping in each other’s sleds to make the pulling motion jerky. Yanking the sleds past us to skim them up the snowy path, Janey got the idea to jump into my sled while my back was turned. She thought it was hilarious when I fell backwards on her. We were beside ourselves with laughter when the arcing motion of a large dark shape moved up in front of us, silencing our voices.

In the after-dinner darkness of winter, with our small animal hearts beating hard and thick in our tight chests, we grew still, watchful. There were three of them. We had not noticed the first calf and the cow when we passed by them. But, this calf, a large yearling, stood in our path, alert, ears forward, head up, neck and hump bristling.

Sound and time sank a cold stone into my stomach. Pay attention my teacher had said to the class when the noise level increased. Pay attention my mother had hissed in a terse whisper during a long sermon (weren’t they all long?).

Pay attention. It is an instinctive act in the wild. One lost to those animals insulated from less predictable interactions by the walls of residential living. The redundancy of a predictable life breeds apathy for the consequence of inattention. Until they demand attention, the warning signs are never even noticed.

I don’t know if I slipped back, or if Janey lurched against me, but the sled slid forward pitching us back. The moose’s head arched downward toward its rising knees and then it flashed past us. I don’t know how close it passed. In that time between heartbeats, my child’s mind remembers the soft beige of underbelly and legs.

They were gone.

We two sat in the sled listening hard to the darkness. Pay attention said the moose in a language understood by the deepest part of our animal minds.

Janey and I moved slowly off the sled. We silently rose and started making our way to the sledding hill. We understood the unspoken reality. The moose were now somewhere between our homes and us. We walked, watchful. Hearing the sound of other children’s voices soothed my fear a bit. Janey said she saw Steven and Howie. We ran to them, excitedly shouting, “MOOSE, MOOSE!” A small crowd at the top of the hill listened as the moose morphed from one startled calf into three angry charging moose that we managed to escape.

Other children shared stories about charging moose, an angry Saint Bernard charging the paper carrier, the weird neighbor who would slowly follow you home in his old green station wagon. We all knew about that guy. Finally bored of the stories, we decided to build a jump for the sleds.

On the way home, we remembered to call for the moose and beat on our sleds. We watched for movement and shrieked, flinching when a white paper bag blew over a fence and into our path. The walk was long, much longer than the one going to the hill. Now, there was so much more to see and hear.

Pay attention. And, we did.