Wild Awake

Conversation with a Tule Elk

The tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore are widely considered a restoration success story, one that is steeped in local controversy. I hiked out to Tomales Point to catch up with one of the herd and get their perspective.

Thank you for having this conversation with me. I know some of your history in the Park, but I’d love to hear in your own words who you are and where you come from.

Thank you. It’s certainly a pleasure to be greeted in this way. People don’t listen to what we have to say anymore. We might not speak your language, but we do have a voice. We know it’s not easy for your kind to accept this, but you’re not the center of the world. You’re not the most intelligent. And you’re not the most important species that ever lived.

Listen. Every being has a voice. We are all singing our song of place. Your voice is but one among the many. If you want to become aware of the larger conversation that’s happening all around you, then slow down. Soften your heart. Quiet your mind. Open your senses. Activate your intuition. Ours is a language deeper than words. Older than time. Your soul knows this. If you can presence stillness, then you will know how to listen. The knowing is in your blood.

Who are we? We are mighty warriors and gentle mothers. Young and old. Strong-hearted. Majestic. Fierce. Curious. Compassionate. Wild. Your people call us “tule elk” though we don’t eat that much tule anymore. The First People [Coast Miwok] call us “tante”. We like that name better.

We come from a land where the grasses grow thick and sweet amidst the marshes. Where the creek waters run clear, filled with flashing fish. Where the field flowers burn bright in the spring time. Our ancestors’ bones are buried in that place. We long to return there. It is our true home.

We once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. We thundered across the grasslands. We rested in the shady groves of oaks. We lived in balance with humans, bear, deer, antelope, wolf, coyote, mountain lion and bobcat. We feared no one. We were at peace.

Then your people came along, and within a few seasons wiped us out. Only a handful of our kind survived. Some of our most recent ancestors were brought to this peninsula to live out our lives.

How do you like living out here in the National Seashore? Does it feel like home?

We’re grateful to be here. Thankful to be alive. But we don’t belong here. And we’re not free. See those fences that reach high into the skies and cut across the land? They keep us in here. Would you like to be kept in an enclosure? Would that feel like home to you?

Some of our family were moved to the other side of the fence. We can sense them on the wind, but we can’t visit them. We know they aren’t having an easy time out there. There’s talk of killing and moving again. There’s hostility. Disrespect. It’s the same story here. There’s no acknowledgement of our personhood. No recognition of our right to live free on the land to which we were born.

Oh, we’ve come to love this land you call Point Reyes but it’s not a deep connection. It’s not like we’ve always been here. Yes, it’s beautiful. When the clouds wrap their blanket of white over the land, our hearts sing. We have food. We have water. Although even these necessities have been scarce of late. But mostly we have what we need to survive. We have places to rest, to give birth, to fight and to die. What more could we want? To be free? To be honored? To be seen for who we are? Is that too much to ask?

And what about our relations? Where have all the others gone? The beaver? The salmon? The antelope? The eagle?  What happened to the predators? The wolf? The bear? The mountain lion? What have you done with our brothers and sisters? It’s a ghost land out here.

I hear you. I miss them too. I don’t have a good answer for you. Ours is a landscape of loss. But with respect to the predators, doesn’t it feel good to know there aren’t any around? That your young are safe? That no one is going to hunt you down?  

We don’t mind being hunted. Truly, we don’t. It’s who we are. It’s why we move. We live for the hunt. It keeps us alert and fully alive. We know what it is to be hunted in a good way. We remember. The hunt builds ropes of connection with all our relations. It deepens our place in the web of life. Without the hunt, without the predators, how can we live in balance on the land? How can we be in right relationship with all of creation? We eat and are eaten. We live and we die. We give and we take. All things are woven together in this way, in the circle of life. But when the circle is broken, like it is now, then we are also broken. We are like ghosts.

Yes. We have broken our relationship with life. Our people are broken. I’m broken too.

The First People hunted us with song, dance and ceremony. They made music from our bones. We gave willingly – our old, weak, even our young. We honored our agreements and they honored theirs. There was a sacred exchange. A covenant of reciprocity. We felt good about this. The First People honored us as their kin. They took only what they needed, and they used every part of us. They gave gifts in return, both to us, and back to the land. They gave gratitude. They gave song. They gave story.

They made the grasses flourish so that we would flourish too. They increased the abundance and diversity of the landscape. They tended the land, because they knew the land looked after them, the way a mother looks after her children. If you nourish the land, the land nourishes you. It is the central Law of Life.

Your people broke this law. They came and took everything. They even took the First People. The sacred hunt was lost. No one told our story. No one sang our song. No one gave back to our kind. There was no gratitude, no ceremony. Your people broke the circle. You broke our trust.

I pray that we find a way to mend our broken relationship with you, and with the land.

I want to ask about your relationship with the local ranching community. Ranchers say the elk are eating the pasture and drinking the water meant for their cows. They say they can’t afford to farm anymore if the elk continue to be here, unless they are “managed” differently.  Hunting has been mentioned as a possible “control” measure, along with relocation and sterilization. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this?

We don’t have a problem with the ranchers, or the cows for that matter. But you can see for yourself on the other side of that fence what the cows are doing to the land. On our side of the fence the flora and fauna are beginning to thrive, despite our large numbers in this enclosure. On the other side, where the cows are kept,  there’s overgrazing, erosion, invasive species. It’s turning into a dead zone. Seems like your people can’t afford to farm that way anymore, whether we are here or not. Seems like your people need to re-vision and restore their relationship with the land. Forge a new partnership with nature.

Why blame us for all your problems? We were here first. The ranchers have been here for a hundred and fifty years and we’ve been here for thousands. Doesn’t that count for something?

We know about being in right relationship with the land. We know about living in place. Can the same be said of your people? Seems like your kind only know how to take, take, take. But you can’t keep taking without giving something back. The world doesn’t work like that. One of these days your people are going to wake up and realize it’s too late. The world isn’t a straight line, it’s a circle. A circle of reciprocity. What goes around comes around.

Like we said, it’s the Law of Life.

The cows are OK. We don’t mind sharing the land with them. We feel sorry for them. They’re not happy. A lot of those cows are sick. We forgive them for passing their sickness on to us, after all it’s not their fault. They’ve had a hard time. Their wildness was stripped from them a long time ago. Their spirits have flown. They’re empty husks. Ghosts. Commodities. It’s tragic.

Do you feel the same way about yourselves? Do you feel like a commodity?

Yes. Our wildness might be intact, but there’s no intimate connection between us and your people. We’re a spectacle. A tourist attraction. Entertainment. People want to take our picture. They want to capture something of our spirit for themselves, and take it home. We’re popular with the visitors. But when you get right down to it, we’re assets. Material goods. Property of the park, property of your people. We have no inherent rights of our own.

Oh, we get love and admiration thrown our way but no one comes out here to talk with us, one-on-one, species-to-species, person-to-person. There’s no intimacy. No depth. No conversation. We might as well be cardboard cut-outs on the horizon. No one asks our thoughts or feelings on what we want or need. It’s all decided for us. It’s disempowering and demeaning.

I’m reminded of a quote by Aldo Leopold: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Yes. But he got one thing wrong: you don’t “use” the land, any more than it uses you. You come into relationship with the land. You tend that relationship, like a lover. The land is not here for your use. It is not an object. It is a living being.

One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation, was so that people would know that you have a voice, and that your voice matters. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Thank you. We want to be seen for who we are: nonhuman people of power, wisdom and intelligence. We want the rights of personhood. We want respect. We want reverence. We do not want to be confined. We do not want to be tamed. Wildness is our birthright. We want to live free on the land, the way we once were.

This land is what binds us to each other. The health of the land is the health of the people. We are all inseparable strands in the tapestry of life. All beings are equal in the eyes of the Creator – the soil, rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, meadows, animals, birds and fish – it is all One. We belong together. You can no more live without us than we can live without you. Our fates are woven together as roots and branches of the same tree. We are deeply intertwined.

Our message to you is simple: life is not a commodity. It is not measured by how much you take, or accumulate, but by how much you give away. Instead of asking what the earth can give you, ask what you can give back. Be a gift-giver. Create a culture of giving.

Give thanks. Replenish the waters. Regenerate the soils. Restore the commons. Repair your relationships. Re-story the earth. Remember who you are and why you are here. You have the power to remake the world beautiful again. It is your responsibility to begin this work, and to begin it now.

We speak for all beings on behalf of the wild earth. Life is a gift. Receive it well and give back your love and reverence. Wake up and join the Great Dance of Creation. We are waiting for you.

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