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Elk Deaths Revisited



In reality, each animal in creation has hundreds of lessons to impart, and all of those lessons are powers that can be called upon.


Jamie Sams and David Carson in Medicine Cards

I am tired of thinking about technology and would like to return to the subject of nature. Besides, I had promised to follow up on the mysterious elk die-off in northern New Mexico late in August.

I left my post of September 17 (“The Scary Side of Green”) on the note that diagnostic labs in New Mexico, Texas, and Georgia were working on the puzzle of what had killed more than 100 elk over 24 hours. There was much speculation about the cause–anthrax, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, botulism, and malicious poisoning among other things.

Even as the research was under way, a wildlife disease specialist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish admitted that the mystery might never be solved. Nevertheless, after about two months an explanation was offered.

Near a corridor between the place where the elk may have grazed and a grove of trees where they could rest in the shade, there was a fiberglass livestock tank. In it were found traces of Anabaena, a type of blue-green algae that can bloom under a combination of conditions. These include warm temperatures and a certain amount of nutrients and sunlight. Sometimes the Anabaena can produce a short-lived neurotoxin called anatoxin-a. Within four to 12 hours after being ingested, the neurotoxin is fatal to an animal.

This sounds like a “Black Swan” moment for the elk. It was probably not known that the fiberglass tank could be deadly. (There was no evidence of algae in earthen tanks.) What were the odds that all of the conditions necessary to the production of a neurotoxin would occur simultaneously?

The conclusion reached by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was not entirely satisfactory, and there were people who found an explanation they preferred. On watching the news video of the elk carcasses scattered over the ranch, they discovered a clue. In the background appeared a mysterious circle in the grass, a Crop Circle it was called. Aliens must have killed the elk.

Anything is possible, I guess; but I would like to focus on yet another aspect of this tragedy. The eerie, whistling, squealing bugle the male elk sounds during the fall rutting season is like no other in this world. People travel many miles just to hear the call beginning at dusk and continuing through dawn.

We don’t all resonate in that way with the same creatures. However, given a moment to think about it, most of us can come up with one we have a special interest in, a being whose ways are instructive or inspiring somehow. Perhaps it has appeared in dreams, been the whole point of visiting a zoo when we were young, or appeared in favorite books or movies. There may even have been a scary, real-life encounter.

A naturalist and mystic named Ted Andrews has written a number of books, including Animal Speak, that may help the reader pinpoint the significance of his or her interest. The inquiry could help us understand more about ourselves or access guidance through the characteristics of this creature.

If none in particular comes to mind, it may do so through an exercise Andrews provides to identify what he calls a totem. As he understands it, a totem is “any natural object, animal, or being to whose phenomena and energy you feel closely associated during your life.” (We can have more than one throughout life.) When I did the exercise, and influenced by a documentary I had seen in high school, an elk came up for me.

The Olympic Elk

When I read about elk, I immediately understood why this image would resurface. I had realized by this time that my greatest achievements as a writer would come late in life. The quality elk is most closely associated with is “stamina.” I knew I was going to need it for the long haul.

Elk are not speedy, but they know how to pace themselves and can go at a fast trot for great distances. They also have tremendous strength in their forequarters, which enables them to leap over obstacles and climb steadily. A predator like a mountain lion pursuing at high speed in leaps and bounds may tire before it can attack.

Antlers are symbolically associated with higher perception, and sometimes the bull elk lifts its head as though using them as receivers. I took this characteristic as the need in my own life to stay “tuned in” through reading, research, and observation.

I’m using my own experience just as an example of how a wild creature can be a great teacher if we take the trouble to study its way of being. I think it is important every now and then to get out and be with nature. When we are in relationship with it, nothing is an accident. We used to be part of it, after all, and every sighting and every encounter can be the source of guidance if we’re paying attention.

And that leads to my question for the reader: What creature lives in your own awareness as being especially interesting, moving, or beautiful? Perhaps its presence is important. The idea among shamans is that you didn’t choose it, but that it chose to manifest in your consciousness for a special reason. It is an interesting idea and one that would enable all of us to feel a little more attuned to and a little more invested in the preservation of a natural world that is rapidly slipping away.



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