A Socratic Rancher 2-8-10
On a late fall hike up San Luis Peak, myself and three companions crossed over the second ridge in patchy fog at about 7 a.m. As the sun arborized through the clouds, we nearly collided with a regiment of elk numbering at least 30, mostly bulls, standing in rough formation about a 100 feet away on a cleft in a massive rockfall.
Upon seeing us, the herd stood its collective ground, individual heads bobbing, as if gathering and adjudicating a measure of our scent, and hence an assessment of the danger we posed. We, too, froze, both startled and amazed. I became quickly apprehensive, as we didn’t have a rapid route of retreat any more than the herd did. We’d just clambered up a steep stretch of scree, which I would never be able to scramble down in a hurry. The herd stood on a precarious geologic notch in the mountain, with steep terrain both up and down.
One of my companions said, “It’s OK, we’re not going to hurt you,” unable to resist the temptation to talk to another species.
Others said, in turn, “Just stand still.” “Don’t move or say anything.” “Holy Mother of …”
The scene reminded me of an ancient Native American tale about buffalo who went to the top of a mountain in a severe blizzard, pursued by starving hunters who witnessed the buffalo disappearing into thin air, thereby showing their human predators “a way to escape through the sky.” I felt for a moment that if the elk ran up the steep slope behind them, they would merge with the sky.
Suddenly, one of the bulls took off downhill in a burst, the remainder of the herd following in what shook us in a cloud of rumbling, descending elk. So stunned were we by the sight that it was several minutes before we noticed three elk calves had not been confident enough to follow, and now stood on the upper ledge crying out in desperation, in tones not unlike a human child, though this association may have been prompted more by the emotions of the moment than the actual sound.
Then, three cow elk came bounding up the ridge that they had just descended to reach and attend their calves. Strutting, heads held high, they led their young along the ledge to a point of gradual descent where they ambled their way down to the others. It was then we noticed that two bull elk had fallen in the calamitous descent and were terminally lame, while at least half a dozen others were limping. One of the cow elk, too, was limping from having both descended and ascended the treacherous terrain.
It caused me to think about the fact that humans engage in “recreation.” That could mean re-creation, but it usually just means expending energy for pure pleasure. I’m not aware of any other species on Earth who engages in activities solely for pleasure or entertainment. Most species recognize that energy is precious on the planet and must be saved for activities that contribute to species fitness, principally the seeking of food, maximizing reproduction, and all exercises and skills that contribute to those essentials.
While it’s true that other species play around and amuse themselves, it’s usually in an activity that contributes in an innocuous way to skills of predation or survival. The added problem with human recreation is that, as with the surprise encounter with the elk on the mountain, we often cause unintended predation.