“We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” …Eleanor Roosevelt
Somewhere in one of my texts for a university political science class, I read that the first rule of political science is: The world is ungovernable. And one of the few ways humanity can overcome this ungovernability is to encounter some kind of genuine outside threat that will force us—a family, a community, a nation, a species—to cooperate.
You may find the association unusual but I thought of this “rule” last Friday evening as Betty and I and some other folks stood outside in the cool night in Garden Valley, Idaho, and listened to elk bugle. We were staying, along with communications and internet guru Stephanie Worrell, with friends Ken McKay and Elaine Ambrose the night before Elaine’s fifth annual Write by the River retreat.
Not only were competing males, or bulls, bugling across the meadows—the distinctive sound caught in the nooks and headers of the pine-covered ridges—but we also heard chirps, mews, squeals, whines, barks and bleats. The language of an elk herd. One bull, the male who seemed to be closest to the herd, sounded like he possessed the best bugle with the most music and oooomph at the end, and I speculate that he was the leader of the harem and also the herd.
With a flashlight, you could barely see a few of the elk, mostly an outline of their large-deer bodies and the beam of the flashlight reflected in their eyes. We guessed there were sixty or seventy out there.
All the bugling and chirps and mews were a serenade that rose into the night. A serenade by an elk symphony with different and individuated voices singing at us. Something about the music touched me. I don’t know what it was. A similar feeling as when I perch on a mountain top and see the Milky Way strung out over me like an artistic morph of a time lapse photo of LA freeways. Or the music from the singing of a thousand toads and frogs awakened by the late summer rains that wash the dust from a desert sky. Or the liquid gold notes from competing meadowlarks as their mating cries skip along the tops of sagebrush at dawn. A feeling that clutches me in the gut and squeezes out an emotion so primitive it’s hard for me to articulate…an emotion born of eons of familiarity between the molecules that now inhabit me and make me the twin, the cousin, the relative of all the things that ever were and will become.
Later, we heard the crash and crack of antlers as the bull elk battled over who would govern the harem of cows and as a reward, and a duty, breed the females and perpetuate the line. And that was part of the symphony, too, the conflict within a species to make sure the top bull passes on the best traits to ensure the survival of the species. A chaotic mix of cooperation, begetting, and battle carried across the breezeless nighttime meadows of the Idaho mountains.
It also occurred to me as I stood there and listened to elk music that even in the face of the chaos of breeding, the music was something that anyone could hear for miles…any friend, any enemy. Besides the goofy preening and posturing that I knew the males were doing as they bugled, they still managed to stay focused on what dangers might be around—men, cougars, bear, wolves, coyotes, all which live in the general vicinity. And just as important as breeding and begetting is survival in the moment, for both the elk and us, and for that matter everything else that lives on Earth.
All this takes me back to the poli-sci business of being ungovernable that begins this blog. The thing that keeps these elk together and working as a herd is the fact that something might eat them or their young. They have their conflicts, but the need to keep the herd together and protected is crowned over all other behavior.
And that makes me wonder about us, in this country, right now, and all the rancor and division that comes with, I suppose, democracy in action. But it seems to me that the bile only gets worse, and from both sides; epithets like “liar,” “idiot,” and other names for those who don’t agree with what we want and think. I wonder if we might end up eating ourselves, metaphorically speaking, instead of being eaten (Read: destroyed) by outside enemies. To quote the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It seems to me we need to see our problems as something bigger, something approaching a national survival crisis, so we can come together once again and be “governable.” Like the elk herd that performed for us in Garden Valley, Idaho.