View from Mattie’s Pillow

Yesterday I went with Mary Beth and the kids from Effie Kokrine Charter School who are taking part in a “Climate Change and Creative Expression” class to the Large Animal Research Station to visit the musk ox herd. The day was bright, warming to around zero, and we stood by the heavy metal fence and watched as a student worker drove through the herd of cows and calves on a four-wheeler, dropping off rubber dishes of musk ox food (they prepare the pellets there especially for the musk ox diet).

Like horses, musk ox have a herd hierarchy, and these animals–like giant dust mops with horns–played a game of musical food dishes, chasing each other with growly grunts, the one chased in turn chasing another lowlier cow. As the adults kept busy with the work of maintaining herd order, the calves slipped in to eat from the dishes, enacting their own hornless dominancy. The smallest calf stood alone in the middle of the herd, looking through the fence at us, waiting till a dish was left unattended before he bent his nose to it.

These are such ancient animals. With their long brown guard hairs and thick quiviut underlayer, they look like large hay bales from a distance. Up close, they look like tussocks covered in long lichen or dead grass, but moving slowly while grazing or quickly when dashing across the field to chase away a rival. They have large faces, like the cartoon faces drawn for cows-big gentle-looking mouths, brown eyes, and droopy horns that seem to melt down the sides of their heads like lop-ears on a rabbit. But the look is misleading. The ends of the horns curve up to a sharp point and they have the ability to stomp their foes with their hooves and half-ton weight. Observing the males, we saw several pairs line up and run at each other, whacking the flat horn at the top of their heads with a loud crack. And, though these musk ox are familiar with humans, they have no instincts of friendliness with the weaker creatures who feed them, only a watchful tolerance.

After watching the musk ox and the reindeer for a while, we were thoroughly cold-some of the teens were colder than others, wearing hoodies and tennis shoes rather than boots and parkas, so we went inside to the classroom where Lindsey made us all hot chocolate. We sipped the warm sugary chocolate and I gave the students a writing prompt, and. for fifteen minutes, the room fell into silence. Outside the window, the white fields edged with spruce, dotted with the humped backs of musk ox. From time to time, one would pass below the window, brown fur fading to frost along the back, startling to see, like a moving bush or a small hill passing by.

They wrote some wonderful fragments in the short time we had. I look forward to seeing what they produce when they have time to revise. More on this project as it progresses.

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One Response to “View from Mattie’s Pillow”

  1. glow Says:

    I love seeing the muskoxen! K says they look like they are on wheels, their legs imperceptible under their long fur. Thanks for the details on herd social life.

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