A butterfly beating its wings

It's deadly quiet as if not only I am listening, but the land itself. What the land would listen for I do not know. Maybe the things an organism pays attention to: inner gurglings, things out of joint.

It’s deadly quiet as if not only I am listening, but the land itself. What the land would listen for I do not know. Maybe the things an organism pays attention to: inner gurglings, things out of joint. Trying to determine if it’s feeling well. It seems to be holding its breath.

I excavate my mouth from behind the scarf and trill a raven call into the frozen air. Pull up the scarf and listen again. I seem to have lost my fleece hat (and of course only realized it now that I need it), so just the parka hood covers my ears, filtering sounds if there would be any.

Faintly, ever so distant, I hear the ghost of a reply. I call once more and receive another answer from many kilometres to the southeast. What difference does it make that there’s a raven in the area? It has given me two things that make me smile damply behind my scarf: reassurance the animals are busy out there, and it actually talked to me.

We screech on through the woods, the snow giving perfect sound impersonations of squished Styrofoam as we walk along our packed path. We’re hunting, though nothing too exciting – it’s dead trees we’re after, earmarking them for firewood once the cold snap is over. But mostly, we’re out to see what’s going on.

It feels like moose are in the area. A familiar feeling, a little bit like somebody is watching, only a lot more subtle. I wonder what causes it, what exactly this is. We’ve heard nothing except the distant raven, there are no fresh tracks, and the dogs are reluctantly limping along like so many amputees, absorbed in their cold feet. Nothing indicates there’s more than Sam and me and the dogs around.

The moose feeling reminds me of the saying about a butterfly in China beating its wings. Maybe that’s what it is, a displacement of air currents, of energy. I guess if you know your surroundings well enough, in all their moods, with your subconscious continually taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of a place, when something large shifts, it will enter your mind.

It’s hard to test the accuracy of this in the summer, but snow is the witness that tells all. It offers up the footsteps and hollow where a ptarmigan had huddled and left its macaroni pile of droppings, eagerly sniffed by the dogs. Not much else is new besides a fresh layer of rabbit tracks on top of their old beaten path.

We point at the trees we’re going to cut, debate where to put in a loop with the snowmachine, when the dogs rush forward a few steps, then stop, tails up. Milan comes running back to me, quivering like Jello – his way of spelling out that moose are close by. A branch snaps. We call the other two dogs to heel and walk on, craning our necks, looking where the dog muzzles are pointing.

Sam sees them and nudges me. A cow and calf, standing immobile behind a willow bush, the calf’s ridiculously huge ears tilted at us like radar dishes.

“Cow or bull?” I ask, meaning the little one. Our usual question.

“Bull,” says Sam. “See how chunky he is? The cow calves are so much more dainty and feminine. Prettier.”

I give him a sidelong glance and wonder if he’s been in the bush for maybe too long. But he’s right, the calf is angular in a muscular and husky way. It feels like we always see bull calves; in our utterly unscientific statistics, they outnumber cow calves about two to one.

After conversing quietly with the moose (our “Hey guys, pretty cold, huh?” met by more long-eared stares from them) we continue on, the dogs needing an extra reminder about heeling. They’re used to wildlife, but it’s still exciting and deep down in their doggy hearts they’re probably aching to play wolf and chase. At least they’ve forgotten about their cold paws now.

As we walk, I hug the bounty of this winter day to myself. The brief exchange with a raven, and a conversation with two moose that started long before we saw them. Now the land is quiet and listening again.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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