walking over nunataks

I spend a lot of time with my nose close to the ground these days, inhaling the musty smell of soil and getting a kick out of what's crawling around down there.

I spend a lot of time with my nose close to the ground these days, inhaling the musty smell of soil and getting a kick out of what’s crawling around down there. Ostensibly, I’m looking for crocuses and shed antlers, perhaps a more acceptable occupation than welcoming the creepy crawlies back into the land of the living.

It’s a landscape of nunataks I’m moving through, Nunataks at the time of global warming. The snow is giving way to a spiderweb of soil and rocks, a maze of spring, leading me no way in particular, dead-ending in soggy banks of snow only to sow and grow itself anew, a few metres away. What would be little islands of grass and lichen, some insects’ tiny nation states besieged by glacial ice were these real nunataks, is really just my backyard melting.

Ants are making first forays onto the topsoil, antennae twitching in a series of miniature bows before the sun. Spring hoppers, the greenish-rusty beetles whose proper name eludes me, bounce between Lilliputian forests of soggy moss. Forget the Swan Festival, what about the insects ticking away the final moments of winter like a faithful entomological clock?

My fingers rediscover the texture of dirt, of rock, of vegetation, moving across this post-ice age landscape as bewildered as those eight-legged creatures. The clumps of crocuses are almost too much after all this snow, their lilac just the right colour against the brown soil. I stroke their petals as if they were living creatures – which they are, of course. Alive. How silly of me. Slightly intoxicated by the heady mixture of colours, smell and touch already, I peek into the flowers’ centre. The hidden suns glow out at me. Ah. Heaven.

I stumble onward, a slow progress because suddenly there is so much too see where before, only snow existed. Is this what it would have been like, to have lived through the end of an ice age and slowly, ever so slowly, move into a world of multiplying life? Maybe that’s why we love spring so much, really beyond reason. Some ancient human memory jogging something in our brains.

The smooth curvature of something other than rock catches my eye – a moose antler, brown as the dirt. Its tines are sticking into the soil as if the bull had ripped the offending thing off by planting his forehead on the ground. I run my hand along the smooth curves, the little hollow where something must have punctured the antler as it was developing. Eleven tines. It’s in perfect condition.

The hunt is on. I heft the antler up on my hip and continue on, scanning the area for the second one. This is tricky. Sometimes, moose lose both of them closely together, other times, it’s impossible to find the matching one. Especially come spring and summer, when old bones and such tend to get scattered as they are being chewed on. If I were a bull, where would I cast the other antler? Any saplings or willows close by?

I look and look, but can’t see anything other than the patchwork of snow and dirt and trees. Oh well. Maybe once more of the snow melts. I pick my way back over the nunatak web and almost walk by it – the second antler is lying palm up, its tines fingering the air. Or is it the second one? Ten tines, not as pronounced, and it’s maybe ten centimetres smaller. It’s gorgeous, the palm more scooped, more veined. A clump of ice is cradled in it, winter held by fall into spring.

But what are the chances of another bull casting a similarly sized antler so close to the other one? I decide that this must be a set. Over the years, we’ve only ever found four matching sets of antlers, so this is a precious gift indeed. I can’t carry both but walk home cradling the first one, a great bony hand like old man winter gripping my side. A bookend of the seasons: when new snow is on the ground, the moose and caribou will cast their antlers again. But for now, the nunataks reign supreme.

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

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