Encounter with Eternity

I was looking at the deep past and the effect was trance-like. Without forethought I found myself talking softly but directly to him. I didn’t expect a response. I just kept talking, almost whispering really. What was I saying; I don’t even remember. It was a stream-of-consciousness flow that was coming from some alpha-state on my part. The words formed themselves and were out with no real awareness of action—maybe something about how beautiful he was, how timeless, how much I appreciated his very existence. The flow of sounds kept coming from my mouth and, slowly but surely, he moved toward me. We were mesmerizing each other.

His movements were slow, maybe cautious, but still steady and determined. Within moments we were looking directly into each other’s eyes from mere inches apart. I never stopped the stream of words and he never once looked away. His eyes were the blackest brown, bright but bottomless pools. He was alert but relaxed, and I mirrored his presence. We held each other spell-bound and everything else fell away as time stood still. Here was eternity at just under 5 feet in height, maybe 700 pounds, and the thickest, most luxurious hair I’d ever seen. 

Our meeting was the result of a glimpse from the street through a dark window of Hotel Seward in Seward, Alaska a few days earlier. I did a double-take, thinking my eyes had deceived me. But there it was, a taxidermized musk ox filling the window, offering a mostly rear view.[1] Not being able to see from my vantage point that this specimen was placed on a pedestal, my expectations were now calibrated to a taller animal. More than anything, I wished I could see this prehistoric beast roaming the tundra. I didn’t know yet that I could find a herd of them a mere 170 miles away.  

(photo credit: Wynn Richards)

Deeply moved by all things Pleistocene, I’ve only ever imagined the ancient species of arctic mammals. Yet here is Ovibus moschatus, one of the earth’s oldest living species, whose direct ancestors roamed the frozen tundra and icy plains alongside wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and dire wolves. Once both the ice and the musk ox ventured as far south as Kansas, but when the ice receded, the musk ox followed. Unlike their megafauna contemporaries, these resilient creatures never fully left us. Today they can be found in northern and western Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Siberia, and Scandinavia.[2] 

With shorter legs and a longer coat than their Ice Age ancestors, musk oxen today thrive on grass, shrubs, and willows, and the males can weigh as much as 900 pounds. Their sight, hearing and sense of smell are so keen, they are aware of a predator as much as two miles away. A long-standing and still mysterious creature, the musk ox has been called the most intelligent and the most stupid; the slowest and the swiftest; the most lumbering and the most agile; the most dangerous and the most timid; the most predictable and the most unreliable, possessing of the most inedible and the most delicious meat. Based on my own experience, I would describe the musk ox as dignified, graceful, and spirited. It is most undeniably among the most adaptable and persevering of animals.

Sniffing the air and pawing the moist earth of the summer tundra, I can imagine the resolute musk oxen finally beginning to calm themselves and take in their new environment. Prior to this time, northeastern Greenland had been their home.[3] The 34 bewildered animals were captured by Norwegian soldiers and first survived the boat ride from Greenland to Norway, then steamship passage to New York, and, after a seemingly endless quarantine outside of the city, a train ride across the continent to Seattle. But their travails were not over. Another ship took them across 1,400 miles of Pacific Ocean to Seward, Alaska, and then another train carried them on to Fairbanks. 

Having traveled 8,000 miles from their home in Greenland, the herd then waited for five-years in a forest outside of Fairbanks before being taken in 1935 by steamship down the Yukon River, after which they were moved onto a barge at the mouth of the great waterway. In 1936, the weary herd, at last, reached their final destination off the coast of Alaska, but not before nearly perishing as the barge was swamped by a storm in the Bering Sea. Could they now trust the ground they stood on was the last they would know?  Could they relax at last, multiply, even thrive over the decades to come?

This is exactly what they did and today their numbers top 600 on tundra-covered Nunivak Island.[4] Nunivak was deemed an appropriate home as the 25 miles from the mainland guaranteed a lack of large predators like grizzlies and wolves. The foraging on this island covers nearly a million acres of grazing land and is plentiful when not covered by snow—conditions not unlike parts of Beringia where ancestor musk oxen had flourished. Nunivak was once a high plateau in that lost land, becoming an island when the seas rose as the glaciers melted. It was a poetically fitting new home for the transplants.

Still, there had been perilous times in the more recent past for these remnants of the Pleistocene. Their native cousins in Alaska died out through a combination of climate change and overhunting. In the mid-1800s, crews from foreign whaling ships as well as local Eskimo hunters were finishing off the last of the native musk oxen. According to some accounts, the lone remainder of those in Alaska was felled by a hunter near Wainwright on the western North Slope in 1864. Gone from Asia and Europe as well as the lower 48 states of the U.S., the only musk oxen left after that final extirpation in Alaska were in the remote reaches of northern Canada (where their numbers had severely declined) and in Greenland.

By the 1920s, there was grave concern among conservationists that these prehistoric animals were close to global extinction. In 1930, Congress appropriated $40,000 to acquire and transplant the 34 Greenland musk oxen in the hope that they could be domesticated and ultimately produce a profit. In the 1940s and 1950s, the wild Alaskan musk oxen were in trouble, just as the Natives in the villages of the surrounding area were struggling with the sea-change of going from their ancient lifestyle to a cash economy. In 1954, American ecologist, anthropologist, and adventurer John Teal envisioned a way for the Native people of the area to live symbiotically with these ancient creatures so that both groups could survive. Within ten years, he had successfully transplanted and raised calves from Nunivak, first in Fairbanks, and ultimately settling them on a musk ox farm in the verdant Matanuska Valley just outside of Palmer, Alaska.

A descendant of a pair of those sturdy 34 travelers from Greenland was the beguiling musk ox with whom I connected. In fact, he descended from a pair of the 20 calves captured in Nunivak and brought to Fairbanks, and then to Palmer, by Teal in 1964. That capture and transplant is a tale described beautifully by one of the team members for this mission, a young Peter Matthiessen, in his book Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea.

The musk ox with whom I became intimate, if only briefly, was a resident of the Musk Ox Farm outside of Palmer. This sustainable agriculture organization supports the dual vision of maintenance of this iconic herd in its once natural geographic environs, and economic opportunity for Native knitters who take the collected qiviut fiber and make beautiful garments from the world’s warmest wool by weight. The organization also provides people like me with the opportunity to observe this rare artifact of a time preceding by eons the migration of our own species into the northern hemisphere.  

Haze from an extreme wildfire season had moved in to obscure the snow-capped mountains outside of Palmer but the scene was still reminiscent of a much earlier time for native musk oxen in Alaska.

On this day, I joined a small group of others interested in this iconic remnant but soon fell behind as I slipped into the spell of the setting and the musk oxen grazing as if still in their primordial world. I watched the pastoral scene with snow-covered mountains filling in the back-drop and imagined a tundra of a different time and place while this particular musk ox moved slowly but steadily toward me. I spoke in low, calming tones, drawing him in until we truly were just inches apart.[5] Everything else fell away and our worlds crossed—the present moment and the eternal past, the ice age ruminant and the contemporary, civilized primate.   

The importance of that encounter on the farm in Palmer, Alaska—definitely for me, probably not for the musk ox (but who knows)—was that it represented the preeminence of making connections. In this case, the connections were across the epochs, and across species. The primordial connection I felt in my encounter with the musk ox, for example, conveyed the sense of relationship through a bond of interdependence. It felt as if we were entangled in a deeper way than our appearances or histories would indicate.   

The philosopher Bertrand Russell maintained that despite all that the lofty discipline of physics has to offer, it is incapable of providing us with a well-rounded and complete depiction of the world. Physics tells us nothing about the nature of that world, only the features of it. Evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman would agree as he posits that “we are in a world beyond physics. We are in a world of living creatures that construct themselves. Yet we lack the concepts to say it.” 

Note: While musk oxen are thriving in many of their current locations, the musk oxen in the very far north are struggling with the changes wrought by climate change, including more frequent incidents of rain-on-snow events. What was previously an anomaly is more regularly creating a frozen crust that blocks the animals’ access to the forage they customarily attain by nuzzling or pawing at the softer snow to get it out of the way. As a consequence, they are malnourished through the winter when many females are pregnant and later are giving birth to undersized infants who never grow to a healthy, full-sized adult who can in turn carry the next generation of musk oxen. Further, an “ice tsunami” killed 52 musk oxen in the far northern coastal area, literally freezing them in place. Wildlife conservationists fear more of these storms as climate change progresses.

Musk oxen numbers also are declining in these areas due to predation by grizzlies as well as wildlife management strategy that generally protects the females over the males as females are the breeding stock. Ancient musk ox practice is to defend the young by forming an outward-facing circle when under threat. The young are in the center and the females and males form a circular wall of dangerous horns for goring any advancing attackers.  The males will aggressively move out of line to counter-attack but with fewer males in the herd, females out on their own will often break the circle and run. Too many times the young are unable to keep up with their retreating mothers and are quickly taken by the poaching grizzlies. (At the Russian nature preserve on Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean, polar bears are causing the same harm to the herd as the grizzlies are at the top of North America.)

[1] I don’t mean to denigrate that rear view, as the rump of a musk ox moving rhythmically in the other direction, heavy skirts of luxurious hair swaying as it goes, seems to be at least as beguiling as that of any animal observed from that perspective.

[2] In many cases, the musk oxen in these locales have had to be reintroduced as they began their own die-off in the late 1800s.  

[3] One of three recognized subspecies of musk oxen, those in Greenland belong to Ovibos moschatus wardi.) 

[4] When exceeding that number, surplus musk oxen are distributed in other regions of Alaska, restoring populations where they had once thrived.) 

[5] There was, in fact, a fence between us but it was as ephemeral at that moment as the geological time separating our origins.

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