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Elk Dreams

photo of a snowy hillside with three elk

There is no succinct beginning or end to a garden season. Rather, the seasons are on a constant loop with variations in tempo. Winter is when I regroup and lean into the next pattern, the next beat. A Colorado winter always induces a big sleep. I see my flowers and vegetable gardens disappear layer by gentle layer under snow, and the animals, the full time residents, are even more visible. They can no longer sink into the shadows, understory and grasses. Their cover is minimal.

When the snow completely smothers the garden, the elk show up. The snow is at least a foot deep and we have an arrangement, this elk herd and I. It is as reliable as any contractual agreement in my transactional world. They drift in at night and dig out the downy snow with their hooves and teeth. When I find their elk skulls in the hills around my house I am amazed by the size and weight of these teeth. They don’t seem to belong to an herbivore. Once they remove the snow, they raze the standing garden.  I never cut my garden until the spring since it is a winter breadbasket for wildlife. It doesn’t take long for the elk to turn up.

They drift in the cover of the night. Some of them sleep leaning their backs right against the outside wall of the house, like a drunk cowboy slouched at a bar. We hear the eerie yipping on cold nights and rise to see their huge shapes dropped all around the garden like meteors, some sleeping, some foraging.  They leave large imprints from their body heat, like lumpy snow angels, punctuated by their scat at the perimeters of the indentations. At first light, they retreat back up to the hills but return each evening until there is no more garden standing. They eat the echinacea first, then move to the monarda. They inhale my lupine and delphinium but leave the sedum. They do not favor sea thistle and are surprisingly finicky about some of the ornamental grasses. They snap the standing sunflowers if the birds and squirrels have overlooked them. And as they graze they distribute their manure.  

The first morning after their arrival looks like the remains of a frat party. Dirt is torn up, scat is mixed with snapped stems and scattered leaves. It is shocking to see how thoroughly they tear through the garden. All of this is tidied over by the next snowstorm and it takes faith to know that the garden will recover. But each year it comes back after the assault with so much force that I realize that I stumbled onto a secret. Even the nibbled dogwoods recover and flesh back out though I do wrap the fruit trees and some of the aspens. 

It is an exchange where I benefit most. They aerate the soil, leave droppings and I find new plants and new seedlings where I hadn’t thought to put them.  This approach does not yield the calibrated results of formal garden planning, but I am not that kind of gardener. I like to be surprised at what resurfaces the following spring, like to stumble on an unexpected drift of columbines or butterfly weed in another part of the garden. The rigor of a perennial garden is different from a vegetable garden and a more flexible canvas.  This kind of disruption I can handle.