Fieldwork: Yellowstone Time

It’s almost ten a.m. and I am squatting in the fragrant and dusty shade of a basin big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata) as tall as I am, and perhaps twice my age. The seven-inch blade of my Hori-hori (a Japanese knife that serves as the multi-tool for we plant-folk) is shoved as deep as it will go into the dry soil. I twist the curved blade side to side, grunting with the effort of prying out the taproot of a flowering clump of invasive houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale)

The sweat rolling down my back tells me that the temperature is nearing the day’s predicted high of 90 degrees F. It’s time for a water break. But first I want to dig out this biggest of the houndstongue plants in a patch of the noxious weeds crowding the old-growth sagebrush and wildflowers in this ravine along the Old Gardiner Road above Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

I lever the knife a little deeper into the soil, twist again, and “Crack!” The stubborn clump suddenly pops out, and I fall backwards, plant in hand.

A clump of houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) with my hori-hori for scale

As I push up and dust myself off, I hear a soft “Whuff!” nearby. I freeze. 

Earlier, I smelled the musky odor of elk, and carefully probed with my hiking stick to make sure there were no calves hiding in the shade of the sagebrush where I work. Getting between a mother elk and her gangly-legged calf is not something I want to do–elk cows can easily knock down and break the ribs of even a large human (and I am definitely not large). 

I turn my head in the direction of the sound, noticing the trilling songs of the sagebrush sparrows have gone silent. I reach for the canister of bear spray in the pocket of my daypack. 

Then I see the source of the noise, and laugh out loud. A dozen or so pronghorn bucks are resting up the hill, and one, presumably the lead guy, has his head up giving that breathy warning.

The pronghorn “boys” at rest

“If you’ve just noticed me,” I say out loud, “I’ve been working here for at least two hours.” My voice trails off as I realize the pronghorn are watching movement up the ravine, not me.

Something large and furry moves downhill, weaving between the shrubs. I fold myself into the shade of the sagebrush, and pop the nozzle guard off the canister of bear spray just as a cinnamon black bear, reddish fur glinting in the sunlight trots out onto the dusty road not ten yards away. And after her tumble two adorable cubs, both black. 

She stops, sniffs–the air is still–snaps at the cubs when they don’t follow her and cuffs one for good measure as if to say, “Listen to me!” And then the trio trots down the road, the mama bear striding gracefully for such a bulky body, the cubs cavorting around her. I watch, still as a statue, holding my breath, until they disappear around the far bend. 

The sagebrush sparrows begin their trilling songs again. I take a long breath and look over my shoulder for the pronghorn; they’ve vanished too. 

As I rise, leg muscles shaking, I think, “I should have taken a photo!” Only that would have meant moving and likely giving away my presence. Not a good idea.

I stow the bear spray and take a long drink from my water bottle. I stretch my sore back and legs, toss the clump of houndstongue into the half-full trash bag, probe another sagebrush thicket with my hiking stick, and bend over to dig out another clump of ecosystem-disrupting noxious weeds. 

Just another morning in Yellowstone…

Red, my camper and weed-bag hauler… 

By the time I quit that day, I was sweaty and exhausted. As I hoisted three 30-gallon bags–50 to 60 pounds of houndstongue plants out of the ecosystem–into the back of Red, my truck, my mind focused on food and rest in the patch of shade at my campsite in the Mammoth Campground. 

Later, I thought back to that heart-stopping moment when the bear and her cubs trotted out of the sagebrush close enough that I could clearly see the individual hairs on the mom’s back. In that heart-stopping moment, my pulse rate quickened along with my breathing, and my awareness of the world sharpened.

I felt intensely alive and connected to the lives around me–the ancient and aromatic sagebrush, the balsamroot with its golden flowerheads, the pronghorn on the ridge, the sagebrush sparrows silenced by the bears’ passage, the buzzing bumblebees and fluttering butterflies, and of course, the bear family. 

Those moments of intense awareness are part of why I spent two weeks working in Yellowstone. I wanted to remind myself of what it is to live without the distractions that we allow to fill our everyday lives–the bings and beeps of our digital devices, the clamoring voices, the deadlines and demands, the urgency of it all.

Two weeks largely unplugged, doing sweaty labor outside in the sun and wind with the sound of birdsong and pronghorn “whuff!” around me; two weeks doing something useful, something healing for the landscapes I lov, gave me a depth of connection that doesn’t come with visiting and hiking.

And it also gave me a gift I didn’t expect: refilling my spirit, and restoring my emotional balance and my belief in life as basically a good thing. Which helped in weathering the horror of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, and the disturbing xenophobia of the Brexit vote in Britain. 

Two weeks of doing useful physical work in the company of elk and black bears, sagebrush and bumblebees reminded me of what really matters in life: what we do, not what we accumulate. Living our lives with kindness, generosity and compassion. Leaving this earth in better shape than we found it. 

It’s great to come home with a bear story, but that’s not the point. The point is that we all, each of us, can find the time to do useful work. To contribute goodness to the world in our own ways. And goodness knows, the world needs that everyday dose of light and love now. More than ever.