Author Craig Childs shares science, history and lyricism with 'The Animal Dialogues'
CMC's Common Reader engages students, staff and community members and culminates with author visits
CMC’s Common Reader Program this year celebrates Colorado’s own Craig Childs, America’s finest naturalist and adventurer. His classic collection of wilderness tales, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, recounts dramatic, face-to-face meetings with sharks, bears, pumas, and winged species.
The Animal Dialogues invites us to swim, crawl, and climb with Childs as he moves beyond the human realm to see what we share with Earth’s other species.
Learn more about Craig Childs
MEET THE AUTHOR
Participate in Colorado Mountain College’s Common Reader program and explore The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, along with your community. The Common Reader program is designed to encourage learning conversations among staff, faculty, students and community members.
Explore the book on a deeper level through CMC discussion groups, classes, and at the campus author visits.
2022 Art & Creative Writing Contest Results
Nine entries were submitted for the “Animal Encounters” Art and Creative Writing Contest this year (see below). Thanks to everyone who shared their creative work!
Amy Dennis, Staff Member at Salida Campus
The call came about 3PM. Our neighbor to the south, rushing his words in his excitement, called my husband to let him know that “there is a sick elk on your property. Parks and Wildlife are watching it!” It’s a quiet place and this was big news. Hanging up the phone, my husband immediately went to a south facing window and there she was. About 50 feet from our house, clearly in distress, she was still on her feet but stumbling and breathing hard. She was removed from the herd, which was keeping its distance. We watched until darkness descended and we could no longer witness her suffering.
We had purchased this piece of property, a small slice of Colorado, several years before, charmed by the sweeping views: Collegiate Peaks to the west, Buffalo Peaks to the north, the Mosquito Range to the east, and far to the south, Methodist Mountain and the Chipeta Peaks, that I liked to call the Misty Mountains. It felt like living in a painting. What we didn’t know at the time, was that after spending tranquil summers fattening up in the wooded peaks around us, large herds of elk would move down out of the forests to winter on the valley floor. Lured by the shallow snows and the waters of the Arkansas River and its tributaries, elk have claimed this ground for generations. Our first winter living here, I was late for work several mornings as I sat transfixed, watching the elk cross through our yard, navigate an ancient barbed wire fence, and eventually move north out of sight.
The next morning, as soon as the sun had spread its light over the Mosquitoes, we rushed to our south facing windows to look for evidence of our sick elk. She was easy to locate; she had not made it through the night. Moving off just a little further from the house, she had lain down and perished. At this early dawn hour, the neighborhood scavengers had already arrived. First came an unkindness of ravens. Ravens, who are not shy, descended on the elk with no hesitation. With much hopping to and fro and squabbling with each other, they discussed how to break through the well furred hide. Soon, the coyotes came to assist. Two of them cautiously approached the carcass, wary of any movement from the large body. Determining that the scene was safe and the cow was not going anywhere, they began their work on the elk, with the ravens cheering them on.
Suddenly, the ravens skittered away. Something had spooked them. A bald eagle had spotted the elk, and, taking charge of the situation, landed right in the middle of the fray. It scattered ravens in its wake and was completely unperturbed by the coyotes as it began its feast. Conspiratorially, the ravens squawked and croaked and danced around the eagle, frustrated and angry at the eagle’s very presence at THEIR breakfast, but in the same measure, hoping its sharp beak and talons would further break open the carcass. We could not tear our eyes away. I had never felt closer to nature than watching the intimate mingling of bird and mammal in the everyday business of extinguishing and sustaining life.
I hoped that maybe the elk’s cause of death might be deduced, purely to satisfy my own hairy ape curiosity. I was pleased that the unexpected loss of the elk would nourish many other animals in the area. I was very interested in inspecting the work of the scavengers, exploring their tracks and traces of activity. It was a weekday, so eventually we both had to prepare to take care of our usual unnatural business and head out to our various human responsibilities. But I knew I’d be back home early that afternoon to glean whatever wildness I could from the life and death of a fallen fellow creature.
Alaska Memoir: An Awe-Inspiring Fishing Expedition
W. Hayes, Staff Member at Steamboat Springs Campus
Alaska. Wild, vast, land both rugged and unpredictable. Untamed yet serene. Described by many in so many different ways. To me, indescribable at times, raw, and mysterious.
It was the beginning of a two-week journey. The first week was an RV adventure and travel by land from Anchorage to Seward to Denali National Park. The first amazing experience occurred while driving north on a deserted Alaska highway in late July. Picturesque landscape was dappled with sunlight, sporadic enterprising site seers and small village life. Soon into our journey, clouds parted, and amidst a forest of trees to my left appeared the snow covered peak of Denali. My partner pulled off of the highway and we photographed the impressive mountain brilliantly backed by a sapphire blue sky. I had prepared myself as the guide books warned, “most guests will never see the famous mountain as it is veiled in clouds for much of the year”. What good fortune to begin our journey with these magnificent breath-taking views. Our luck prevailed with blue sky and rain barren days in which we made friends, fished, and traversed through many Alaskan treasured outings.
The second week was a remote fly out fishing trip on Morraine Creek which traversed through Katmai National Park and Preserve. The weather showed promise as we were dropped off in the middle of a lake from our float plane. We mired through thigh deep water to the lakeshore with a seemingly endless array of dry sack bags and equipment for the week- long adventure. I was thankful to be in the capable hands of our guide who meticulously navigated our raft downstream. We were informed of the exciting time that lie ahead highlighted by an endless salmon run, where salmon spawn and perish, and where abundant leopard rainbow trout feast. I ponder now what the guide thinks to himself as each new customer experiences the first grizzly bear on the bank as the raft drifts by. For us, the excitement led to fumbling the camera, lens cover falling from shaking fingertips, all while the guides’ calm voice and reassuring words stated “all was okay”. How many times had he experienced this moment with his guests?
Bears, especially within Katmai National Park and Preserve, AK, are prolific. I took note that for the first time in my life, the biosphere I had just entered was unlike any other. Bears, especially brown bears, had no natural enemies here. This wilderness encompasses those brave or ignorant enough to enter into an ecosystem that is ripe with unforeseen danger and raw hidden treasures, many unknown or experienced.
First Impressions were deliberate and commanding, requiring full attention and acknowledgement of potential harsh realities. I was now within the food chain, prey, if not attentive and vigilant. Every move and decision were made with the knowledge of having decided risk and potential danger. Fear enveloped my being upon witnessing these great and powerful beasts first hand, up close and personal, nor barrier between. Cautiously, I watched, contemplated, and extrapolated the consequences that could transpire in a matter of seconds.
But then, strangely, fear, at first paralyzing, began to lessen and evolve to a feeling of acceptance. My heart once beating rapid, eyes wide, and adrenaline flow in my blood, slowed. I felt more relaxed just as realizations and discoveries began to unfold before me. I accepted my situation with grace and utmost humility. I succumbed to an overarching sense of calm. I sat quietly, always watchful, observing the great bears’ behavior in their native land. I could only relish internally how grateful I was to live in this moment as witness to the profound activities I was experiencing first hand.
My perception of danger lurking became an intense curiosity. In observation and interest, I would like to think I began to understand the behavior of the bear activity. Bears rely on their intricate yet basic knowledge and instinct, and their learned experiences in order to survive this landscape they call home. Simple actions of these majestic, formidable creatures were at times graceful and other times fierce. The actions the bears exhibited were in one word, purposeful. The purpose solely described as sustenance. The bears reacted and moved knowing every action they took would offer the chance for their survival. The term sustenance is what bears know. In simple terms, and specific to where I was, bears knew to eat enough fish to survive the winter in the barren tundra in which they lived.
There seemed no time for frivolous activity for adult bears, that left to their offspring who meandered close- and not-so-close to their mothers. Adult bears kept a watchful eye on their cubs, as cubs are known to be curious and can stray into potentially dangerous situations.
On one occasion, I witnessed an adult bear scold her two cubs that were attempting to cross into our campsite. Unbelievably, and without time to reason through the events that unfolded, a triangle formed between us, the cubs, and the adult bear. Within seconds the adult bear was at a full charge in our direction. As the moment of peril imagined, with bear spray held as weapon and our only defense, the adult bear stopped, huffed and stamped huge powerful front legs on the gravel a mere ten yards away. What ensued from that moment was nothing less than a miracle and a lesson of human and bear mutual understanding. The adult bear sounded a warning to her cubs and led a charge across the narrow river to a safe passage on the opposite side. Once at a safe distance the bears continued along the riverbank as if nothing had happened. The following morning when the same brood passed our campsite, the cubs scurried hurriedly and close behind the adult bear not once looking up at our camp. I realized the firm scolding the day before was a life- lesson learned culminating in the outward chance bears and humans could survive and cohabitate peacefully, and with respect for each in this mixed ecosystem.
On another occasion, I recognized a young blonde grizzly that showed itself at multiple times while we fished and camped. This bear showed such curiosity that I was enamored to watch and photograph the bear on the bank behind my companion fishing. I never felt a sense of danger in this bear’s presence. I gave it a name, CBD, Cute, But Deadly. When another bear would come, this little bear would scamper away hurriedly. When we moved camp about three miles downstream, I noted a bear of a same semblance. I inquired to my guide, could this bear have traveled “with us”? His response was that he had witnessed two young cubs two years prior on this same stretch of river that seemed to had been orphaned. I thought to myself with great revelation, these two orphaned siblings learned how to survive. The thought gave me pleasure.
I watched as juvenile bears practiced their skill-craft at catching salmon, some making multiple plunges and coming up empty handed. Other bears showed extraordinary skill to stealthily wait and catch an eight- pound salmon feast with each dive. Worried for those with entry level skill, I was reassured that there would be ample food once the salmon spawn and complete the course of their predetermined demise. That again, gave me pleasure.
Lastly, on yet another bear viewing occasion, I watched a mother bear give a signal to her two young cubs to stop passage and wait while she fiercely fended off a juvenile male bear in efforts to protect her cubs. The sounds and fighting were frightful, but the battle was swiftly won by the cub mother. The cubs distanced back safely, stood on their hindlegs together and oddly, resembled two small children holding hands. I was fortunate to have my camera, the images forever etched in my mind and on photographic paper as well.
Time spent in the bush and beyond boundaries allowed me to find a special place deep within myself. Every glorious moment had been spent trying to unscramble and decipher the multitude of events occurring at every glance of my surroundings. I was courageous in ways I did not expect. Camping exposed and vulnerable proved to be so much more memorable than a simple fishing expedition. Humbled, I lived and now share an experience of a connected ecosystem of nature in its finest and infinite resolve. If ever the opportunity presents itself to experience the rawness of an untamed territory, let curiosity and faith guide you toward learning what nature has in store to behold. Release compromising fear and replace it with curiosity and wit to fully engage in an awe- inspiring adventure of unforgettable magnitude.
An Unlikely Encounter with Elk
Becca Katz, Community Member & Former Adjunct Faculty at Leadville Campus
I had set this intention before. I would go hunting. Not actually hunt. I would just go along while my partner hunted. Because I wanted to experience nature in a way I had not. Because I wanted to feel a deep connection to wildlife. Because I wanted to know where my food comes from – and at that time I had committed to only eating wild game and fish that our family had directly harvested.
Still, intentions aside, I had not yet gone along.
Time was running out for this year and work was so busy. Second rifle season was well underway and I just couldn’t figure out when to go. Plus it was cold out, so I had to dig deep to convince myself to traipse around the woods moving slowly, or worse, standing still, in frigid temperatures, in the snow. I suppose I had trouble finding time because I wasn’t looking very hard.
By then, it was the last afternoon of the last day of the hunting season in what was easily the fifth year in a row where I had set my hunting intention. So far, Eric had been on nine days of armed hikes. That’s what I chidingly call hunting without results. He hadn’t even seen an animal, let alone had an opportunity for a clean shot. How you can wander around for nine days with the express purpose of finding elk and not see one animal is still beyond me, but I’m told it’s quite common. And, joking aside, I’m also told by others who hunt that Eric is a solid hunter. Still, this year was looking like a bust.
I got super bundled up in the warmest stuff I could find and wrapped a blaze orange vest sized for a very large human around myself, using a belt to snug it up so it didn’t fall around my ankles. I put on a blaze orange beanie, also several sizes too large, over a sparkly green winter hat I usually wear. I even carried a mostly empty backpack, save the essentials, just in case we got to carry out an animal.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. My walking was too loud. I was stepping in Eric’s footsteps in the snow. Or maybe I was stepping in new snow. Now I can’t remember which is the quieter way to walk, just that whatever I was doing was not it. Too loud. And, per habit, I was trying to chat. To ask questions, really. I knew we were out hunting and I needed to be quiet. I just had so many questions. I tried to keep track of them in my head for later exploration.
I marveled at the early winter woods. How I was noticing sounds and smells usually muted by my profound penchant for conversation. I was feeling really good about finally honoring my intention and getting in touch with nature in this way. I didn’t care if we saw any elk. I just reveled in the novelty of this new nature experience.
I stepped on a twig. Snap. My husband turned around to look at me, smiled and shook his head, amazed that even with my heavy concentration on being a stealthy, quiet hunter, I was a veritable bull in a lodgepole pine china shop.
I smiled back at him, pointed through the trees and whispered, “Do you think that one of those elk might be a cow?” I knew he had a cow, not a bull, tag. I was paying at least a little bit of attention.
Slowly, quietly (as much as that word can be applied to me), we followed the animals into a clearing to get a better look. Eric dropped to his knee, looked through the scope, and took a shot.
An elk went down, got up, and fell again.
My heart pounded with excitement and devastation. I had aided and abetted the killing of an animal. I felt exhilarated and ill.
In spite of my lack of skills (read: noisiness), we now had an elk to field dress (that’s what hunters call the process of removing innards and packaging a large animal so it may be carried out). We walked toward where the cow had run during her final beautiful and death-defying moments before going down. In the field, the grasses started to blur together, the hummocks of earth and plant creating a haystack vibe through which we searched for an elk-sized-and-shaped but landscape-colored needle.
Though it had been still light enough to take a clear shot, Eric…no…We had killed this animal in the waning part of the day. By now, it was getting on evening, the light low.
We couldn’t find her. We would have to come back in the morning and hope other creatures had not carried the elk away.
My sleep was fitful. I had honored my intentions and felt deeply the implications of my meat eating.
The next morning broke cold and crisp as high-mountain early winter mornings tend to do. We bundled up again and set out to find her. In the brighter light, we quickly located her - intact. I looked at her, placed my hand on her, and said, “Thank you.”
Eric taught me how to field dress her - gutting her and peeling away her hide for scavengers. As we cut into her stomach cavity, her carcass farted. I blushed and held my breath, embarrassed and humbled by her animalness. Sick from the fetid stench. I blinked back tears as we cut her into pieces and packaged the parts in game bags, carefully avoiding getting tiny hide hairs on the muscle. As I cut, my hands clunky and fumbling with the cold, I took in her lithe, sinewy body and those beautiful muscles. I knew these muscles would sustain our family.
I honestly never expected to get an animal. Surely my lack of skill and sheer noisiness would have protected me from this. I thought I would make good on my intentions without facing the real implications of what it means to take the life of another being.
As we walked out of the forest carrying our elk, the 11:00am sun poured through the trees. The snow sparkled beneath our feet. The cold air filled my nostrils with a mixture of early winter and recently-dead animal. I felt the weight of her in my pack. My thoughts were lodged in my throat - halfway between my brain and my heart.
And, for once, I was quiet.
The Animal Within
Parker Huizenga, Student at Breckenridge & Dillon Campus
Written to the instrumental, “2 Minutes of your time” by Method Man.
Like a lion's roar, I won't be ignored
Speaking from my core, until I am soar
Sharper than a sword-fish, check the score
Wise as a tor-toise, Im pre-historic
I rap like its a chore
This crazy cats coming to kick down your door
Slick like a snake slithering on the floor
You can find me in the sticks
Are you ready for more?
Parker’s an apex predator
So keep your distance
My competition’s looking delicious
I'm vicious, my penmanships persistent
So wild, and resistant
I need no assistance
Like a grizzly fishing for trout
That's independence, throughout
my existence I've been pushing limits
Boundaries are non existent
The crowd left in suspense when I vent it
Gets intense when I put my 2 cents in
So pay attention
Im presenting my intentions
Putting out emissions with no permission
My ambition put me in this position
Like Craig Childs, I'm on a wild expedition
You wishing you was this wild
Yeah I've got a sick style
Like that shady ape from 8 mile
I feast on beats, and spit syllables
When it comes to silly flows, I'm the billy goat
Unlike the city folk, I ain't that pretty bro
Coming from below, loaded with many flows
Showing y’all how to converse with animals
Get on their level and spit a verse that never slows
So incredible, an original individual
Spitting my soul outta control
See me sitting with the crows
Sniffing a rose
never hide in a hole like a mole
Now listen up or get exposed
The mission is to get you all to know
You cant mess with this animal, I spit that spiritual
My mind is radical, my passions isn't impractical
My goals are achievable, If I’m sustainable
Stay cold and composed and keep it casual
You can't match this flow, I'm on a roll
And you know I was raised by wolves
I'm all natural!
The Hat and the Cat and the Bear
Gary Osteen, Adjunct Faculty Member at Steamboat Springs Campus
The author/guide with his cow elk head hat, pre-bear encounter in front of Bears Ears peak.
It was in early September in the year of 2020, when my attention was drawn to a full-sized black bear walking up the trail through the ferns towards me and JT. JT was “my” bow hunter on his first elk hunt, and I was his guide. We were just off the old tower road standing near a muddy wallow looking for the mighty elk in northwest Colorado. As the bear approached, I decided to take off my thick foam "Be the Decoy" cow elk head hat. I did not want the bear to mistake me for a small cow elk with a big head, upright ears, and sparkling black eyes. I only wanted bull elk to do that, to a certain extent. I yelled, "Hey Bear", and it took notice. The bear stopped, sniffed the air, looked, and changed directions, just what I hoped he would do. The bear went around us to the muddy wallow. It casually drank, bathed, and shook off, what a sight to see. Then it circled back around and up the trail toward us again. This time we were a little more prepared, I asked my client if I could hold his 9mm Glock, while he knocked an arrow. I hollered again and banged a big aspen stick on a log, but this time the bear never stopped coming. I did not want to shoot this bear or get eaten and I have never had a big desire to harvest a bear. I could have won this fight, but I was taught you can win some fights by avoiding them, so I mentioned we should move back slowly. I had left my elk hat on the ground, and I did not want to lose that hat. It had accompanied me on many hunts, brought many laughs, and I even trusted it to protect my head during lightning storms. While others cowered low between flashes, I had no fear, as the air crackled around me while wearing my thick foam elk head hat. In the west, a man’s hat is a man’s hat, and a true man must defend it. I often think of the Charles de Gaulle quote, “You start out giving your hat, then you give your coat, then your shirt, then your skin and finally your soul.” I did not want to give my skin and soul.
I whispered to JT that the bear was going to eat my hat. He was not so sure and thus replied, "If the bear eats your hat, I will buy you another one". Well, that certainly took some pressure off that true man stuff, so I agreed and kept backing up. We retreated about twenty-five yards and proceeded to watch the black bear chomp and tussle with my hat. I wish I had been able to film it, but my hands were full and I was a little preoccupied. Then the bear disappeared. I told JT, “I need to go get my hat.” He asked, “do you want me to follow.” Of course, I said, “no” because I really wanted him to lead the way. I agreed that it would be a good idea if we found it together. We cautiously approached through the ferns and found the ears and an eye near where I left it. The nose and other eye were thirty yards down the trail in the ferns.
The author/guide wearing his new one-eyed, earless version of the elk head hat post bear encounter.
In need of a walk, we decided to look elsewhere for elk. When we made it back to the wallow, a startled cow elk started barking and moved away. As the day was ending a large non-symmetrical bull elk made his way through the aspens to the wallow. We waited patiently as he moved closer. The elk was standing broadside a little more than forty yards away when the arrow flew. The shot was over the top and we found the arrow stuck in the dirt with the knock glowing. As we shuffled down “Fern Draw” at last light, JT was a little dejected with the clean miss, but agreed it was the second-best result. A few days later we were able to sneak up on a smaller bull elk and get a perfect shot resulting in a quick clean kill, the best result of all, from our standpoint.
On the evening hunt after our morning harvest, we accompanied a fellow guide and bowhunter. We quietly worked our way up to a small gang of elk. As the hunter was drawing his bow on one of two five by five bulls clicking their antlers in a tickle fight. A calf elk leaped and screamed ten yards in front of us as a pouncing mountain lion sent it for a tumble and landed on top. Confused by the leaps and screams, it took time to sort out. As the Mountain lion stared at me to get his photo taken, the calf elk woke from his nap, kicked, scrambled, and scampered away. Moments later the calf elk staggered back looking for his gang only to see four astonished faces looking his way. He sobered up quickly and dashed down the hill escaping the hungry lion. Many times in life, you realize that you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t been there. I never saw that stalking lion and I am grateful my cow elk head hat was not on my crown. Maybe it was my good fate, but I trust it was my mother's prayers that I was not wearing my cow elk head hat that evening. I hope all bears remember what man cubs with elk heads taste like.
The bright reflective eyes of the mountain lion staring at the author to get his photo taken while on top of the calf elk. The mountain lion is in lower middle section of the photo.
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat. Henry David Thoreau
Gary Osteen is an AIARE Avalanche course leader, Outdoor Education, and Ski Business Instructor for Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs. At CMC he also leads bikepacking, fly fishing, backcountry navigation, river orientation and ski guiding courses.
Three Forks Ranch in Northern Colorado is where he guides hunting, fly fishing, and cat skiing. He loves to slide in cars and coaches rally driving skills at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. Gary is always striving to learn more about his favorite subjects and share the good word with good people. He seems to be attracted to gliding on snow, standing in a river, sneaking through the woods, floating by riverbanks, and wasting perfectly good time with a guitar.
Favorite Quote, “The Bluebird carries the sky on his back” by Henry David Thoreau.
Dr. Justin Pollack, Faculty Member at Breckenridge & Dillon Campus
The animal coming out of the ragged underbrush was a survivor. Just like many people in Nicaragua, this creature was lucky to be alive. She seemed to be wild, but when she came to the dirt patio of the house her behavior was like a domestic dog. I came to find out she was a Central American tapir, and her very name derived from an indigenous word for thick. She had the thick skin of a 200-pound adult pig. She had cute fuzzy ears and inky black, cautious, curious eyes. Her snout extended and retracted, moving with the agility of an elephant's shortened trunk. They are reportedly shy and quiet by nature, making it rare to see them. That trait probably served her species well, since they are thought to have inhabited these tropical jungles relatively unchanged for the last 35 million years.
I went to Nicaragua in the early '90s to do volunteer health care work with a girlfriend who was interested in non-governmental international development. Nicaraguans in the frontera were rebuilding their lives following a decade of devastation and loss, emerging from a cruel and bloody war that spanned Reagan's 1980s. Most of the people I met were farmers of sugar, cocoa and coffee whose function was to serve dessert at the imperial dinner table. Many of them had fought to the death along their country's borders to defend advancements that the World Health Organization had voted as a “model for the developing world” in the early '80s. They had experienced social justice for a brief, shining moment, after 45 years under a Somoza family dictatorship. Fate had not been kind to this part of Central America which had been a Spanish colony for nearly three centuries before winning their independence and quickly entering a new kind of economic dominance by my own country and its corporations.
Trees were sparse, having been cut down for firewood and modest dwellings. During the '80s, Mulukuku had been a staging ground for Sandanista fighters in the Contra wars. The Contra were counter-revolutionaries fed on a fat US budget by Reagan's Iran-Contra affair, staged along the Honduran border in an effort to rid countries South of the US border of socialist ideologies. As poet and author Giaconda Belli wrote: “No hay palabras para condenar la atrocidad de esta guerra” (There are no words sufficient to condemn the atrocity of this war).
During my time there, many returning Contra families returned and lived as best they could, building little wood and corrugated tin shanties by the side of the dirt road that lead toward Managua. During monsoon rains, the roads that led between the capital and Mulukuku would turn to deep pits of mud, resembling something out of world war I trench scenes. Old diesel Toyota trucks were the favorite vehicle, as only the highest clearance vehicles were able to pass these roads during heavy rains. Men who had weapons would sometimes rob passing busses or trucks for people's shoes and any cash the travelers had. Women and children would sell anything they could get their hands on, at the windows to their road-side shacks.
After learning Spanish at a couple Guatemalan language schools, my girlfriend and I traveled overland by bicycle to Nicaragua. We had researched several non-governmental organizations that did public health work. One person we found through a newsletter, was a American nurse who had worked with Witness for Peace. She had set up a health cooperative in the frontera with her own savings, donations from contacts in the US and abroad. Dorothy was dedicating her later years to helping the people of Nicaragua's Northern frontier.
For seven months, I worked as a volunteer at the health cooperative and volunteered teaching English to high school students. I researched herbs that grew in the area, and volunteered my time along with many members of the community to create an herb garden for the health cooperative and people of the area. The health cooperative served all. It didn't matter if a person was “Contra” or “Sandanista”, even though these political differences ran deep. People would walk for hours to days to receive care at the cooperative health center.
A generous family in the community, Noel and Gretel Montoya, offered to house and feed my girlfriend and me, after we had been held up at machine-gun point in the American nurse's home. Everyone thought it would be safer if we stayed with the Montoyas. Their house was not on a hill by itself. It was unassuming and part of the rest of the little frontier community.
Noel and Gretel had enough that they hired a local woman to be their cook. They kept pets in their household like a dog and cat. They nursed a fawn whose mother had been killed. Chickens wandered the yard and provided eggs. During the monsoon rains, the chickens would come in and take over open areas of the house, coming into doorless entryways to get out of a downpour. Our bed was protected from roosting chickens only by the mosquito netting that hung from the thatched roof ceiling.
That is where our tapir came in. Even though she spent the great majority of her time foraging in the decimated forests around Mulukuku, every once in a while she would just show up. My host family had named her Memo, as she had become an itinerant family member who came and went as she pleased. Evidently tapirs are solitary except for a lifetime mate or a family group, and have many miles of territory that they cover and fiercely protect. Adept swimmers and climbers, they forage around 75 pounds of a plant-based diet each day and can grow up to 400 pounds. I loved it when Memo showed up.
During the heat of the day when it was siesta time for most people and animals, if Memo was there she would roll around in the dirt or mud like a pig. It wasn't surprising to find her napping on her side during hot days, her swollen round belly reaching toward the sky. When chickens would pluck bugs off her belly or sides, she would make contented squeals of delight. During or after meals, she would wander to the open air table. It was fascinating to watch her proboscis stretch out, becoming several inches longer. Heavy inhales to smell the crumbs left from any given meal, followed by exhales that would blow crumbs around. Sometimes she would pluck remnants of beans, rice and corn tortilla from the table or packed dirt below. A living vacuum cleaner, she loved to be scratched along her side or behind the ears. In a state of bliss, her eyes would roll back in her head and she would squeak with delight again.
Then for days, Memo would be gone.
I never got to say goodbye when I finally travelled North again, but I don't think Memo minded. Memo was a survivor, like most of the Nicaraguans I met. Frequent earthquakes, men with guns, mosquitos that carried malaria or dengue fever, poor living conditions with even poorer sanitation; these did not stop this tapir from enjoying the simple things in life, like having bugs picked off her belly by domestic chickens. An incredible resilience, and a joy in knowing the gift of another day, were a couple things I learned from this tapir and the hardy people of the frontera. My heart goes out to all of them.