Swans Commentary » swans.com January 16, 2006  





by Martin Murie





(Swans - January 16, 2006)  I sat in the shade of a big boulder watching the two swans and their cygnets move along the marshy shores of a small lake. They were excruciatingly slow in everything they did and sometimes I couldn't see that they were doing anything. They would stay in one feeding place for long minutes that ticked by painfully slowly in my 12-year-old body. The wilderness was utterly silent. I wanted action. I wanted to see a coyote nose into the scene and try to grab a cygnet. Nothing happened. Only the swan flotilla moving silently on, once in a while, to a new feeding place where they would float about, sometimes not even moving. I plotted their progress on a piece of paper, a crude drawing of the lake with dotted lines showing swan travel. I was a lucky kid and knew it, taken on by my uncle and aunt with the title of Assistant in field studies, Yellowstone. My first job!

But those swans were drawing me into another sense of light and sky and quiet passings even as my click clock kept racing ahead of them, urging them on. The morning inched away; I was slowly switching into some semblance of the swan's way of using the day, barely ahead of Adolph's quiet return. He stood still, watching the swans. I showed him my map. He accepted it. I told him that nothing had happened. He accepted that too.

Two or three years later I held an adult trumpeter swan in my arms. Three swans had arrived from a refuge in Montana. They were tightly wrapped in burlap, but their heads and necks stuck out. I, a medium-size kid, was allowed to carry one of them from the pickup to the release point, a long journey, or so it seemed, holding a strong, struggling body with one arm and hand, and the neck, just behind the beaked head, with the other hand.

Almer Nelson, Elk Refuge manager, and Olaus, my biologist father, had the other two swans. Early dawn. We walked silently to a branch of Flat Creek, lined up on its bank and let the swans go.

Those three birds, so heavy and rambunctious, floating lightly now, and alert, on calm water. We stood still, watching. I remember vividly the integrity, the independence, the otherness of those animals.

Once almost extirpated in the lower 48 states by hunting and habitat loss, an estimated 50 to 70 individuals survived as a restricted, essentially nonmigratory remnant population in and near Yellowstone National Park. They were able to persist on a few of Yellowstone's rivers where hot springs kept waters ice-free and because of the remoteness of the park's surroundings. They were joined in winter by the last Canadian trumpeters, survivors numbering perhaps 140. Any birds attempting to migrate further south inevitably were destroyed.
--Bert Raynes (1)

Alexander Sprunt, professional ornithologist, came into the valley following rumors of trumpeters. Olaus and Adolph brought him to a remote lake. I tagged along. We drove through dense willow jungle, parked the car and walked through more willows to shoreline. And there they were. Sprunt lifted his big field glasses and studied the two distant white bodies. I know now that he was paying special attention to the beaks of the birds, looking for a telltale mark that would certify them as trumpeters, not whistlers. He lowered the binocs, turned, smiling and agitated, all caution gone. The ID having been made, we didn't have to give further thought to what the swans might do. Sprunt shook hands with Olaus and Adolph. I see them now, three men practically dancing with joy, Sprunt in shiny leather puttees.

Please tell Major General Adams or whoever is in charge of this business that Henry Lake, Idaho is to immediately be struck from the Army planning list for any purposes. The verdict is for the trumpeter swan and against the Army. The Army must find a different nesting place.
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2)

There is a place in Grand Teton National Park where you can walk a beaten trail to a little lake where a pair of trumpeters holds court. They raise their young there and show an amazing tolerance for people who tramp the trail on the lake's margin. Calmly, even majestically, they lead their cygnets on a slow round of feeding.

There is a crocodile of saddle horses on the trail, bearing tourists. People on foot step out of the way. The wrangler looks ahead, bored. The swans are in residence. The lake is their place, a summer family home. This is not a wild scene.

At the heart of any discussion concerning wild nature lies the wildness within us. We cannot preserve the wildness in nature while killing it in ourselves.
--Walt McLaughlin (3)

When Henry Thoreau wrote "in wildness is the salvation of the world," what did he have in mind? It isn't Rambo on the loose, that's for sure. It isn't civilized barbarism. What is it?

Do swans remember the deep past? No. Neither do we. But the swans have been around a long time, following glacier margins north, learning flyways and places to winter and places to stick to and raise young. Earth shapes change, slowly or in explosive terror. There are good times and terrible times. Animals adapt or fail. Can we picture that? Can we feel the red, vibrant center of that?

Are looks deceiving? Could it be that wildness lurks here unseen in the horses as they plod along, knowing what they must do, and in us humans afoot and in the bored wrangler and his string of paying guests?

Why do so many of us humans keep on and on about this wildness thing?

What is it?

The "Ultimate Yosemite Experience," an ordeal offered by Delaware North Ultimate Experience Packages, restricted to four paying adults. (4)

Imagine the experience of flying in a private jet. Upon arrival, you and your guests will be greeted by our professional Yosemite Guide, who will accompany you throughout the entire five-day Ultimate Yosemite Experience. . . . Your entourage will be taken to The Ahwahnee hotel in a black Mercedes Benz limousine. . . . Day one will include a shopping spree. . . . All of the members of your party will be outfitted with equipment for backcountry hiking and climbing. . . . You will stay in the prestigious John F. Kennedy second floor suite. . . . Evening dinner will be prepared and served outdoors on your private balcony.

Is this it?

Four more Ultimate days follow, Chef Roland in attendance. Your group will be escorted by your private Climbing Guide, to an area near Yosemite Falls called "Swan Rock" where you will partake in a private climbing lesson. Scenic destinations are furnished. There's an overnight at the Presidential Tent Cabin at Tuolumne Meadows and a culinary feast by a roaring campfire in a private area, a saddle horse trip with your private wrangler, gourmet picnic lunch prepared by your personal Chef. Further scenic touring on horseback is followed by a gourmet dinner. There is a climb, with private guides to the summit of Cathedral Peak. Chef Roland serves a fabulous lunch. Tenaya Lodge for evening cocktails, Jacuzzi tubs, another private dinning (sic) experience followed by private masseuse, steam room, indoor heated pool.

Day five at last, breakfast in bed, leisurely stroll and a ride back to the private jet in a stretch white Jaguar limo. Survivors of those five days and nights will have to be exceedingly fit and well moneyed. And ultimately sick unto death of privacy?

Is this it?

Late evening, a lake in a forest far from highway roar. A pair of swans are cruising along the far shore. We speak in low tones. It's good to suppose that these swans might bring forth cygnets. We have a proprietary interest, you see. We are humans alert to the endangered status of those birds, so few of them still alive. We want them to be with us as we go into our destiny. (How's that for pompous anthroposing?)

We turn and walk toward the woods. Suddenly the swans are aloft, flying directly toward us. They are big, heavy birds, boldly white in the dusky air, their beaks black, winging their way in total confidence as though having pegged us as harmless earthbound creatures. We stand still, hardly believing they are so low, so near. We hear their wings. And then they sound their trumpets. Loud, resonant. A few notes only. They clear the timber and are gone. Their low, clear voices linger in the forest. Notions of human proprietorship vanish, as though the swans have opened time past from which their kind came, long ago, Pleistocene and beyond. We were in on those times. We were there, with The Others.


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Swans trumpet and trumpeters are Swans. Keep the sound alive: Support Swans

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1.  Bert Raynes; Winter Wings. Birds Of The Northern Rockies. Photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen. Images of Nature, in cooperation with Quality Books, 2003.  (back)

2.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Memo For The Secretary Of War, 1941.  (back)

3.  Walt McLaughlin; Stalking The Sacred. Meditations On The Natural World. Wood Thrush Books, 2002.  (back)

4.  Delaware North Companies, Inc. Posted Dec. 17, 2005. http://www.shopdelawarenorth.com/ulex.html  (back)


External Resources

The Murie Center's official website -- The Murie Center, located on the historic Murie Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, inspires people to act mindfully on behalf of wild nature.

The Wilderness Society


Internal Resources

Swans, The Birds

Activism under the Radar Screen


About the Author

Martin Murie retired early from his teaching position to go back to the land and write novels, poetry, and rants. Murie grew up in Wyoming. He served in WWII with the 10th Mountain Infantry. With an undergraduate degree in literature/philosophy and a PhD in Zoology, he taught life sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and Antioch University.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/murie01.html
Published January 16, 2006