THE BLUE DOOR BAND
Homo sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them.
Nothing speaks the truth quite like a 220-pound desert bighorn ram mounted atop a standing female, thrusting his heavy pelvis back and forth like there was no tomorrow.
It was the rut. Males, usually solo or in bachelor bands, had joined the females, which for the rest of the year lived separately with random groups of juveniles. The rams were glossy, fat, spirited. Their thick, curled horns and heavy testicles carried a few million years of evolutionary momentum. Here in the canyon, not much else mattered but the bone and muscle needed to transport these body parts. On four hooves rode massive sperm factories.
I had put the river between myself and the rutting grounds, not that I was much more than wallpaper as the sheep copulated. I shared guilt over trespass with other voyeurs: the few subdominant rams, unlucky in love; six nearby ewes; a pair of lecherous ravens perched on a boulder.
The mating unfolded quickly but with a ritualized certainty. Among a species with a complex repertoire of social behaviors, the penalty of ambiguity is reproductive failure.
As the ram dropped off the mount, the other males brawled in rushes, kicks, and threat displays. One lunged toward the ewe, only to have his butt smashed by her guardian, a ram of spent force but fixed vigilance. The ewe ran off and disappeared from view, pursued by the younger suitors. The snoopy ravens left their perch and followed. The remaining ewes, already inseminated or not yet in estrus and therefore not ready to breed, moved about restlessly, then settled down to feed.
The Colorado Plateau canyon country is one of several “wilderness” holdouts of this subspecies of a North American bovid family, genus Ovis, commonly known as mountain sheep. Strict regulations prohibit the hunting of desert bighorns except by special permit. Compared to their sport-celebrity hulky northern cousin, the Rocky Mountain bighorn (Ovis canadensis canadensis) of the intermountain West and Canadian Rockies, desert bighorns are smaller, paler, and longer in ear. They are more isolated and fewer in number. In some places, they face extinction on their native range.
Four races of desert bighorn sheep live in the arid wilds of the American Southwest and Mexico. Of these races, my momentarily sex-crazed sheep are Nelson’s bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), occupants of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert.
The ewes that fed quietly on the talus of a river canyon had slender, upright horns that escaped notice, while the horns of males dominated one’s gaze. Ram horns flare and curl. Aboriginal southwesterners took their form and gave them to their gods. For modern humans, this headgear is an icon of blood sport. To other sheep, ram horns are social organs.
Desert bighorns are blocky, long-necked ungulates, grayish brown in color, sometimes more gray than brown, or pale beige, or with a russet cast. Their noses are moist and their rumps are white. They eat dry, abrasive plants, digesting them with four-chambered stomachs and the help of protozoa and bacteria.
The five gaits of bighorn sheep reflect their mental state, from a pompous, show-offy walk to an exuberant trot down a near-vertical rock face or a twenty-five-mile-per-hour escape run. Their hearts pump at a rate of eighty beats per minute. The life of a bighorn sheep is a life spent on cliffs.
The rut marked the beginning of my year among desert bighorns, a calendar in which I matched my seasonal geography to theirs.
I made up a name of my own and gave it to the herd that lived in the river canyon: the Blue Door Band. Over the four seasons that I would spend with them, I would be their amiable, nosy neighbor. I peered at them through binoculars, spotting scope, and with naked eye. I watched them stare into space, fall asleep on their own feet, curl up in a tight sheep ball and nap with their chins on the ground. I watched them yawn, chew, stretch.
They scratched their backs on rocks. They hated brushy densities of trees. Their tongues hung out when they were thirsty. A few dropped dead. A few went swimming. The ewes raised a new generation. The rams roamed about alone or in ram bands, then came together and bashed heads, curled lips, and engaged in wildly testicular behavior.
True to their species, these animals loved bleak, hair-ball country. They were nervous, gregarious, hilarious. Agile, gorgeous, faithful to place to the point of disaster. They came with personalities: the bullies, the head bangers, the celibate pacifist ram, the barren ewes, the lambs perched atop sheer pinnacles of rock, leaping straight up in the air like toast popping out of a toaster. They were often elusive and spectral. To see them was a blessing.
As they entered the rut, the Blue Door Band numbered about eighty sheep. Out of this population, and depending on the season, I would sometimes see loners, trios, or groups that ranged from five to twenty individuals. I gave the sheep full, held-breath attention, sometimes lifting my binoculars to my eyes at midday, unaware of the passing hours until I dropped them, only then noticing that the sun had nearly set.
Or I would ignore the group completely and stick my head in a book, T. H. White’s The Goshawk, trading ungulates for
the arts of falconry. The wind whipped the pages. The sheep bleat-growled at my betrayal.
I gazed at distant mesas. Took naps. One minute, I swore eternal devotion to my little bovid band; the next minute, I entertained a feckless urge to hop in a boat and float down the river and disappear around the bend, ditching the sheep.
Sometimes I ditched the sheep. I left them for the seductive river or for other bighorns scattered in the far-flung deserts. I sent them postcards from New Mexico, California, Mexico.
For most of the year, though, I was loyal to the Blue Door Band, preternaturally attentive—how could anyone not be?—and shamelessly anthropomorphic. I wanted the bighorns to adopt me, a kind of reverse Bo Peep arrangement. Me, their lost human. Their pet. The primate among herbivores. The bovids’ equivalent of a wolf boy.
Being with these wild animals was like prayer, a meditation that ranged from dopey to dreamy to absorption so profound, it stopped my blood. Their habits and motions formed a liturgy that mapped the prayer, liturgy as “the sanctification of time,” a place where I was willing to wait in stillness, to count on nature’s rhythms to calm my messy ones.
More often, it was the singular company of mammals I delighted in, just the sheep being sheep while I perched on a boulder or rock ledge, my feet falling asleep from sitting too long.
In the warm seasons, I could enter sheep company along the river. Winter conditions often kept me at a greater distance. I had to make long overland treks on foot to watching posts above a deep redrock canyon. The posts gave an unobstructed view of the Blue Door Band’s range.
A remote fold of their canyon held a pile of stones that marked the remains of a hand-built shelter. Twenty years earlier, I had studied the shelter before it collapsed into an indeterminate pile of rubble. Then the shelter had a domed roof, a flat stone hearth, and a door frame that faced the sunrise. The door’s milled boards were painted blue, the deep blue of the sky where it meets the canyon’s redrock rims. This place gave me the idea for the sheep band’s name.
On my watching days, I often found sheep all over the place, Velcro’d to the steep, rocky cliffs. Other times, I saw no sheep at all. I glassed the walls for hours. Both the day and the canyon felt empty. This was when sloppy meditation moved to true prayer, to words said against fear.
While you are among wild sheep, they can move out of sight the moment you bow your head to notice that the zipper on your jeans is open. Then you look up, look where they were or might be, and behold only rock and sky. When they disappeared for an entire day, or if I was at a post for several days and could not find them, I was alarmed.
Certain days, with sheep flesh present, were gifts set against a worrisome history, a past that might too easily repeat itself. Smack in the middle of the red-boned desert, these creatures lived an island life. They occupied a small enclave of wild country, surrounded by perils that could (and not for the first time) nearly decimate them.
The story of their precarious, marginal existence—the story of the continent’s native fauna on their unstoppable trajectory from bounty to scarcity and even demise—was a familiar one, repeated over and over like a six-hundred-pound mantra lodged between the ears. How had this tribe of bighorns escaped the slide toward oblivion? No one could promise me that they would continue to survive.
As I sat contemplating this, the air had an edge of glass to it, the trees no burden of leaves. The light was thin and brittle. Scattered brush dressed the rust-colored canyon in brown, silver, and pale olive. For now, on this bright winter day on the Colorado Plateau, the river glistened in the sun and the sheep browsed nearby without fear. Several ewes interrupted their feeding and stared across the gorge. Their gaze gave notice of the direction they would soon take.
Then a pale turn of light, a shift of tectonic plate, some glimmer of a sheep idea, set them in motion. The animals glided down a precipice of jumbled boulders as if it were a wave of silk. I was not invited to go along. When the sheep disappeared from sight up a rocky arroyo, faith, more than sanctuary, affixed them to the canyon.
In the tensely vertical terrain of Utah’s canyonlands, this band of desert bighorn sheep, creatures of considerable weight and evolutionary investment, had once vanished into thin air.
Their kind had likely been in the southwestern deserts since the late Pleistocene. Over the millennia, in a land of heat, drought, and food plants that resemble pot scrubbers, they had become a different race from that of their ancestors. Their pelage had paled in color and their bones had lightened. They had learned how to reduce body-water loss. They had struck ironclad allegiances to particular watering holes. They were, in short, the locals.
Barely a few decades into the twentieth century, we had the locals surrounded. Like every desert bighorn on the continent, the Blue Door Band lived on an isolated remnant of its former terrain. Intolerant of human activity, place-faithful to a fault, and with no other bighorns to naturally replenish them, they were, like many species on an island of habitat, vulnerable to catastrophe.
An aggressive predator, for instance, could wreak havoc if the bighorns were in weak condition or if their numbers were few. Contact with domestic sheep could expose them to debilitating disease. Competition for food could push them off their safe places to no place. There were few other places for them to go.
When the Blue Door Band declined in the early 1960s—too few animals to keep the population viable—the word extinct was bandied about. Their passing garnered little notice from a public that barely knew the wild sheep existed in the first place.
Elsewhere in the Southwest, attentive shepherds—wildlife managers and advocates—nudged desert bighorns along through recovery and protection programs. But this band, as remote and as isolated as if stuck on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific, slipped through the cracks, their numbers likely fallen to a point of no return. They slid into a spectacular crash. Year after year, the river cliffs held their absence, air empty of blood and breath. The sheep were gone.
Then they came back.
These late-fall mornings have a weight to them, air pressed down by steel gray clouds. Storms cross the desert, but no rain falls, only this heaviness of air. Then a curtain of wind moves in from the high mesas and pushes the weight east, stripping the cottonwoods bare of their leaves in a single gust. Behind the wind, silver trees rise from islands of their own, shed gold, and the crickets lose their voices.
Migrating bluebirds, dozens of them, rest in the storms’ wake, scattering electric blue shards in blond strands of salt grass. A single Russian olive tree holds some of the birds among its dried gold-green leaves, a Persian miniature I shall paint as soon as I study Persian miniatures for about ten years. The chile crop my husband, Mark, and I planted is harvested and dries to bloodred under a weakening sun, the summer’s fire saved. From the Great Basin to Mexico, a high-pressure system settles over us. For several weeks, all edges will stay sharp. There will be no haze.
I try to spend most of my days with the sheep. November’s thin light and ambient quiet make it easy to find them. They array themselves on a steep talus and stand at feed like perfect bighorns: heads down, all facing the same direction, shapely gray profiles against gray rock. Then they all turn to show white rumps atop graceful legs, more like glyphs than creatures.
At times, I post myself on a canyon rim and see no sheep. Being with them spoils me for being without them. Then I hear a rock fall and clatter and, above the sound, I find a group clustered in a hanging arroyo, a vertical cleft in a cliff wall: tsétah dibé, in Navajo, sheep of the rock or mountain.
On one watch, I see fifteen ewes and juveniles bolt from their feed and run at top speed along a narrow horizontal ledge, single file, as if chased by a pack of starving panthers. The leader stops so suddenly—a panic-braking ur-rrch—her hooves leave skid marks in the limestone. Each one behind her crashes into the butt of the sheep in front of it: a pileup.
I spend an entire afternoon listening to horns clash, but I see no rams. The folds of the canyon hide them. I am so far from roads and humans, the only sounds are the river and the echoing impact of sheep skulls.
Another time, a thousand acres yields one bighorn. He is “skylining,” standing atop an outcrop in ram supermodel profile. Head slightly raised, muscles tense, he does not move. Ten minutes pass without a twitch. The ram is frozen in place. I follow the direction of his stare. A half mile away, high above him on the canyon wall, one ewe feeds. He knows she is there.