By Kelsi Turner
Broadcast 6.22 & 6.25.2022
I was living in a 144-square-foot treehouse with my family the first time I encountered a herd of elk.
Straightening the quilt on one of the cots, I glimpsed movement through a window and rushed – barefoot – to the narrow deck to see what it was: a herd of 200 elk galloping along each rise and dip of the valley below the treehouse.
The vibration of their hoofbeats flowed across the land, up through my feet and, eventually, my heartbeat synchronized with it. It was the loudest quiet sound I’d ever heard.
Their long legs brushed and crushed the foliage as they ran, activating a perfume of mint, grass, wind, sage, soil, and fir needles overlaid with the scent of elk; which is not unlike that of a horse, though wilder and deeper.
Treehouse living was simply a stopgap in housing for my family as we built our modest home on the same land. But it ended up being much more.
Despite living in an elevated treehouse, I’d never felt more connected with the earth. Every day there was a new flower to study. A bird family made a nest in the eaves. A mini-museum of rocks, shells, sticks, bark, lichen, bones, and plants sprang up on the stairs. Squirrels explored the Lego houses my kids built on the deck.
But it was the elk herd that gave me something majestic to set my sights upon. From our perch in the treehouse, we watched the elk like some people watch television. A brief rainstorm would make it through the valley most afternoons, and the grasses and forbs grew to a rich blanket of emerald. The cows and calves fed on the abundant asters, daisies, dandelions, elk thistle, and grasses. Suspicious mothers were quick to turn heel, and we gave them a wide berth, changing the route of a walk or simply being quiet as we went about our day.
That autumn, I kept the windows of the treehouse open so we could listen to the bulls’ bugles ringing out. We had never heard anything so sonorous, urgent. Lying in our cots in the dark, I teased my kids that it wasn’t elk living in our small valley of the Gallatin Mountains, it was a herd of elephants. One day, we watched, rapt – two enormous bull elk, antlers locked, battling for control of a harem of females. Like the calls of the migrating Canada Geese in my childhood, the elk calls helped my body understand that autumn had arrived.
When an early autumn snowfall left 10 inches on the ground, the elk nestled in the fluffy snow amidst the stand of Douglas-fir trees where our treehouse stood. In the morning, we tromped through the snow, noting the oval-shaped depressions in the ground. We marked it as our first elk slumber party.
Two days before the permanent winter snow fell, we moved into our home. After a week of steady unpacking, it dawned on me that the valley was quiet. The elk were absent. They’d migrated downslope to the valley grasslands where they wintered.
That winter, we had winding conversations about living in tandem with the elk. Beeswax candles glowing, hot peppermint tea in hand, my family made plans. We talked about what stewardship looks like. We sketched plans to grow native plants where the soil surrounding our home had been disturbed by heavy machinery. We reached out to experts to find ways to make existing fencing in our area more wildlife friendly. We decided not to raise more fences, not to spray chemicals, not to get a dog.
And then early summer arrived and with it the heavily pregnant cows. Slowly, we began to recognize some individuals in the herd. We watched, through binoculars, as a cow elk gave birth. When the herd made their first run down the ridge and into the valley, we raised our arms over our heads in wonder and gratitude and welcomed them home.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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