Last fall, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I had just entered the first week of my sabbatical when the news came in. Something unusual had been found on his pancreas. A month later, the cancer was confirmed. My world caved in. During sabbatical my goal was to make good progress on my book, but I had a difficult time focusing and my achievement driven persona quickly turned into a mushy slough. Something in me began to shift – something big – although I am still not sure what it is.
Recently, while in the backcountry of Death Valley National Park, I had an encounter which somewhat eased my sadness. Over the last few years, I have been captivated by Desert Bighorn Sheep; drawn by their graceful ability to blend in with the natural landscape and to captivate the imagination. Bighorn are like archetypal dream images; their presence is made known by their footpaths and scatterings, but when we try to track them they quietly disappear, drawing us even further into their wanderings. Although I have carefully looked for Bighorn along the desert peaks and rocky alcoves, I have never seen one in the wild, which I sadly attributed to my dull senses and overly rational mind. It takes a special kind of seeing to see bighorn, a kind of seeing that looks in unpredictable places, an ability to see beyond the surface of things. Perhaps, encountering death is that which clears away the debris and sharpens our vision into this non-linear realm.
Holding the pain of my potential loss, I took a long walk down a deep arroyo. Although, I had my sights set on a particular goal, I eventually succumbed to an irrational impulse to stray from my path and head up a dark canyon where I eventually came upon a large circle of black stones. I stepped into the stone circle and sat for a long, long time. I wept in that valley of death. When I finally stepped out of the circle, I turned my head and immediately caught sight of the bleached bones of a bighorn ram, the horns still intact, sturdy, and secure. The sight of the ram’s head filled me with an unexpected surge of strength and I knew at that moment that I could navigate my way through this difficult passage, knowing that the pain of death is also accompanied by the beauty reflected in these bones.
A couple days later, while leaving the campsite, I was looking up toward the mountains, hoping to see the invisible bighorn. Suddenly, as if my eyes miraculously opened, I saw a clan of ewes grazing near the wash. They appeared to be pregnant. No doubt, what I saw were the bighorn sheep, but I was also ecstatically filled with the magic of their archetypal presence. A moment I will never forget.
Due to habitat loss, hunting, and the introduction of domestic livestock, the existence of the bighorn has become severely threatened. By the beginning of the twentieth century, even the most moderate conservationists were convinced that the bighorn were doomed to extinction. Fortunately, and with large effort on part of many dedicated individuals, the bighorn are still with us but their survival remains tenuous. Whether one ever sees a bighorn or not, to lose their presence would be tragic both for the natural world and for psyche. No longer would their hoofprints captivate the imagination, drawing us into the realm of the unseen, giving us cause to pause and wonder. No longer would we have reason to imagine that beyond the boundaries of civilization are wild beings ready to give birth at any moment. The land would be empty, silent, void of mystery.
To observe desert bighorn in the wild is a tremendous gift. Not only does it provide hope that, despite all loss, these creatures may continue on earth, but that psyche, too, continues to walk along the high and luminous places, watching from above, gracing us with her hidden presence. And, perhaps, all we may hear is one tiny pebble set free by one slender hoof, but that is enough.