by Jessi Johnson | photos by Neil Moore
The soft crunch of footsteps on dirt suspended with permafrost approaches from the well-worn game trail above. Two legs, hiking boots and gators come into view as someone leaves the trail and heads for my creek bottom. It is quiet in this drainage and a snarl of green lichens and willows covers everything muffling the steps to a muted thunk. The only other sounds are a light breeze rustling the already bare branches and a soft inhale exhale of breath. The steps stop and time feels suspended. I have been seen.
I am not sure how long I have been down here in the bottoms of a Montanan valley surrounded by steep cliffs and slopes. Time passes differently once you become a part of a place and not just an occupant. I grew up here, learned this landscape from my mother and ultimately this also is where I now rest in a slow but steady disintegration into dust.
Forested north facing slopes and the windswept southern exposures tower above my resting spot in this rocky creek bottom. It is November and already the herd has moved onto the exposed southern slopes to feed on the short grasses and sage. Life in this place requires a near consistent consumption of calories, an ever-aware eye for predators and a close-knit family who watches for each other. It is all I have ever known and to bear witness to years of it hasn’t diminished its trials or its harsh and unequaled beauty.
People have been walking past me for years, hurrying on their own adventures, destination oriented and distracted as often humans these days are. They seem to the be only animals that forget to introduce themselves to a place; to stop and take in what it is that keeps us all alive. The individual whose breath slowly puffs into the brisk air above me is the first who has taken time to see the soul of this landscape and I think they feel that acknowledgement as much as I do.
Hands wrap around the base of my horns and give a slight tug. Being pulled from the ground is like a birth of sorts. Parts of me are stark white than have been buried and protected- but I can feel the green moss that blankets my horns dislodge with the movement. Abruptly I feel the grips of the earth loosen and I am free. I sit in a lap of crisscrossed knees and stare into a face tinged with awe and joy.
I was a Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram. There was a time when millions of us populated this continent having crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia some 750,000 years ago, but, as time passes, change often creates new circumstances and there are as few as 8,000 of us (3 subspecies of Bighorns. Ovis canadensis canadensis; the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, Ovis canadensis sierra; Sierra Nevada or California Bighorn, and Ovis canadensis nelson; the Desert Bighorn) left today.
Bighorns have hacked out our existence in some of the most remote and rugged country this earth has to offer and it to these places that we are slowly returning. Fueled by conservation efforts led by hunters like the one whose hands grip my skull, the species are being slowly and deliberately recovered. And while we still face threats from diseases transferred from domestic sheep that our bodies do not understand how to fight and our habitats seem to still be shrinking, the outlook feels hopeful.
I rest cradled in hands that gently lift and turn me. As they examine each inch, I am not sure what they are looking for, perhaps a clue as to why I am buried to my horns in the earth. In truth I am not even sure what brought me here; maybe a hard winter, a misplaced foot or a mountain lion. Life ends fast. Regardless I feel the curiosity in their gaze. This connection to something living awakens a memory of the life I lived in these mountains. I find myself tucked carefully into a pack and hoisted over a shoulder. They scramble up to the little game trail and each turn and ascent is familiar. In a feeling of both moving on and going home I say goodbye. This country that I am so much a part of lets me disappear over the horizon to a new resting place with a new purpose; a snapshot of inspiration, a memory of a beloved landscape, and a respectful promise to keep pushing for the existence of wild untrammeled places where sheep like me have a spot in our world.