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Friday Feature: The Call of the Winter Spirits

Our world here has emerged, warm and bright, from the cloak of night. The dark hours, wrapped in robes of fog, gave way early to a glittering frost beneath bands of dove-gray cloud and brilliant sun. Now, the only haze in the air is that of a town’s worth of wood smoke, held close to the land by layers of cold.

Outside the window, the crows have gathered in the company of the smaller spirits of winter: the chickadees, the juncos, the red finches. They are making short work of the seeds and the suet both, all busy at the work of preparing for a season of deep snow and short light.

The larger raptors are here, too, hawks small and large and the occasional sighting of a golden eagle. Their earth-bound cousins, the four-leggeds, have not put in an appearance yet, but once the snow flies, they will begin to show themselves as they seek forage in a place of known sanctuary.

The elk, when they arrive, are remarkably quiet for beings of such imposing size and substance. We have yet to a bull’s bugling call, and the cows and calves are similarly mostly silent. It is, no doubt, a learned behavior, a defenses mechanism, too: There is, after all, a major highway at the northwest end of our land, and there are plenty of erstwhile “hunters” here untroubled by the requirements permits or official hunting season should the opportunity present itself. We have had a small splinter herd graze beneath our willows by the pond at night; they know us, and while they fade back out of the range of the flashlight beam, they don’t flee. But we do our best to encourage them to stay behind that marker, so as not to attract the attention of human predators.

In our way, of course, hunting elk is a traditional of long, even timeless, standing. In our way, though, there is nothing of the trophy about it; we take no more than we need, and we honor the animal’s gift by putting every part of it to use. And because we have no need, ourselves, of these wild creatures who come to our land in search of sustenance and safety, they are protected here, and they seem to know that.

Today’s featured work is one that could be used for hunting these magnificent beings . . . or, it could be used for simple communication, even protection. It’s an elk whistle, which is exactly what it sounds like: a whistle that produces a sound like that of, and recognizeable to, the elk. From its description in the Other Artists:  Leatherwork, Antler, and Bone gallery here on the site:

Sharpen your traditional hunting skills or simply learn to communicate with the herd with this hand-made elk whistle. Carved of deer antler entirely by hand by Joseph “Joe T” Trujillo (Taos Pueblo), this vintage-style whistle is fully functional for use in the back country. The deer antler is treated with a clear stain to seal it against the elements; a hole hand-drilled through the top holds a long thong made of bright, highly-visible red leather. The whistle stands 2-1/8″ high at the highest point by 3/4″ across at the widest point; thong is 26″ long, excluding knot (dimensions approximate). Other views shown above and below.

Sealed deer antler; leather thong
$75 + shipping, handling, and insurance

For us, such a piece would have no utility in hunting; it might, however, be useful in calling back those who stray too near the dangers of highway traffic and human habitation. As art, it represents the most traditional of many off our peoples’ ways: simple and spare, nothing needed save a piece of shed antler and the knowledge and skill to know how and where to open it to the air, to give it voice, its notes sung in the call of the winter spirits.

Among our works by other artists, this is one of my favorites for so very many reasons — respect for and adherence to tradition, the beauty in natural simplicity, the testament that it is to old skills and ancient ways of knowing. In this season before the snow flies, it’s a reminder, too, of our obligations, even in the harsh realities of winter, to our natural world: a world that exists not only to feed our bodies, but to survive and thrive well enough to feed our spirits, too.

~ Aji








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