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TBT: A Member of the Hoof Clan at the Water’s Edge

Deer Pin 1

Hoof Clan spirits hold a special place in the cultures and ways of the peoples of this region. For some, it’s deer; for others, elk; for others, both.

This is rooted in intensely practical factors, of course, food and clothing and shelter among them. But it’s more than that: They are spirits who belong to this land, and their presence — or absence — holds weight and meaning.

We don’t often see deer around here; ours are generally too skittish to venture this close to this much human habitation. People hunt them in the backcountry and the lower reaches of the mountains, for food, for the hides, for the antlers, for cultural and ceremonial purposes. There are guidelines for such practices, of course; unlike in the outside world, it’s not indiscriminate, neither sport nor slaughter. Wings used to hunt, too, although it’s been several years now; a couple of our friends still go hunting, though, and semi-regularly bring venison back to us, as well.

The elk are another matter.

The elk are significantly larger, both individually and in terms of their herds. A bull elk is spectacularly powerful, but the cows are impressive, too. Even the young, though slender and leggy, are large enough to do damage to mere humans. Of course, get too close to a yearling, and it will be the mother who appears seemingly from nowhere to make sure you know your place.

We are approaching the end of what Wings and I call “elk season” here. From late fall to early spring, these great creatures typically migrate temporarily out of the mountains in search of food. In years past, they have been spotted in one of the fields adjacent to a major highway heading into town; more often, they appear at a distance in the fields along our highway, where they have some space between themselves and vehicular traffic. We inevitably catch a glimpse or two of them several acres away. But in the last few years, this same herd has come right onto our land more winters than not — onto the pond, into the carport, into the hay barn, among the aspens right outside the window. They come at night, of course, but we have once or twice surprised them (and they have surprise us) by ambling very close to our living quarters. More obviously, the proof is apparent the next morning, when the aspens bear new scars from the males rubbing their antlers against the trunks.

This year, though, the elk did not come.

In a way, that’s a good thing; it means that the forage available in the mountains was sufficient to sustain the herd, and that keeps its members safer. But from a broader perspective, it’s yet another worrisome indicator of climate change’s effects. At this elevation, there could be sufficient forage in the mountains only with temperatures too warm and snowfall too minimal to send it dormant. It’s also an indicator of another development, too: We have had so little snow this season that virtually all the available is at higher elevations. Able to find sufficient green, and sufficient water, too, there is no need for the elk to descend to this level.

That’s good for the elk in the short term. It’s frankly terrible for the rest of us. And while it’s only a minor matter, it denied us one of the most beautiful sights of winter here. In recent years, the herd has come to feel like friends, like family. They seem to know that they are safe here — Wings permits no hunting on his land, affording such animals sanctuary — and we have looked forward each year to their visits (sometimes up close and very personal). A few days ago, it occurred to me that they had not come to visit (and will not now, this late in the year). And while I realized immediately why that should be the case this year, it nonetheless brought to mind, with perhaps more than a bit of nostalgia and melancholy, today’s featured throwback.

It’s a pin from about a dozen years ago, one that could actually have done double duty as a deer. Indeed, if memory serves, the person who ultimately purchased it interpreted the image as a deer, and for this place, that certainly fits. But Wings intended it as an elk, as evidence by the broader face and muzzle and the wide rack of antlers.

It was also a spectacularly simple piece, one that the visit linked a couple of paragraphs above brought immediately to mind at the time. In that instance, the resting elk who came to see us was something shy of a yearling, probably female, certainly without even the tiniest beginnings of any antlers. But it found a safe spot at the corner of our south fence, where it slept in the sun while its parents foraged not far away, albeit out of the line of human sight. It was one of those inherently indigenous designs that brought together traditional symbols and symbolism to create the image of an equally traditional spirit.

It began, of course, with the silver — sheet silver of a relatively light gauge, thick enough to hold its shape, but not so heavy as to pull downward on the fabric against which it would likely be worn. Wings cut the elk’s outlines out freehand, keeping the lines spare and simple, limbs and tail no more than suggestions. It gave the body a vaguely trapezoidal shape, although in fact that part of the pin was fashioned into figure with six sides, not four. The head was of a piece with the body, most of the face evoked only with stampwork in the upper reaches of the body itself — a fitting perspective, given that the face and jaw of an elk lying upon the ground would appear to be directly in front of its chest.

The upper portions of the head, however, the part involving ears and antlers? That took a little more work.

After cutting out the geometric shape of the body, Wings coaxed a pair of diamond-like ears from the upper right side of the work, one on either side of what would become the head. As he worked the saw around the arc of the head, he carved out a pair of matching antlers, each a four-point rack, with the curved backs of the antlers visible as small points at the center, the top of the head a valley between them. Once the edges were all exposed and filed smooth, it was time to create the elk’s face and other features.

One of Wings’s singular talents is summoning a spirit from silver with just a few quick strokes. This  piece was a perfect example of that technique. The eyes and the trapezoidal outline of the muzzle were all created with strikes of a chisel: two short ones, slanted opposite each other, for the eyes; another short one for the top of the nose; three longer ones for the three remaining sides of the muzzle. A pair of tiny hoops formed the elk’s nostrils; a pair of arrowheads, the indentations in its ears. The brow was fashioned out of a single crescent moon stamp, points upward; that same stamp, paired to join up, created the center of each antler rack, evoking the impression of space between individual antlers.

It was an expressive face, and an instantly-recognizeable one.

But there was more to be done.

I’ve written fairly extensive here about the role of the heartline in the indigenous figurative art of this region (what I’ve also noted is sometimes described as a breathline or lifeline; Wings always and only uses the old term, which is heartline). Wings frequently gives traditional heartlines to such figurative works, particularly those embodying animal spirits. This one was no exception.

Wings cuts his heartlines freehand, and by hand, which takes significantly more patience, skill, and labor than more modern methods (some artists now use lasers to do this, but Wings adheres strictly to the old ways in this regard). It requires a steady hand and a meticulous mindset, and a great deal of patience, beginning with puncturing the silver in the appropriate place. Too large a puncture, and the design is off; too small, and there will be no getting the saw blade into the silver. And the blade itself is tiny, nearly as slender as a thread. Once inserted, he gently but firmly moved it around the edges of the arrowhead to create an ajouré point; then he moved it carefully back across the elk’s body in a zigzag pattern, reminiscent of a lightning bolt. at roughly the two-thirds point across the creature’s body, he halted the zigzag design and from its end, branched outward in either direction to create the fletched “shaft” at the end of the heartline arrow. Once complete, he turned the piece over and domed it slightly, repoussé-fashion, then soldered the pin assembly securely to the back. Last of all, he oxidized all of the stampwork and saw-work, and buffed it to a finish just slightly brighter than a pure Florentine. Taken together, it produced an image of an elk at home, safe and comfortable, a member of the Hoof Clan at the water’s edge.

This was, as far as I can recall, the only elk Wings ever created. He’s talked, on occasion, of making more, and deer as well; they simply haven’t found its way onto his workbench yet. But perhaps, given the absence of our winter herd this year, they’ll put in an appearance soon.

~ Aji










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