The Carcass Chronicle

We found the elk’s carcass in the morning, just downhill from the pasture fence where she lay sprawled across an iced-over stream. Carcass is a harsh word for that once-graceful animal, a cow elk whose small head and hooves made me think she ’d only lived a few years. Her eyes were still liquid and soft, looking upwards to the sky. Below that stare, a gaping hole in her neck held a pool of blood large enough to ripple in the cold breeze. Her hide was half gone, ribs exposed, but her head was untouched, those eyes seeming to watch, making her more elk than carcass.

The wolves had brought her down the night before, first when she tried to jump the fence behind the cabin and failed to clear the top rail, breaking the pole clean through. The snap of wood only twenty yards from where I lay reading in bed had caught my attention. Setting the book down, turning off the music playing on the nightstand, I listened in the quiet. A sound seemed to come from outside, a stirring of something in the night so soft it was like a dreamed presence. The cat didn’t notice anything and went back to purring. I went back to my book.

The fallen elk had risen to move through the dark, away from the place where her body had printed the snow, where red splashed across white. With wolves on her and blood streaming, she had gotten up, staggered from behind the cabin, through the ice of the creek, and across the small dirt road that goes to the barn. There she met the pasture fence. That obstacle finished the hunt, and she died on the other side, the wolves ending the struggle as she made that last leap, the snow holding the story to be read the next morning. 

Wolves commonly kill elk where I live, on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. It’s the natural way of things in the greater community of life. Yet this death occurred only a short distance from where I rested peacefully in bed with quiet music and purring cat, a death revealed as the morning sun warmed the valley—the beauty of the natural world entwined in torn flesh and staring eyes. What rises in the face of events so natural yet so severe is not so much an emotion as a stillness, an abrupt pause in what we know as life.

Later, considering that soft sound drifting through the dark as the elk’s life was torn from her, a thought came. Perhaps this is how death moves: muffled, unseen, inevitably closing in—like creatures pushing softly through snow in the night. 

_____

We needed to move the carcass, so the ranch hand wrapped a chain around her neck and hauled the dead elk off with the bulldozer. Blood streamed from her mouth as the chain tightened and the roaring machine dragged off the limp body that bounced and bobbed as it slid down the gravel road and out of sight. Removing the elk bothered me, for wolves had brought her down and wolves should feed on her carcass. That her last move happened behind a smoke-belching bulldozer bothered me more, seeming so wrong for this animal who had spent her life in high meadows and mountains. But the move was a necessity: buildings all around, dogs running loose, horses in that pasture. She would now lie where scavengers could reach her, beyond constant human activity. 

_____

Two days after the elk’s death, I walked out to the front pasture, across the white field where last summer’s Timothy grass swayed golden over the snow, down through pine woods, through a secluded meadow, and out to the forest edge not far from the river. I found the bulldozer tracks coming in from the other direction; they took me to the carcass. I wanted to know if the wolves had found their prey.

With the bulldozer’s blade, the ranch hand had pushed the carcass away from the trail along the woods, shoving the elk to her final resting place atop a snow pile, head lolling down the pile’s front, rigid legs sticking off the back. And yes, a wolf had been there, pressing hand-size paw prints into the snow, almost up to the elk’s remains. Almost. No canine tracks at the body, the carcass looking little different from the morning that the elk died. The wolf had only come within ten feet. 

Another elk had also come, fresh cloven prints so close to the carcass that the living elk could have put its nose on the body, smelling wolf and human and death. Curious? Mourning? It seems an elk would avoid this site and its scents. 

Wolf passing up meat, an elk exploring its kindred’s demise: there was mystery here, a story unfolding. And so I returned the next day, and the next, in what became a daily journey, a time of reflection, observation, notes taken in a small black book with fingers stiffened by winter chill, written while standing under a long-dead tree. That old pine became part of the day, part of the narrative, marking the site and offering protection from the wind. And a perch for the ravens.

_____

Ravens go to roost at the end of the day, leaving a carcass to the quiet of evening. For a few days, evening was when I visited the site and found only the wind swinging through the forest, a muted chorus of rustling branches and creaking trunks rising from the swaying trees. Tracks showed the presence of those who came and went from the crumpled body. In that last diminishing light of day was a sense of creatures watching, though I had no way of knowing whose eyes were on me: fox, coyote, eagle, marten. All felt alive, standing there next to death. 

The ravens went unseen until I changed the timing of my visit, journeying to the site mid-morning, four days after the elk died. A handful of big black birds hunkered on the carcass, vigorously pecking and pulling at the flesh. I slipped closer. A bald eagle lifted into flight, abandoning its meal at my approach. The ravens followed, departing as one, sifting into the trees. An intricate pattern marked the snow around the carcass, entwined toe and talon prints, a mosaic of the birds’ activities as they danced around the bounty of meat. 

Morning visits became my norm, part of the rhythm of the carcass day: canines at night, birds in light, ravens and eagles feeding until late afternoon, me appearing mid-morning and sometimes evening as well. Ravens and eagles abandoned the carcass in my presence, gray jays and the occasional magpie jumping on the torn flesh as the big birds lifted off, those smaller birds making use of the time when I was there. This was the general pattern over the following weeks, though with shifts in species and numbers, witnessed yet not always understood. 

In the first few days of morning visitations, I ’d arrive to find an average corvid cohort of eight to ten ravens. Then a recruitment call went out; the raven numbers grew. 

The call happened on a bright, crisp morning, the air sound-carryingly clear. Perched in a lodgepole pine close to the carcass, a raven started calling, a chuckle followed by a long, musical bark: “Hah! Hah! . . . Hah! . . . Hah!” The bird jerked forward with feathers ruffling at the force of each sound. 

Something about that call—its unfamiliarity, its penetrating persistence and intensity—caught my imagination, piqued my interest. What was that raven saying? I returned home, started searching academic papers, websites, and bird books for clues to the meaning of this unique vocalization. And there it was, right on my shelf, in a book I hadn’t looked at for years: Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter. It seems that raven in the pine had been “yelling.” 

In the 1980s, ravens captured the attention of Heinrich, who noticed that after a raven or two discovered a carcass, they would often loudly announce their find, and other ravens would come to the meat. Wanting to understand why ravens would advertise their food rather than keep it to themselves, Heinrich dragged cow guts, dead beaver, and other grisly remains into the woods, going out in freezing pre-dawn temperatures to get to an observation point before the birds arrived. Eventually, he determined that nonbreeding vagrant ravens “yell” to gather a group and control a carcass against dominant resident ravens. This is not about sharing. It’s a way to get some food in the face of a territorial dominant. 

Yet, the yell is more than a call to gather a group of anonymous carcass-controllers. Each raven has its own voice, with unique acoustic qualities. Ravens are familiar with the calls of other vagrant ravens that inhabit the same general region and so can identify which one is yelling, then choose whether or not to join the feeding frenzy, coming to the call of social allies.* The gang that congregates on a carcass is thus a gathering of familiars. 

On that cold, clear morning, with the elk less than a week dead, the raven’s yell had echoed across the sage flats and into the forest. The following day, around twenty ravens gathered, almost three times the number who ’d been ripping at the carcass the morning before. They were a close-knit group—feeding together in a mob, lifting as one from the bloody remains when I approached, dancing synchronously through the sky. They seemed in continuous conversation, voicing their raven thoughts and concerns, yelling, crawking, calling, cooing, and squawking during squabbles. I watched those ravens conversing within their complex and structured avian society, communicating in ways humans are only just beginning to understand. I watched and wondered what convoluted ideas were in those sounds, given that a simple “Hah! Hah!” can convey a story. 

And they watched me, that great flock of black birds. Even as I watched this process, I was being watched—the observer now observed. 

 _____

They scrutinized me from the beginning. That day when I heard the raven yell, rather than simply removing themselves to the surrounding forest as I approached, a few ravens remained behind, circling just overhead as the others disappeared into the trees. One paused in a hover, looking down with arched neck. I returned its gaze, looking skyward at that bird with its curled, gray feet the only break in the black, its impenetrable ebony eyes staring down, reducing the human below to nothing but a wisp of a question. I felt I was being judged. Then the raven tipped a wing and was off into the woods. Released from scrutiny, I called as it departed, “Cra-a-awck!”

After my first few visits, the ravens began announcing my arrival whenever I walked toward the carcass, a black shape sweeping past with a rush of wings and a loud cry as the old dead pine came into view, the call jerking my attention to that moment, even as the bird brought my presence to the attention of the flock. The raven’s racketing cry shifted my focus, that feathered creature sailing toward the dead elk pulling my awareness out of the comfortable dominion of home that I ’d just left. On reaching the carcass, I would find the ravens already lifted, milling about in the surrounding trees. As I examined the carcass, three or four would fly from the sheltering woods to the opening where the elk lay, to circle overhead, keep track of my movements, follow me as I stepped back to stand under the pine and scratch out notes or simply to look up through the craggy, bare branches, watching them watching me. Always, at least one would stall mid-flight, floating ten feet overhead, fluttering wings twisting the air into a rustling whirlpool, neck arched, staring down, stilling me with a stare.

Yet I did not keep silent. An urge to participate drew out my feeble crawks and croos, though I feared I might be saying something untoward. My voice went out in an attempt to communicate acknowledgment, a human cry into an expanded community. 

_____

Eleven days after the kill: a shift, a change. On that gray, still morning, the raven group scattered, leaving behind only disjunct calls echoing in oppressive air. Ravens drifted about, separating, moving near and far, high in the sky, shifting erratically through the pines. A bald eagle stared down from a high perch above the carcass before rising to soar out of sight, followed by a second that had been on the remains. The pile of bone and flesh lay empty, deserted by pecking beak and tearing talon.

Tension in the air, a throb. Standing in my habitual spot under the pine, I noted: A different feel . . . Now a big raven has perched nearby. Jet-black eyes rested hard on me, seeming to question my presence, then abruptly the bird took off, disappearing in a feathered squall of sound. Ravens were strewn about—sporadic calls, no groups. Then quiet. A breeze, a tree whisper, a river murmur. 

Walking home by a different route, I crossed the dirt road to the ranch where a burly raven stood alone, exactly in the middle of the road, calling, calling. “Crawk, crawk! . . . Crawk!”

_____

On day twelve I arrived to silence. They are GONE—the words scrawled in my notebook. The ravens were gone. Gone. No birds called from the site, no ravens, eagles, magpies. Nothing. Fox and coyote tracks, but only one set of jay tracks. No creatures, only eerie silence and the carcass—now a mere rack of ribs flecked with flesh, head thrown back half hidden by snow, hind legs still connected at the pelvis but pointing toward opposite ends of the earth. 

A raven call wafted in from a far distance. Another. The group had disbanded, dispersed to other parts, the carcass apparently reduced to a state that no longer made it worth feeding en masse. And so—the floating calls of the day before, the taut air, all stretched to the point of breaking, of breaking up. The beginning of the end of this carcass gathering—though it remains a mystery why other bird species departed as well. The ravens had discussed and determined this stage the previous day, through sounds and perhaps in other ways that I felt in the tension, but didn’t understand. 

And that big raven proclaiming something from the middle of the road, with his ringing “Crawck, crawck, crawck.” Just what? “Off! Off! We’re off to other places!” Or, my romantic sentiments chime in, “Farewell! Farewell! Farewell, lady who stands by the Tree!” 

What messages lie in raven calls? Academic articles and Heinrich’s books can illuminate the “yell.” Other sounds, cries, and behaviors are more obscure, floating past like a foreign language. And not just ravens had been talking around the carcass during those days. Eagles voiced their thoughts, a trill drifting through the forest, or a high-pitched call—so frail for such a mighty bird—floating down from the sky. Jays and magpies tossed out their notes. Unheard, the canines also conversed, their pee stains marking the snow. 

On leaving the cabin and walking down to the carcass, for a moment I stepped out of human society and away from machines, removing myself from our material and ideological constructions, immersing in that swirl of another society’s communication. I had become a visitor to a different culture, surrounded by foreign dialogue and discussion, skimming the edge of a dance beyond everyday life.

_____

A solitary raven flew over the ranch. I watched, pausing as I put my things into the car. A town day. No time to walk the well-packed path across the snowy field, down through the small meadow, along the forest edge looking for tracks, noting bird calls, arriving at the carcass, watching, listening, sensing. A town day. No time for the note-taking, the thoughtfulness that comes with daily observation of death reincarnated into raven, eagle, fox, coyote, wolf.

The raven arced black against the winter-gray sky, headed in the carcass’s direction. A single call dropped down from the heights, the only sound in my world as I stood motionless by the open car door.

This thing—this decaying, decomposing, scavenged, dismembered, disemboweled, rotting-fleshed, once-graceful, now-tendon/bone/guts disintegrating into something other, this heap of decay surrounded by vibrant beings functioning in an ancient rhythm, a dance engrained in all cells and part of who we are, who we should be—this carcass had captured my attention.

I got into the car and drove toward urban noise and stores and traffic, though not without another glance toward the heavens. But the raven had slipped out of sight, leaving the sky empty.

_____

They are GONE, I had written, stunned at the raven crowd’s departure. But not all the ravens were gone. Energy remained to be harvested from that sprawled carcass with one hoof dangling off the snow pile, bare ribs arcing, snow-covered skull grinning. Sustenance remained for bird and canine: bits of hide, bone, tendon, even flesh. In the days that followed, a few ravens remained, harvesting that last bit of death, perhaps the territorial ravens who ’d been crowded out by the mob. They perched in the old pine tree, black shapes in the dead branches above, sometimes crawking, other times silent, their eyes on me. They continued to monitor my stay, watching, checking, discussing things until I departed, leaving them to their meal. 

Solstice day, when light is precious and limited. My cold fingers recorded a shaky note: Raven has landed in the Tree above me. The massive bird peered down with a curious cock of his head. A conversation started with another bird in the woods. Crawck! Coor-ra-ack!, the bird above me called. Answering crawcks. The talk carried on. And on. Back and forth the birds conversed, from woods to pine, pine to woods. Occasionally, during pauses, I clucked or crawcked softly up at the raven, who would throw me a glance, then resume chatting with the other raven in the forest. Was I their topic? That odd creature at the base of the tree, that human who persisted in visiting, but never took anything from the carcass. 

A spell of silence settled in. In that penetrating stillness, the raven above stared directly down at me, locked my eyes with his look, and told me something—softly, in a tone that wasn’t meant to carry to the other bird in the forest. That big old raven conveyed his thoughts in crooing notes that held the percussive quality of rolling wooden beads, a resonating sound beyond music, beyond voice. I quietly clucked back, unable to imitate anything like that vocalized beauty—but I wanted to answer. Twice more he spoke, looking directly at me. Gentle and soft, the ebony bird gifted me a message. 

I heard that bird. I heard them all—all those creatures, plant and animal alike, by listening with more than my ears, attuned in a way that left me balanced on the brink of understanding something inexplicable and timeless, yet close, as if seeing another world by looking through gauze. 

The raven lifted, flew into the woods to join the others. After the black form had merged with the forest, gone from sight, I packed away pen and notebook and walked into the day, carrying wonder and a bit of sorrow. Would that I could have fallen over the brink. 

_____

Almost two weeks after the kill, the wolves returned: a pair who walked side by side, their tracks leading without deviation to the carcass. They stayed for only a short time, eating a minimal amount, mostly from the elk’s head. This they flipped upside down, stripping the jawbones clean, leaving two bony arches lined with dark brown teeth, the middle molars ground down almost to nothing. Those stained and worn teeth meant the elk was old. 

The elk’s small size had led me to believe she was young. Wolves normally take the old, the weak, the sick, promoting healthy populations. Harboring a sense of guilt, I had thought this elk’s death a fluke: that in her naïve youth she had spooked in the wrong direction, and our fences—our human constructions—had created barriers that allowed the wolves to take her down. Her teeth, tarnished and ground by many years of grazing, countered that narrative, showing me the predator-prey cycle pulsed as it should. Wolves are beasts of balance in the natural world; the great canines stir the land, driving forward natural dynamics and rhythms of life and death. And if the wolves hadn’t taken her, then winter might have killed her off, that season which culls the old, the weak, the sick, as sharply as wolves’ teeth but more slowly. 

For their own reasons, for whatever motives that drive the great canines’ meanderings, the wolves left after this reappearance, day after day going by without a sign of their passing. A question floated in their wake: would they return again for this beast they had killed? 

Walking shoulder-to-shoulder, leaving parallel tracks in that undeviating path toward their kill, they came back. For three nights they fed, tearing at what remained of the elk. Along with the ongoing work of other scavengers, they reduced her down further, ripping the carcass into pieces, into something other than animal: a leg lying over here, a scapula over there, the pelvis removed altogether.

Other than animal. I could not forget there once was an animal. From the beginning, from the moment the carcass was pushed into that ungraceful sprawl across the snowbank, it held reminders of a living elk inhabiting a material body. 

First, it was her hooves sticking out from the snowbank, suspended in air. Despite her age, they were unscratched, healthy-looking—as if they had many more miles to cover before death should have come and sent them uselessly pointing skyward. Those cloven feet remained clean and untouched until birds started using them as a perch, coating them with creamy-gray streaks, after which the hooves no longer seemed to whisper We should be on the ground . . .

Early on, as scavengers excavated her gut cavity, her droppings appeared, fully formed black pellets scattered across flesh, across snow, food completely digested spewing from her split entrails. These were remnants of her grazing days when she pulled energy from the grass, the sustenance that allowed her to walk, lift a hoof and scratch her ear, call to her herd-mates. To live.

Then the wolves exposed her palate, her mouth’s hard upper plate, leaving it clean, untouched, pink-pearly flesh still covering the bone. As she grazed, she had torn the grass with lips and lower teeth pressed against that hard palate, for elk have no upper front teeth. Before the wolves hunted her down, she had been pawing through snow to graze on the remains of last summer’s grass, using that palate, drawing that energy, producing those pellets. Now, her grazing was done, the grass that she had turned to flesh now feeding others.

Her eyes. On a day near the end, when wind blasted snow horizontally through the trees and all seemed set in motion, I arrived to find that the wolves had shifted the carcass, exposing the head that had been buried in snow for a time. The skull’s resurrection provided another reminder: dark holes stared skyward, eyes completely gone, pecked away so cleanly that a red rim of flesh encircled the gaping socket, like a bloodshot border to a deep-brown eyeball. She gazed at me just as she had the day she died, elk again, not carcass decomposing and scattered. 

Elk. 

Even as the dead elk scrutinized me, the wind hurled itself against the woods, the sagebrush, me. Snow whipped past us all, whirling, incessant movement encompassing the world—except for that old cow elk who was utter stillness, the complete stillness of beyond. Her eyes looked at me, her leg bone stretched behind, the last remaining hoof rested on the snow. Unmoving. 

The material transformation was obvious and understood. But the ancient question rose for me with every reminder of past life: what of the elk that lived within the flesh and bone, the animal who ate her food, had her young, sensed her surroundings? What of the spirit that lingered in those liquid brown eyes that first morning, or the departed spark of life haunting those flesh-rimmed sockets?

That day when she stared at me from beyond the threshold of life was violent and lashing, everything chaotically moving, reducing me to a small speck amidst wildness, engulfed in a wind that was a beast of its own. In the ground blizzard a raven arrived, a single black specter floating low over the bones like a ghost in the blowing snow, there and gone. Then only the fierce wind, stirring all things—except those creatures beyond such worldly forces.

_____

The quiet of aftermath settled in on the morning following the windstorm, snow gently drifting down, covering what little remained of the carcass—a short section of ribs curving above the white. A few bird tracks circled the protruding bones. Nothing more. Only an unbroken cloak of crystals, and the drawn-out ending of the life of one elk.

Two ravens sat in the old pine watching, restless, then gone, leaving an emptiness in the dead branches. I did not stay long, feeling a new sadness, an oddly different sense of loss. For weeks, more than a month, a timeless series of days, I ’d taken that walk down to a crumbling corpse where life was enriched. My visits were drawing to an end that did not feel complete. I stood for a moment under the pine’s branches, beneath the birds, then made my way back home.

I returned the next day, to stand again under that old pine, to once more take out the notebook and pen, to write of the only things present—which felt like nothing: 

Silence. No ravens, no calls, no birds. It is done.

A fox has been here, chewing. Only a fox, tiny little prints and a packed-down place in the snow where s/he lay chewing on the bones, getting the last of the flesh and tendons and marrow.

No ravens. No wind.

It feels deserted . . .

“It feels deserted.” An odd feeling. 

Deserted by what?

Something intangible wove through that time at the carcass. In the quiet of those last days, what slipped away were the overt signs of a deeper place, hints of a world outside of our ordinary lives.

The carcass site had become a thin place. 

A thin place occurs where the veil between our known, visible world and another realm—the invisible world, the eternal, the “other”—diminishes, allowing a sense of what lies beyond our everyday existence. 

Holy and sublime sites inspire the term “thin place,” locations such as the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, a destination for spiritual seekers. I once spent a few months on Iona, and after my time there I came to believe that Iona is no closer to another realm than any other wild, rugged island. But over the centuries, human history has transformed it into a recognized spiritual setting, so people arrive on that particular island with a heightened awareness that creates an openness, a broadening of the senses that allows the layers to peel back. Perception grows to allow a glimpse of a broader realm, yet one seen through gauze, as if standing on the brink. And then Iona is experienced as a thin place. 

Take that same awareness and openness to another island—or a forest glade, a remote valley, a distant summit with views stretching beyond horizons—and watch, listen for long enough, take time for contemplation, and perhaps the layers will peel away. A thin place may thus not be so much a place as an awareness, the term place becoming our geographic grounding of an experience that is not material, our anchor to what we can understand. 

Compare a carcass site to the holy island of Iona or the glory of a high mountaintop? Call a small clearing holding a rotten, eaten corpse a place of stretching to a further awareness? 

Yes. 

In that little meadow nestled against the forest, a carcass whispered simultaneously of past living and death’s closeness. In that place, a life crossed boundaries as death transformed into energy and other beings, the greater-than-human community dancing around her remains, connected by threads beyond human ken. Ravens held their gatherings, spoke of things, set things in motion that lie outside our knowing. Wolves came and went, according to their own rhythm. Eagles, coyotes, fox, and marten shared space, taking what they could from what remained. And always the surrounds, animate and alive with the murmuring of non-animal voices—river, forest, and wind. This was a place outside of our everyday doings: the tangible stretching out into the unknown, an empty eye-socket calling, remember. 

The carcass existed alongside yet also beyond ordinary material reality, existed within another space. The layers peeled back to reveal something so close, something only thinly veiled, a thin place where a lone human could walk into an expanded way of sensing, a changed awareness.

When only a bit of rib remained, when the ravens had departed and the trees stood so still, what had deserted the place were the many cues that pricked my senses, creating the awareness, building connections, allowing for a different way of experiencing the place around me. But the thinness remained, perceived if the open awareness stayed as well. 

_____

For two weeks after that silent still day in the storm’s wake, I abandoned the visits. Then, one quiet, contemplative day, I again made the walk across the field, through the meadow, along the forest, to the place. A raven stood silhouetted against the sky in a dead tree, facing the river in a spot where other ravens had perched before. Another raven balanced on the last bits of the carcass, ignoring me while pecking at a leg bone that canines had dug from the snow. Peck, peck, peck—nothing sumptuous left to tear at. 

I ’d hesitated to return, expecting that feeling of desertion, as if the chronicle had come to a close. The raven on the far tree spoke otherwise. The raven at the carcass drummed like a heartbeat. A breeze set the trees to talking. The story continued to unfold, there at the heap of bones. 

It is done, I wrote on that day of desertion, knowing better. For I can walk away—I could never have been present—and the story will carry on, long after the elk bones are scattered and turned to dust. 

 

_____
*Szipl, Georgine, et al., “With whom to dine? Ravens’ responses to food-associated calls depend on individual characteristics of the caller.” Animal Behaviour 99.0 (January 2015): 33–42.

 

_____
All photographs appear courtesy of the author.

 

Robin Patten writes about the natural world and the relationships between people and place, where nature and culture meet. She is a contributor to the Guardian’s Country Diary column, and her work has appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West, Montana Outdoors, and The Mindful Word.