Bonita Pernot: Power and Place in the Big Snowy Mountains

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Our group dispersed along the ridge of Great House Peak—the highest point in Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains, standing 8,681’ high—to find a spot to take in the expansive view. It is said to be “the best view in all of Montana,” but all I know is that it had me feeling a little wonder-struck. I looked out onto the plains and distant mountains, felt the wind’s constant rush, and thought about the beauty and power of this place.

I thought that this moment on the summit of Great House would be the highlight of the venture, but this was not the case; on our way down, we stumbled upon a dead bird. We hurried to gather around and see what kind it was and speculate on how it may have died. Initially, I was shocked to see that the bird was a Northern Flicker. What was it doing so far above the tree line? I was in awe over how intact this dead bird was. What caused this bird to die in such a way that it was able to maintain its form? The only sign of distress that the bird displayed was a neck that was weak and cranked to the side. Could it have been caught in an unfamiliar wind current, carried away, and then crashed into the mountainside? These kinds of questions were speeding through my head.

Soon after contemplating these mysteries, a new wonder began to captivate me; the Northern Flicker is a common bird, and while I had often marveled at its flash of orange from under the wings as it flies from tree to tree, I had thought that it was otherwise fairly simple. From afar, the flicker had always looked like a plain brown bird that displayed an occasional flash of orange, but seeing this bird so close, so still, offered an entirely new perspective. There was so much more intricacy to the Flicker than I could have ever conceived. The feathers that had appeared to be a flat brown were actually littered with black speckles, crescents, and spots. Just as I thought that I had observed the full extent of this bird’s intricacy, we flipped it over and opened its wings to reveal even more: the chest was covered with fluffy white feathers that were speckled with black, the tail feathers were sleek, black and long, with orange undertones, the wings revealed a lateral white streak with orange accents surrounding it and black stripes going horizontally near the tips, and a layer of white fluffy plumage created a line near the front of the wings.

Seeing this bird in such pristine condition and marveling at its intricacies was the most powerful moment of my hike on Great House Peak. I examined this bird with curiosity and reverence. I wondered how it had gotten there, but more than that I wondered what this individual had seen, done, and acted like through its lifetime. I longed to know more. Finding this Flicker had me feeling a greater amount of power than I had while looking out at the scenic view from the summit. It’s hard for me to tap into the exact emotions that I felt in this moment, but I know that it was something sacred. I felt the majesty and spirit of the Big Snowy Mountains in looking at this small, perfectly dead bird; a seemingly insignificant moment reminded me of the life and energy that had been surrounding me throughout our entire backpack. It was the dead flicker that filled me with joy, serenity, and reverence for the natural systems around me. My goal had been to reach the top of Great House Peak, but my true treasure was found on the downward slope of the mountain. There is no way of knowing what lies ahead and no way to tell where we will find our true connection with the wild world around us.

Power and place are found in unexpected moments.

 

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