The neighborhood is abuzz with the news.
We have moose – a pair – courting quite loudly in the woods between my cabin and the next-door neighbor’s house.
The dog and I discovered that rutting season was in full swing by accident at almost midnight, when we typically are hard asleep and out of touch with the wild world outdoors. I had taken the dog out the last time that night, and just then every expected outcome of the evening turned unpredictable.
The retriever was crouched in the good-dog-take-care-of-business pose and I was standing, dreamily, on the porch, waiting for life’s necessities to conclude for another day. I was actually admiring the moon, well on its way to full display, and was indolently calculating how many more nights we had before seeing that bright coin of light in the sky.
And then we heard it: something between a bellow, a braying and a strange honking sound.
The dog froze; I stopped mid-thought, mid-step, and stood absolutely still. We were like mimes out there in the yard, all movement and meditation halted, while the visible landscape dissolved into the thickening trees and then the fully dark forest, where the real drama was unfolding.
The bellow was so vast and awe-dreadful that it seemed to have a physical drag in its wake, so loud, so imperative, one could imagine being sucked right into the hemlocks in the big gust of the gigantic animal unleashing itself on the dark.
Once. Then a minute or two later, again, from a slightly different vantage. A pause and a third, insistent agony of evolutionary dictate, coming nearer.
I was practically apoplectic with astonishment and caution. I had heard a moose, the animal that everyone who comes to Maine hopes to see or hear or experience and know.
I swept the dog up off the lawn as though she and I were executing some grand deliberate ballet under the stars, and I practically pirouetted my way back into the cabin, where I cracked a window and sat, listening as Juliet might have, for the sound of Romeo approaching.
But he had moved off, hollering into the dark to attract other males to battle. He was not homing in on a female; he had jousting on his mind. I sat next to the window listening, the cool wind drifting in, the only sound left the click-click-click-click of computer keys, as I ranged the Internet for images – and more importantly, sounds – of bull moose
But I was merely looking for confirmation of what I already knew: that vocalization – absolutely unmistakable – had boomed forth from the largest species in the deer family, and that particular bull meant business. It was calling out other males, looking for a fight, all part of the quest to win a female.
A few nights later, almost at dawn, I heard the other half of the duo, the female, with a sound almost like a mewing whine.
I might have wondered what it was except for my Internet search earlier in the week. Before I had found a clip of his noises, I had heard several renditions of hers.
“Have you heard the moose?” I asked my neighbor and her husband that weekend.
“Yes,” she said, her wide eyes almost a mirror of my own lingering wonder.
“Did you hear the female a couple of mornings later?” I said. “I knew it was a female because I had gotten on the Internet after I heard him.”
“Me, too,” she said. “ I raced right over to the computer and started checking it out.”
This kind of development is a big deal in my neck of the woods. We have a fair number of from-aways living here, and where they’ve lived – New York, Boston, Hartford – moose, for the most part, don’t show themselves much, even in sound. I have witnessed only two in my life – one on Bailey’s Island and another that almost collided with my car one early morning in western Massachusetts.
Moose may seem especially magnificent because they are massive (approaching a ton in weight) and powerful, but it’s something more, too. Moose – like great blue herons and the humpback whale – seem almost prehistoric with antlers that can reach six feet in width – a horizontal spread that can equal their height, five-and-a-half to six-feet tall at the shoulder, making them easily a head and rack taller than the average man.
They use their massive hooves like backhoes, even in winter, when they will dig beneath a foot or more of snow to reach moss or lichen. Conversely, they can employ those big feet like snowshoes, to keep them atop the snow cover of the deep woods.
They are strong swimmers, capable of covering miles, even in a tricky current, before resting; and they even can remain underwater for 30 seconds or more at times.
Likewise they are agile on land, able to maintain a steady trot of 20 miles an hour and reach speeds of 35 miles or more in short bursts.
It is the sheer oddity – size, shape, sound, appearance, disposition, skill – that makes the moose a curiosity and a symbol of aloof mastery. It is one of the many natural instances in which beauty takes on inexplicable characteristics – for the moose is hardly the dewy-eyed, graceful, chestnut deer with the white-flag tail. It is arresting precisely because it is so homely.
It brings up in us a visceral response, as of something long-forgotten – a time, a temerity, when brute survival was still recognized as triumph of the basic instincts and capabilities.
Some of us still think of survival that way – not just getting by, but prevailing. In these hard times, when the weak among us may stumble and fall beneath the great wheel of life, off-kilter from economies of meaning driven by greed alone, the fierce endurance of the moose is worth remembering – and slashing some saw-like antlers like weapons of war in the cold, thin air.
North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or: