recent graduate of the mfa program in creative writing, nonfiction author Emilene Ostlind was awarded UW’s Outstanding Thesis award for 2011. we asked the ever-lovely Emilene to share some of her work with us, so we could share it with the royal you. included here for your reading pleasure is the abstract, and an excerpt from her thesis. and yes, as a matter of fact, it is outstanding.
“I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams 1986
The pronghorn antelope that summer in Grand Teton National Park undertake one of the longest recorded land animal migrations in the western hemisphere. Each fall, they begin their journey south by gathering into groups of a half dozen to sixty or more animals and following the Gros Ventre River upstream into the mountains. Biologists, using global positioning system collars, mapped their route in 2003, but no one had seen the migration take place or documented it on the ground. Before winter, the antelope travel 170 miles to reach their winter range in the Red Desert.
An archaeological dig in the migration corridor revealed 7,000-year-old pronghorn skeletons with fetal bones inside, indicating that pronghorn have been following this very migration route between winter range and fawning grounds for millennia. Around the world, long-distance migrations are disappearing due to infrastructure blocking the animals’ corridors, habitat destruction, climate change and other factors, but in Wyoming these unlikely creatures persist in their journey. The GPS waypoints show the animals crossing a 9,000-foot mountain pass, four major rivers, a busy highway, innumerable fences and subdivisions and two natural gas drilling fields. When I learned of the western Wyoming pronghorn migration, I was compelled to follow the animals on foot and try to understand how they were able to continue following this historic pathway in the face of so many obstacles.
I joined wildlife photographer Joe Riis and we spent two and a half years exploring the pronghorn migration corridor on the ground. Migration is a nonfiction book based largely on journal entries from four backpacking trips through the migration corridor. It paints the story of the migration by documenting encounters with deep snow, icy spring runoff, barbed wire fences and long dark nights in the mountains. By telling the story of both the pronghorn journey and my own migration back home to Wyoming from Washington, DC, the book also explores how wild animals enrich our lives and teach us about ourselves. The antelope helped me understand the seasonal rhythm of my home landscape and why I’d felt so compelled to return home.
A June day in Antelope Flats, Grand Teton National Park, northwest Wyoming. I wear a gray and purple knitted hat and a green down jacket, sit cross-legged, my back against the bleached trunk of a fallen cottonwood. The trunk is polished smooth by the bison who come here to scratch their wooly necks against it. I am facing north. A wind carries cold air from the alpine passes of the Teton Mountains. I hold perfectly still.
Two antelope have seen me, but don’t know what I am. They emerged from a draw not long after I sat down. Both are bucks, one larger than the other, and they move slowly, stopping to bite mouthfuls of leaves or to nudge one another with their horns.
Minute by minute they wander closer, watching me sideways. I try to still my heartbeat. They come within five meters. When they bite the sagebrush leaves, I hear their teeth snap together, the grinding as they chew. I can see each golden hair aligned vertically on their thin legs. They come still closer, walking deliberately across the patch of bare ground directly in front of me. The horns of the larger one are a rich black, curling to a sharp point. I hear the breath in their nostrils, smell their animal warmth.
As they pass they turn to look back. The smaller one pushes his face against his companion’s neck and, with an air of drama they click their horns against one another. Then they wander away and out of sight. My hands are shaking.This is the story of how the three of us arrived here, of our migrations, and the tug of the land on bodies drawing us from one place to another, the pathways we follow.
Emilene Ostlind was raised in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. After a year working as assistant to the natural history photo editor at National Geographic magazine in Washington, DC, Emilene came back out West for her graduate studies at the University of Wyoming. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing and Environment and Natural Resources in the Spring of 2010. She currently writes for High Country News, a news magazine covering environment, culture and natural resources in the American West.