Escudilla

Life in Arizona was bounded underfoot by grama grass, overhead by sky, and on the horizon by Escudilla.

To the north of the mountain you rode on honey-colored plains.  Look up anywhere, any time, and you saw Escudilla.

A mountain similar to Escudilla. Photo by Arina Dmitrieva (Pexels)

To the east you rode over a confusion of wooded mesas.  Each hollow seemed its own small world, soaked in sun, fragrant with juniper, and cozy with the chatter of pinyon jays.  But top out on a ridge and you at once became a speck in an immensity.  On its edge hung Escudilla.

To the south lay the tangled canyons of Blue River, full of whitetails, wild turkeys, and wilder cattle.  When you missed a saucy buck waving his goodbye over the skyline, and looked down your sights to wonder why, you looked at a far blue mountain: Escudilla.

To the west billowed the outlier of the Apache National Forest.  We cruised timber there, converting the tall pines, forty by forty, into notebook figures representing hypothetical lumber piles.  Panting up a canyon, the cruiser felt a curious incongruity between the remoteness of his notebook symbols and the immediacy of sweaty fingers, locust thorns, deer-fly bites, and scolding squirrels.  But on the next ridge a cold wind, roaring across a green sea of pines, blew his doubts away.  On the far shore hung Escudilla.

The mountain bounded not only our work and our play, but even our attempts to get a good dinner.  On winter evenings we often tried to ambush a mallard on the river flats.  The wary flocks circled the rosy west, the steel-blue north, and then disappeared into the inky black of Escudilla.  If they reappeared on set wings, we had a fat drake for the Dutch oven.  If they failed to reappear, it was bacon and beans again.

There was, in fact, only one place from which you did not see Escudilla on the skyline:  that was the top of Escudilla itself.  Up there you could not see the mountain, but you could feel it.  The reason was the big bear.

Old Bigfoot was a robber-baron, and Escudilla was his castle.  Each spring, when the warm winds had softened the shadows on the snow, the old grizzly crawled out of his hibernation den in the rock slides and, descending the mountain, bashed in the head of a cow.  Eating his fill, he climbed back to his crags, and there summered peaceably on marmots, conies, berries, and roots.

I once saw one of his kills.  The cow’s skull and neck were pulp, as if she had collided head-on with a fast freight.

No one ever saw the old bear, but in the muddy springs about the base of the cliffs you saw his incredible tracks.  Seeing them made the most hard-bitten cowboys aware of bear.  

Wherever they rode they saw the mountain, and when they saw the mountain they thought of bear.  Campfire conversation ran to beef, bailes, and bear.  Bigfoot claimed for his own only a cow a year, and a few square miles of useless rocks, but his personality pervaded the county.

Those were the days when progress first came to the cow country.  Progress had various emissaries.

One was the first transcontinental automobilist.  The cowboys understood this breaker of roads;  he talked the same breezy bravado as any breaker of broncos.

They did not understand, but they listened to and looked at, the pretty lady in black velvet who came to enlighten them, in a Boston accent, about woman suffrage.

They marveled, too, at the telephone engineer who strung wires on the junipers and brought instantaneous messages from town.  An old man asked whether the wire could bring him a side of bacon.

One spring, progress sent still another emissary, a government trapper, a sort of St. George in overalls, seeking dragons to slay at government expense.  Were there, he asked, any destructive animals in need of slaying?  Yes, there was the big bear.

The trapper packed his mule and headed for Escudilla.

In a month he was back, his mule staggering under a heavy hide.  There was only one barn in town big enough to dry it on.  He had tried traps, poison, and all his usual wiles to no avail.  Then he had erected a set-gun in a defile through which only the bear could pass, and waited.  The last grizzly walked into the string and shot himself.

It was June.  The pelt was foul, patchy, and worthless.  It seemed to us rather an insult to deny the last grizzly the chance to leave a good pelt as a memorial to his race.  All he left was a skull in the National Museum, and a quarrel among scientists over the Latin name of the skull.  

It was only after we pondered on these things that we began to wonder who wrote the rules for progress.

The same species of bear still lives in the wilds of Alaska. Photo by Francisco Cornellana Castells (Pexels)

Since the beginning, time had gnawed at the basaltic hulk of Escudilla, wasting, waiting, and building.  Time built three things on the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.  

The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows.  He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.

The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not know that spires might be as important as cows. He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and as such have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.

The congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the sons of pioneers.  They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but they strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.

We forest officers, who acquiesced in the extinguishment of the bear, knew a local rancher who had plowed up a dagger engraved with the name of one of Coronado’s captains.  We spoke harshly of the Spaniards who, in their zeal for gold and converts, had needlessly extinguished the native Indians.  It did not occur to us that we, too, were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness.

Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of a bear.  It’s only a mountain now.

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About this Short Story:

Author: Aldo Leopold (1887-1948).

Source: A Sand County Almanac © 1949 Oxford University Press (United Kingdom).

Notes: Old Bigfoot (trapped 1936) was the last Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) killed in the state of Arizona. The species is now extinct in that state. Escudilla (3,327 meters) is presently part of the Apache–Sitgreaves National Forests.