Of Quill Pigs and Hand Shoes

Every foreign language student has put her foot in her mouth. I recall several such situations. Now I can contemplate them with an air of amusement, but then they were exceedingly embarrassing.

Years ago, during a visit to Alaska’s Denali National Park, I enthusiastically told a couple on a hiking trail that I had just seen a quill pig. I was slightly puzzled when they did not appear nearly as excited as I. When I caught up with my husband a few minutes later and informed him about my encounter, he held his belly and wiped tears from his cheeks. Turns out I had called a porcupine a quill pig, the literal translation of the German term, Stachelschwein. Only recently did I learn that the German who first named them was not alone in not being fazed by the fact that porcupines aren’t pigs. Turns out that porcupine is derived from the Latin porcus (pork) and spina (needle or quill).

We are easily entertained by engaging in similar linguistic exercises. Next to quill pigs, our bestiary is populated with nose horns (from Nashorn, for rhinoceros), Nile horses (from Nilpferd, for hippopotamus), and wash bears (from Waschbär, for raccoon). We don’t limit our verbal play to animals. Hand shoes keep our fingers warm in winter (from Handschuh, for glove), and hoof irons prevent horses’ hooves from wearing out (from Hufeisen, for horse shoe).

A recent visitor to the yard prompted us to resume our game. Though it is technically nocturnal, I happened upon this handsome hunk with a reeking reputation rather early in the morning, when it was vacuuming the area at the foot of our bird feeders for leftover morsels from the previous day’s feeding frenzy. This reputation was immortalized in the creature’s name, without any attention to its attractive appearance.

Meet our odiferous, malodorous, but oh, so gorgeous, guest, the stink animal (from Stinktier, for skunk).

I would love to hear about your favorite foreign words, or about your favorite foreign language bloopers.

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The Original Helen Hunt

Out-of-town visitors to Colorado Springs regularly think of the present-day Hollywood actress when Helen Hunt’s name comes up during my tours as a volunteer docent at the Pioneers Museum. Both share a name and a relationship to California, but Helen Hunt, the First (1830-1885), was a pioneering woman and writer during our town’s infancy, in the latter half of the 19th century. Her initial impressions were inauspicious. “I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town-small, straight, new, treeless. One might die of such a place alone.” No chamber of commerce would advertise these words on its banner. It is ironic that Colorado Springs did, in time, pride itself of the person who expressed them and name the popular waterfalls in North Cheyenne Cañon after her.

Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon

Helen Hunt, née Fiske, was 43 years old in November 1873 when she suffered these somber sensations after a cross-country train journey across the flat, monochromatic Great Plains from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado. Knowing about her past life, they are understandable. Motherless since age 13, fatherless since 16, she had lost her 11 month-old son Murray at 23, her 42 year-old husband Edward B. Hunt when she was 32, and her nine year-old son Warren at 34. Ill at heart and ill in body, she came at the behest of her physician, who recommended a change of scenery for a chronic respiratory condition. Before the antibiotic era, Colorado, by virtue of its healthy climate, was among the premiere destinations for health seekers suffering from consumption. During a period of frequent misdiagnosis, Helen might have been afflicted by tuberculosis, but officially it was asthma.

Fortunately for the burgeoning community at the foot of Pikes Peak, founded only two years prior, the dry air of the mountains did, indeed, benefit her health, while their beauty lifted her spirits. Helen decided to stay, after a complete reversal of her earlier attitude. In an essay about her new home in the New York Independent in August 1874, less than a year after her arrival, she reflected, “To-day I say, one could almost live on such a place alone.” “Almost” because she continued to love and pursue travel.

While mourning in Massachusetts, Helen Hunt had started to compose and publish poetry. Once she voyaged abroad, travelogues ensued. Her circle of friends in New England included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson, with whom she had attended boarding school in New York. They corresponded throughout Helen’s lifetime and she encouraged Emily to publish her poems in vain (they appeared only posthumously). Once settled in Colorado, Helen added novelist to her résumé. She belonged to an elite group of women authors able to make a living from their craft.

Colorado Springs, designed on a drawing board and in an early state of growth, did not yet offer many accommodations. Helen resided at the Colorado Springs Hotel, the settlement’s earliest, where she met fellow boarder William Sharpless Jackson. He was secretary and treasurer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which, like Colorado Springs, had been founded by General William Jackson Palmer. Helen and Mr. Jackson’s friendship led to marriage in 1875.

Four years later, a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear altered the course of Helen’s few remaining years. She researched the mistreatment of the Indians and became an outraged and outspoken activist on their behalf. In 1881, she distributed her critical treatise, A Century of Dishonor, to members of Congress. Though it remained largely unnoticed, it led to an assignment by Century Magazine to explore the situation of the Indians of the former Spanish missions in Southern California. She subsequently managed to have herself appointed a special agent by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and described the Indians’ pitiable living conditions and prospects. It also moved her to fictionalize their predicament. In a May 2, 1883 letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly she articulated her ambitions thus, “If I could write a story that would do for the Indians a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”

In her novel Ramona, feverishly written in four months, and published in 1884, she conveyed her indignation. A tragedy about the ill-fated love between an American Indian man and a mixed-race Indian-Scottish woman, raised as an orphan by a family of Spanish-Mexican heritage, it delves into the racial prejudices and abuses suffered by the Indians of the Catholic missions in the former Mexican territory of California which was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While the extent to which Helen Hunt’s reporting effected Indian policy reforms has been difficult to quantify, her novel Ramona became a literary bestseller. It has been in print since 1884, adapted for multiple film versions, and, since 1923, performed annually as a drama at the Ramona Pageants in Hemet, California.

Sadly, Helen’s death soon followed the birth of her masterpiece. I sincerely hope that the sale of more than 15,000 copies in the 10 months between its publication and her passing, was gratifying to her. True to her convictions till the end, she beseeched President Grover Cleveland to correct the wrongs inflicted on the Indians from her deathbed in California, where she was trying to recuperate. On August 2, 1885, she succumbed to presumptive stomach cancer at only 54, with William by her side.

Helen loved Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs so much that her husband had remodeled their house to enable her to view it from her chambers. Now he honored her wish and buried her in the mountain’s shadow, at Inspiration Point near Seven Falls, already a tourist attraction in her days. She lay interred under a growing mound of rocks, lovingly placed by the hands of her many fans who pilgrimaged to the site.

Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point (with the wrong year of birth)

View of modern-day Colorado Springs from Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point

Eventually, she was relocated to the Jackson family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. It is consoling for her acolytes to know that her grave is the one closest to, and with a direct view of the mountain which she so cherished.

Helen Hunt’s resting place at Evergreen Cemetery, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain

When the city acquired the Jackson property in 1961 and the house was slated for demolition, the family donated portions of her domicile to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which showcases four of Helen’s original rooms and furnishings in a permanent exhibition.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Portions of Helen Hunt’s dining room and library in the preserved rooms at the museum

Helen Hunt Jackson occupies a special place among the early citizens of Colorado Springs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to overcome one blow of fate after another, and her American Indian activism was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. In our local historic universe, she shines as one of the brightest stars.

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Helen Hunt’s portrait came from a photograph I took of a postcard issued by the Pikes Peak Library District. Photographer and date unknown.

Breeding Bird Survey

I was in a deep sleep when the alarm jolted me awake at 2:30 AM. The wind billowing the curtains and rattling the windows, the neighbors’ dogs barking, and fear of oversleeping had not been conducive to restful slumber. When a friend had asked me to help her with a Breeding Bird Survey, I had agreed, eager for this novel experience. In order to reach the starting point of her assigned area near Olney Springs in Crowley County, about 80 miles away, by the official start time of 4:59, we had to depart Colorado Springs by 3:30. I met Diana and another friend, Rose, at a parking lot, where we piled ourselves and our bags into one car and set out.

The early rising did not make for a good night, but it allowed us to witness a spectacular sunrise. Diana and Rose had done a survey in another locale a few days before, but I still needed to be initiated. “Breeding bird survey” had invoked images of stealthily searching for occupied nests in my mind. Instead, we got out of the car every half mile and recorded all the birds seen or heard within 3 minutes. Covering a distance of 25 miles, this meant a total of 50 stops. As soon as Diana identified birds, she called out their names. As one of two scribes, I kept a checklist with species and numbers. Rose, as the other, monitored and jotted down GPS coordinates and associated landmarks to assist future surveyors. This long-term monitoring event of North American bird populations has been organized and overseen by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service since 1966.

In this Colorado terrain carpeted by shortgrass prairie and dotted with cholla cactus, the most frequent feathered denizens and enthusiastic singers were Western Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds, Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, Mourning Doves, and Cassin’s Sparrows, and they serenaded us throughout the morning hours. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Ferruginous Hawks soared in the cloudless sky. Our species count in this relatively homogeneous habitat was 35.

At our first few stops, we wore long sleeves, but the rising sun quickly made us peel off layers. Besides feathered we saw furred creatures: fox, coyote, pronghorn, and jackrabbits. And two turtles that traversed our path. When I transferred one from the middle of the road, I was promptly reminded that numerous animals relax their bladders when stressed. My rescue was probably unnecessary, because we encountered a mere four vehicles in five hours.

Shortly before the conclusion of our survey at about 10 AM, we happened across a prairie dog town. Luckily, the endearing rodents shared space with Burrowing Owls, always a treat. One of them perched on a post next to the car, and its stare seemed to suggest it was time for us to leave. We obliged.

Scattered ranches represented human activity on this challenging land, some active, some in ruins. We were particularly impressed by a sturdily-built structure with a stone foundation. Who had resided there, in somewhat grand style? What human stories happened under its now defunct roof?

Similar to previous sojourns in Colorado’s prairie, my appreciation for the human, animal, and plant life adapted to an austere environment only deepened.

Thank you for inviting me along, Diana.

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A Few of my Favorite Things

     In early June, I attended the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Convention in Steamboat Springs, in northwest Colorado. The CFO has hosted these yearly gatherings since the 1960s, but it was my first. I enjoyed meeting birders from various corners of our state, and joining field trips to a number of counties on three consecutive days, each guided by a different leader with a unique style. I bird on my own most of the time, yet a group provides more eyes, ears, and experience to help me detect and learn about species I am unlikely to spot on my own.

Birding destination in Routt County

…and in neighboring Jackson County

     I tagged on a few days at the front and tail ends of the convention to engage in another favorite activity: camping. Before the conference, I stayed at Stagecoach Reservoir State Park, approximately 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs, a destination known to me from a previous journey. One of the “primitive” loops (no water, only pit latrines) offers camp sites for $10 per night. Because I was there during the week, I did not need a reservation, whereas on the weekend, I neither would have found a single unoccupied site, nor would I have wanted one. What would be the point of being in a tent encircled by an RV city?

My campsite at Stagecoach Lake State Park

View of Stagecoach Reservoir from my campsite

Immature Trumpeter Swan, encountered on my 11 mile stroll around the reservoir

Common Loon, also a rare visitor at the reservoir at this time of year

     I love to sleep in a tent. I might have been made to sleep in a tent. I have vivid childhood memories of carrying blankets and towels into the back yard and attaching them to a patio umbrella with clothespins, thereby fashioning my own. It provided a favorite play area where my friends and I were obscured from scrutiny by our parents (not that we needed scrutiny, well- behaved as we were). Occasionally, my dad pitched a genuine tent. Made from heavy canvas, its central portion looked and opened like an umbrella with a very pointed top, and the walls were attached to the roof with a zipper. To me it looked like a Bedouin shelter which facilitated flights of fancy. It doubtlessly served as the model for my improvised umbrella-cum-cover construction. Even though my friends and I overnighted in those tents every once in a while, my family never took actual camping vacations. Fortunately for me, I married a man who introduced me to tent camping during road and backpacking excursions. Now I might be more fond of it than my teacher (he disagrees).

     I love being separated from the outside by a mere layer of fabric. If the weather is clement enough to leave off the fly, or to keep the vestibule open, I position my sleeping pad in a way that enables me to follow the trajectory of the moon and the stars. Besides, it allows me to listen to nature’s sounds. The howling of coyotes, no matter how cliché, reassures me that some wilderness remains. Then there is birdsong. My favorite locales teem with feathered creatures that wake me long before sunrise. I delight in setting out with binoculars and camera for a few hours early in the morning, before returning to the campsite to heat water for a cup of tea or coffee on our trusted camp stove. Or, when we travel together, to have my husband surprise me with it!

Sharing the place with Wild Horses

     While it is highly unlikely not to have neighbors at a state park during the summer, I saw no other humans when I camped among the Wild Horses at Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County after the conclusion of the birding conference, which did not conclude my birding. Sand Wash provides a home not only for equines, but also for avians, including some of my favorites. As soon as I turned from the paved highway onto the gravel road, I was greeted by Western Meadowlarks and Northern Mockingbirds, both superlative songsters. I became better acquainted with the varied and cheerful repertoire of Sage Thrashers, and with a new life bird, the Sagebrush Sparrow. In a landscape where the dwellings of prairie dogs are marked by earthen mounds, Burrowing Owls are always a potential presence, and my hope in that regard was not disappointed either.

Sage Thrasher, carrying food

Sagebrush Sparrow

Prairie Dogs

Burrowing Owl

     Far away from human cacophony, the evening and morning chorus of the avifauna was complemented not solely by coyote music, but by the neighing of wild horses. Maybe sleeping in a tent reminds me of my own, wild self.

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24 Hours Among Wild Horses

Horsemeat — the potential fate of wild mustangs? When I read about this scenario in the newspaper, I feel the overwhelming desire to spend some time with them. This is facilitated by my attendance at a birding convention in Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado in early June. Some 70 miles beyond this gem on the Yampa River lies the range of one of our state’s four wild horse herds. Ever since a brief trip with my husband a few years back, I have cherished the hope to return.

When I enter Moffat County’s Sand Wash basin, my burning question is whether or not I will see wild equines. Because they range freely, they are not always near the gravel road. I scan my surroundings with binoculars. Piles of fresh horse apples suggest the animals’ proximity, but I have to exercise patience for several miles before a single suggestive silhouette on the northern horizon allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. To my utter joy, this is only the first of many long-tailed, shaggy-maned creatures, especially once I happen upon one of their watering holes, where I witness their hustle and bustle.

The visitors range from loners to groups of a few dozen. Bands of testosterone-laden teenagers wrangle for dominance. Most of their bickering appears playful, but scarred hides suggest more serious horseplay.

Harems of mares with colts are herded by alpha studs who bare their teeth and nip or kick at potential rivals too close for comfort. I am unaware that horses live in traditional family units, but one particular clan convinces me otherwise. It consists of the putative father, the mother, a foal likely born this spring, who is her steady shadow, and a yearling. Even though it seems physiologically improbable, she appears pregnant again, judging by her belly bulge. Those four stick together closely, and he makes sure to keep intruders at leg’s length.

The horses’ routines are dominated by foraging for food and water. Frequent water breaks are essential on this 80 plus-degree day. Each adult requires 10 to 12 gallons daily, nursing mares twice as much. The region’s 7 to 12 inches of annual precipitation, insufficient to meet demand, are supplemented by human hands.

In a landscape devoid of trees, the animals are entirely at the mercy of the elements — scorching sun in summer, cutting cold in winter. Pesky flies cause torment. Hefty breezes create constant clouds of dust. My car and everything in it, myself included, wears a veneer of desiccated earth. During my sojourn I wait out a violent storm in the vehicle. The horses have no shelter from the impressive claps of thunder, intimidating flashes of lightning, and inundating squalls of rain. I imagine them huddled together, with the little ones protected in the center as best as possible.

I relish my twenty-four hours at Sand Wash, where the air is scented by sage each time I brush against the silvery shrubs. I hear only the whistling of the wind and the birds, the whinnying of the mustangs, and the wailing of coyotes at night. But my observations make me question some of my presuppositions. Life for the horses, though free, comes at a price. Certainly it is no picnic. Most herds live in a desert-like environment. Do they enjoy their existence? Would they be better off not having to fend for themselves? Do we keep them wild to support our own romantic notions? Wild steeds in the Wild West?

This question remains relevant in light of a perpetual quandary. Since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by Congress in 1971, the Bureau for Land Management (BLM) manages and protects the equines named therein. The program has always been controversial. The horses breed too successfully for their own good. Without predators, their count doubles every four years, necessitating the regular thinning of herds. Sand Wash can sustain about 300 horses, but is shouldered with 600. Captured animals are sold to private buyers promising their humane treatment, but many linger on feedlots, and some die. The practice of darting mares with contraceptives has been hampered by logistics and cost. Cattlemen have opposed the program from the beginning, because of competition for grazing land. Now the current US government wants to reduce spending by at least 10 million dollars, by allowing the horses’ sale to organizations which could resell them to neighboring countries where butchering is legal.

Population densities exceeding available habitat results in disease, starvation, and death. The corpse I see stretched out among the sparse vegetation is a sobering sign. Without question, something must be done. I understand the arbitrariness of considering some animals suitable for human consumption, and of excluding others. For my sensibilities, horsemeat need not, should not be the answer. Birth control and adoption ought to continue and broaden, with the understanding that the adoptees will be treated well.

The 2005 memoir, The Pastures of Beyond, by writer and conservationist, Dayton O. Hyde (born 1925), shows that the present dilemma is not new, but also suggests an alternative approach. In 1988 he used his experience as a cowboy, ranch owner, and horse lover to purchase land and establish the Black Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota for supernumerary BLM quadrupeds. Kudos to him for translating his passion into a dream come true — for him, and for the animals. On page 243 of the first hardcover edition he reflects, “High on the ridges above the Cheyenne River, I see wild horses running in pure joy…I have been able to give the wild horses over ten thousand horse years of freedom, but what is really important is this. There are still some of us who care.“

I admire his dedication and wish for more dreamers and visionaries who care, and who will follow in his (horse)tracks.

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Great Blue Hunter

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is North America’s largest and most ubiquitous heron. This long-legged and long-necked slate gray and blue wading bird is hard to miss.

Tall, slender, elegant, it often stands motionless, statuesque, at the water’s edge, seemingly at ease.

But appearances are deceptive. With the speed of lightning it thrusts its head and neck under water and impales or grabs its prey with its dagger-like bill.


The bulge in the neck is caused by the food bolus.

Ready to look for the next meal.


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The Original South Park

     What is now Colorado was once the domain of the Utes. According to their tradition, they always lived in this region, in contrast with American Indian groups who were pushed westward while trying to stay ahead of the incessant march of white newcomers. Also known as The Mountain People, their homeland stretched from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains all the way to present-day Utah, hence that state’s name.

     From Colorado Springs, US Highway 24 travels through Ute Pass, one of the main natural corridors into the high country. Local bands of Utes overwintered in the milder climate at the foot of Pikes Peak, then migrated along the pass to their hunting grounds at South Park in the summer. By all accounts, this was teeming with bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk. Along the South Platte River which courses like an emerald ribbon through this otherwise semi-arid habitat countless beaver also abounded.

     The modern-day visitor enjoys a jaw-dropping view of that somewhat unexpected landscape from the top of 9504 foot-tall Wilkerson Pass, 60 miles west of Colorado Springs (see featured image above). From the Pass, one drives down into the flat and open expanse of South Park.

Driving from Wilkerson Pass into South Park

One of three so-called parks in Colorado’s topography, along with Middle and North Parks, the name was derived from “parc”, a designation by French trappers for mountain basins rich in game. They were among the early exploiters of nature’s wealth.

     In the vastness of South Park, I try to envision the area without fences, houses, roads, and cars, when it was crisscrossed only by paths wide enough for animals and people on horseback. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, one feels reduced in size — a speck of sand on this dusty soil which was nonetheless replete with prairie grasses, fragrant sagebrush, and further forage nutritious enough to sustain large numbers of herbivores.

     Conjuring images of tens of thousands of buffalo is challenging. Their bounty is long gone. In typical, short-sighted European fashion, most of these humpbacked, shaggy ungulates were hunted to the brink of extinction. The near-erasure of the animal iconic of the American West is a sad story. Even sadder is the subsequent loss of the homeland of the Utes, who had coexisted with and whose livelihood depended on those beasts since time immemorial. They were driven from their territory, to reservations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah which could not sustain their way of life.

     But there is hope for the natural balance of South Park. Descendants of the North American Bison were successfully reintroduced and can be seen munching on what, to our eyes, appears sparse sustenance. Their comeback to the environment to which they were perfectly adapted has been slow but steady, even though their numbers are minimal compared to those heady days.

American Bison (Bison bison) in South Park

The next generation

The same is true for the fastest land animal of the Western Hemisphere which formerly had to outsprint the now-extinct American Cheetah.

North American Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), female on the left, male on the right

     Many generations have come and gone since Manifest Destiny stood as an unquestioned conviction, and we have tried to remedy some, though not all of our misguided beliefs. Just as bison have been returned to South Park, might the same be possible for the Utes, whose existence once was inextricably linked with them? In southwest Colorado, the Sleeping Ute Mountain dominates the scenery. According to Ute legend, one day the chief will rise from his slumber, and with him his people.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

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