Most summer afternoons after my daughter was born, I strapped her to my chest and walked into the national forest behind our cabin. She slept tight to my sternum, and I wrapped my arms around the small bundle that had, until recently, been contained by my body. My instinct to hold her overrode the rational knowledge that she was already securely fastened to me.
We live in Vermont, on a dirt road off a dirt road. By most standards, deep in the woods. Coyotes call out on moonlit nights and bears leave piles of apple-filled scat in the trail. But what I worried about on those afternoon walks were the moose. Out in Colorado, one had attacked a friend of a friend as she hiked along a river. The moose materialized from the willow without warning, charged and trampled and nearly killed her, its front hooves pounding her head and body as she lay curled.
This story, lodged deep in the limbic region of my brain—the mammalian brain, as it’s known, responsible for signaling danger—would resurface when I saw the half-moon hoof prints in our muddy trail, thrice as large as a deer’s, or the deep punches across a fresh snowfield where a moose had lumbered through. During the rut, the fall mating period, bull moose are known to attack unprovoked. But I feared the cows—the mothers. They’d birthed their calves not long before I’d pushed out my own babe, and I knew they would charge at a threat if they felt their young were in danger, grazing on birch shoots one moment, lunging our way the next.
My baby against my body, I became the overprotective mother. Though no dangers were visible, I felt them circling just the same: threat of slipping child, threat of neck off-kilter, threat of brisk wind, threat of falling tree limb, threat of gathering storms, threat of mother moose.
As I walked the trails and old logging roads, I’d rehearse what to do if a moose lifted its long nose in our direction. I knew it would likely turn away, not toward. I knew that if one did charge, it would likely bluff, veering off before making contact. Just the same, I prepared. Our best chance would be to dash into the thick stands of maple, birch, and beech trees where the moose’s length would hinder quick turns.
The regrowth of early successional forests offers up the tender shoots on which moose must spend their waking hours grazing—putting away seventy pounds of twigs a day. The density of this forest is the reason the eastern moose is here. It is our protection, too.
Biology took me by surprise. She was my first child, but I labored hard and fast. The few hours it took for the baby to descend and crest, I swore and seethed, raving to the empty window of a godless world. At the small country hospital, my husband stayed at my side, but I don’t remember looking him in the eye or reaching for his hand. My existence was momentary. The pain reduced time to the present, my sense of self bounded by the body I was trapped within. A nurse periodically restrained my bucking and writhing to check the baby’s heart rate. At one point, when the obstetrician had been summoned from home and arrived at the side of my bed, I strung three words together, my only sentence of the night: “Am I okay?”
I knew that I was out of control. What I couldn’t trust until she responded with a firm “yes” was that this loss of control was necessary. If there had been no nurse, no doctor, no reclining bed, no heart monitor, no clock tracking contractions, the baby would have come on her own. She rode a current that gathered with that first pang, clench, burn, and quickened until she emerged.
Childbirth was not an act of relinquishing control. Nor was it transcendence into some mystical natural-birth rapture. It was naked helplessness. It was brutal lucidity that any notion of control had been an illusion all along. I confronted a fact that gets obscured by modern conveniences, by technology and medical advances, by our own innate sense of superiority: I am a mammal. I am a mammal subject to the laws of nature, and therefore part of a natural order of things: death and disease, predators and prey, and the desperate, self-obliterating instinct to protect one’s young.
Until recently, moose populations in the northeast dipped and swelled with the prevalence of forested land. In the early 1700s, when trees covered 95 percent of the region, moose were so ubiquitous that Abenaki Indians and European colonists killed them by the dozen for food and hides. But as settling colonists axed trees—first for sheep pastures, then for timber profit—the eastern moose retreated higher into the Appalachian Mountains, where they survived off of the meager saplings found amongst the old-growth. Higher on the mountain, hungry moose searched out twigs and shoots and nibbled them down quick. Their numbers dwindled. By the 1880s, only 20 percent of Vermont remained forested. Moose sightings were so rare that when, in 1899, one was shot in the Northeast Kingdom, the newspaper called it “a strange animal.”
Strange indeed. An assemblage of disproportional anatomy, moose look like a cartoon version of their ungulate cousins. The enormous hump where a moose’s shoulder muscles rise above its spine gives the impression that the animal is always lumbering under its own weight. From the back, moose are as gangly as a teenager, all long legs and high hips. Their noses are so long they appear to droop off their faces. And the racks of bull moose are the largest of the deer family—solid shovels, where sleek and pointed antlers crown the heads of elk and caribou.
But each outlandish body part was of course chiseled by the hand of evolution. The hump of muscle allows moose to bound across hillsides of downed timber; the length of their muzzles enable moose to pinch off their nostrils as they forage underwater for aquatic plants; and the massive palms of their antlers trap sound, a bull able to register the call of a cow two miles away.
Over the next century, moose lost their newsworthy status. The state’s terrain was metamorphosing yet again. Pastures returned to seed as sprawling sheep farms out west put Vermonters out of business. The timber industry fled north after the trees worth harvesting had all been milled, pulped, and burned. And down from the ridges, nascent forests of maple, birch, and beech once again draped into the valleys. The moose followed. Their numbers ticked up year after year.
But as the moose of the northeast crossed into a new millennium, something curious happened. Calves started dying at alarming rates. A study in New Hampshire found that half of the moose calves died in the spring of 2002. Back in the mid-nineties, biologists had seen mortality rates spike after mild winters. They knew that when snow comes too late, and melts too early, the tick population explodes. Moose calves covered in tens of thousands of ticks can perish quickly, sucked dry by their parasites. While tragic, these spring riots of death-by-tick were as anomalous as the warm winters. There seemed to be no real cause for concern.
But 2002 was not an aberration. The moose calves kept dying.
For the first few months of our daughter’s life, we recognized her through resemblances. Her heavy brow and playful glances reminded us of my brother, who had been killed in a construction accident less than a year before her birth. We marveled at the genes she and he shared, as if uncle and niece spoke some common language. Or that he spoke through her.
Her red hair came from my grandfather, from my mother’s scrum of redheaded cousins, and from a lineage of Irish Catholics on my husband’s side, though no one in memory displayed those auburn genes. As her brow receded, her wide blue eyes looked like my mother-in-law’s, her curling smile the same as my own.
And yet even as we came to know her through comparisons, the single entity of her was all consuming. We conformed to her rhythms, as if she were a river whose current we had spent our whole lives awaiting. Much of the time we did not even speak her name, referring to her instead like a deity, with capitalized pronouns: She and Her. The essential One.
As I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I heard her phantom cries through the white noise of the fan. I saw her face in the knots of pine ceiling boards. I felt my own meter of breath as I drifted off, but watched behind my eyelids her chest rising and falling. Once, touching the soft pocket behind my earlobe, I confused for an instant my own body with hers. A thousand times I had run my finger behind her ears as she nursed, checking for the crusty build-up of cradle cap rash. I knew her body better than my own.
When she was old enough to reach for me, to express her yearning physically, I realized that the connection of our bodies was not a merging of two, but a sense of completeness—parts returning to an original whole.
She talked early. The usual first murmurings of language: “Ma ma ma” and “Da da da,” and an excited “Po Po!” at the sight of our dog. One day, she pointed up at my face and said “me.” This mismatched pronoun persisted for months, a reference to both self and mother. A childhood friend, who’s now a psychotherapist, told me my girl wasn’t just mixing up words. Babies, she said, can’t separate their own identity from their mother’s.
“The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face,” the famous psychoanalyst DW Winnicott wrote fifty years ago. It’s now widely accepted that the distance a baby can see at birth, what they can bring into focus, is ten inches—the interspace between mother’s breast and mother’s face. Where once the baby’s universe was bounded by the walls of the womb, now the sphere of her world is pinned by the breast and rimmed by the mother’s physical presence: her face, her arm, her hand. Everything beyond blurry and unknowable, irrelevant.
For a newborn, physiology and psychology are amorphous and interchangeable. A baby’s physical needs—to eat and sleep, to be held, and rocked, and burped—determine whether she is craving or content: her mental state. And because her physical needs are most often met by the mother, the baby’s mind merges with her giver of life. Winnicott called this an “auxiliary ego-function”: the mother’s identity fills in until a baby develops her own sense of self. Postpartum hormones fortify this coidentity. The uterus is empty, but the mother’s body will never again be her own.
As if an instrument, I am perfectly tuned to meet the needs of another.
The winter tick is not new. For tens of thousands of years, the parasite has fed on hoofed mammals across the continent. Defenseless to its bloodletting, though, is its most recent ungulate host. The moose species sauntered into North America via the Bering Sea land bridge some fifteen thousand years ago; it did not coevolve with the tick.
In deer, elk, caribou, and bison, evolution alongside the parasite led to programmed grooming: licking and scratching regardless of an irritant—plucking off ticks before they bit. Moose are not innate groomers. They only start worrying at their inflamed or infected hide when the tick infestation becomes extreme. Tormented moose will rub up against trees, raking their hides against the rough bark with such resolve that they scrape away their outer coat of hair. The nubs of embedded ticks remain. Those of us living in tick country know that once ticks dig in, it’s nearly impossible to extract them without needling tweezers. “Ghost Moose,” biologists have come to call the animals naked of their dark coats, their skin and pale underhair exposed.
The winter tick’s life cycle goes something like this: in April, female ticks, engorged with blood after their winter feed, drop off their hosts and release a mass of glistening maroon eggs. The eggs hatch several months later. Functioning as a single organism, the thousands of crawling larvae knit together to keep from drying out. For the duration of the summer months, seed ticks, as they’re called—each the size of a poppy seed—survive off the nutrients passed to them from their mother. By the fall, they are hungry.
In September, seed ticks climb the forests’ underbrush, and stake out positions four to six feet high, where the wide girth of a mammal’s body will most likely brush by. Then, in a feat of perverse beauty known to tick biologists as “questing,” hundreds of nymphs cling to one another and dangle themselves from the ends of twigs and leaves in thread-like chains that waiver in the wind as they await a wandering host. If, as a moose passes, just one tick manages to clasp onto a coarse hair, the entire chain swings onto the hide, where up to a thousand nymphs disperse, feed, grow, mate, feed again, and begin the cycle anew.
For some fifteen thousand years, both the Alces alces Americana and the Dermacentor albipictus—the eastern moose and the winter tick—have called these northern climes their home. And during the vast majority of those thousands of Octobers, storms have laid down a blanket of snow thick enough to kill the questing nymphs still in search of a host. Sure, some of the questers had already managed to board their winter host by the first snowfall, but the weather took care of the rest, keeping tick loads to a minimum, even among nongrooming moose. Snow in April and May played a similar role in tamping down the population. If a female tick dropped off her host to lay her eggs and landed on snow or ice, she and her offspring were almost certain to perish. But drop onto leaf litter, and a new generation flourished.
The name “winter tick” speaks to both the species’s season of gluttony and to its limits of survival. Unattached to a host, winter for a winter tick means death.
Rather, it used to. For fifteen thousand years, the northeast’s snowstorms have carpeted the forests for the precise number of weeks in a given year needed for both the Alces alces Americana and the Dermacentor albipictus to survive. Climate change has thrown that equilibrium terribly off kilter.
Biologists ranging the winter forests of New England now find bloodspeckled snow where moose have bedded down, the weight of their massive bodies crushing their engorged passengers. They find calves dead in the snow. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that from 2014 to 2016, 70 percent of radio-collared calves in New Hampshire died. When biologists counted the ticks on their hides, they found nearly fifty thousand apiece. Not surprisingly, Vermont’s calves are following the same devastating trend as their state neighbors. Over the last three winters, the mortality rate for collared calves has grown from 40 percent to 50 percent to 63 percent. All but 9 percent of these deaths are attributed to the winter tick.
Around the same time our daughter sorted out her pronouns, she came into the awareness of her own name. She called herself by her first initial, as we sometimes did: “Q.”
Hearing this note in her voice, the tender assertion of it, I’d sometimes pause in awe. The sense of self that was gathering behind this syllable was detached from mother and father, from the months we dithered over what to call our babe, from the burden of bringing a child into a warming world.
“Q!” she’d say, pointing to her chest.
And the decision we made fell away. Her existence necessary and timeless, her place in the world as irrefutable as a letter’s place in the alphabet. She is a fact of the universe. As fact as the stars that spray across the winter night above our cabin, as fact as the sun or the snow, or the bedrock bearing up this mountain. As fact as the maple sap that runs in March, the redthroated ramps that emerge in April, the rambunctious corn lilies erupting along every draw, the delicate spring beauties, blackflies, wild strawberries, lupine. As fact as the first day of summer—the longest day of the year—her birthday.
Meanwhile, I despair.
A tick-ridden moose calf dies alone. Her body has weakened from loss of blood; anemia and emaciation follow. She is too weak to wander the woods in search of twigs and leaves. Her insulating layer of fat wastes away; hypothermia looms. Her mother, often pregnant with her next calf and suffering from her own load of ticks, stands by. Unlike other large mammal hosts, humans included, moose do not communally groom.
There is nothing for the mother to do.
More warm winters will push the moose to higher, northern forests, where snow still comes early and melts late. But the climate won’t snap back to normal the way a healthy, regenerating forest will. The moose, once gone, are likely never to return. Recent studies have found that the ovulation rate among cow moose in Vermont has dropped by a quarter; of collared cows that became pregnant, their birthrate has plummeted by another quarter. The ticks aren’t killing adults at the same rate as calves, but the parasites are laying claim to the cows’ bodies in other ominous ways: stealing their motherhood. Like so many tipping points in a warming world, this change to our winters and the moose who depend on them will be irrevocable. And when the moose drift north into Canada, the ticks will eventually follow.
I have brought a child into this world, given her a name. A world where moose hides vibrate with tens of thousands of crawling ticks. Comb a part into a dead calf’s hair, and the score will reveal the nubs of ticks as tightly packed as a colony of barnacles, kernels of corn snug on a cob. The calf has been killed by its own beaded suit of armor. We are too far gone, I fear. Protection nothing more than a perversity.
After my brother died, the stakes of my own survival shrank away. Walking our dog into the forest behind our cabin, the night sky crested above the summer canopy like a window into a private observatory: the vastness of not here. I felt a lightness to my existence, as if my feet weren’t making full contact with the grassy pitch of the hill.
I realized I was no longer afraid of the dark. That is to say, I was no longer afraid to die.
I did not believe in a heaven or afterlife. And yet I was coming to accept that my brother was no longer here. And if he were not here, and I were to die, then we would both be “not here” together. This logic sounds childish, but it did not feel that way. I took great comfort in it. I felt released by the grip of fear I had not realized was there. I felt a sense of inevitable closeness, my brother awaiting my arrival. And for the eleven months before motherhood, though mourning, I rested in that peace.
Our girl came in June, on the summer solstice. The weeks that followed felt like March, cold and wet. Still, I sweated. I stank. This was a hormonal shift no one had told me about. Odor so potent that some days I’d change my shirt three times. Perhaps, evolutionarily, I was marking my territory. Or perhaps my hackles were permanently up, adrenaline surging, ready at every moment to defend my young.
My husband raised his eyebrows at this new stench—I no longer smelled like his wife. But the baby didn’t mind. I thought of this often as she aged by weeks and then months, and I aged into motherhood: her love for me so unyielding that she was blind to every imperfection I saw in myself. She sensed something burning within me that she was perpetually warmed by. She seemed endowed with the knowledge that she had once been contained by me, lived by the rhythms of this beating heart, enmeshed with whatever soul this body might possess.
For the first month of motherhood, I’d catch my heart bounding, or the sensation of my chest caving, as the fear of loss grew real again. Having a child obliterated the acceptance of death I had tasted.
One afternoon during Q’s second winter, I went out cross-country skiing, as I did most days. Back-to-back storms had dumped two feet in our woods, snow up to my knees. The temperature hovered at zero, but I was undaunted, bundling my baby in so many layers that the backpack became her straightjacket. The only skin exposed was the tip of her nose. “Skeeee, skeeee!” she trilled as I buckled my boots.
The snow was heavy. With each step, my weight crushed through the compacted layer of the second storm, right into the bottomless powder of the first. Q on my back added again a quarter of my own weight. On the horizon, the clouded sky merged with the gray field of snow. I urged myself on.
As we broke through step after step, I remembered a story about my mom—one that used to evoke the grand adventure of country living, but now spoke to me of our own fallibility.
It must have been February or March. My brother was two and a half; I was an infant. Dad was away, and our neighbors through the woods had invited Mom and her babes for dinner. She loaded us up in the toboggan to snowshoe the half-mile trail through the woods. The sled was made of weathered boards nailed together into a box, the underside fastened to two ski runners. My bundled body balanced between my brother’s legs, his mittened hands holding me up.
It was not a remarkable decision for my mom to take her two babies by sled through the night. No matter that the snow was deep and heavy. Mom pulled us easily along, the runners of the sled gliding atop the snowfields. Through the meadow and around the frozen pond. Down into the woods.
I imagine the light of her headlamp bobbing with each stride, the cold on her face sharp and fresh after a day inside with two young ones. I imagine her looking over her shoulder every few strides, checking that I was still propped in my brother’s lap. Have their hats slid down over their eyes? Have their mittens slipped off? I imagine her listening in the darkness for any peeps behind her.
When we got to the stream crossing, the weight of the sled broke through the thin shield of ice. The water was shallow—icy rivulets running over stones and boulders—but deep enough to douse the blades. With her first tug up the far bank, Mom knew the skis had iced up. Rather than sliding, they adhered to the surface of the snow, cemented in place.
We were precisely halfway between the two houses, each glowing with the honeyed light of a woodstove. We were just out of sight and earshot, down in the wooded hollow between the two rises. There were no cell phones. We were alone, a mother and her young, stranded.
My mom is tall, thin, strong. Her hands are as big as a man’s. She knows how to dig a snow cave and climb frozen waterfalls with ice picks. She has walked a thousand times through the woods at night. But she could not carry both her children to safety. The snow was too deep, the distance too far, her babies too bulky in their winter clothes. During all the years this story hung in my subconscious, popping up now and then when I walked between the two houses, I wondered why my mother couldn’t have carried us both. I knew no other woman so capable. Why couldn’t her long, muscled arms wrap around both our bodies, her long legs punch through the snow with each of us perched on a hip?
But that winter day with Q on my back, slogging through the snow of back-to-back storms, I felt the weight of my daughter and thought about my mother with not one but two babies—my brother twice as heavy as Q, me an infant and twice as helpless. I understood, then, the limits of her strength, the limits of my own.
“Stay here,” she had said to my brother. “I promise I’ll come back. Stay here.” She scooped me up and ran through the snow, up the wooded path, under the hemlocks, across the long meadow, and up the last hill to the neighbors’ house. She threw me into their arms and turned back for her boy.
Now, thirty-seven years later, I imagine my brother waiting. It would have been pitch black, no moonlight piercing through the thick web of branches above him. Ten minutes—five there, five back. Did he understand what his mother had to do? Did he understand why she took me and left him? What registered as he watched her orb of light disappear in the night, shuttling his sister to safety? Did he hear the echo of the icy water? The whump of Mom’s snowshoes as she broke through with each step? Did he fear what he could not see? Did he trust she’d come back?
It was so cold that I could feel the skin of my cheeks crystalizing; the air burned my nostrils. I stopped to check that Q’s hood was still snug around her round face, goggles in place. “Skiiii, skiiii!” As I drifted downhill, toward home, I felt the miraculous, dangerous weight of Her—mass extracted from the universe, coalescing into a warm-blooded body on my back. Unknown to me until a year and a half ago, and now elemental. Without her, I might release from Earth’s gravity and float away.
A mother moose surrounded by wolves won’t run. Keeping her calf behind her, the cow stands her ground, lunging at each wolf that ventures too close. She’ll charge in short, fierce bursts; she’ll strike out with her powerful front legs, each kick capped with a sharp hoof. A mother moose drives off wolves and grizzly bears, cougars, people. But against unnatural threats, they have no defense. The young are slowly sucked dry. The mothers made to watch.
I climb into bed after a hot shower, my breath even, my heart steady. But as soon as I close my eyes, the world emerges in true form, Q’s future wavering in the distance. At some point soon, there will be no hope for a longer winter to tamp down next year’s ticks.
My life, tidily assembled before bed, fissures. A ragged hole opens in my chest and whole continents calve off, my heart the well of a warming sea.
“To love a thing is to steel yourself against its eventual absence,” wrote Jamila Osman after losing her sister. In those crushing hours of night, I am the cow watching her fallen calf. I am my mother in the wake of the unthinkable accident that killed my brother. I am Q’s mother, watching the threat of our creation bear down on us.
Again and again through the night, I am startled back awake by a shelf collapsing, another chunk of solid ground sinking. The sea of my chest is cavernous.
My body wakes me. If I can stay alert, it seems to think, perhaps I can ward off what’s circling closer.
The spring before Q was born, we saw a ghost moose high on the mountain. My husband and I had not heard this term before, but seeing that strange pale body, we knew something was amiss. The moose neither stood its ground, nor did it amble off into the woods. Instead it moved alongside the thin trail feebly. It looked small, but we couldn’t be sure if it was a yearling or a diminished cow. A baby or a mother.
Later that afternoon, we ran into one of the young men who collects sap from the mountain’s sugar maples. He gleefully showed us a photo of his buddy touching a half-prone moose. “It just lay there!” he said. Hand on her hide, white where whole swaths had been scraped to the undercoat and skin.
Now I know she was wandering lost, bewildered by an assault on her body, an assault on her fifteen thousand years of roaming these hills. Motherless child, or a childless mother? I will never know.
When our baby was born, we gave her my brother’s middle name. A name that harbors the thirty-six years of his life, and the fresh tragedy of his death. Now Q is almost three; she will surely ask soon about her namesake, and why he is not here with us. I don’t know how I will explain his death, but I find myself returning to the brink of motherhood, when out of instinct I forever tethered her to an uncle she would never meet. I realize that in giving Q his name, I was trusting her ability to hold a bowl always threatening to overflow—full of the vitality that was him and full of a sorrow never to be swallowed. I had faith that my baby could bear the world’s utter darkness, along with its beauty.
As a calf approaches its first birthday, the cow, pregnant and readying to give birth, chases off her yearling. She has kept it alive for nearly twelve months, taught it what she knows, and now she must trust that the calf can live on its own.
That is all a mother mammal can do.
We awoke this morning to five inches of snow. The daffodils bent under the weight; the iris spears vanished; Q skied across our raised beds, where a moose last fall had munched on the frosted stalks of kale and then disappeared into the woods. Spring-ready, I’d usually heave a sigh at a mid-May snowstorm, but not this year. This is, if not an anomaly, unusual. The lilacs have budded, the yellow-bellied sapsuckers have arrived from Virginia, the ticks have laid their eggs. I imagine a moose calf born today, wet with birth, tucked against her mother’s hide for warmth. Perhaps this storm will conceal our misdeeds a little longer. Perhaps winter’s cold carpet will last just long enough for next spring’s yearlings to live.