Ruled by the sun: Autumn equinox in Yellowstone

“Don’t move. That’s revolutionary.”  Gary Snyder

It was still dark outside — 4:45am at a small cabin outside of Yellowstone. David and I piled the car up with extra layers of clothes and snacks. We were going to meet wildlife filmmaker Bob Landis at his house at 5:35am and follow him into the Park.

We got to his house and he soon came out. We exchanged minimal greetings and he got into into his dust-covered Prius. I sat down in the passenger side as he apologized for the coating of dog hair on the seat. We headed into the park and up to Mount Washburn, where Bob hoped to film the sunset, time-lapsing 30 minutes into just one. Clouds, a lingering contrail and smog from smoldering wildfires made getting the shot dubious–they all would impact how the sun came through. “I’m ruled by the sun,” Bob said. I’ve always thought of photographers as ruled by light, but, as he does, Bob went right to the source. It’s really the sun.

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Sunrise at Mount Washburn, Yellowstone: Bob adjusts his camera and Susan watches as the Autumn sun arrives. (Photo David Yusem)

After the sun came up, we packed up and drove through the park, looking for interesting activity (which is in large supply in the mountains, valleys, and waterways of Yellowstone). Rain or shine, Bob goes out every morning in Yellowstone, and he has for decades. He knows where things have happened or are likely to happen. Otters sliding down stream banks,  brown bears feeding on pine nuts, a wolf pack feeding on a carcass….Bob is part of this community.

Bob has been shooting in Yellowstone since before wolves were reintroduced, and he has captured the lives of the wolf packs that have come and gone in the park over the past 20 years. Right now, he’s working on a film about one of the Valley wolf packs and would have loved to get more shots of the whole pack. Waiting, looking out into their valley, we did not see them that morning. But we were treated to a coyote playfully bouncing through the grass, successfully catching and filling up on voles and moles. Its coat blended into the landscape, matching the soil and grasses of the valley floor.

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The coyote we watched as it hunted in the Lamar Valley. (Photo David Yusem).

As we drove on, Bob shared more stories of places in the park. The lake where an invasive trout species is being culled. The banks where otters slide down but haven’t been seen in a while. The building that was just renovated in time for the Park Service’s 100th anniversary celebration. The trees where bear cubs climb to get the pine cones with peanut-sized nuts. The spot where an elk carcass lies, just over the rise.  The place where he filmed a coyote playfully tucking his paws over his eyes to block out the sun for an afternoon nap.

Hearing all these stories, the landscape came alive. I remembered Keith Basso’s book, Wisdom Sits in Places, and how he wrote of the Apache act of connecting stories with the land. Driving through Yellowstone with Bob, a filmmaker who has spent decades documenting and tracking the ongoing stories in this place, I had a sense of a landscape seeded with stories. I had already gotten that impression from watching his films, but now I could sense the rich source of these — his own careful watching, noting and planting of these stories in this place. A revolutionary act of staying in place. Although it would have been a treat to see wolves with him, I did not feel a need to. Listening to his stories, I could see the wolves running through the Hayden Valley.

We drove until just after 9am, when the increasing light meant that too many heat waves from the sun would show up in the footage. It was time to go home. We stopped for ginger cookies and coffee at one of the park convenience stores and parted ways for the day. Bob went home to edit and we took a nap before going back into the park.

That evening we went back out to find beavers. Bob had mentioned that along the Lamar River there were beavers who came out to work on their dams every evening at 6pm. We never did find the dam spot, but we walked along Cache Creek to catch the sunset.

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The sun begins to set on Cache Creek. (Photo David Yusem)

Watching the creek, I thought about all the stories in this landscape, especially the story of wolves. Like the creek, the stories are layered — the solid bed we sense but cannot see, the slowly shifting rocks that line the bed, and the ever-changing water that flows over them. We can think of our myths like that — there is a solid, sensed core, a slowly shifting bed, and the babble that flows across the top.  And storytelling like Bob’s — films that witnesses wolves and the other lives in Yellowstone as they are (not what we have been told or what we fantasize) — are helping to move the rocks in the creek bed, shifting the myths below the surface.

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