Ovibos Moschatus

By | 1 August 2017
In connection with the ongoing negotiations among governments concerning the laying down of international provisions for the preservation of musk oxen, the Manager is requested to forbid the killing of these animals by the native population except in such emergency situations where the life of the person involved is at stake … The Greenland Agency, 31 July 1925
                        butt the sparkling crust
                                                                  furrowed to sastrugi : sharp crescents of cold
                                                                                                                       ingrained in snow crystals
                                                that melted, froze, remelted and refroze
                                                on windward slopes of snow dunes heaped here by the blizzards
                                                                          then eroded to anvils pointing upwind

                                                                                         to meet more wind – gravity winds –

by late March geometries and hunger become more abrupt

                          recrystallized grain clusters swallow sunrays
                                               squat muskoxen swallow saliva
                                   hunters and their dogs swallow shame

muskoxen push their horned heads
                                                     towards the air pooled under the slab snow
                                                                                  propped by bent-over spikelets of Arctic
                                                     wheatgrass promising other ground-hugging plants :
                                                                                  crowberry dwarf birch beach rye grass
                                                     soft to the squared-off warty laminae of their lips

they inspect their daily portion of two kilometres
they amble between feeding grounds where frozen shallow water doesn’t allow a whirl yet
they cross the polar desert towards the barren plateaus frequented by high winds
                                                                                             which sweep the snow off the edges of cliffs

                            muskoxen remember last spring
                                                                                     the cliffs welcomed – briefly – nesting birds
                                  the guano fertilized succulent green
                                                                         now swallowed by the starving white
the hungry polar cattle
                                whose long brown shaggy coats
                                                                               repel the wind and rain and snow
                                                 and keep the warm winter secret of every long-bearded one
                                                                  (here hunters call a muskox umimmaat)
                        : qiviut
                                       cashmerelike underwool
                                                     fine down feathers of little auks
                                                                                            calling alle alle under the coarse guard hairs
while on slippery slopes muskoxen splay their two-toed hooves
                                                                                      dead keratin in the dead of winter
                            – where no warm blood runs
                                   no heat is lost –
                                                                    in their firm contact with the firn

                                                        if this densified snow has survived one melt season
                                                               they too can survive : they will paw their small eating craters
to reach the matted roots
                                                   of the only woody plant that can grow beyond
                                                                        the treeline on this dry dwarf shrub heath
Salix arctica
                         in the short spring its oval leaves will offer more vitamin C than oranges
                         the violet of its catkins will carry more warmth than the surrounding plateaus
                                            so its seeds and pollen may quicken and attract insects

                                                                    just as the Arctic willow attracts muskoxen
like muskoxen it grows
                                  long fluffy hair
                                                        on its silvery leaves to protect
                                                                   the warmth
                                                                                                so precious in this land
     where refugia mean survival for this species
                                                                                   of sheep oxen
                                                                                                  counted in late winter while their dark
                                                                                        coats are still
                                           spotted against the white

                                           when the fixed-wing aircraft overhead
                                                                                          makes them clump:
                                                                                                                                 rumps together
                                                                                                                                 horns outwards
                                                                                                    in a tight circle
                                                                                                    or a crescent of defence
                                that withstands Arctic wolves
                                                              but invites firearms
when the quota
                               – and the hunger –
                                                                       cannot be negotiated

the colony’s Manager writes in Muskox Daybook (entry 3, 1932):

Hunter Niels Arke, Kap Hope, reported taking a musk ox. I killed an animal because we had nothing to eat, and because
my dogs were very exhausted by too little food. I had passed the animal, but turned back as I found it necessary to kill
it. Hunter Niels, who has ten children, could not pay immediately, but was fined 10 kroner, which he was to pay when
he was able to.


*The italicised quotations come from Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonization and Mapping by the Greenlandic-Danish visual artist Pia Arke (Pia Arke Selskabet & Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010) 65-66.

** Umimmaat (‘long-bearded one’) – the Greenlandic name for muskox used in Arke’s book; dialectal variants include: Umimmak, Umingmak, Omingmak, Oomingmak. In 1816, Blainville coined ‘Ovibos Moschatus’ (also a chapter title in Stories from Scoresbysund), combining ‘sheep’ and ‘ox’ in a mistaken belief that muskox had only two teats. In the 1920’s Arctic explorer Stefansson objected to ‘muskox’, since the animal has no musk glands; Stefansson preferred ‘polar cattle’ to promote the domestication of muskoxen.

*** Little Auk, a bird species otherwise known as Dovekie (Alle alle), arrives at its Greenland breeding colonies in early May and abandons them in August.

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