Pika Past Present and Future
There are not many songs sung in the Alpine territory. When I hike above the treeline in Colorado it is either quiet enough to hear my own ears ringing or, more often, the wind is ululating wild whomps against the mountainsides. Someone more romantic might call this wind wailing song, but anyone who has experienced hundred-mile-per-hour winds knows they are not enchanting or melodious. Alpine winds are lashes. Try to sing in a lashing wind and your song will be ripped from you before your ears can hear it. Stand into the wind and your song will be thrust back down your throat before it can leave your mouth. In alpine wind you keep your mouth shut so the gusts don’t hollow and dry it like a carved pumpkin. Who would dare to stake their future on singing in the alpine? Certainly not I. But one little creature does. I listen for his song as I hike up past the trees and into the talus and tundra. He is the pika, smaller relative of the rabbit, known in the 19thcentury as little chief hare, known to me as a mountain hamster, singer of songs, good Samaritan of the alpine, and conduit of winter memory.
Pikas look like oversize hamsters with mickey-mouse ears. About the size of a fist with thick fur ranging in color from grey to tawny brown, they blend into their rocky habitat so well they can be tricky to sight even just a few feet away. They live in talus—fields of boulders and rocks piled among alpine tundra—above treeline along mountainsides. Treeline in Colorado is the elevation where trees stop growing, between 10,000 to 11,500 feet, a magical line where evergreen forests suddenly stop their climbing and stand in a solemn row against the upper mountain. The trees at the edge of the line are stunted with twisted trunks and branches that lean downhill away from the emptiness above. Everything beyond this line is held by hostile forces: wind, freezing temperatures, and snow. This is where pikas make their homes, where the trees fear to root and the wind tears music apart.
Every climb, wind or no, I hear pika calls, and depending on the time of year, songs. Their vocalizations recall a dog’s squeaky toy or the sudden blast of a piccolo. On windless mornings their shrill cries are the only sounds I hear. Hiking toward treeline is discouraging work. There are few views or geographic points from which to judge the distance gained. Often I will be hiking in the inky murk that thickens just before dawn. There is nothing to see outside the beam of a headlamp, and this forces me inside myself. All I hear is my own rasping breath; I feel my heart thumping hard against my ribcage with a force that always makes me think of someone braining a hefty trout against a riverside boulder; my legs burn with exertion with each step forward. This is a sort of walking meditation upon suffering, an inescapable demonstration of the limits of the body. Then a pika voice rings out and I am pulled out of my misery; I look up, engaged in my surroundings, looking for the rounded shape among the rocks. Pikas announce my delivery from trees and darkness and exhaustion that pulls me inward like a whirlpool. It is good sport to try and spot them and even more fun to try to mimic their noises. I can ascend nearly a thousand feet utterly absorbed in pika mischief, unaware of my thrashing-trout heart.
Each pika lives alone and comes together only to mate twice a year, in spring, and again in late summer, owing to the female’s expeditious thirty-day gestation period. They sing during mating seasons, but they are chatterboxes all year long. Their approximately twenty-meter territories rub up against each other like the bumping of your elbow against your neighbor on a plane, awkward but not unexpected. Like yourself on a plane, pikas are polite. They honor their neighbor’s territories while using every inch of their own for feeding. Despite the pika’s tendency toward rugged individualism they still alert other pika on the mountainside of intruders with high-pitched staccato squeaks. In a world so abounding in indifference such kindness is a marvel to me. The evolutionary advantage gained by community does not make the individual standing on the rock raising the alarm less bold. He stands there calling “here I am!” while everyone else dashes for their boulders. That he will get to run to safety while someone else raises the alarm next time makes it no less marvelous. No one is truly alone, not even a little pika under his boulder.
Occasionally I read about rescues on Everest, that mountain where truly all bets are off. There is no Everest rescue team and the official rescue policy is: don’t. Still, sometimes climbers will form their own rescue parties and go up after exhausted teammates. Climbers who participate in high-risk rescues cite a simple motivation: they help people because they hope people will help them one day. I like this philosophy very much: do good now to inspire more good later. It’s compassion insurance. Cooperation and sacrifice often manifest in the harshest, competitive environments. Reciprocal altruism lessens the chances that a pika will be eaten by a fox or hawk and brings more mountain climbers home from their climbs.
Even so, I still wonder why pikas imperil themselves with warning calls and climbers collect their lost. Is it really only a matter of biology and risk calculation? If so, why isn’t everyone risking everything for each other all the time? I have a hunch it may be the environment. Does a bitter world of freezing cold and predators force us to love each other better? Perhaps the brutal elements strip us of our brutality. Who could still claim Holiness in the face of a truer God? Give it up! Give up the brute, pika and climber together. The wind and snow and hawk will be the better beast and really what have you? Grinding teeth, a call in your throat, and love of your own. We’ll never out-brute this world but we may get the better of it with ferocious love. This is the creed of cooperation: love your own the better they to love you back.
Despite the bravura of Pikas, it is easy for me to see them as comic creatures. I often catch sight of them as they sound off, heads thrown back, their little mouths open wide revealing pink pika lips, their little floof-ball bodies hiccupping with each call. I’ve learned to mimic their calls. Meep! Goes the pika. Meep! I call back. I have just called meep! A happy noise like a teasing songbird. The pika, I suspect, has actually just called “Friends, foes, awake! Danger afoot and moving! Awake! Awake!” Pikas are the gutsiest of alpine rodents. When their alpine relative the marmot digs a deep hole in the ground and sleeps the winter away and the squirrels and chipmunks retreat down the mountain to the shelter of evergreen boughs and even the elk abandon their alpine basins for low-country valleys and cow-fields, the pika stays put under his boulder and weathers the winter awake.
No, pikas are not content living in the green time and sleeping through the white bones of winter; all summer they play the doomsayer gathering grasses, flowers, and mosses and storing it all under their boulder vault. This obsessive gathering, called haying, send the pika like a frantic boomerang through his territory and back to boulder up to fifteen times per hour. From the day the snows around their boulder melt to the day the snow sticks again the pika gathers his hay pile for winter. This gives him two months to collect enough food to last the other ten. Summers above treeline are short and precious. Like the pika, I spend summers frantically gathering only I gather summits for my enjoyment while the pika gathers food for survival. When I hike by on my way up a mountain my head all lit up in summertime relish I imagine the pika I pass is already thinking on winter. How could he not be with so little time to gather for so much life to live?
Older pika gather each summer as if every winter will bring apocryphal conditions. An elder pika will begin gathering his haypile in June, as soon as the first vegetation becomes accessible from under melted snow. Juveniles, those ranging from one month to one year of age, don’t get started on their haypiles until August or sometimes even later. Though, some can be forgiven for dilly-dallying if they’re unlucky enough to be born in the second season litter and therefore aren’t developed enough to aspire to haying until late summer or even September, if the past winter’s snow has been slow in melting. These ill-fortuned pikas can hope, as climbers do, for a long autumn season, which graces the mountains with dry, temperate weather well into October. These auspicious weather windows provide slothful pikas with redemption, and juvenile pikas with retribution for their inauspicious beginnings. But Grace is not guaranteed; some years winter arrives over the summer mountains like a fat bear thumping himself down to hibernate, there to stay snuffling and snoring out snow storms with each snort. Pikas who bet on favorable weather often do not live to place next summer’s bet. I empathize especially with the dead pika; mountain climbers who misread the weather above treeline also increase their chances of expiring.
When I set out to gather a summer summit I am hoping the storm doesn’t build over my peak. I make my bet based on every other day I’ve climbed above treeline and gazed up at the blue sky and wondered if the wispy white clouds will coalesce into a thunderhead. But, for all my experience, I remain helplessly wedged in the present. Above treeline weather forecasts are unreliable at best. My memories or storms past have no bearing upon this cloud, this day. But I wonder, does an old pika feel the protracted cold of winters past deep in his pika marrow? To have become old he has to have bet correctly winter after winter, measured stems and stalks by winter days and found the forage always longer. Something in his brain must calculate back through lean and fat seasons, cunning that is both beyond him and in him. I imagine his marrow remembers as mine never could. If by pika alchemy he is able to procure grass to eat in the near-death of winter surely, he is able, too, to feel winter cold tingling on his skin and measure past winters by this summer’s flower stems. Perhaps there is no summer for the pika, and when I see him perched atop of rock warmed by high-altitude sun he is not actually there, not in that radiating moment of grass and heat. Maybe he is in next winter already counting the blades of his hay pile, each blade a unit of time stretching a wilted line into the future.
I imagine this is how pikas live, one clawed foot curled around summer grasses and the other three tapping on snow crust. But pika memories cannot all be cold wind-whipped instincts; memories of summer bring pika songs. These days are rare; they happen only a few times per summer at most, which is why I believe pikas must remember them the better to know their import. On these days no storm is conjured from white-sheep clouds. Often the cobalt sky is cloudless. Amaranthine blue. On these days I amble. I stroll. I lounge on sunny rocks as a lizard and loll about in the alpine meadows looking flowers in the eyes. And I listen to pikas sing. To attract females the males sing. If the male’s song charms a female she will call to him to let him know where she is. The singers are all sopranos and their songs come in trills, chirps, and yodels, reminiscent of birdsong but louder, more forceful, and echoing with intention and longing. On these sacred days pikas put aside their constant gathering and harkening forward and back in time to sing love songs. Territorial boundaries disappear, and the talus temporarily teems with wither-wandering lovesick pika.
The pika sings his song and the alpine goes silent again. He sits atop his boulder as if frozen, waiting for a return call. To see him then it’s easy to imagine he has no thoughts of winter, that he is helplessly suspended, as I am, in a single moment of summer. I can’t be sure, but I think this is why I climb: to anchor myself in a present moment even as it is carried off in the wind. None of us, climbers, pikas, nor you, can step out of the shifting currents of past and future. We are all carried along by them, those memories pulling us back, our fears and hopes transporting us forward, each cloud in the sky an uncertain future, each blade of grass the sun setting on a diminishing snowpack. But occasionally, on quiet summer days the present catches me by surprise; it is wide-open mountainside, a little creature there and then gone again; the present is a climb, a song.
M. Dearing, Denise. The Function of Haypiles of Pikas (Ochotona Princeps). The Journal of Mammology. Vol. 78, No. 4, Nov. 1997, 1156-1163. JSTOR,doi:10.2307/1383058. Accessed 10 December, 2017.
Smith, Andrew T.; Weston, Marla L. Ochotona Princeps. Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammalogists. 352: 1–8. doi: 10.2307/3504319. Accessed 10 December, 2017.
About Rebecca Young
Rebecca Young‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb Review, Literally Stories, Two Hawks Quarterly, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction and nonfiction with Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in the tiny mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, skiing, rock climbing, and mountaineering.