Elke Duerr

Elke and her mother.

Through all this, the large herds of animals did not leave me alone. They, too, wanted a documentary and pushed me to tell their story. My ensuing 4-year-long journey “migrating” with the last wild bison herds in North America began as a childhood dream when I was a little girl. Now it was becoming a reality. The time had come to get to know the bison and what their lives were like, just as I had gotten to know the wolves.

As a child, I never wanted any dolls, legos, or other plastic toys. I was always outside, making my own toys out of wood and twigs and stones and sticks. It was always my dream to spend time with herd animals, to see them, be around them. Needless to say, it never happened. But I did not give up. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Yellowstone National Park where our last wild bison reside. I had my backpacking equipment, and I was happily going along to my camp when this bison bull stood broadside on my trail, looking at me. I stopped and thought to myself, well, I can go anywhere in this world, but this bison only has this little sliver of their former habitat. I am not going to make him move or get out or the way or disturb him, I am just going to wait and see what happens. He looked at me with great intensity, and I took my backpack off, sat down on a rock, and waited. He kept looking at me and did not move. I kept looking at him and did not move. I had this distinct sense that I should not retreat or go around him. I should just wait. A few minutes later it happened. My childhood dream came true.

Bison came down the hill, hundreds of them. I started counting 423 bison. They came down the hill from all sides and were surrounding me. I was discerning calves and mothers and grandmothers, and the bulls were there too because it was rutting season. It was this amazing sight to behold. They kept coming and coming and pouring over the hill. Bison have this snorting type of way to talk to each other and communicate, and I swear at that moment I understood what they were saying because I was in the midst of them all. I was in complete and utter awe because here were these animals whom I had been wanting to meet my whole life. I had seen them from a distance or from the car, but this time they were really close. I had this distinct sense that this would be the largest herd anybody would get to see anymore. And yet in the olden days we had millions of them. So many that the prairie would be black with their bodies when they were moving through. With immense gratitude, I realized that I got a glimpse of that. And that second when I got that glimpse, I realized that my childhood dream had come true. I told them: “Thank you so much for coming. Thank you for showing yourselves to me. Out of gratitude and to help you thrive on this earth, I will tell your story.” Hence, I started on my next documentary project, which is about bison and entitled: Bison Nation- Walking Sacred Sites. According to a Lakota elder, they are walking sacred sites because they take care of our largest sacred site, the Earth. Little did I know that this project would lead to me living in Montana for the better part of 6 years, or that I would give up my home and life as I had known it and take to the road to work on my film project. The 4,000 wild bison who are left from herds that used to number about 60 million animals are still in jeopardy of being killed by ranchers and hunters all over the Northern Hemisphere because they migrate so people are unable to contain them, and they “eat the cows’ grass.” What we see behind fences are the many beefalo or cattalo that have been bred with cattle to make them docile. And yet, bison once roamed large parts of Europe as well, and we can see pictographs of them in caves in France and Spain.

Elke in Poland with bison.

Again, the synchronicities surrounding my work were and still are amazing. Not only did I get invited onto reservations all over the West to share ceremony, sweat lodges, and bison stories, but I now have friends to treasure all over the West. One older gentleman on one of the reservations invited me to film him to tell his bison stories. As it turned out, his grandson had just died, so he was the only one left in his family. He told me the old stories so somebody would still remember them and they would not be forgotten. I will never forget his mention of the boarding schools he and many other Indigenous Americans had been forced to attend. But that is a story that needs to be told by the people themselves and is already being told to mainstream audiences. Some of the tribal members are filmmakers and writers and tell the stories of their own people from their own understanding. There are at least a few documentaries and books out there made by the descendants of people who have been in boarding schools that are being broadcast to a wide audience.

Bison are matriarchal. Wherever I went, the lead cow of the respective herd would come out and greet me. She always seemed to be “reading” me for messages from other herds. This even happened in Germany. There, a very small herd, a minuscule remainder of the ancient Wood Bison species, roams free on the land of a prince. The person in charge of tours told me that it was not guaranteed that we would see a bison that day to make sure that I would not be disappointed if there were no sightings. But I just knew that there would be and that the lead cow would come out to greet me. I had already made mental contact with her beforehand and communicated with her about what I was up to. We did not have to wait very long; in fact, the animals came running to us after we arrived. All but one stayed back, and I asked the person with me casually: “So, is this by any chance the lead cow?” To which he nodded in amazement, yes!

Again, the same wonderful flow happened with the bison film project as with the wolf project. We only had four days in Poland to not only film the bison, but to also FIND them. They are wood bison, which means that they are roaming in dense forest, invisible to human eyes. Not only did we find them on the second day out in the wild, we also found wolf tracks and the evidence that there was a female wolf in heat, as was demonstrated by a drop of blood in the snow next to the tracks. The dance of life was playing out right in front of us.

It was the coldest time filming for me in all my experience. I was wearing all the clothing I had brought with me and was still cold. Humidity was high and the temperature was dropping by the second. As snow was beginning to fall, the bison formed a line facing us. They were just becoming active. They were born for temperatures like these. Spritely, alive, alert, and aware are the adjectives I would like to use in conjunction with how they showed up for us that day. My equipment was freezing, but luckily, my friends’ still cameras did the trick. As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise. This way I got to really see them with my own eyes and make contact. What they told me that day made tears roll down my eyes. They communicated that they were much more fit for cold temperatures, snow, and overall climate-change-type weather than cattle by showing us their zest for life in the middle of a blizzard. They seemed to be coming alive in front of our eyes when it started to snow. But it was not just a conversation of joy of life and interconnectedness with the weather.

Tent in the snow.

Later on, we came to a new enclosure where bison were held captive. The lead cow came and looked me straight in the eyes. She was asking for a reason for their captivity. She banged her head against the metal bars of the fence that kept them inside to show me that she wanted to get out. I asked her why she was feeding three calves, which is unusual for a bison mother. She told me through pictures that the mothers of the other calves had been shot. I asked if they were okay food wise. They were eating hay, which is not their usual staple as they prefer to eat bark and the leaves off the trees. She reached out to a branch in the enclosure and began eating it. When that bark was gone, she looked at me again and asked for more. She told me that they were stimulating the growth of trees and vegetation with their browsing, but that they could not do that when in an enclosure. With things changing rapidly now and in the future, they were available again to feed us. During extreme temperatures, cows and other domesticated animals were dying from being blown into fences by storms and from hypothermia. They, the Bison Nation, in turn were much more adaptable, self-sufficient, and did not require any kind of care from us humans. They loved us and were ready to fulfill their promise to us again to feed us and care for the land by trimming vegetation to a point where it would grow much more densely and readily, by treading lose seeds contained in the soil, and by generally managing the land’s health. There was much more to our conversation to be told some other time in another context. I can only say that my life changed that day and I became even more attuned to the rhythms and purpose of other species. My senses were much more honed and in tune with what they had to say to us humans.

Being out in the elements working for the bison really honed my body’s ability to adapt to extreme temperatures, be it cold or hot. I am now able to tune out everything else and self-regulate when there is an animal encounter. This brings me to my next projects I am Nature – You are human nature and Messages from the animals. We, humans, are disconnected from all other life forms on this planet and the earth herself. We are separate. This is not how it is supposed to be. Fear and separation are not meant to rule our interactions with other species. It comes from a stance of hierarchy, exploitation, and a consumptive approach to life. We need to find our place in the dance of life again because our very existence is at stake, and we are taking many other species with us.

I am Nature is about reciprocity—not just taking from nature and using her for our intents and purposes, but about giving back, caring, being connected, reading the signs, and being guardians of all life. You were a child once who loved nature and animals, and maybe you still do. If so, there are many things you can do for the particular animals inhabiting the area where you live to ensure our mutual thriving on this planet. You used to talk to animals and other species. I am reminding you of what is possible with my film projects.

I created the short film Messages from the Animals – Otter Love, to act as a bridge between animals and human animals, giving a voice for the voiceless. As an interspecies communicator, I constantly run into animals who would like to talk to me and relay a message or messages to my fellow human beings. Hence, I started a series of which the pilot project is called Otter Love. Episodes about wolves, bison, bees, snakes, birds, bears, and many more will follow. Animals that do not have a huge following are dear to my heart. To give you an example, while wolves are charismatic animals who are gaining space in the hearts of many, snakes are often demonized. In India, snakes are revered as celestial beings, and cultures all around the world have snake goddesses; yet, in our Western culture, we have snake killing contests and do not step up to the plate to ensure that they thrive. This project, for the first time in my career, has an editor and a composer on board who love what we are doing and work pro bono. People told me right from the beginning that I need to tell my stories in video form when I explained about my conversations with the animals, so I wrote them all down and we started with our pilot project Messages from the Animals – Otter Love. When the composer saw it, he immediately came on board, and when the editor heard the story, she was game for a whole series. I am looking to achieve maximum visibility for Messages from the Animals. On a personal level, this means I am out of the closet as an interspecies communicator. On a broad level, the time is NOW to turn our treatment and engagement with animals around to be more equal, fearless, and loving. All we seem to do is view them as commodities that can be exploited, even for film and still photography “material,” while we still approach them in a fearful way. This has to end.

Elke and a tree.

My latest doc I am Water – I give you Life will premiere in Europe in June. A few years ago when I went to Standing Rock to lend my support to the Lakota Sioux people who wanted to protect their water from very likely future calamities caused by a pipeline, I realized that most of us do not know who and what water really is. In my water film project, Water tells her own story of interconnectedness among us, of being the great equalizer because all of us need water to thrive. I will never look at water the same after having spent so much time with wise elders, scientists, water protectors, and water itself.

At the moment I am working on a film and outreach project entitled I love myself. Everything starts with loving ourselves and then that love goes towards the earth and other life forms. If we bully ourselves, we bully others and the earth. I will continue to utilize film as a means to show the incredible beauty and interconnectedness of the pristine nature design we are all a part of and to spell out what works in terms of long-term thriving and coexisting of all life forms.

Thank you for taking the time to read this personal account of my work. I will do this until the end of my time here on earth. In fact, when it is time for me to go, I will raise up my hand, hold back the inevitable for a little longer, and say, “Just one more film, please, one more! There is this animal who wants to get their message across, there is this tree you need to know about, there is this love for life and this earth inside of me that is immortal…”

To find more information about the Web Of Life Foundation, check out its website. You can learn more about Elke by visiting her website or her profile.