Mary’s work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, The Hong Kong Review, Ruminate Magazine, Braided Way, The Colorado Sun, BlueHouse Journal, Writers Workshop Review and Speckled Trout Review.
Her memoir in essays, Apertures: Findings from a Rural Life, received the 2023 Nautilus Silver Award for Memoir. Mary’s first collection of essays, At Home in the Elk River Valley: Reflections on Family, Place, and the West, was recognized as a 2012 Regional Nonfiction Finalist by the National Indie Excellence Book Award program. It was also recipient of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association’s 2012 Bronze EVVY Award.
She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Regis University where she worked with David Lazar, co-editor of After Montaigne: Essayists Cover the Essayists.
Mary and her husband raise quarter horses, cattle, and hay on their ranch in the Elk River Valley of northwestern Colorado.
She can be reached at www.marybkurtz.com
Excerpt from “A Rustling in the Oaks,” an essay included in my collection, Apertures: Findings from a Rural Life
I often watch for signs of life when I wander on a nearby hill. I’ve come to know a small ecosystem exists hidden from view. The oak and chokecherry covered ground rests between the open meadows below and the aspen groves neighboring the evergreen forest above on the ridge. The wildlife native to my home, come and go, graze, sleep, retreat, in the shadows of the brush, the shade of the aspen when safe, curled in the sparse grass on the soil-poor ground. I take pleasure in searching for evidence of that small world.
When winter arrives, and the earth is layered in down, I eagerly follow the spoor on the snowshoe trail. Following in the footsteps of ancient hunters and gatherers who tracked for food, I know it’s important to know the rhythms and patterns of the landscape in which I wander. The intimate knowledge of knowing when and where the elk winter and breed, where the birds flutter, light and sing, where the ermine burrow lower on the hill, and where the porcupine often hides in the brush help me know where to cast my search.
The days of tracking are never the same. I know when elk hoof prints disappear into heavy brush, crisscrossing the slope, grazing through one draw to the next, they have settled for the winter on the face of the hill. I often step across their lays, beds used only once or twice. Deep and curved, with a close look, hair from the elk’s hide resides inside. As the elk depart, they frequently leave more evidence in pellet shaped droppings, shiny if fresh.
While nuthatches winter in Colorado and often forage with chickadees, I don’t see them every year. But when I do, their tracks form the most delicate of imprints. Their slender toes, three to the front and one to the back, only brush the surface but tell the story of a landing, exploration and then flight. I assume they are on the hill for pleasure, perhaps looking for a spare seed to tuck away in the seam of cottonwood when they return to their nest.
The ermine, an American short-tail weasel in its dense, silky white winter coat, is known as a predator to rodents, rabbits, and native bird populations. I am taken by the diminutive ermine paw prints that bound from beneath the oak down the path to the next safe haven, an oak brush well, maybe the cover of a sparse, winter sage. The delicate prints camouflage the true nature of the ermine who killed the rabbit or rodent and then pirated their home.
In the tracking of the wildlife on the hill, there’s an intimacy I treasure. While I seldom see the elk on the rise or over the ridge deep in the aspen the nuthatch perched in the oak; the ermine tucked and curled in its burrow; or, the porcupine gnawing his dinner, I see testimonials to their existence. To know I am accompanied by creatures that share the well-worn path, I feel connected to the ground we share, bound to the same oak and chokecherry-covered hill.