Happy October - a Musk Ox horns In.

    I am in the thick of my current book and loving every minute of it. COZY is furry and snowy which is a favorite combination. The best part, and the part I can be grateful for, is discovering the musk ox as a character. I knew such animals existed because I have always been fascinated by arctic animals.  I also learned about The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, where I could observe these rare animals and even ceremonially adopt one of my own. I first learned about Musk Ox years ago from a book titled MAMMALS OF NORTH AMERICA published by the National Geographic Society. I've had the book since childhood, and it is so falling apart that the title page and date published are lost. There is a lovely illustration along with a photo in the chapter MUSK OXEN - WILD ARCTIC CATTLE. The illustration shows a shaggy, prehistoric looking large ungulate (having cloven hooves) with a keen watchful eye in a barren snowy landscape. Its horns swoop downward on each side of its head, and then turn upward like the stereotype of a Dutch girl's cap. Its long silky coat is brownish black, but as an added embellishment there is a fluffy creamy white patch where the horns join, and another larger frosted area where a saddle would be. The massive neck is supported by a hump where fat is stored. Without fur, the silhouette would look similar to a goat. I kept that illustration in the back of my mind never imagining the Musk Ox to be a character in a story, but when my daughter and son-in law moved to Alaska last year they urged me to visit the Musk Ox Farm. The farm has several purposes, in the 30's John Teal envisioned domesticating the musk ox so that it's exceptionally strong fiber could be used to make warm clothing. He was also aware that Musk Ox had been hunted to extinction in Alaska and most of North America. He imported a small herd from Greenland and relocated them to Alaska.  There are now several thriving and multiplying herds left to be wild in Alaska and the herd in Palmer where they are studied, cared for and gently combed in spring for their luxurious qiviut wool. There is also a herd at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks large ungulate research center as well as the wild herds near Nome and on remote islands above the Arctic Circle.
    I have visited The Musk Ox Farm three times and the team is always surprising me with new knowledge about these magnificent beasts.  I am almost halfway through my book and just found out the Musk Ox has elongated pupils like a goat! I was also made aware that their tails are not visible, being very small and covered with thick massive pelage. Pelage is the word for fur covering a creature in the same way plumage is the word for feathers covering birds. I was given a wonderful tour of the large farm, it's historic picturesque buildings and extensive grazing areas. The whole scene is surrounded by huge majestic mountains and all this is just an hour away from Anchorage.  On this last trip I was on a mission to see at what point their creamy white lower legs turn into the rich brown shade as I would draw the underside of a Musk Ox in my book!  The Musk Ox Farm had my answer. There is a taxidermized Musk Ox that had died of natural causes and that was one Musk Ox that was OK to crawl underneath! The semi habituated animals on the farm still have the needed sharp reflexes and instincts needed to protect themselves from the wolf packs that are predators left from the days when they were an unprotected natural state. Now that I'm back home from my latest visit I have their photo filled newsletter to remind me of how cute the calves are, the drama of their awesome presence, and a running diary of their day to day antics. I think the picture I have in my mind of the two-year olds, including Teal. the one our family adopted, poking their fuzzy muzzles through their fence is the one that I will remember most. They are lucky Musk Ox up there in Palmer! 
    If you are as intrigued by arctic animals, Musk Ox, Arctic Fox, Polar Bears, and Narwhal as I am, I'd like to suggest Barry Lopez' book ARCTIC DREAMS. It is told from a naturalist's point of view and has received much acclaim. Sections could easily be read to children interested in the natural world.
      You may have gathered that a visit to a Musk Ox farm sparked an idea for an illustrated children's book. I hope my enthusiasm is catching. Perhaps your latest interest will bring in some creative energy and your personal fascination with a bird or beast becomes the start of a creative project of your own.

                    Happy Reading, Jan Brett