Friday, April 11, 2014

Living And Dying On The Sagebrush Plains

On the prairie, what you are left with is the bare truth, the land pared down to the bone, the basic dirt and grass and sky that shape the lives that play out upon it.

- Tom Groneberg, The Secret Life of Cowboys (2003)

In spring, the Greater Sage-Grouse return to the exact same place to dance and flirt and mate. The males show off their pointy tail feathers and their puffed up chests in hopes that a female will look their way. Three times this week I've been out there at the crack of dawn to observe this mating ritual. It is a fascinating strutting festival. The flapping wings, then a "pop" of the bright yellow sacs inflating then deflating in a rhythmic motion that sounds like an extremely loud water balloon swishing around, if you can imagine that.

These charismatic birds are a threatened species, so see them while you can.

Energy development and residential buildings have caused the Greater Sage-Grouse population to decline from 16 million 100 years ago to between 200,00 and 500,000 today.

I live in what is called The Northern Great Plains. Two hundred years ago Bison roamed the land that I gently walk upon today. I see antelope by the hundreds, prairie dogs, elk, deer, coyote, and horny toad lizards. There is joy in seeing prairie falcons and the mountain plover. Wait. Could that be a Black-footed ferret? I hope it is. Have you ever seen a leggy black wolf run like the wind through a sloping meadow? I have. Just yesterday I counted five meadowlarks and three red tailed hawks. We all share this land together. It is rich in native grasses and wildflowers. It is rich in life. Everything out here matters.

When the sun rose high, the Sage-grouse flew away. I watched them until they were out of sight, then I closed my eyes.

“I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.” ― Terry Tempest Williams

I wasn't ready to leave yet. I was drinking in the landscape. My eyes saw nothing but colors of honey and silvery blue in the pale light as I drifted toward a lone tree on the edge of the sage flats. And there it was. The dead horse. It was just lying there, torn apart by wild things that prowl in the night. No, it's not a wild horse. It was somebody's pet. From a nearby ranch perhaps. It must have gotten loose and then hit by a car and this is as far as she got. Or, maybe she was unwanted. Whatever the story, it made me sad. I looked closely at this bay mare. Her black tail disintegrating and her hooves resting in the dirt.

And then again, I prayed to the wind and sky. I pray to understand.

Only a few yards from the forgotten one, I stumbled upon the sun bleached bones of an Elk. Native Americans would use the remains, these bones, to make weapons or tools. I claimed one beautiful piece of vertebrae for myself. Not for anything useful, but for remembrance of this day. My souvenir.



  1. dat zijn toch wel heel mooie bijzondere momenten.

  2. The opening quote is so perfect. Do you know I've never seen a sage grouse? Ruffed grouse, spruce grouse - yes, but not sage. Pretty awesome to see them display. And I always love Terry Tempest Williams stuff... Have a good weekend Lynn.

  3. You are so,so awesome.

    We went out to see some sage grouse this week, too. We heard them before we could see them.

    Your closeup picture is amazing!

  4. Awesome birds, those sage grouse. That land, that wide, open land, may be stripped down to the bare bones, but it's alive with plants and animals and birds and you, sister. Your awareness of the land, your connection with the wildlife, your respect for the lives now gone, is beautiful.

  5. What the ever living cool bird - The Sage Grouse! Wish I could see their strut and dance! You are blessed to drink in the wild beauty of your landscape. I know how you love the animals, the horses,,,, dear, how sad to see the carcass.... good for you to take an elk back bone! What a day Prairie Sister!

  6. deep thoughtfulness in this post, red dirt.
    i feel the sadness and the pensiveness.
    i wish i were there to walk the land with you….in silence, in reverance….
    a hug to your prairie girl heart > x+o.

  7. what a grand place to be...never seen the sage brush grouse and you reminded me that I should have been in Nebraska at this time to see the cranes...I think it is now xx

  8. What a wonderful place and amazing sights to experience. But so sad for the horse. A beautiful piece of writing that captures my imagination and makes me feel the wildness of it all xx

  9. beautiful

    I want one of those bones!

    love and light