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.