‘The Maker, whose heart is bigger than all the Earth and the Sea and the Sky, created a thousand different lands for his creatures to live upon and cherish and love. But a man’s heart is small, so he is fated to choose only one of the thousand lands to cherish and love above the others. He deems this place the fairest, and it is here he is most content in his life and most at peace when his soul and spirit pass on.’
Although I would like to claim that quote as an original thought and intellectual property all my own, it is my poetic prose blend of wisdoms that came from the hearts and minds of men and women with much deeper experience and appreciation of the Earth and mankind’s relationship with it: Black Elk, Rudyard Kipling, Rachel Carson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold among them. Reading their words awakens my too often dormant fascination with the natural world and inspires my writing about its essential role in my life, the foundation block that supports my teetering climb toward an understanding of the world and all that is upon it.
In truth, my understanding of the Earth is limited to a few small portions of it. A man’s heart is indeed small when measured against the myriad land and sky and seascapes that The Maker created and gave to mankind. Try as I might to cherish and love many – the Pacific Northwest, the desert Southwest, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, the High Plains of the Dakotas, the aspen forests of Northern Minnesota, and so many others — I am able to embrace only a few. Really only two: The North Country of the Upper Midwest that has been my home more than 35 years, and the Nebraska Sandhills, which for more than 45 years has been my spiritual center, my land of serenity and reverence, my place in the sun. I have immersed myself in both realms, but my knowledge of them is still limited, and my comprehension of the seasonal, changeable characteristics of these lands, unlike my passion for them, is more apparent than real.
This was made clear to me when I returned in September to the Sandhills with false certainty of my familiarity with the land, an arrogance far beyond the limits of my knowledge. Prepared for a reprise of previous years’ bird hunting adventures in rugged hills that have been semi-arid for tens of thousands of years, I blundered into a learning experience. The primary lesson was: “Do not be so sure of yourself.”
A monsoon of spring and summer rains in Nebraska drastically altered the surface of the Sandhills, converting shallow playas into expansive ponds, ponds into lakes, lakes into inland seas. Some roadside ditches became steadily flowing streams. Brush studded gullies that had been bone dry for a decade were scoured bare by flash flood waters that roared through them during three-inch rains that fell in an hour, carving ravines deeper and steeper than any I remembered.
Before these last three consecutive years of record precipitation, calling the Sandhills region a grassland was something of a misnomer; a decade of drought and searing heat had shriveled the stands of prairie grasses to crisp clumps, and many sections were virtual deserts. Scattered clusters of little bluestem reedgrass, reed canary grass, and prairie cordgrass were water-starved and went dormant, a dozen types of cactus thrived, and even the most optimistic ranchers began to doubt this cattle range would ever recover. Windmill-fed stock tanks stood dry as the underlying Ogallala Aquifer shrank and lowered to the point that hydrologists predicted it would take 40 to 50 years of normal rainfall to recharge it.
Then the rains fell. And fell, And fell. Thirty-plus inches of precipitation over the course of the past 10 months in this land that averages 20 inches for an entire year
The aquifer is now full to overflowing, surging up through the surface of low-lying meadows and filling water courses to create finger lakes where once thirsty trees now stand in a foot of water. In more than 40 years I have never seen the Sandhills this green in September. Everywhere but the tallest and sandiest dunes the cattle grazed in belly-deep grass that could only be called lush and fecund. These are not words commonly used to describe the Sandhills.
The hills themselves are greener than any time in residents’ living memory, or even in the multi-generational stories of boom-and-bust decades. But for all the glory of this greening of the land, for our Over the Hill Gang of bird hunters there was a downside: the drenching rains have decimated the populations of sharptail grouse and prairie chickens. Looking out across the hills, we could see endless perfect habitat for prairie grouse. But none are there. We walked seven to eight miles of country each of three days, hunting behind good dogs. We flushed at most two dozen grouse, all wild, all spooky.
A late snowstorm delayed nesting, some ornithologists say. Others contend that snow and rain disrupted the prairie grouse mating season on the leks, the strutting grounds where males battle for the right to sire the next generation of chicks, and the window for that mating ritual is small and closes quickly, so nesting was not delayed, it was eliminated. Subsequent spring rains could have killed chicks emerging from the few successful nests.
Curmudgeons that we are, we think something else is at play. Populations of gallinaceous birds in all the prairie states have plummeted in the past three years. Yes, bird nesting may have been destroyed by torrential rains in the Sandhills, but what explains the drop in other regions? The armchair theories are many: collapse of insect populations that young grouse feed upon; the spread of an avian West Nile Disease strain like the one blamed for the plunge in ruffed grouse numbers in Minnesota and Wisconsin; genetic damage caused by the accumulation of chemical and man-made materials in the environment.
Perhaps each of these culprits is a thread in the synergistic loom that is weaving a pattern of doom for grouse and other wildlife species that inhabit the short grass prairies of the high plains. I want to believe that this diminution is simply the ebb and flow of the natural order of the plains and animal numbers will rebound, but I am not optimistic.
Grouse or no grouse, this year’s Sandhills hunt was salve for a scuffed and battered soul. To climb the highest peak in a range of dunes in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and linger for a few minutes’ gaze out across the grand panorama of this extraordinary, wonder-filled landscape is to experience the serenity of our connection with all things, to sense the spiritual part of our being that insists it is real and eternal, to understand and accept the rightness in the contrast between the impermanence of our physical life and the permanence of this piece of the Earth, this place in the Sun.
If The Maker grants the favor, I will return next fall.
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page