… and it’s not just the heat. In this catastrophic summer of 2012 a rancher’s mind races like an antelope trapped in a highway median. Sure, the unprecedented lack of rain and the record heat is an act of God, but that does not let you completely off the hook. You entered into a relationship with this land and you knew what you were getting into.
We have always taken pride in the management of this ranch and have gone to great efforts to show the land, the buffalo, and our management to anyone who is truly interested. But this summer the joy has gone out of those tours. By actual surveys, the population of ground nesting birds is a fraction of what it has been in the proceeding few years. This year, the fresh water springs that have run out of our hillsides for eons show only a hint of green. The lawn is wasted with brow grass and invasive weeds. The fruit trees droop and the garden just can’t grow with rationed well water. In the fields where we planted expensive native grasses, the tiny shoots lay dormant. And, the prairie dog towns blow dust when the hot wind blows.
By the end of August, Jill and I decided to stop the ranch tours for two reasons. First, the dryness creates a constant fire danger, and the second reason (and perhaps the bigger of the two), is that the condition of the ranch is depressing, an embarrassment for those of us who have invested so much in making it a laboratory for restoration.
Except for one, the summer pastures are used up. I was saving that one for the sharp-tailed grouse to use this winter for hunting with my falcon. But it looks like the grouse will have to winter in the the river bottoms and feed off the cottonwood buds. They will survive, and likely thrive as they always have.
The buffalo too will thrive. They look much better than the land and after they have used up that last pasture, they will move out onto the National Grasslands where the grass is still good. The cattle that summer on the Grasslands drifted out of the hills a couple of months ago to be near the river where they could get water during that string of days when the temperature rose far above a hundred degrees. The highlands are practically untouched and the buffalo will revel in the grass that nature has stored for any animal with the capacity to travel for their water. Life will go on naturally for the inhabitants of this land who have evolved to handle such hardships. The rest of us will have to learn.
Learning is the point of our little ranch tours and that is why, when a group of interested and influential people contacted us for a September tour we felt torn. These were the kind of people whose understanding of our land could be important. Helping them to see the beauty of the Plains, the ecological importance of the biome, the value of old and new human cultures, was something that we very much wanted to do. We wanted to shine a favorable light on the Northern Great Plains but there had never been a more difficult time to find the beauty. We delayed getting back to them. As we lamented the lost opportunity we talked about the drought and admitted that it was hardly unprecedented. Beginning with the very earliest historical records, the ravages of dryness are well documented. From tree ring studies, to Lakota winter counts, to the conclusions of John Wesley Powell, to the chronicles of the Dust Bowl, climatic swings have been recognized as part of this eco-system. We try to believe that the birds will again return to nest on our ranch, and we are determined that we will be here to greet them when they do.
Jill and I talked for two days about the unpredictability of this land. We recalled the soggy Mays and Junes when we took great pride in the grasses and the proliferation of wildlife. Many times we have taken people through lush pastures and joked about the Cheyenne River bottom looking like the Shannon River drainage in Ireland. When our discussion turned to those magic days, we looked at each other and realized that we were contributing to the myth – that the Northern Great Plains could be just like Europe. Suddenly we realized that despite our best intentions, to stop touring our ranch when the rains ceased, boarded on a lie. This is our land. This is what we live with. This year it is like an early morning spouse with the flu. Not at its best, but still your land. Love persists, on the good days and the bad.
So we decided to give that last tour. To move across our land and point out what is happening here. It will be honest. And part of that honesty is to understand this biome as a whole: to point out and celebrate the natural strategies for surviving the climatic vagaries that are an integral part of this land. To search for a way for humans to find their place in the complex, spatial mosaic of the Great Plains. Perhaps a tiny tour around this droughty little ranch will help us to better understand that our relationship to this land is a metaphor for our relationship to the greater eco-system of Earth herself.