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At the Heart of It

February always make me think of hearts. Originally, because of Valentine’s Day, but in recent years, I’m reminded by the anniversary of the surgery that fixed my own "broken" heart. On February 2, 2018, the doctors at Mayo Clinic replaced the faulty valve that had kept me out of the Vietnam War, and for 45 winters, I’ve spent at least a week or two on the NM/TX border, usually ending in February, which has become the heart of my year.

I have very good friends who own a wonderful ranch that runs for eight miles along the Texas border. It is a refuge for, not only me, but wildlife of all sorts, especially, the officially threatened Lesser Prairie Chicken. The ranch began in the mid 1970s, with sleeping bags rolled out on the ground, close enough to the pickup trucks so we could crawl underneath in case of a rare shower.

While in our 30s and years before my friends began putting the ranch together, we would meet there, drawn to that corner of the Great Plains for its mild winter weather and its abundant bird life. Falconry and conservation were the common denominators between us, but there soon developed a comradery based on our early understanding of the nascent environmental disaster that has, as predicted, seized us in a death grip. We were foot soldiers in the early battles against overpopulation, overconsumption, and global climate change.

Dan O'Brien FalconerI spent many cool evenings there, scribbling out the first draft of novels and memoirs, holding my stubby pencil in gloved hands with a stocking cap pulled tight over my ears. Those were productive times, the perfect combination of work and recreation, a reprieve from the high-pressure jobs we went back to in March. I never thought much about hearts in those days. I was too busy. But, looking back, the heart of those days was the Lesser Prairie Chicken, the focus of our falconry and a magnificent bird to behold. There were thousands and thousands of them, careening from horizon to horizon in the evenings when they were flying in to feed.  Those afternoons were like a ticket to the past, before man altered the ecosystem, crushed the natural order of the land and devastated the ancient grass in which the Lesser Prairie Chicken had evolved to thrive. From ancient times, the partnership of the prairie chicken and native grass was the reason that the heart of that land beat so strongly.

Lesser Prairie chicken
Prairie chickens continued to thrive as homesteaders moved into the country. The very small-scale farming that immigrants from the American South practiced was not significant in that sea of grass. In fact, those tiny fields of small grain might have been a boon to the chickens. The homesteaders hunted the chickens for food and killed thousands. But, in the region, there were many hundreds of thousands. As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to put a dent in a healthy population of birds by hunting. It takes much more draconian activities to threaten them. And that is exactly what happened. Industrial farming techniques came in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Subsidized farming of marginal land was making its nasty mark. It was bleeding the grass out of the ecosystem and the chickens were being robbed of nesting, roosting, and resting sites by small grain farming, oil development and high-input cotton farming.


Over the decades, we watched the precipitous decline of Lesser Prairie Chicken numbers until it was unusual to see any at all – even on my friend’s ranch that was dedicated to preserving prairie chicken habitat. The heart of the giant reservoir had been pierced, broken and now the Lesser Prairie Chicken is officially a threatened species.

plow up land A few days ago, I was traveling through the heart of the old Lesser Prairie Chicken kingdom that is now the oil and cotton devastation of West Texas and stopped at a barbecue joint for lunch. The barbecue was pretty good, and the clientele was what you might expect, oil workers and cotton farmers. The wall decorations were old-time local photographs of the area in the 20s and 30s, when the local economy depended on small farming and lots of healthy pasture. The pictures of the main street, the first bank, the surprisingly large high school graduation classes, the first cotton gin, were all very interesting to me. But the picture that drew me in was a pastoral scene of two local men and their three children displaying a couple dozen prairie chickens against the backdrop of an early automobile. They had obviously had a good day hunting and it made them proud and happy. A substantial Irish setter lay at the bottom of the photograph. I was particularly transfixed by the handwritten caption and an arrow pointing to the bird dog and, in a racing scrawl: “Old Jack, the best chicken dog that ever set a chicken.”

an old black and white photo of Old Jack and prairie chickens There were what looked like a couple farmers, or maybe oil field workers sitting at a table just under the picture and they looked up at me, and one said, “What are you looking at?” It was just a friendly question and I nodded to the picture above their heads.

“Prairie chickens,” I said, and their heads swiveled to follow my gaze. After a thoughtful pause, one of the men laughed. “Hell,” he said. “There ain’t no prairie chickens around here. That picture must be from somewhere else.”
    
When I got the chance, I asked the manager of the restaurant where the picture had come from. He shrugged, waived his hand around to indicate all the pictures on the walls and said, “We had copies made down to the museum.”

old black and white photo taken by a phone camera
After I finished my lunch, I went downtown to the tiny museum on the second floor of the chamber of commerce building, where a very nice lady showed me the original of the picture I’d seen at the restaurant, and another similar pic. Both pictures were labeled with the community where they were taken. From an old map that showed a half dozen homesteading communities in the county, I tracked down the locations of the photos. They were both within a few miles of the town but there was nothing left of the communities, not a sign of the buildings, the people, or the grass – where the prairie chickens had lived. The man at the restaurant was right, there sure as hell were no prairie chickens left. The grass where the prairie chickens had lived was gone. The heart of the land torn up by the roots.

dirt road and demolished field in west texas against a blue sky backdrop
For the last weeks, I’ve looked at that first picture on my phone and, every time, my eyes are pulled to Old Jack – “the best chicken dog that ever set a chicken.” He looks like the big, old Irish Setters' that I grew up with in Ohio. Back then, all the old guys had dogs like Jack. They called them red setters and swore by them for hunting the pheasants in the years before Ohio’s grass was plowed under to plant corn and beans. I left Ohio when the grass was gone, after the heart had been torn from my native land.
    
It seemed appropriate that Old Jack was a dark red setter, about the color of a human heart. I hope Old Jake died before his heart was broken by the plows that put him out of a job.

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26 comments

  • Truly a sobering reminder of what a run amuck agricultural system can leave behind, and how locals can be thoroughly removed from the significance of it all. In New England 80% of virgin timber was waylaid for homesteading and building wooden ships back when. These days in New Hampshire trees are selectively cut. I’m told someone will gladly pay our residents to remove a hardwood from one’s property, but not the pine. The hardwood replaced the old growth pine as it used to be sawed out. All in all it left a dense growth of comparatively spindly trees New Hampshire folks proudly designated as “scenic,” before opting for “Live Free or Die” as a more consequential descriptive during the Vietnam War. Through all the changes our original national emblem, the wild turkey, went the way of the lesser prairie chicken pretty much. Today the turkey are back in force here thanks to an aware public led by those like you sir who more than respected, yea who revered the hunt with gratitude, whether for turkey or mushrooms. Keep a’writin’ compadre. Our peace of mind relies on your brand of salve.

    Vernon Cross
  • Well written editorial Dan (as usual), albeit concerning a sad state of affairs. Glad at least to read that the docs and nurses at the Mayo Clinic have helped keep your heart in good working order so that you may continue being a great conservationist influence upon the rest of us. And most importantly, that you and Jill continue the example with that priceless legacy of children and grandchildren as they pick up the reins. Where there is a voice, there is hope. We support you all the way!

    Chris and Kim
  • As always, succinct, compelling essay, Dan. I’ve only one ‘editing’ addition to suggest: the time frame it takes, with one tractor in one day’s work, to destroy an entire habitat, including soil, soil life & seed base. A few hours in a tractor and thousands of years of complex, dynamic life forms are poof ……gone.
    Thank you for continuing to ‘fight the good fight’.

    Pat Wood

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