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December 27, 2017

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Sanctuary

By, Dan O’Brien

My seventieth birthday fell on Thanksgiving, 2017. It had been a tough year, with destructive wildfires destroying the canyon lands above my California friend’s homes and even more dangerous hot air emanating from Washington, DC, and some of my own health issues that reminded me constantly that I was now seventy years old.

There was something in the harbingers of this winter that I was not ready for. Though a beautiful autumn had lingered into November, with a few yellow cottonwood leaves still clinging to the highest branches and the northern ducks had come down but dilly-dallied on the oddly ice-free ponds. Like the Northern Great Plains themselves, I simply was not ready for the crippling cold that lay ahead. It is at times like this that it’s good to have a lifetime of friends to offer you sanctuary.                

 

A tempting invitation came to me from Florida. “It’s warm down here. Oranges and grapefruit grow on trees!” From California: “No one is using the beach house. The surf should be good.” I was always leery of trees that bore citrus instead of apples and I felt way too old to surf. Besides, just then, retreating to the coasts seemed like a retreat from the battle of the Great Plains. I decided to stick with what I knew best. The ducks on the ranch ponds seemed slightly confused by the mild temperatures, but we all knew what was coming. If they weren’t going to go south, I would lead them. I headed down along the center line of the Great Plains a day a storm was to come in, to my simple, quiet, and familiar haunt on the Texas/New Mexico border.

I fled like a battered coyote for a lair I knew was safe. I loaded a pack with a change of clothes, a pile of unread books, and neglected manuscript of a future novel into the back of my Toyota 4-Runner. Fargo, the cocker spaniel, and Shiner, the English setter, leaped into their traveling crates and the old 20-gauge shotgun went barrel down in the passenger seat.                

A mixed herd of mule and white-tailed deer trotted across the driveway in front of me as I pulled away from the ranch house. A small flock of sharp-tailed grouse fluttered at the top of the trees. They were eating cottonwood buds, a sure sign that colder days were eminent. I would not see another deer or a grouse until I pulled onto my friend’s ranch in New Mexico. I’d been making this trip for 40 years but have never felt the regenerative power of it until this year. It’s a long trip across a lot of desolate, abused farmland, oils fields, cattle feedlots, and industrial slaughter plants. Over the year, the blight on those hundreds of miles of American’s midsection has worsened as the land wears out and the people grow poorer. Eight hundred miles with no sign of wildlife, except four confused pheasants on a Kansas roadside.     

Of course a highway is not a good place to see healthy grasslands and there are, no doubt, scores of pockets where diversity is holding on. There are a few other farmers and ranchers who understand the true value of the land is not what you can exploit from it. But still, the trip was made longer by the lack of the prairie life.                 

When I reached my friend’s house, I was met by a battalion of mule deer. Thirty, forty, maybe fifty stood gun-stock still along the side of the road, as if to inspect the vehicle for the intent in the driver’s heart. I must have passed the inspection because they let me pass into the island of diversity that, for me, balanced the southern end of the Great Plains.            

   

My friend is a taciturn man of great intelligence and environmental wisdom. He moved to a battered New Mexican ranch forty years before and set about building the sanctuary that I was seeking. His wife was visiting her family in Wisconsin and his kids were newly out of college and off exploring the world. He shook my hand and pointed to the small, adobe guest house. “She’s all yours,” he said. “Lots of quail this year. Let me know when you go out. I might tag along.”                

And that was about it. We talked over dinner most nights. Ran down the list of the world’s problems but did a lot of simply sitting in silence. We hunted quail most days but only for an hour or two, as we are both too crippled up to be gung-ho and we could only eat so many quail.   

I was there for almost three weeks. Watched the wintering birds in the bushes around the guest house, napped in the sun, and every day I grew stronger. I read a couple books and finished up a new draft of that damned novel manuscript that had been bugging me for months. I left New Mexico in the middle of a seventy-degree day and headed home, toward what they said would develop into a Great Plains blizzard. At Amarillo I could see the beginning of the huge cloud bank and I knew that 2018 and my seventy-first year were in that fog. The snow began just north of the Oklahoma panhandle and it didn’t bother me at all.


Comments

pat

December 28, 2017

Sweet story, thank you, Dan.

jim newton

December 28, 2017

Thanks for sharing. I’m feeling like it is time for a road trip myself. Funny how I am growing of winter in the Hills and more likely to leave in summer when my favorite roads roar with the arrival of too many bikes. I still ride but I prefer it when traffic is lighter. Happy New Year!

Cyndy

December 28, 2017

Glad you are finishing that book. I enjoy your writing and look forward to reading it.

Bob York

December 28, 2017

Thank you for sharing. I really enjoy your stewardship and caring writing of and about the “land”. Wishing you a Blessed 2018.

Ulises Guzman

December 28, 2017

Hi Dan, you have another friend in California when ever you feel like visiting. In a small town called Browns Valley or Loma Rica; an hour and a halve from Sacramento. Thank you for sharing your trip to New Mexico.

Katherine

December 28, 2017

Thank you for that “renewal” Dan. I thoroughly enjoy your writing and I am happy that you are working on your manuscript. Belated Happy 70th Birthday and Happy New Year to you and yours. Keep up the good work.

John Davidson

December 28, 2017

Thank you for this essay, which resonated with us as it was read aloud at our farm table.

Please keep writing, and let us all re-commit to speaking the truth.

Virginia McConnell

December 28, 2017

Very nice essay, Dan. I have my own little sanctuary here in Idaho: 30 acres and a log home. One dog and one cat. Lots of deer, moose, quail, rabbits, birds, turkeys.

Barbara Dina

December 28, 2017

You never fail to inspire me. Colton gave us a tour of tbe ranch in 2001y. Now your words have even more meaning for me. You are one of my heroes. Thanks for everything.

Cindy

December 28, 2017

Dan,
Harrry & I were recipients of your hospitality in 2010 with World Wildlife Fund. Your observations are a great motivation to continue our work protecting the NGP. Ever grateful, Cindy

Brian

December 28, 2017

I enjoy your posts, as well as your worldview. Thank you, and best wishes in the New Year.

Laura Culley

December 28, 2017

First, get that novel done. I LOVE your writing—a LOT! I (and others) need more!
Second, you NEED another bird—one that will hunt those quail (or whatever else is available). I don’t care about the number 70, or 71 or 1283! They’re meaningless. As long as you’re on this side of the dirt, anything is possible. I know you’re a longwing guy, but maybe a sturdy redtail? Just a thought.
I’m intrigued by the photos of the nests and I wonder who lived there and raised a family?
Keep writing…you’re good at it. Keep your falconry going. It will inspire you and make your mind work better ;-)

sylvia rankin

December 28, 2017

As usual, this really hit the spot. Like hot coffee on a cold morning. Like popcorn at a movie. Like Hyacinths For Thy Soul.

Cori Mueffelmann

December 28, 2017

Inspiring! Happy New Year to you and the Wild Idea Buffalo family!

Nicole DUPRE

December 28, 2017

Very enjoyable writing. Waiting for the next novel…
Take care, Dan.

Nicole

Craig Spencer

December 28, 2017

Thanks for the reminder about the importance of recharging one’s batteries every once in a while. It’s so easy to get caught up in the business of daily life and forget about such things.
Happy New Year.
-Craig

Kim Hughes-Baus

December 28, 2017

~○~Blessings on your 70th year on this earth. ~○~Thanksgiving this year was my 55th.
May we keep sowing hope and joy and peace so we may continue to be thank full!

Bill bates

December 28, 2017

72 and know what you are feeling

Cheves Leland

December 28, 2017

Thank you for sharing and for the Buffalo and regeneration of yourpart of the Great Plains. Winter does seem to lend itself to introspection and winding down, or maybe winding up unfinished things. Nice you can get away for a while. Take care.

Fee Jacobsen

December 28, 2017

Belated greetings and best wishes for your 70th, Dan. We are grateful for many blessings in our lives and you are one of them. Good to know you are taking care of your body and spirit. Thanks, Fee & Jerry

Liz Aicher

December 28, 2017

Glad you enjoyed your stay in the land of enchantment! It is going to be in the 50s again here in Los Alamos, NM. Too warm, too dry, but still the best place in the world to live. Come visit here next time, Dan!

James E. Swab

December 28, 2017

I always enjoy your writing, but where was Jill while you were gallivanting around in warm weather? Your mentioning the 20 gauge shotgun reminds me of my dad in central SD, who always used a 20 gauge double barreled shotgun. His philosophy was that if you couldn’t hit a pheasant with a 20 you had no business hunting and if you couldn’t hit it with two shells, you damn sure had no business hunting.

Toni Stimmel

December 28, 2017

Loved that description, “even more dangerous hot air emanating from Washington, DC.”

Whatever happened with that Alpha Male buffalo you got with your 1st batch of buffaloes that you described in ‘Buffalo for the Broken Heart’?

Kenneth James & Leslie Terry

December 28, 2017

‘Dan O’brian, this is a good one! Glad you got to go and have good friends to welcome you. Also glad you have great friends and family to ‘Watch Yer Back’ in So. Dakota. The “Shaggies” may be low maintenance but horses are “High” and fragile as fine crystal.
Have a good winter and hope the Buffalos winter well also. Best to you and Jill and Kin!

Georgene

December 28, 2017

Well said, Dan; well spoken. Just had my annual Christmas lunch, with a dear friend (5 years younger than me) and, as I helped her to her car, I could not help but be grateful, for all the many blessings, that continue to come my way. Each dawning is a glory.

Jill

December 28, 2017

You didn’t mention seeing any Lesser Prairie-chickens. Were they out there?

CATHY BEARD

December 28, 2017

Your ruminations are sublime and candidly expressed. Thank you. Photos are a wonderful bonus. May sanctuaries flourish!

Bart Rhodes

December 28, 2017

A nice experience well described. Thanks.

Tony Luscombe

December 28, 2017

You are are just a kid Dan! Hit the big 80 this year! Looking forward to the book! Was you visiting that Weaver fellow? Glad to hear you are still kicking and keep up the good work! I go Tarpon fishing in Puerto Rico for the battery recharge, an incredible creature! Happy New Year!

Lan Evenson

December 29, 2017

Happy Belated 70th Birthday. I have lioved your writing ever since I picked up your book “Spirit of the Hills”. I have read just about everyone since and I they all written so well. Conservation, the land and water have been a part of my fabric all my life. Your trip to see your friend, the conversation, grouse hunts and quiete time all sounded like a great trip.

Judi

December 29, 2017

I can relate! And especially liked the comment on “all the hot air”. Makes one really appreciate the wide open
spaces and call of nature.

Carol Bradley

December 29, 2017

Love reading your posts. My cousin has my place of restoration…. In Salmon,Idaho. I have lived in Nashville, TN 36yrs now. It has grown too big,too fast. We will be heading West again this late spring.

Greg

December 29, 2017

I really appreciate you sharing your experience. Sounds awesomely peaceful. I’ll be looking forward to reading some of your works. Thank you and may you be the recipient of many blessings this coming new year.
Jim O'Brien

December 29, 2017

Dan, My friend Alex Pociask passed along your reflection and I really like the way you write. Probably because the style is similar to my own. Dan O’Brien is a name that means something to me. My grandfather, father, brother and nephew were all named Dan O’Brien. They are gone. I noticed in many of the Christmas letters that I received this year the writer was not doing so well. What does that mean? Is there a message there. My friend Alex wants to take a journey with me out your way. I might be willing to do that. One of my favorite books this year was “Crazy Horse and Custer.” Keep writing. Best, Jim O’Brien

Blake O'Quinn

December 29, 2017

can barely wait to read your newest book, Dan. been following you for some time now and am so thankful for the tenderness you have for nature, the honest approach you have for all things in your life and how you extend it to them that take the time to sit and mellow in your words.

Bill Day

December 30, 2017

From the unseasonably cold in the North Georgia mountains, we are headed to Tucson for 3 weeks. Already wondering if that will be 1 week to long or to short. In my 83rd year, it is nice to get away, but something always draws me home. Looking forward to the new book. Happy New Year.

bill

Chuck Beatty

December 30, 2017

The best friends are the ones you can share silence with. Congratulations on another successful trip around the sun. Hope you pass an easy winter. Best to everyone at WIB.

Gigi

December 30, 2017

Hey, I am now older and I enjoy my life more, appreciate it more, am more peaceful, calm and all together…happier. Awesome benefits that come with age! Happy 70th!

Janis Fitschen

January 01, 2018

My husband would say your just a kid at 70. We know about the body letting us know it is time to slow down or fall down. At 86 and 82 we have
done all the preparing we can (cremation etc.) and thank God everyday
and pray all will learn to take care of the earth. Eager to read your next book. Thank you for all the previous ones.

Vernon Cross

January 04, 2018

In my late 50’s I finally took a stab at guitar lessons from a pastor who might have wanted to inspire me to keep up the good work and stay with him long range with this bit of insight. . .“You could have over ten years of practice in before you even reach 70. Afterwards it takes an especially dedicated and concerted effort to live fruitfully beyond the desirable three score and ten for a minimal goal.” I remember thinking that was a rather gracelessly, perfunctory comment for a man of God as I believe the root of all grace is genuine gratitude. I guess I wasn’t thankful enough for what he charged me nor his method of instruction as I quit using his services after a year. How about this instead? The developmental psyche texts delineate 65 – 75 as “young old,” 75 – 85 as “old,” and 85 and older as “very old.” I never got over the certain knowledge that at 65 I was increasingly expected to stay put on the porch, drink my beer, and shut up. Not on your life. About the time we find our true voice we’re expected to retire? Wha??? You go Dan. What does the medicine man have to say about it?

Joan Bauer

January 09, 2018

TJANKS DAN – FOR YOUR WRITING – ALWAYS LEARN SO MUCH ABOUT YOU AND THE LAND YOU KNOW AND LOVE. WISHIMG YOU THE BEST IN 2018. WAITING FOR THE BOOK.

Jim & Judy Mackler

January 10, 2018

We stopped and met you and your them girlfriend back in 2004. Enjoyed meeting you and had considered moving to SD. Would still love to. We moved from long island,ny down to Virginia. Ever this way please stop you are more than welcome. When will your new book be out?

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