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Sharing Our Solitude

I’ve always been pretty good at social distancing. Hell, I’ve been practicing it for sixty years.
 
Writing and ranching are both solitary pursuits, so from the time of college days, I have pretty much lived alone. It has never been unusual to go for days without coming in contact with another human being. But, until the last few weeks, it has mostly been my choice to be alone.

dan o'brien sitting in a chair in office looking out

Like many people, I’ve heeded the warnings and instructions coming out of the radio every morning and sequestered myself. Jill is in Arizona taking care of her very ill mother (not sick with coronavirus), so the only inhabitants on this part of the ranch are me and my old friend, Gervase who lives in a small apartment over the barn, about a hundred yards from my house. We’re both old guys, so we laid down some rules for the siege that we knew was coming now for months: no new visitors to the ranch, one of us goes to town once a week for essentials, hand washing upon returning to the ranch. Once in a while the grand kids stop in, but mostly it’s just one day of solitude after the next.  

There are a million half-finished projects around the place, and I try to tackle one each day. A broken wire in a fence three miles from the house, a huge compost pile that has needed to be turned with the skid loader now for six months, dusting the hundreds of books in my office, watching for buffalo on the river breaks. Nothing that is essential. Mostly just hours of a lush’s solitude, thinking back to things that I should have done differently, listening to the dreary news on the radio, and wondering how my friends across the country are dealing with this taste of the apocalypse.

dan o'brien on horse

Loneliness has seldom been a bugaboo for me, but now it nibbles at the edge of my consciousness. I am bored and need a job where I can find some purpose. At night I sometimes dwell on that loneliness and can’t sleep. All day long I’m tired. I feel like the Ancient Mariner, cursed to be on a ship becalmed on a stagnate ocean. My ocean is one of grass and I haunt those miles of grass at odd hours in my Toyota Four Runner.  

Meadowlark

Beginning one morning last week, I heard the first male meadowlarks singing from fence posts as I passed. Their song through the car window has a penetrating quality that can connect you to the outdoors like a shot of electricity. That afternoon, I wandered to the far west pasture to a giant dam where the ice had receded a few days before. There is a feeling that sometimes descends on me and that is usually a bit of a thrill. It is the notion that no one on earth knows where I am. But that afternoon all was sad as sad can be. In time, the horned moon rose at my back and the sun began slipping behind the Black Hills. I reached the top of the hill above the dam, still a quarter mile away, and shut the Toyota down.

Dan O'Brien
It was chilly as the sun set but I rolled the window down and scanned the far bank of the dam out of habit. The evening was still as the shadow of the Black Hills crept across the prairie. Then, in a far corner of the dam, came a brilliant flash of an eerie white that baffled me. I felt for my binoculars without taking my eyes away from that spot of white, and with the tiny tweaking of the focus wheel, the brightness came as close as the hood of the Toyota. It was a pair of Trumpeter Swans, birds as large as an albatross that have rarely been seen on this prairie since man overran their habitat a hundred years ago. I had seen that young pair the year before, and they tried to nest and now it looked as if they would try again.

Prairie Playa

I studied them through the binoculars, and they gleamed like two exquisite pearls through a magnifying glass. They were settled on a small island in the tail-waters of the pond, the female lied down with the male standing behind. It was a perfect place for them to nest. Two exquisite creatures sharing our solitude: two long necks, arching like elegant parentheses. I lowered the binoculars, but the iridescence remained. Here was the job I needed. The promise of a brighter day. I will watch over those birds, day and night, until the curfew is lifted.

Photo Credit: Jim Henderson (first photo); Tahnee Janis (second photo); Jill O'Brien (remaining photos)

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55 comments

  • Thank you, Dan – for the essay, photos, thoughts and the meat in my freezer here in the SC Lowcountry. We are all in this together, even though and while we are separated, some more than usual. Being used to solitude, I understand the feeling of being more alone because it is an imposed isolation. Makes little and big things even more important or more of a hassle, depending. I feel the loneliness, but the strength and courage also and thank you for it. Take care, stay safe and we all need to have lots of real hugs once this time of virtual ones is over.

    Cheves Leland
  • Thank you, Dan – for the essay, photos, thoughts and the meat in my freezer here in the SC Lowcountry. We are all in this together, even though and while we are separated, some more than usual. Being used to solitude, I understand the feeling of being more alone because it is an imposed isolation. Makes little and big things even more important or more of a hassle, depending. I feel the loneliness, but the strength and courage also and thank you for it. Take care, stay safe and we all need to have lots of real hugs once this time of virtual ones is over.

    Cheves Leland
  • Tuesday as we drove the Badlands loop, stopping at every overlook to feast on millions of years of time, the meadowlarks seem to be insisting that we note them, too. With you, we hope these enforced walks in our own wildernesses may spur our sense of why we must care about precious inter-related communities of human, animal, and plant life.

    Prayers for your swans and our best to Jill, Gervase and the Wild Idea family.

    Richard and Donna Fisher
  • Hi, great. I would love to be in SD To watch the spring coming out ! I live in France and cannot even go out to see and pet my 2 horses in their stables… so frustrating…
    Take care and enjoy
    Astrid (I met you in 2018 at your beautiful ranch)

    Astrid Radiguet
  • Ah, the first Meadowlark each spring pierces one’s heart and dormant forces begin to move in one’s soul. As I wait for the SUN to rise in Maine, your writing brings hope to my heart.
    Thank you.

    Marie Tesch
  • You brought back memories of a time and place I love…Montana. I heard that meadow lark in your writings. Thank you for stiring up my memories of 73 years. All the best to you.

    Charles Schilling
  • You are a true artist as your words form the pictures of what your eyes see so that we can “be there” too.
    At least this time is forcing people to slow down and get back in touch with themselves and each other in their households. Good can come from this as we do as you did, Dan, and b still so we can see it.
    Sorry to hear Jill’s mother is not well. May a good report come from this so she will be back with you soon. For now, watching over the swans is a good thing.

    Jerry and Norma
  • You write like a poet. I’m thankful to be able to walk every day with my dog in the mountains and just like your swans I today was awestruck by the bald eagle flying right above the tree line. Made me smile in this most grim of times.

    Judy
  • Great writing Dan, as always. Your literary style is one that is always heartfelt and brings us right alongside you in your experiences on the WIB ranch. Thank you for sharing!

    Chris and Kim
  • Alone and quiet….heard my first meadowlark, too. Peace.

    Greg Olsen
  • The other Lisa expressed my feelings exactly! Thanks to both of you.

    Lisa
  • I so enjoy joining with you on your adventures in words. how easily you find your peace when focusing on what you love.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • Just read this post aloud to our home bound family..my husband, our adult son, his two children and myself. Kids 15+ and 11+. They were attentive…commented how lucky they are to be in the “Northwoods” where last night “an owl flew right by the living room window!” You write the feelings/ideas/values so many of us are tongue-tied to express, yet intuit as we tromp through these days of bewilderment. Our young people are our hope for the future of this blue planet we call HOME! Stay tuned to the youth of our world…and, keep WRITING!!! I’m reading EMINENT DOMAIN right now! Can’t believe my good luck at finding it in our used book store! Thanks for the words to express Dan! A follower, nobo

    Bon Pannier
  • Well that’s it…just what I needed today. I was right there with you. Thank you!

    Lisa
  • As eloquent as ever Dan.
    It’s been a while….Hope all is well with you.

    eddie johnson

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