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.  


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

    eddie johnson
  • Dan, Thanks for the painting your words make of the Short Grass Prairie of my youth, when a student at sdsmt, and later as a researcher of fossil crabs in the Pierre Shale along the Cheyenne and along Indian Creek. I miss that land and it’s history … now at 77, more than ever! Enjoy each day for me, and I’ll try to do the same here in NE Iowa! Thank Gaia for another day!

    Gale Bishop
  • Thank you, Dan. Wash your hands and stay well, for you have more writing to do and more compost to turn. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

    James E. Swab
  • I remember a book about trumpeters from Childhood. E B Whiite I think. Hang in there Dan. Maybe fly rods need a little preparation?

  • Thank you for taking me out of Chicago and on a short, private tour of your sanctuary. Your musings and messages are much appreciated. Think I’ll go sit in the sunshine in the yard for a bit-no bison-but it will have to do.

    John St. Augustine
  • Hi Dan,
    I love your wonderful comments and pictures about the prairie . I’ve been a regular customer for many years and thank you and the bison for this healthful and delicious meat.
    About the solitude—-I noticed at least 6 dogs joyfully frolicking with you. Any sense of company from them? I get a lot of energy and support from my canine companions.
    Thanks , Linda

    Linda Garcia
  • May the swans flourish! IS Hittle back of the ranch? Say hello for me. Keep well and safe and follow the beauty that you have sewn. you have and continue to give so much to mother earth.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you Dan O’Brien for sharing your solitude.

    Nancy Barker
  • Rescued a trumpeter swan that had damaged a wing against a power line in the Cuyahoga Valley NP many winters ago. Years as a raptor rehabber came in handy as I tried to safely get that huge bird under control. Truly a magnificent creature. Hope yours are able to nest successfully. Stay well, Dan.

  • You’ve put into words what so many of us who have worked at home are feeling right now! Thank you for your gift!

    Anna Marie
  • Heard an owl this morning. Micky and Mollie mockingbird may nest again in the orange tree next door. I work for the LA County Commission on HIV and usually work part-time from home writing up meetings – but now we’re all working from home and trying to reconfigure everything to the remote access world. Thank you for the break – both the meditation and the photos. In my heart, I hear the scrunch of the leather as I hoist myself into the saddle and the warmth of the mare as she shifts under me and prepares to walk out into the prairie. Peace…

    Jane Nachazel
  • Oohhh! Like this so much! Thanks for writing! What a gift seeing those swans!! Do you think you might be able to get a picture? 🦢

  • Dan, my husband just reminded me that we went up to see the snow geese migration not the swans, although there were plenty of them too!

    Penny Arnold Fredlund
  • The meadowlark photo lifted my spirits as little has since this saga all began. Your thoughts in many ways echo those I have ruminated on over the last few weeks.

    I think that little yellow creature and the swans you describe so beautifully provided the message I needed today: sing and care for each other. Nothing much else truly matters.

  • Dan, this is Penny from Findlay. This is one of your most beautiful posts. We live out in Seattle so these are troubling times indeed. Last week the trumpeter swans came through the Skagit Valley north of here and our little grandsons were as awed as you! It’s wonderful to read your reflections, Dan! Keep well. Penny

    Penny Arnold Fredlund

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