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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  • Dan, I could imagine the thrill of hearing the meadowlark song. Craig and I venture out of town to catch the prairie songs each spring. But to have Trumpeter Swans on your pond, that is a magnificent moment that assures all of us that life goes on even in these chaotic times.
    Thank you Dan, stay well.

    Suzy Spencer
  • Be safe, Dan, and thank you, once again. Loneliness is just another word for nothing left to lose.

  • Dan’s writing was a strong influence on my purchase of a house in the Black Hills. An excellent place to be self-quarantined. I am rereading Wild Idea right now. His writing grounds me in a way that I don’t experience with most other writers. Thanks for this, Dan.

  • I too have been alone for much of my adult life, I am 61. Ten years ago I took a chance on a relationship that just ended, literally right when this virus became our new normal for now.
    So now I struggle out of bed weighed down by sadness and 3 labradors, Funny thing is social distancing has been my normal life I have realized. I leave each morning with my dogs and seek solitude in state lands around my house and hike a few miles, then maybe I will go to the store for something.
    Your story touched me Dan, thank you, and thank you for the Meat in my freezer I purchased from you to sustain me during these difficult times.
    Andy Pearce.

    Andy Pearce
  • Ahh, Dan… you are as much a poet as an essayist, and I thank you for your observation. As one familiar with the Black Hills and buffalo, your words have a strong current that carries my imagination through your rambles. We don’t get Trumpeters in Massachusetts (my exile), but we occasionally see a few Sandhill Cranes, which I sorely miss in the spring and fall.
    Life has ground to a near halt here due both to restrictions by state and local government, and by informed choice. Still, the beat of life continues, although under a bushel. People still smile and wave, exchange pleasantries (from a distance) and wish each other well. Most will survive this outbreak; some will not.
    I have a wish that feels more like hope; after Covid-19 has done its worst and is gone, I think we may be left with a sense of limited victory. Like a fighter after ten long rounds, bruised and bloody, but standing. I hope and believe that this victory may inspire us to face the even larger challenge of climate change, knowing that if we continue to be tough, and work together, we can improve our place. That’s the bright spot I think I see at the end of the tunnel.
    Stay strong, share compassion and love from a distance, and be of good heart.

    George Frantz
  • Love this Dan. I feel that sometimes my job is to simply show up and feel the moment…whatever it is. It gives me a sense of purpose to utilize and focus my eyes, ears, breath and heart. While I am not as remote as you get to be, I am grateful that I live on a ranch that allows me to work as well as wander and observe natural life other than my own. Thanks for the beautiful important work you and Jill do.

    Win Jenkins
  • I was down at the LaCreek Refuge some years back walking around in a cattail slough. I heard something “over yonder” so went to investigate. I soon happened upon some Trumpeter Swans. I had never seen them before and certainly had never expected to see anything so beautiful and regal. I certainly hope your pair are successful in their efforts to raise one or two.

  • Lovely blog post and photos, thank you. I hope those Trumpeter Swans have a successful go at it. That would be cheery news indeed.

    Cyndy Lovejoy
  • Reading like a meditation. Feel better now. Thanks.

  • You are so sexy! Oops….did I really just post that?


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