The first time the peregrine falcon shot past the window I didn’t move a muscle. It could have been my imagination. Maybe my eyes were crossing from boredom.
On the screen at the front of the conference room was a power point flickering away on with graphs and excel spreadsheets - columns of data and lots of sigma summary signs. Beyond the glass of the huge window where I was now sure I had imagined a peregrine falcon, was a view of San Francisco Bay that could have been on a postcard. Nine very focused people sat around the table with laptops, legal pads, pens and glasses of water arrayed in front of them. The subject was carbon sequestration on western grazing lands and the tone was, of course, deadly serious.
I was there because the data points on the spreadsheets represented by tiny, three-inch circles was land that I knew well. They were the locations of three foot long, bored soil samples taken from my western South Dakota ranch. I was intimately familiar with those 158 sites but to most of the people in the room, they were only GPS coordinates, each associated with another spreadsheet buried somewhere in the data that we hadn’t had to look at yet. I sat between the well-known conservationist and entrepreneur who had funded the study and the renowned soil scientist who had done the field work. Across the table sat the scientist and public relations coordinator who had recently completed the protocols that created a carbon market in California for the rice industry, the regional director for a prominent environmental non-profit sat at the head of the table. A sustainability officer for an international company, a political consultant for that same company, and Birgit Cameron, the director of Patagonia Provisions - who had also organized the meeting, rounded out the table. I knew these people, at least by reputation and they were focused and dedicated.
Then there was the unlisted participant in the meeting. The peregrine falcon cruising the upper air outside the window swooped past for a second time. When she cut the diagonal across the window, I got a good look and so did one of the other participants. “Hey,” he said, “That was a peregrine!” All the heads turned away from the projected spreadsheet and out to the view of the bay. The peregrine was gone but she had put the gaze of wonder on everyone’s face. She and her ilk were not strangers to this group, and the room fell silent in her wake.
Several of the faces in the room were as old as mine and I knew that fifty years before they had been intimate with peregrine falcons. I’m sure that memories of when peregrines were thought to be going extinct were flooding their minds - like they were flooding my own. We had worked incredibly hard to insure that peregrines would continue to cruise past the windows of office buildings. The other faces were those of conservationists who had worked for tide pools, mountain ranges, endangered reptiles, land-use issues. A lot of impossible science, public opinion problems, and policies of conservation had been worked out by these people. The numbing notions of soil science still loomed on the screen at the end of the room and the faces turned back in that direction. Instead of puzzling over a power point all afternoon, everyone in the room would have preferred to watch that window for another glimpse of the peregrine. But somewhere in all of our histories we had bargained to trade that freedom for the responsibility of dealing with those damned spreadsheets. It was now our job to understand what was on that screen and render them understandable - even interesting - to a wider audience. We were charged with linking that soaring peregrine with what was happening three feet under the ground of the Northern Great Plains – not in our mind, but in the minds of voters, taxpayers, and the Joe Six Packs of the world.
We had to find a way to spare those people what we were going through in that room that day and connect them to the peregrine. We turned back to the power point and the complicated and arcane talk of protocols for measuring carbon, the policies that made trade in carbon credits possible, and the enabling legislation that would be needed. I saw the peregrine one more time. She was a tiny black spot in the air high above San Francisco Bay - sailing at the edge of my vision but keeping all of us in that conference room well within her vision. She was a Shakespearean ghost, there to remind us of our heritage and our duty. It’s not the power point. It’s the peregrine.
Ann and I really enjoyed your presentation at Patagonia in Washington, DC and catching up with you. I always read your Wild Idea articles and am looking forward to reading your next book. Hope to see you and Jill at our high school reunion! Pam
EAST coast Peregrines have the swagger. I once had one stoop right over my shoulder at some nearby sandpipers I was watching. Missed, pulled up and gave me the evil eye, then flew off. Another flew four feet over my car when I was stuck in traffic on a bridge. I never tire of them, spreadsheets are another matter.
Dan, First, you should know I am so jealous I could spit. I was born/raised in the hills, but have left for many reasons…long story. And even though I do not miss the conservative mind set of the people, I long so for the center of everything that is… Second, I am so happy about what you do; loved your book and am only a Buffalo guy now. thanks Dan!
The falcons are prettier in South Dakota for they do not have any of that California swagger :)