At the Heart of It


February always make me think of hearts. Originally, because of Valentine’s Day, but in recent years, I’m reminded by the anniversary of the surgery that fixed my own "broken" heart. On February 2, 2018, the doctors at Mayo Clinic replaced the faulty valve that had kept me out of the Vietnam War, and for 45 winters, I’ve spent at least a week or two on the NM/TX border, usually ending in February, which has become the heart of my year.

I have very good friends who own a wonderful ranch that runs for eight miles along the Texas border. It is a refuge for, not only me, but wildlife of all sorts, especially, the officially threatened Lesser Prairie Chicken. The ranch began in the mid 1970s, with sleeping bags rolled out on the ground, close enough to the pickup trucks so we could crawl underneath in case of a rare shower.

While in our 30s and years before my friends began putting the ranch together, we would meet there, drawn to that corner of the Great Plains for its mild winter weather and its abundant bird life. Falconry and conservation were the common denominators between us, but there soon developed a comradery based on our early understanding of the nascent environmental disaster that has, as predicted, seized us in a death grip. We were foot soldiers in the early battles against overpopulation, overconsumption, and global climate change.

I spent many cool evenings there, scribbling out the first draft of novels and memoirs, holding my stubby pencil in gloved hands with a stocking cap pulled tight over my ears. Those were productive times, the perfect combination of work and recreation, a reprieve from the high-pressure jobs we went back to in March. I never thought much about hearts in those days. I was too busy. But, looking back, the heart of those days was the Lesser Prairie Chicken, the focus of our falconry and a magnificent bird to behold. There were thousands and thousands of them, careening from horizon to horizon in the evenings when they were flying in to feed.  Those afternoons were like a ticket to the past, before man altered the ecosystem, crushed the natural order of the land and devastated the ancient grass in which the Lesser Prairie Chicken had evolved to thrive. From ancient times, the partnership of the prairie chicken and native grass was the reason that the heart of that land beat so strongly.

Prairie chickens continued to thrive as homesteaders moved into the country. The very small-scale farming that immigrants from the American South practiced was not significant in that sea of grass. In fact, those tiny fields of small grain might have been a boon to the chickens. The homesteaders hunted the chickens for food and killed thousands. But, in the region, there were many hundreds of thousands. As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to put a dent in a healthy population of birds by hunting. It takes much more draconian activities to threaten them. And that is exactly what happened. Industrial farming techniques came in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Subsidized farming of marginal land was making its nasty mark. It was bleeding the grass out of the ecosystem and the chickens were being robbed of nesting, roosting, and resting sites by small grain farming, oil development and high-input cotton farming.

Over the decades, we watched the precipitous decline of Lesser Prairie Chicken numbers until it was unusual to see any at all – even on my friend’s ranch that was dedicated to preserving prairie chicken habitat. The heart of the giant reservoir had been pierced, broken and now the Lesser Prairie Chicken is officially a threatened species.

A few days ago, I was traveling through the heart of the old Lesser Prairie Chicken kingdom that is now the oil and cotton devastation of West Texas and stopped at a barbecue joint for lunch. The barbecue was pretty good, and the clientele was what you might expect, oil workers and cotton farmers. The wall decorations were old-time local photographs of the area in the 20s and 30s, when the local economy depended on small farming and lots of healthy pasture. The pictures of the main street, the first bank, the surprisingly large high school graduation classes, the first cotton gin, were all very interesting to me. But the picture that drew me in was a pastoral scene of two local men and their three children displaying a couple dozen prairie chickens against the backdrop of an early automobile. They had obviously had a good day hunting and it made them proud and happy. A substantial Irish setter lay at the bottom of the photograph. I was particularly transfixed by the handwritten caption and an arrow pointing to the bird dog and, in a racing scrawl: “Old Jack, the best chicken dog that ever set a chicken.”

an old black and white photo of Old Jack and prairie chickensThere were what looked like a couple farmers, or maybe oil field workers sitting at a table just under the picture and they looked up at me, and one said, “What are you looking at?” It was just a friendly question and I nodded to the picture above their heads.

“Prairie chickens,” I said, and their heads swiveled to follow my gaze. After a thoughtful pause, one of the men laughed. “Hell,” he said. “There ain’t no prairie chickens around here. That picture must be from somewhere else.”
When I got the chance, I asked the manager of the restaurant where the picture had come from. He shrugged, waived his hand around to indicate all the pictures on the walls and said, “We had copies made down to the museum.”

After I finished my lunch, I went downtown to the tiny museum on the second floor of the chamber of commerce building, where a very nice lady showed me the original of the picture I’d seen at the restaurant, and another similar pic. Both pictures were labeled with the community where they were taken. From an old map that showed a half dozen homesteading communities in the county, I tracked down the locations of the photos. They were both within a few miles of the town but there was nothing left of the communities, not a sign of the buildings, the people, or the grass – where the prairie chickens had lived. The man at the restaurant was right, there sure as hell were no prairie chickens left. The grass where the prairie chickens had lived was gone. The heart of the land torn up by the roots.

For the last weeks, I’ve looked at that first picture on my phone and, every time, my eyes are pulled to Old Jack – “the best chicken dog that ever set a chicken.” He looks like the big, old Irish Setters' that I grew up with in Ohio. Back then, all the old guys had dogs like Jack. They called them red setters and swore by them for hunting the pheasants in the years before Ohio’s grass was plowed under to plant corn and beans. I left Ohio when the grass was gone, after the heart had been torn from my native land.
It seemed appropriate that Old Jack was a dark red setter, about the color of a human heart. I hope Old Jake died before his heart was broken by the plows that put him out of a job.


  • Posted on by Jan Naher-Snowden

    My heart is aching – seems to be that way most of the time any more. The loss of the rich diversity and pristine ecosystems that thrived before the blight of the human species makes me weary. I have enough birdwatching under my belt to grieve the loss of habitat and infrequent views of once common birds in Ohio. All I can hold onto is the wisdom that “Deep Time” will once again heal our planet. But I will not be witness to that, only to the continued destruction.

  • Posted on by Carl w matthews

    Good job dan. Sounds like demise of our bobwhite quail. When i was a kid dad and i could go out with ole nell locate from 10 to 16 coveys and get 10 or 20 for sunday dinner. Now if i see 2 coveys a year its a blessing clearcutting all our natural pine and hardwood did it by eliminating all the cover and small seed quail need. Big timber cos just about did in our middle ga quail. Have. A friend who is investing a chunk to get our quail back by planting acres of small grains and cover for those bob white. We used to call them pobiddy rd caviar

  • Posted on by Trudy Propson

    I sure am glad you got your heart fixed because what it shares with is beautiful, even when sad. Thank you.

  • Posted on by Blake O'Quinn

    I’m quickly approaching that landmark age of seven decades. back in the 60’s and 70’s my father and two older brothers and I hunted on a lease south of Uvalde, Texas, in the thorny brush and mesquite for Scaled Quail (Blue) and Bobwhite. most years that had good rains during the winter months would assure us of a population explosion of Blues and Bobwhites. even in “bad” years the take would be better than adequate. I remember discussions we would have about bag limits and what factors could harm their chances for better survival. these topics were always in our minds about any species we hunted, making me think about what you’ve covered here. even then we thought about the importance of conservation for these open ranges, so that generation after generation would benefit from the same enjoyment we were having. but, unfortunately, I’ve never seen a Lesser Prairie Chicken, only their distant cousins.

    because you’ve been a lifelong student of conservation measures across a wide swath of important issues, we are so fortunate to learn from you in your teacher role. thank you, Dan, for this wonderful offering, and thanks for the memories.

  • Posted on by Casey

    Thank you for your work, your prose, your heart. May our children learn, let the grasses grow!

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing
    1 out of ...
    You have successfully subscribed!
    This email has been registered
    Adjust text colors
    Checked mark
    Adjust heading colors
    Checked mark
    Adjust background colors
    Checked mark