feature By: Chris Madson | March, 20
August on the high plains is the most comfortable time to stretch the legs and air out the dog. This field, just off the end of the local airport’s main runway, is the best place for such exercises, which are technically, according to local ordinance, illegal.
The fact that I live nearby is no accident — when shopping for a house in Cheyenne, I knew I’d need a piece of open ground within walking distance to keep the dogs fit and their owner sane.
It’s a ravaged piece of land. Before the city came, it was pastured. The scars of that history remain on a few slopes where patches of native blue grama and buffalograss still strive to anchor the gravel and clay that remain after a century of erosion stripped the topsoil. When the subdivisions finally drove the rancher away, a succession of entrepreneurs and city fathers came with new plans — big box stores and fast-food joints, ball fields and soccer fields, compost facilities and bike paths. The entire field would have been consumed except for two immutable realities — the federal regulations restricting development on the approaches to runways and the flash floods that occasionally overwhelm the ravine there that was once a creek. That threat led the city to reconfigure the entire drainage, turning the soil over once again to create a gigantic ditch, then planting a mix of alfalfa and crested wheatgrass to hold the ground in place.
In the years since that last earthmoving occurred, the wheatgrass and alfalfa have been almost overrun by sweetclover, bindweed, curly dock and gumweed along with a succession of remarkably persistent native flowers — sunflowers, wallflowers, evening primrose, penstemon, silver sage, alium, Easter daisy, sand lily, wild begonia, prickly poppy and a scattering of others. The result is a 50-acre bouquet from April to October, right in the middle of town.
Yesterday as I unclipped the leash and let Flick run free, an unfocused memory came to me of other fields in other summers. And a sound, a vibration rising from the flowers, the collective hum of uncountable numbers of insects — bees, not just our exotic honeybees but the dozens of natives, both solitary and colonial, gathering nectar, spreading pollen; the clatter of wings as hordes of grasshoppers rolled in front of me; the rustling of beetles and bugs as they ate their way through the undergrowth; the whir of dragonflies on the hunt; the whine of a mosquito looking for a landing spot on my ear.
But this field in front of me was silent.
Following Flick into the vegetation, I suddenly became aware of this difference. I considered what it took to silence a field of this size. How many tons of living things were simply not there? And what did their absence mean in the larger scheme of things? Flick and I have spent more than our fair share of time in other fields scattered across the heartland, and as I walked, I wondered if those fields were in their own ways like this one.
After the first frost, the dog and I think about the birds we pursue in terms of where they hide. Cover, the biologists call it. And cover is a critical part of survival for a grouse or covey of quail, especially in the depths of winter on a landscape that has been shorn of its crops and lies naked, facing the fury of the north wind.
We speak of habitat, as if habitat were the same as cover. But they aren’t the same. Boiled down to its essentials, habitat means home. And home is more than a roof over one’s head, a warm place to sleep. Shelter means very little if there’s nothing in the pantry. Without groceries the occupants of a house will sooner or later be forced to go outside and to stay there as long as it takes to find food, traveling in ever-widening circles to fill the larder. In a dangerous world, every minute spent foraging is a minute of heightened risk.
We’ve spent many hours studying the ramifications of this truism, Flick and I, wandering over thousands of acres of switchgrass and kochia, prime cover that, for reasons I couldn’t understand, seemed astonishingly short of birds, not only the pheasants and quail we were after, but also the tree sparrows, juncos, short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks that had always been our companions in the waning days of the year.
As I followed Flick through the sweetclover in Cheyenne, a puzzle that had been gnawing at me for years suddenly resolved itself into a remarkably simple observation: No bugs — no birds. Many years ago, the ecologist and philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
In our infinite wisdom, we continue to tinker, but it seems we’re missing some parts.