Swans Commentary » swans.com June 5, 2006  



Red Desert


by Martin Murie





(Swans - June 5, 2006)  Brad found Grant and me still wound up in sleeping bags. "You guys," he said, "missed the best part of the day." Brad was a birder. Early dawn is one of the good times to look for birds, and he had found plenty.

We were camped at Steamboat Mountain, a grand massif in the Red Desert of Wyoming. Though Brad claimed we'd missed the best, there was still the feel of early morning, the dry smells and vast reach of desert air, shadows long, land growing out of night.

Grant and I built a little coffee-making fire and the three of us sat around the fire sipping and nibbling, but not for long. We were there to look for the buffalo drop. As we trailed out of camp on the easy way up Steamboat we moved slowly, noticing orange lichens on big rough rocks and wind-shaped pines in widely scattered clumps and aspen groves and the wind so soft it barely set the aspens' leaves twittering, quieting aspen voices to faint whispers. The great plains of the Red Desert slowly emerged as we climbed, rich in muted colors but streaked in a few places by the glaring white of drifted sand.

Steamboat slopes up from the desert floor in a spread of ridges and hollows that reach a climax on a relatively flat top and a frontage of high cliffs. It took us a while to get a feel for it. Dave Love, geologist, had given Grant directions to the most likely place for the buffalo drop. Dave knew Wyoming like nobody else. His work for the U.S. Geological Survey brought him to every corner of the state. He knew the structures of mountain ranges and high plains and their plants and animals, roads and rivers, and the families that raise sheep and cattle and wheat. His mother had adventured west in 1905 to live with a ranch family and teach in a one-room school. Dave's father was a rancher who, after some false starts seasoned with his own persistence, won the hand of the schoolteacher. Straight out of an Owen Wister novel? Yes, but this was real, and when the ranch went totally bust it was the woman from the east who told her husband that no, they were not going to quit. They'd start over. And they did.

Years later, I went to Dave Love for directions to a certain place near Muddy Gap, Wyoming. We got down on the floor with maps. Dave showed me precisely where to go, the road there and the place where that road changed to two-track. Muddy Gap backs up against the Ferris mountains. I mentioned that I'd been in there. Dave smiled. "Roughest mountains in Wyoming," he said. "Aren't they just lovely?"

Brad and Grant and I found shade and had lunch. The morning's roaming had been one little recognition after another: choke cherry, tall sage, deer brush, also known as bitter brush, and the shapes of things and the aspens' black limb scars like hieroglyphics of an ancient time, and rock wrens and little brown birds that Brad IDed for us. And Steamboat's layout, its fit into the land. Seemingly endless, that high, rough desert, its far horizons. Now it was time to get to work. We tried to reconstruct the technical planning of ages past, casting way back into centuries before Spaniards invaded, in armor and on horses. We played in our minds a scene where a band of hunters on foot waylays a herd of buffalo, hazes them onto Steamboat, and drives them to, and over, the cliffs.

Walking the entire length of cliffs, a pair of prairie falcons following us, screaming, we found the most likely place, where the cliff top funneled slightly, breaking into a jumble of huge rocks bounded below by a steep talus slope. There was a line of rocks leading to the left edge of the drop, an edge that would have led the herd to freedom. That line was in no way a deterrent to a thundering herd, but it might have been a place where hunters could lie flat, blending with the mountain, waiting until the last moment, then springing into action. The final deciding move. That's the way Grant painted the scene, later, a line of warriors standing and waving against a wall of buffalo. Three of the buffaloes, at the cliff edge, are rearing high and vertical, trying to fight their way back against the press of the herd. Very difficult poses to picture, but they succeed, accentuating the horrific drama. That painting, a large one and the first in a series of Indian hunting strategies, used to hang in the lobby of the Jackson State Bank in Jackson Hole. There were a few bleached bones on a ledge, including a scapula large enough to be buffalo. I climbed to the ledge and brought back the bones and arranged them for a photograph. I put them back. We should have kept the scapula for positive identification, but something held us back, maybe because we were still reliving, rethinking those times, the people's lives and the animals' lives. I think there are certain decisions that words fail to deliver whole. I'm not going to defend that notion, with words. I'll just post it here in the blank spaces.

Next day, more roaming. Pictographs. A livestock water hole where we went swimming -- turned out to be mostly mud. Wild horses. Remains of a Pony Express station.

In early evening, on the way back to the highway, Brad and I talked Grant into stopping the van and getting out his painting outfit. Brad and I walked away from the highway for a short while, but couldn't resist drifting back to where Grant sat in the shade of the van. We hung over him, watched the quick, decisive play of brushes, witnessed the magical emergence of the desert in full sunset color.

About twelve years later I returned to the Red and went up Steamboat. The place we'd chosen for the buffalo drop looked the same, but the bones were gone. It was a cold evening up there, the updraft from the cliffs strong and chilling. Somewhat discouraged, I looked out into the nearly dark country. Did you really expect those bones to stay there all these years? I asked myself. No, you know better than that. But the rocks are still here, and the falcons, and behind my back, Steamboat's great sprawling bulk.

I've lost track of the times I've gone back, often with daughters and granddaughters. When you walk places like the Red there is an atmosphere of suspense because you are not sure of the next moment. You walk alert. There are always surprises, even the chance of coming upon members of a rare or endangered species. That happened, once, peregrine falcons. I wont tell you where.

But there is nothing quite like being with people who know the territory. I had that pleasure, in 2002, with Tom Bell, founder of High Country News, and Mac Blewer, then Outreach Coordinator for Wyoming Outdoor Council, and Marian Doane, now an organizer for Friends of the Red Desert. We took Tom's extended-cab pickup, Marian driving with calm confidence. She knew the roads. She knew a lot more too -- range plants, animals, the grazing situation. Those three aficionados of the Red showed me fine-grained ecological, geographic, and historic desert detail. We went to Steamboat and climbed it. Tom found an old wolf den. I took a quick detour to the buffalo drop. All quiet there, except for the cliff updraft. The rocks looked the same. Late in the day, passing South Packsaddle Canyon, we spotted a bull elk. He took a good hard look at us then took off, big spread of antlers laid back over his shoulders, building quickly to a full gallop. I'd never seen an elk run that fast, maybe because I'd always found them on mountain terrain where a more careful gait was required. Here in the wide-open desert that elk could really turn it on.

We need more people like Marian and Tom and Mac, and Brad and Grant, and Dave Love. And John Mionczynski, who knows goats and the Red. And Dick Randall, a predator trapper who quit to become an outspoken wordsmith and photographer in defense of that land. The more people out there the better, on foot, paying attention, getting accustomed, becoming part of it all. A very personal kind of knowledge happens when land and its animals penetrates our lives, yet it can reach to far horizons, into other lives, the lives of the world's peoples and The Others. I call it knowledge because it is based on the gather and workings of personal experience. I shy away from words of the "spiritual enlightenment" genus that so often call up various paths leading almost anywhere, even into that ghostly country of abstract passivity.

We often say that we love the land, and why not? But the land can be unreliable as well as reassuring and inspiring; it can do terrible things to us. Most of our species on this good earth are in the know about this. Drought in Africa and the west of this continent deals death; tornadoes do that too, and tsunamis and volcanoes. Another hurricane season will soon be upon us. So, suppose we call love of the land a for better and for worse kind of thing. I can't see that this is any more or any less mysterious than family or tribal or national attachments. Please, let's not make another priesthood for it. Instead, let us go now to open spaces, whether Central Park or Red Desert or the new frontier -- zillionaires' second and third homes -- and let us stand there, two-footed, taking it all in and, in the words of our great Swans slogan, "Make Up Our Own Minds."

The Red is under attack. It's of the utmost importance to know that the attack began long before the Bush lords began their reign. Oil and methane, coal and oil shale, uranium and gold and silver have been mined in Wyoming and other western states for more than a century and a half, each boom-and-bust supported by whoever was in power. The Red Desert already has its full share of roads and pump stations and buried pipelines. More leases will be offered soon. Oregon Buttes, Pinnacles, Killpecker Sand Dunes, and the handful of other wilderness study areas are like small, besieged battlements, scenic, spectacular and deliberately isolated, deprived of their sage-grassland connectivities. Sage grasslands do not come up to the standard image of lands worthy of respect or inspiration. You have to see it to believe it, the embarrassing reality of it all.

Throughout the lands of our nation the whole enterprise, from National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to on-the-ground parcelling, was designed with all of the above considerations in place, well-embedded givens, due care taken to avoid trespass on potential development sites. The usual excuses offered by public land managers is that there are few areas not already trammeled by the works of man: road networks, old mineral diggings, ghost towns, forgotten infrastructure, prospectors' pits and so on. The Wilderness Act specifies that designated wilderness areas cannot include such relics of human striving. That Act was inspired by a particular vision: people escaping from the rat race into pristine natural environments, a sort of medical treatment vision superceding ecological reasoning. That is a serious flaw in the Act, an opening for excuses. (See Michael J. Vandeman, "What Is Homo Sapiens' Place In Nature, From An Objective (Biocentric) Point Of View?" - May 22, 2006.)

But there is more to the story, more Acts to come, and one in particular requires our close inspection. May 11 was National Endangered Species Day. (Did anyone observe it?) I couldn't help reflecting, again, on the red flag planted inside the Endangered Species Act. Did President Richard Nixon know what he was signing when he put pen to the ESA? Hard to imagine that he did. Did anyone? The flaming surprise buried in that law of the land is a Big Picture sketch, the interconnections of animals and plants and habitats. Recovering endangered species, the stated aim of the Act, means recovering places for their survival. The catch is that on the land and in the seas, plants and animals have no respect for rectilinear habitats currently and legally owned by members of our species. The ESA gives us an awesome mandate: ease up, share with The Others. Aside from the Bill of Rights and our half-hidden history of resistance in its name, is there anything more revolutionary?


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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'


About the Author

Martin Murie retired early from his teaching position to go back to the land and write novels, poetry, and rants. Murie grew up in Wyoming. He served in WWII with the 10th Mountain Infantry. With an undergraduate degree in literature/philosophy and a PhD in Zoology, he taught life sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and Antioch University.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/murie06.html
Published June 5, 2006