Nature's tough love

Nature's tough love

How the prairie challenges the ego.


"That's all you're wearing?" I asked, trying to hide my astonishment. Bra-less was fine; cutoffs were acceptable, but this was a real problem.

"Yes," Carlie replied with a note of defiance. Her spunk had seemed like an asset when I'd hired her as a summer field assistant.

"You don't have any shoes or boots in your pack?" I tried hopefully, pushing up the front of my hat to scratch my receding hairline. After a two-hour, early-morning drive from the university to the field site, I did not relish the thought of canceling the training session.

"No. These are fine. I've hiked miles in them," she gestured at the leather sandals. "OK," I relented, "but this isn't a mountain meadow. Be careful and go slowly." We managed to get in a couple of hours of practice in the methods of sampling rangeland grasshoppers before a prickly pear cactus terminated our session.

For Carlie and most people, the prairie connotes rich soil, wildflowers and tall grasses, not the harsh, spiny grasslands of Wyoming. On the rangeland north of Cheyenne, the grass is typically knee-high. Needle-and-thread grass, named for its seed, characterizes the hostile flora. The seed is a half-inch spear trailing a three-inch spiraled filament, an exquisite dispersal adaptation that turns grazers into mobile pincushions. Introduced plants have joined in the campaign to keep Wyoming's prairies inhospitable. Cheatgrass, brought to America by European settlers, earns its name by providing a lush blanket of green for a few days in early spring, which rapidly matures to a purplish brown, like a week-old bruise on the prairie. For the rest of the year, these unpalatable stands frustrate livestock and wildlife and torment my field assistants. The seeds are tufted darts that convert socks and bootlaces into prickling, furry masses. The stands often host a fungus, whose millions of black spores cover clothing and equipment in a living soot. We want nature to be as comforting as soft cotton; the prairie offers us steel wool.

The Wyoming prairies are violent places, indifferent to our sensibilities. Carlie had missed the sight of lambs strewn like rag dolls, but she was repulsed by a rancher's angry retribution—the bodies of three coyotes twisted into a fence as their viscera rotted and their limbs dried like jerky. Perhaps that image was still with her when we came across another macabre scene later that summer. "Who would have done that?" Carlie asked, her face screwed into a mix of disgust and fear.

While she furtively searched the prairie for the psychopathic culprit, Scott fingered the tiny corpse impaled on the fence. Having spent a decade working with me as a research associate and most of his life in the outdoors, he knew brutality was not the exclusive purview of humans. "A shrike. He's got a whole string of them," he added, gesturing down the strand of wire, where every fourth or fifth barb held a grasshopper. This bird impales its prey for safe storage, and barbed wire was a fine alternative to the standard thorn bush. Walking along the fence, we became desensitized to the gruesome sight, but even Scott winced when we came across the lizard hanging limply from a barb.

The amoral savagery of predators echoes the lethality of the prime killer of the high plains—the weather. Although fierce winter storms are infamous, I have been chilled by a sudden, spring snowstorm in the first week of June, peppered by fusillades of gravel propelled by shrieking winds the next week, and roasted by triple-digit heat in the last week. But, as Scott nearly discovered a few years ago, the truly deadly summer weather arrives in July.

Drinking a cup of coffee at the diner in Torrington, I watched the thunderheads pile up over the rolling hills to the south of town, where Scott had been checking our grasshopper control plots. Lightning is a rare but fickle assassin, so I was relieved to see the university pickup pull into the parking lot. Sitting down on the orange vinyl seat across from me, he poured a cup from the pot on the table. "I haven't seen hail like that before," he said, looking a bit stunned. "Bad, huh?" I replied. Scott was not easily intimidated by the weather. "The truck isn't damaged, but it was coming down the size of marbles and getting bigger as I headed into town."

When we went out the next day, the rangeland looked like a battlefield, complete with shredded shrubs, flattened grasses, and craters that attested to the barrage of icy cannonballs. Nearly a third of the grasshopper population was crushed in the storm, and at the edge of our site, the rancher found a pronghorn antelope pounded into the prairie, beaten to death by the baseball-sized hail stones. Maybe 1999 was the year for pummeling.

That year, Scott's younger brother, Spencer, joined the field crew and beat an animal to death. Given Spencer's calm, even taciturn nature, his startled yelp was distinctly out of character. By the time I turned to see the cause of his alarm, he was stomping viciously into a sagebrush. Following a final, brutal stomp, Spencer's odd assault on the bush became explicable. He reached into the gray-green shrub, grabbed the snake near the tail, and yanked viciously, tearing the body from the head that was pinned under his foot. Our rule is that we leave rattlesnakes alone unless they are in our study plots, where we are likely to encounter them repeatedly. The usual method of dispatching them is to employ a shovel, but this one had struck at Spencer without warning. He had taken it personally.

It's difficult not to take the violence of the prairie personally. The plants, animals, and weather are so harsh that we infer malevolence. But the most brutal assault is deeply personal. The scale of these grasslands assails our sense of self. You can turn away from the edge of a canyon or step down from a mountaintop, but on the prairie, everywhere you turn, the world stretches to the horizon. Being adrift in a sea of grass that is absolutely indifferent to their existence drove some early pioneers insane. In response to this assault on our ego we seek control, counterattacking through the weapons of human technology and economy.

Ranching is not a gentle art. The tools include barbed wire to control livestock, branding to control thieves, bullets to control coyotes, and poisons to control grasshoppers. My job is to develop more sustainable pest-management practices, but they are often just as brutal. A grasshopper dying as a pathogen ravages its tissues is probably no better off than one poisoned with a neurotoxin. If agriculture is a battle, mining—Wyoming's most profitable industry—is open warfare. Explosives and gargantuan machines rip open the landscape. Coal mining is a harvest of death, in which we tear open the tombs of ancient plants and animals in order to cremate their remains in our power plants. Tourism, Wyoming's other major industry, sweeps visitors past the high plains on interstate highways, disgorging them in the forests and meadows of our cool mountains. To a society that loathes suffering, a day on the grasslands of Wyoming is unmarketable.

Our cities have become dangerously crowded and our jobs coldly efficient, so we seek sanctuary in nature. Desperate to be nurtured, we attribute motive and intentionality to natural phenomena. We need to be soothed, embraced in a gentle glen. Hard landscapes that we cannot subdue, we avoid, softening them in our imaginations. So when the prairie seems to defy our idyllic fantasy and spurn our affections, we impute menace and malice. I am told that a child seeks love but prefers punishment to indifference. In a perverse way, a beating acknowledges our existence and connects us to another. But how long can we sustain this interpretation of Western lands? What about Carlie and those of us who live in this place? Must we either strike back or take our beating?

I often need to stop on the prairie to rest, or write, or observe, thereby creating the problem of posture. Standing is tiring. Squatting would work, but rising from this posture in the summer heat invariably induces a vicious bout of dizziness. Sitting or lying are made impossible by the ragged rocks, searing soil, and piercing plants. And so I kneel. In this way, I need only find two small pockets of accommodating earth for my knees. A tender mother would have us snuggled in her arms; a vindictive father would have us prostrate at his feet. Kneeling implies deference but not servility, humility but not defeat, respect but not fear. We kneel to pray, to communicate with that which transcends our personal being, to acknowledge that which is powerful and worthy, to engage the full breadth and depth of the land. And so kneeling is a good way to be on the Wyoming prairie, neither cowering like an abused child nor strutting like a conquering general.

Excerpted with permission from Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving, © 2002 by Jeffrey A. Lockwood (Skinner House Books).

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