As a young man I once stood on a mountain ridge so beautiful that I now find it impossible to describe. It was summer and a bird dog was at my side when I first discovered the place that would change my life. It came to be part of my very being. Like a military boot camp it broke me and then built me back up. Wild, remote, harsh, and unspoiled by the hand of man. Owned equally by all citizens of the country. Many of my best days on the planet have been spent there.
Soon after I adopted this place as my spirit home it came into the sights of energy companies. Just another place for them to profit from one fossil fuel or another. And of course those big companies had guys in very nice suits to infiltrate the highest halls of government. And between those fellas with the Italian ties and the former energy bigwigs in the executive branch they cooked up schemes to roll dozers and derricks into my sacred spot. I came to find out that my story was one of many. The only things that changed in the other tales were the actors who played my role and the location of the wild land. The rest of the script was the same. The sequels are playing out in the sagebrush steppe and the canyon country still today.
I became a fighter, and student of the fine print. A purveyor of press conferences and pithy quotes in national newspapers. A lobbyist. A student of Ed Abbey. A political animal. I sharpened my existence and my tongue. I assessed what mattered pressed my shoulders into saving it. Of course politics were involved. I figured out how to engage in battles and win wars. I committed never to shy from either.
Those were the days that wiped the crust of naiveté from my eyes. From that time on, politics and policies have never left my consideration because their impacts never exit my days. I’ve known people who say politics don’t matter or that they are overplayed or that people like me care too much. I don’t buy a bit of that dribble. I say your politics is a window to your soul. What you care about and how much you care about it can be seen through your political window like an old gas lamp on a pitch black night.
I care about wild places and losing myself within them. That’s probably why I love bird hunting so much. My panes are wide open but you don’t have stick your head in to figure me out. My politics and life are one in the same and nowhere is this more evident than during bird season. In other words if you wanted to do a political profile on me, just follow me around for a couple days in October.
On an average day you’ll find me hitting the road early in the morning before anyone else is up. And if I don’t ditch the tail you’ll follow me to a remote chunk of public land. I’ll drop the dogs and we’ll be gone for hours, maybe all day. I rack up ten miles or more and dogs will do thirty. I like big tracts of wide open country. Unspoiled. The less human intrusion the better. I feel alive in the vastness. I am an explorer on my own land. I like going where others won’t. I imagine people in far off farm houses looking at me through binocs muttering at my stupidity before they go back to watching the news and drinking coffee. I imagine some of them voting for people who want to sell these places and the anger at this drives me up the incline.
You might note that I stop to examine grasses or flowers. I watch deer and elk. I hope to see a badger or a northern harrier falcon. When I am not admiring the place I am laser focused on my dogs and the terrain. We hunt wild birds first and always and they require tenacity. My dogs have never even smelled a bird from a pen. I hope to keep it that way. I tell myself that if I depend on wild places I am more likely to fight for them.
I might stand and watch as a sharptail rises from a point. I pass on the shot and just watch him flap a time or two then hear him cluck as he starts to glide. I watch him in earnest as he gets up to speed. A marvel of aerodynamics. I’ll stand there until he is only a dot in the distance and then gone from my sight but still in flight. I think how far he flew on this one small journey and how much grassy country he requires to exist. Its fall, nearly election day, and I’ll dream of that sharptail voting his self-interests in the booth. I think I know which ovals he would blacken. If you could document my thoughts you’d note that I am thinking of gathering up the sharpies into a great caucus so that we might vote together en masse.
If I see a BLM, USFS or game warden truck I will stop and chat with them. Sometimes for an hour or more. I always thank them for the work they are doing and note that I understand they have a tough and largely thankless job. I want them to know I appreciate what they do. I know this place and opportunity did not happen by accident nor will it continue to exist if we are apathetic.
Somedays you might find me hunting in the CRP. If you were in my head, you’d see memories of my father planting thousands upon thousands of acres of native grass in Kansas during the heyday of CRP. A disciple of Aldo Leopold on a 4230 John deer and a 12 foot grass drill trying to restore his corner of the Great Plains. And you’d see the resulting pheasants I chased, seemingly everywhere as if mosquitoes in Alaska. Even a mediocre dog could find a limit in short order. A kid with a Model 42 Winchester could fill a vest in a couple hours. I was that kid. You might note that I count the acres that are being removed from this federal program now. I glaze over, staring at a newly tilled field as I remember where a covey once lived. You might hear me gritting my teeth.
I like to stop by a local bar when the bird day is done. I figure those big national corporatized chains have figured out how to make plenty of profit without me providing too much aid. I want to eat and drink where the locals are. I like authenticity and dirt under fingernails. I want to know how things are going for these folks and what beer they drink. And if the waitress grew up on a big ranch up north that just happens to have a bunch of birds, all the better. “What’s your dad’s name again and you think I could call him?” I might ask. When she hollers her dad’s name in an affirmative tone, I’ll respond, “That’s awesome, I appreciate it, and Yeh, I’ll have another beer” And then I’ll mutter under my breath with a slight grin, “I sure hope he don’t care that I am a redneck hippie.” As I take my first drink from the beer I’ll wonder if maybe he will vote with the sharptail caucus too.