Story and photos by Laura Hitt
One thing is certain: The prairie is a land of extremes. I arrived two weeks ago—wending down a dirt road beneath a huge cloud-speckled sky—a few days after a storm that dumped more than half the precipitation usually seen in a year. The prairie had turned from brown to green in the course of a few days, the streams were swollen, and the roads deeply rutted.
Next came the mosquitoes (or “mozzies” as our Australian crewmember calls them). They descended plague-like, biting through our clothing, catching in our eyelashes and mouths.
We hike the transects with mosquito nets and double layers, surrounded by a constant hum, trying to spot wildlife through the haze. We wear gloves and hoods, constantly readjusting so they can’t squeeze through the cracks, sweating in the 70-degree days. We start at 6:30 a.m. to beat them, but they swarm by 7:15. At night, they pitter-patter against my tent like rain, trying to get in.
Though I have only lived on the prairie for two weeks, I know this landscape better than some I have lived in for years. Our job here is to pay close attention, to go outside daily and observe. Hiking transects and gathering data is different than hiking or backpacking. You can’t hike a transect while staring at your boots or lost in your thoughts. You must be present.
You use binoculars to scan the horizon for pronghorn blending into the hills, for a lone bison grazing in a gulley, for elk in the distance. You pay attention to the weather, the direction you are traveling, the water level in the streams, the migrating birds.
By simply observing, we learn things that are impossible to teach in a classroom. We learn how to listen to a landscape instead of talking over it.
The past two weeks have melded into a montage of images: a cricket impaled on a barbed wire by a Loggerhead Shrike; bison lumbering through camp, pausing to scratch against picnic tables, leaving tufts of downy fur behind; elk bugling in the nearby hills, a high-pitched nasal howl; and a female black-footed ferret (one of only 1,000 in the wild) hauling a prairie dog twice her size across the road in the wee hours of the morning.
There is something abrupt about the wildlife here—whether it is a rattlesnake in the road or a badger peeking out of a hole, it is impossible to ignore.
One morning last week I woke up to find a dead kestrel in front of the outhouse. I had seen that individual before, a male that glided around camp and perched in the eaves. It got down to 28 degrees that night, and there he lay, a tiny falcon, cold and perfect.
He fit in the palm of my hand, long rusty tail feathers protruding past my wrist. Big shiny eyes hid behind yellow lids that closed upwards and were ringed with tiny black lashes. The pupils reflected my own face, hair blowing in the wind, the morning sun a pinprick behind me.
Originally from the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Laura Hitt studied creative writing and environmental studies. She has traveled in Australia, Norway, Indonesia and South America, and her passions include natural history, yoga, cooking (and eating) and spending time outside.
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