Voyeur

Recently I became an unwitting voyeur, transfixed by the awkwardly synchronized mating ritual of two Canadian geese. A series of head bobs in a lake in Denver’s most popular public park, one goose on top of the other, animalistic squeals and the pair, which are almost always mated for life, were on the way to parenthood. It was mesmerizing. Just a few days later, I was a conscious voyeur, part of a carefully orchestrated process for which I had bought a ticket. At 4:15 in the morning, long before the first light of day, 12 of us stood in a City Market parking lot in Craig Colorado sharing our names as we downed black coffee intended to convince our bodily systems that it was morning. One of two guides explained what was ahead – an hour ride, a quarter mile walk to a trailer, then quiet observation of the mating ritual of the greater sage grouse, a species on the verge of being listed as an endangered species. We were asked to turn off our GPS to keep the site a secret. We would be on private property, but more importantly, these birds are very sensitive to human intrusion.

We were there to see the male sage grouse perform their far more grueling, ostentatious and awkward mating dance than the ubiquitous geese. Each male vying to be the one to lure the females, displays his tail feathers in a dazzling, symmetrically patterned circular fan that would make a fabric designer swoon, while puffing up his chest to reveal two yellow sacs that look like mustard-colored Easter eggs. The geese, compared to these strutting grouse, are graceful, faithful, egalitarian lovers, two beings in sync, not one preening shamelessly for the attention of all potential mates.

It was an unseasonably warm day for the last day of March in Craig. The owner of the motel where we spent the abbreviated previous night remarked that this was the first time the sage grouse tours did not involve snow. Amazingly, the expected high was almost 70 degrees. Still it felt chilly before dawn as we drove, walked, and seated ourselves in the two rows of bleacher seats built into a 12 x 5 foot utility trailer maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Then the guides pulled the ropes, opening the sides of the trailer. There, in the striated field, were almost 200 sage grouse. The group, dominated by males, filled the weightless clear air with whoo, whoo ,click, whoo, whoo, click, whoo whoo, click. As the sun spread its light and warmth to the yellow, green and purple striped landscape, the strutting began. The males with their bright yellow eyebrows began to work to part their thick, white, bulky-knit scarves to reveal their glorious egg-like sacs. They jerked their bodies, the way a good hula hooper jerks his hips, to cast the scarves to the sides, revealing their sacs. We sat transfixed, binoculars pasted to our faces until our arms wearied. A small flock of deer walked through the group of grouse looking around as though they were puzzled, not knowing where the birds had come from or why they were there. A large herd of elk, came out from behind a hill and worked its way to the top of the ridge. The sage grouse danced on, unbothered, until a golden eagle swooped over the flock, spooking them. It wasn’t a good day for the dancers. The females watched. No male emerged as the favored father. They would have to assemble again the next day.

You can watch this amazing display of animalism on YouTube and get a much better idea of the mechanics of the process than you can from reading any description. It’s a visual delight. But you can’t know what it feels like to be out on the quiet open landscape of rolling hills trying to figure out what the dance of the sage grouse, a uniquely spirited bird that is now close to extinction, might mean. You can’t feel the sense of place from a computer screen. You have to be there.

The striped land reminded me that the owner planted winter wheat in alternating bands. The cow pies told me cattle lived off this landscape. In the distance, mountains reminded me this was the Colorado I love. We came to see the birds, the elk, the deer, and the pronghorn antelope but intertwined with those natural creatures and their processes was stark evidence of human intervention on the landscape. We are told that we live in the age of the Anthropocene – an age where humans have affected every piece of what once was wild, a time when human power overwhelms all other powers. The loss of sagebrush habitat that these birds need to survive and the resultant collapse in their numbers from the millions that Lewis and Clark saw are just more evidence of humans’ power to destroy. Conservationists are fighting for government protection while private interests argue voluntary measures can restore the species to healthy numbers. Disappointingly, it seems the private voices are louder. And yet, I felt hopeful that landscapes, even compromised landscapes can bring us to a greater reality, a better assessment of our place in a right world.

I lusted after this landscape, starved for a connection to a quiet natural place that’s missing from my city life. The quiet, the dark night before dawn, a vast sky studded with stars you can’t see in the city, the beginning of the glow on the horizon signaling the coming of the sweet spread of light and warmth, the expansive view, uncluttered by human structures. I lusted for intimacy with a place, its creatures, plants and animals. I wanted to know a place the same way I know my family, repeatedly, regularly, intimately, sacredly, joyously. But to get to know my family the way I do, I had to live with them in close quarters for many years. I need to live with a landscape, but city life on a small plot of limited biodiversity supported by a city job preclude the experience of the land I crave.

George Monbiot writes about “rewilding,” not only the land and the sea, but human life. I want to be rewilded, but I don’t see the means. And this is the reason the sage grouse is threatened. We eat up the land because we have no relationship with it. We neither know it nor understand its workings. Some of us care enough to sit in a trailer for a few hours to experience some little touch of the wild magic and realize how deep our hunger for the wild is. But others, even two who sat in the trailer, miss the connection. These two laughed and talked even though they had been told human noise interrupts the workings of this lek, the mating ground of a species that is dwindling because its habitat, its home, continue to be compromised by our hunger for energy, beef, and subdivisions. They could not be quiet even knowing their lack of discipline and respect might mean that these birds might go the way of the passenger pigeon. We face the sixth extinction, global warming, the end of life as we have known it, species dying by the violence of our own hands. As Dave Foreman so forcefully said at the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the passenger pigeon did not “go extinct,” we killed it. The problem often seems too big, too amorphous. And we don’t have the deep experience with the victims that we need to do something about the plight. Rewilding is a small ray of hope. If we can find the means to have an intimate relationship with the land, to be a part of a larger-than-human reality perhaps, as Aldo Leopold wrote, we will develop the “love and respect” for the wild that will enable the greater sage grouse’s survival.

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