Ecology, Lifestyle

Summer in the Sagebrush

With each passing cow, my restlessness grew, and the endless sagebrush became blurred in my vision. For a land that appeared entirely flat, my head was nearly bouncing off the ceiling of the truck as I navigated the deep ruts towards the field-site. The pronghorn antelope that ran parallel to, and eventually outran, our conspicuously large white truck, left me with a sense of awe and inferiority.

I strapped a pack full of rebar, soil charts, and plant guides on and waded about a mile to our site, which was indiscernible from the surrounding area. We spent the day methodically zig-zagging between the big sagebrush to count plant species, measure groundcover and gaps, and delight in finding sage grouse pellets. We gathered around the soil pit for lunch, feeling this place on the particulate level, as we probed for clay and sand, forming soil ribbons with our fingers.

Charismatic buckwheat, biscuitroot, lupines, rabbitbrush, and needlegrass sat silently between the sagebrush, defying the fluffy patches of cheatgrass. The death camas stood solitarily, a cheeky reminder of the spirit of the West. Bearing witness to this desert of abundance was to be earned, the mask of homogeny to be chipped away.

Part-way through the day, we were chastised by a displeased wild burro. He huffed and snorted gruffly while pacing back and forth on the hill above us. Eventually the burro left well enough alone, and we raced to beat an incoming storm. In between bouts of rain and hasty bites of chili, I pitifully searched for a space between the sagebrush and rocks to bed down.

This was the nature of life in the Great Basin; jarring and redundant, surprising and elegant. This enigmatic paradox offered refuge and solitude, yet at the same time, nowhere to hide. It begins in blazing hot days, monotony, dining among cow pies, and crawling in a tent only to find an unrelenting mirror aimed at one’s self. In time, it evolves into personal clarity, blooming bitterroot, and heavily drifting to sleep on the Sagebrush Sea.

That summer I lived and flourished among the wild alliums and domestic cows, investigated the dens of badgers, transforming from a speculative guest, to being interwoven into this place. This convergence of native flora, forage grasses, wildfire legacies, agriculture, human activities, and abundance alongside scarcity, offered a prologue to the rest of my experience in the Intermountain West. It reassured me that I too have a meaningful role in this complex landscape, through research, stewardship, and tending the fire of connection to place. Love for the land and self-discovery through nature reverberates within humans, synchronizing through centuries, like the howling of coyotes on the wind.

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