Between Grass And Sky
Where I Live And Work
Publication Year: 2002
Published by: University of Nevada Press
Title page, Copyright page
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I thank Scott Slovic for suggesting this book, for believing it would be worthwhile, and for insightful suggestions; thanks to Trudy McMurrin for persisting in its acquisition, and to John Mulvihill for his precise work in helping me say what I meant. Thanks to Julie A. Johnson, and others before her, for directing me to the...
Introduction: From Rancher to Nature Writer
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When I was nine years old, in 1952, my mother married a western South Dakota rancher. As a rancher’s daughter, I immediately became a working cowhand, learning to spend each day outside, immersed in grasslands that showed little obvious evidence of human habitation. My labor became important, a contribution to my family’s...
PART I: LEARNING TO SEE
Learning to See the Unseen
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For years I was haunted by invisible birds. In summer, riding my horse, I heard nearby twittering, as though dozens of birds were singing on my shoulder. Quickly, I’d look overhead; nothing. I’d look down, toward the buffalo grass that our cows turn into beef; even a very small bird ought to be visible in grass that is six inches tall. If I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t identify or...
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We’d named the old black white-faced cow for a famous racehorse, because she was fast on the straightaway and tricky on the curves. Besides speed, Whirlaway possessed intelligence, or instinct if you prefer, that alerted her when humans were going to do something she wouldn’t like. She preferred not to cooperate...
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Whenever I glanced toward the highway, the glare nearly blinded me. The drivers were silhouettes in stone behind winking windshields, rushing past without turning their heads. I wanted to scream in their ears. Or perhaps a whisper would startle them more. I wanted to make just one driver jam his right foot hard on the brakes, jerk his sunglasses off, look out over the dusty...
Out to Pasture
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During my first winter at the ranch, when I was ten, I soon learned to help my new father feed cattle on weekends. I also learned that when, in his opinion, the snow was too deep for his 1950 Chevrolet pickup to get to the highway, I would be obliged to help him feed on school days as well. I looked forward to windy days with deep...
The Owl on the Fence
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I was probably eleven years old when I first saw a great horned owl. On my mare Rebel, I was learning how my father gathered cattle to move them into another pasture. While I rode around clusters of cows and calves, urging them down off sunny hillsides, my father drove his pickup to their favorite hiding places, parked the pickup, and walked among them waving his whip...
A Mouthful of Mice
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“I thought you gave up on teaching me to hunt.” I reached for the broom; maybe I could sweep the mouse outside. It darted toward the open door into the bedroom connecting our small apartment to my parents’ ranch house. I sprinted, but the mouse was faster. I shut the second door, which led to my parents’ bedroom and the hall. The mouse skittered under a sliding door into...
The Pot of Hospitality Still Simmers
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Our potluck gatherings have impeccable lineage and an unusually long history. The expression “take potluck” was first recorded in 1592 when peasants worked the land for rich aristocrats. The laborers lived in chilly hovels and kept their hearth fires smoldering continually. After each meal, they tossed leftovers into an iron pot hanging over the flames, constantly simmering...
The Totally Integrated Crawly Kingdom
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At the rate U.S. wilderness regions are being logged, mined, turned into garbage dumps, and invaded by motorized campers piled with screaming children, there will soon be nowhere a large mammal, especially one with pointed teeth, can relax. You remember relaxation: when a beast can gnaw on a femur, kick back, produce a few offspring, and generally live the kind of...
Coiled in the Pressure Cooker
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Nearly everyone who ever stepped outside the house on the plains has a snake story. I remember a fresh fall day my husband George and I moved a few head of cattle. We wanted to take one bunch to the summer pasture across the railroad tracks, while holding back a few we wanted to keep closer to home. We thought the job would be so easy we didn’t take the horses. The...
The Duck in the Highway Department
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Once upon a time I married a man who dreamed of being a writer and singer. Conscious of what I was giving up, I forsook the ranch where I ripened, and used my fallback skills to teach journalism and English while I acquired more insurance—in the form of an M.A. degree—and settled into wedded bliss in a small southern...
PART II: HUNTER AND HUNTED
Running with the Antelope
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Yesterday, I drove my favorite plains road between my ranch in South Dakota and my home in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The narrow two-lane winds ninety miles through broad desert and beside narrow creek bottoms, among rolling hills and tree-covered mountains. Every time I make the trip, I know antelope will materialize on a certain stretch, testing my eyes and reflexes by...
Black Powder Smoke and Buffalo
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We all turn to stare at her. The last time we looked at a thermometer the mercury hung at twenty below zero. A north wind blows chips of ice from old snowdrifts into our faces. This piece of prairie offers little cover from the wind. No trees or rocks to serve as rests for the rifles, to make aiming more reliable. We stumble through the drifts, circling the sod house until we’re as...
At the Rattlesnake Rendezvous
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The Hugh Glass Rendezvous is named after a fur trapper who enlisted as a hunter with Major Andrew Henry’s party in 1823 and became a legend on the northern plains. The group ascended the Grand River, exploring and looking for creeks and rivers full of beaver for pelts that would eventually become top hats for English gentlemen. In what is now northern South Dakota, Hugh...
Sleeping with the Grizzly
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As our trail crosses a stream at the edge of a broad meadow, the horses silently separate. Dropping their heads, they slurp loudly, taking deep, gusty breaths. We haven’t crossed water since the noon break. Saddles and leather pants creak softly as riders dismount to loosen cinches...
The Second Half of Life
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In my forties, I was cheerful about middle age. My second husband, George, accepted both my need to write and my compulsion to stay on the ranch where I grew up. There we’d built a house adjustable to the likely demands of our aging. George worked patiently with my irascible father, and my writing was beginning to appear in print. Not long after I gave up my independent...
PART III: WHO CARES FOR THE LAND?
Cattle Ranching in South Dakota
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I own a South Dakota ranch that has been in our family since my grandfather, a Swedish cobbler, homesteaded here in 1899. Since 1980, I’ve been active in various environmental affairs, including several statewide battles to contain uranium mining and prevent the establishment of a nuclear waste facility and radioactive waste dump in the state. I now live full-time in Wyoming...
The Cow Is My Totem
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Humans who choose to identify with animals have almost always chosen carnivores, the winners in the great eating lottery. In prehistoric times, shamans and their followers selected critters at the top of the food chain for totems. Today, people seeking self-confidence may adopt a “power animal.” Just as a warrior once emulated a bear, wolf, or tiger, wearing its fangs and...
Waddling over the Dam
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My moccasins were already soaked from trudging through the swamp to the edge of a series of beaver ponds. I found a hummock of grass rising a few inches above the muck, and sat on it while water rose slowly around my feet. George settled on a slightly thicker clump of grass a few feet away, and leaned forward, parting the cattails to look toward the pond. The water’s surface...
Rising from the Condos
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Near my ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota, development is way ahead of residents’ understanding of its consequences. Few of my neighbors are ready to discuss how we might control the events unfolding among us. Most of us are still at an early stage: whining about how we’re going to lose the things we imagine we treasure. Clean air and open spaces, wildlife and hunting...
Coda: Walking Burial Grounds
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These prairie rests are one reason I drive to most of the readings or workshops I present. Travel by car offers hours of uninterrupted thought, pleasure in silence and scenery on the way to agreeable labor. My perversity in avoiding airplanes may be one reason I’m almost unknown more than two states away from home. Publicity experts advise me to promote myself more. They...
Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2002