Teddy, I love you

West of Dickinson, North Dakota, the land mounds up, mini volcano-shaped hills made of a beige gray clay or sand, punctuated by sage brush and grasses. The texture of the land was a relief; the previous six hours of driving had offered expanses to the horizon, cultivated land, flat and harmonious. I had enjoyed that great sense of empty flat land while chuckling over the joke my cousin told me:

What is the North Dakota state tree?

A telephone pole.

True, there are few trees punctuating this North Dakota land. Those I saw huddled together, braced against wind or farmers.

But now I was ready for a little change and I had it, wandering into land largely untouched and certainly not by a tractor, speeding into the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I think of Teddy as a privileged easterner who headed west from time to time to hunt. The story told here is that he came to shoot his bison and stayed for several years, buying two ranches. In that rugged landscape, he became tough enough to become President of our country. 

 It was what he saw out west that convinced him that we had remarkable natural resources and that we were not conserving them for the future. In the case of the bison—he arrived in the nick of time.

Theodore Roosevelt did not protect this park I drove into and hiked for two days, but it is named to honor the fact that he preserved over 230 million acres of land during his presidency. This park needs protecting: just outside its borders are the pumps, fracking into this land.

Coy Prairie DogsI confess Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting exploits and manner made me ignore him as a president. That is, until I started birding. He—with a snap of the finger—created the first bird reserve at Pelican Island to protect the Egrets and other wading birds from plume hunters. To this he added 50 more bird reserves, what we now know of as National Wildlife Refuges. 

And here is why I love him more: not only did Roosevelt care about birds he cared about how people wrote about birds and the natural world. In his “nature fakers” essay he sets forth his ideas on how we should be faithful to nature—have more of a scientific eye—and avoid giving human characteristics to animals.

In honor of Roosevelt’s wish, I will not anthropomorphize the meditative, cautious Bison I encountered on my hikes, or the joyous, coy Prairie Dogs, or the gentle, intent feral horses. Promise.

Cautious Bison (or cautious Susan)What I noticed first when I parked at Peaceful Ranch to hike up the Plateau Trail was the flock of Turkey. Second was that I had the parking lot to myself. I believe, in fact, that on this early February day, I had the whole park to myself, 110 square miles of sage brush and prairie, a cottonwood by the frozen stream, or a cluster of cedar trees. The temperatures hovered in the low twenties and a wind kept things lively.  I slid across the frozen Little Missouri river and up a steep trail, the soft clay earth crumbling under my feet. I did not expect to see many birds in this rough landscape but soon a half dozen Pheasant exploded from the earth and flew off. At the top of my climb, a plateau extended for over a mile in front of me, dramatic buttes in the distance. The plateau was punctuated by gravelly mounds, and perched atop them were Prairie Dogs, standing at attention, whistling danger to each other. Or some draped over their holes, short sharp tails cocked, wagging to their kin. From afar I could see Prairie Dogs bounding home to safety. They would not simply disappear into their holes, but watch me as I walked past (pose nicely for a photo), assessing the danger. As I strolled along, a flock of grouse put up. I followed their insistent wing beats to the near horizon. Land, I whispered. And they did, coasting in on outstretched wings. I walked slowly, wanting to get close enough to be sure they were Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Intent but modest blue-eyed horseAt the intersection of the Mah da hay trail, I continued further out, onto the plateau, into the park. Soon enough my way was obstructed by a herd of bison. I stood at a happy distance and admired the big creatures, grateful that some remain.

My descent was punctuated by two Golden Eagles soaring overhead—that seems about right. And an encounter with a blue-eyed horse. I shouldn’t write this, but he did wink at me. 




I believe he is both winking and smiling

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Reader Comments (3)

It looks to me as if you are discovering the land for the first time. I appears to be so empty of humans and their stuff. I hope the peacefulness of the land is as calming as it looks.

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCharlo

this is wonderful!

February 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterotto

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March 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSujata Sen

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