Somewhere around Lubbock , Texas, on my way from Austin, I climbed onto the Llano Estacado, a broad expanse of grassland plains that spreads across Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma’s panhandle. It is a place where Comanches used to roam, and long before them, wooly mammoth and giant sloths. The matates and the bones remain to prove their passing. Jim Weaver finds them on his ranch, which I’m on my way to.
I know I’m on the right road — the red sand muddy from recent rain and thick enough in spots to make my car dance from side to side — because I start to see kestrels. First one lifts off the telephone wire, then another, then a third. I stop among the flat fields ripe with wild sunflowers and Indian grass and big blue stem to look closer, one of the small falcons hovering fifty feet over the ground like a suspended comma in the air, until it drops down to take a small creature, flashing its distinct blue and ruddy red back markings in my direction. It misses, and flies on.
I continue as well, arriving at the Weaver Ranch on the western edge of the estacado, where Jim Weaver and Willard Heck raise grass-fed Mashona cattle while managing 24,000 acres to restore the native high-elevation grasslands, their “A-number-one priority” to create prime habitat for the prairie chicken, a large grouse with an elaborate mating dance that was once abundant across the Plains but now is extremely rare. The grasslands they depend on have vanished. On the Weaver Ranch, they are trying to save what’s left.
Jim and Willard go way back. I’m here because they were two of the people working at Cornell University in upstate New York in the early 1970s, living in a large barn and breeding peregrine falcons to reintroduce into the wild. They took showers with a garden hose and cooked meals on a small burner. They worked out of a windowless room and slept in a hidden space behind a false wall to fool the fire marshals. They weren’t allowed to live in what became known as the Hawk Barn, working with the project that soon evolved into the Peregrine Fund. But they had to be there. How else to monitor 40 pairs of falcons, encourage them to copulate, with each other, or with the special semen-collecting hats they wore upon their heads once the birds had imprinted upon their human caregivers? How else to watch over the eggs during incubation or feed the young until they were ready to be hacked, the months-long process of adjusting them into life in the wild? It was a grand experiment, with many advances and almost as many setbacks, but it was a success.
The falcons I have been following around New York City for three years, the ones I’m looking for over your shoulder as you talk to me, my face turned to the sky, are the descendants of those releases thirty years ago. They are thriving in the metropolis, as though there were no other place they’d like to be.
Up here on the estacado, riding with Jim Weaver in his pickup across his land, I’m thinking the same thing. Our tires find their way in the hidden ruts as large grasshoppers land on the windshield, hitch a ride for a moment and then leap off in a great bound. We pass dogtowns, a dozen prairie dogs sitting upright and attentive like miniature versions of the statues on Easter Island, until they scurry into their holes. We pass burrowing owls, diurnal birds standing on their long legs among the sage as the truck passes by, watching us.
There was once soil here, a thick layer of topsoil bound to the earth with the roots of grasses that grew taller than a tall man. When Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado came here in 1541, he described a “sea of grass” lacking trees, mountains, or any distinctive mark by which a traveler could mark his passage. This was a place where large creatures ruled the Pleistocene, where buffalo crossed, land that Indians lived upon, all the while the soil building upon itself, inch by inch, eon after eon.
The plough is a simple enough device. Metal and ropes and a beast of burden is all you need. The Homestead Act of 1862 and decrees from newly formed states telling you the land is yours if you make your mark upon it — “improved it” — encouraged the liberal use of the tool. This was a common story here in New Mexico, as in Texas, in Kansas, in the Dakotas, across the Great Plains. The grass was cut. The roots tilled under. Crops were planted. It didn’t last but a generation or two. The 1930s brought the Dust Bowl and the exposed earth blew east right off into the Atlantic Ocean, carrying with it settlers’ dreams. They headed west.
“They sold the mineral rights for enough money to get them out of here,” Weaver says, and I have seen the oil wells pumping, the web of roads leading to natural gas wells, between the tilled fields eeking out their product.
In another millennium, the soil will return. Especially if what Jim Weaver is doing on his ranch catches on. [Read more here] Maybe, then, there will also be prairie chickens hiding amid the tall grass, fleeing from the shadows of falcons flying overhead.