Exploring the personal connection between canines and conservation
Story and photos by Chad Love
As you get older, memories once cut sharply in deep relief gradually degrade into scattered fragments of shaky, low-resolution home video footage rattling around your brain. These random memories are — more often than not — untethered from the ancillary details of the moment they represent.
I am no different. I’m no longer young, and I cannot remember all the details surrounding the moment, but I can remember this: The first time I ever saw a bird dog run — I mean really stretch out and run — was on a lonely sliver of native grassland surrounded by vast winter wheat fields that had swallowed all but this holdout patch of what once was.
I recall a liver-and-white blur moving impossibly fast, framed by a horizontal slash of grass below and cobalt sky above. At distance, the dog’s paws seemed to float above ground soaked in the blood of time and history and tragedy and shaped by eons of fire and bison and the people who hunted them.
Loss can be sudden, or it can be a progression, but it is always total unless something is done to stop it.
Even as a child I have always been drawn to open space, and as I stood there watching, I grasped — on some vague level — that the entire wondrous scene playing out before my young eyes, the spectacle I was witnessing and which would eventually alter the course of my life and come to define it, was held together and anchored by the roots of prairie grass. I got that. I understood it.
What I didn’t understand was how quickly — and completely — everything about that scene would go away; how fleeting and vulnerable the grass under my feet would prove to be. And with the grass would also go everything that grass represented; every piece of what made that scene so magical, gone like a whispered promise.
That slender finger of prairie is now a long-established subdivision of my hometown, as are the wheat fields that once surrounded and isolated it. Gone, forever. Loss can be sudden, or it can be a progression, but it is always total unless something is done to stop it.
The near-suburban prairie spaces I used to roam in my formative years — both as a child without a dog looking for the small creatures that fascinated me, and later as a young man with a dog looking for the feathered creatures that still fascinate me — now read like a litany of the dead. The memories — always poignant and tinged with the sadness of loss — roll off the precipice of remembrance and into the abyss reserved for those things which we know aren’t coming back.
I do not know the sum acreage total of the little patchwork pieces of grassland I have lost over the years. It’s certainly not a staggering figure; a few hundred acres here, a few hundred there. But whatever total my loss may be, it’s but a pinprick to the staggering total of what we have collectively lost of our grassland ecosystems in the past century, half-century, quarter-century, ten years, five years. And even as I type these words, I am quite sure that somewhere out there, someone else’s memories are rolling into the abyss.
That’s the terrifying thing about accumulation, isn’t it? It always adds up. It’s an insidious process, inexorable and unnoticed, but the meter is always running, and every day the toll grows larger, the loss more acute. And then one morning you wake up and what you know, what you love, what you need, is gone. What makes you uniquely you, has disappeared.
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My life is predicated on grass. My lifestyle is predicated on grass. My soul — and what moves it and what is essential to it — is predicated on the trinity of dogs and grass and sky. I am an upland hunter and bird dog owner. I am a prairie rat, a lover of open space and sky and the sea of grass and wind and incredible life that pulsates across the upland areas that define who I am.
I have followed dogs and chased birds across this landscape my entire life, but beyond that, I have spent an entire lifetime in the uplands simply being, soaking it all up, learning what they can teach me. The grasslands are an open book of adventure and discovery with no ending, and I’ve never read the same story twice.
Our uplands are worth saving. They’re worth fighting for, sacrificing for, working for. Because they are essential and what is essential cannot ever be lost if it can be helped. And this can most definitely be helped, stopped, even reversed. All we need to do is care enough.
“where is it that I most often see the world through wondrous eyes?”
To long for something that is no longer there is possibly the most brutally honest condition of the heart and the soul, and I don’t ever want to feel that way about a landscape that means so much to me. The siren song of the uplands called to me as child, and it will always be the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I’m sure you’ve heard it, too. What would you do if that music stopped? What part of your soul would whither in the absence of the melody that nourishes it?
I’m a child at heart — always have been — and I’ve always believed that the magic of the world starts to seep out of us the moment we grow up and stop believing in it. But faint vestiges of that magic remain embedded in all of us, if we care to look for it in the right place. And that place is not hard to find. You simply ask yourself, “where is it that I most often see the world through wondrous eyes?”
I will always find that place in the rustle of wind through prairie grass, the sight of a dog stretching out to the horizon, the eons of time and wisdom etched into the bleached shell of a long-dead box turtle entwined in prairie grass, and in the hopeful, yearning whistle of a quail. That’s my magic, my magic place, and I still look for it, always. And I always find it. It keeps me going.
But really, what else keeps us going but those moments when we find that old magic once thought lost? One of my favorite life quotes by the late, great James Baldwin, goes thusly...
“I am aware, you know, that I and the people I love may perish in the morning. I know that. But there’s light on our faces now.”
The trick to life — and everything, really — is to recognize and appreciate those moments when the light is on our faces. Because everything is fleeting, much of life is shadow, and the light never shines on one spot too long. So let’s keep that light shining on the uplands while we can.
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the
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