From the Dust Returned

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By Greg McReynolds

I can smell creosote and prickly pear and somewhere in the western mountains, a fire is burning.
Under it all lies the smell of dust.
 
It’s 100,000 years of grass, fires from an eon, elk sheds and mule-deer scat, feathers and foot prints, all ground and desiccated into the gritty essence of this place, rising in small clouds at every step.
 
The dog and I are near the ridgetop, past the two benches that from below seemed the summit. Ahead, the dog bares her teeth and nips at her foot. I whistle her in and stop for moment to pull the cholla from her foreleg. I fish the pliers out, grab it and pull, check her mouth, pour a splash of water for us both and then we’re moving again.
 
The dust that is this place has settled into my sweat-soaked hair and across her muzzle. We are coated in fine, pottery-like clay. Looking east I can see the river and just this side, the alluvial fan stretches out before us like a crimson peacock tail. The arroyo we came up looks minor now, its 10-foot rock walls insignificant. There were birds in that place, but they’re here now, seeking refuge. Rounded live oak trees dot the grassy mesa and there are juniper and cholla intermixed. A few century plants tower above us, their seed pods showering flat brown seeds when the wind gusts.
 
I’ve been here before. Last time, Tom’s best dog pointed a covey of Mearns quail that held so tight, for so long that I questioned whether they were there at all. The covey finally broke and I stood and watched Tom shoot a double, a fine cock and hen pair that he has mounted in his living room. I never even raised my gun, I just stood and watched it all unfold.
 
Years have passed. I’m older. Slower even. Tom’s best dog is gone and another, maybe better dog has come along. But the land is unchanged. I pick out the same live oak tree near a sandy wash where a covey was before. My setter, not yet whelped last time, is middle-aged, in her prime. She can’t find them, they are not there today. Maybe we missed them, or maybe the covey is gone altogether.
 
This land of basalt and dry earth has always been hard. The flush times have come and then been winnowed by the lean years that always follow. Here, a mere season of abundance cannot be meaningful. Only a covey, persistent for an eon begins to be something.
 
Over the decades – if we are fortunate – we come to know this place or one like it. A spot where over a few dozen seasons we will watch the coveys rise and fall, see the flora and the fauna that marks shorter time spans than our own die and fade into the dust that that defines this place.
 
But the land marks time only through its own weathering. The decay of boulders chronicles the ages like a giant geological metronome, and we last no more than a single pulse of the pendulum.
 
And though we shall wink out, maybe the covey lives on. Like a single entity – the first covey no different from the 1,000th – the birds read their history on the face of basalt and in the dried earth.
 
The setter and I move on. The geologic insignificance of our time spent in this place tickles the subconscious as we switchback uphill.
 
The thermometer said 16 degrees when we parked the truck, but it’s damn hot now. We stop again, a little water for me and a little for her. The land is steep and dry, but we will cover this big expanse of grass before we are forced to drop off the edge and back to the truck at dark.
 
This place asks much, and we will give it.
 
Not to give all that is asked is to remain in the truck. To stay low in the sandy bottom, to perpetuate disbelief at coveys on the mesa. We give what is asked and in return, we get more than dust.
 
McReynolds is co-author of the popular bird-hunting blog Mouthful of Feathers. This story appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal