Hunting WIld Birds and Meaning on an ANcient Sea of Grass
By Chad Love || Photo & Video By Aaron Black-Schmidt
By Chad Love
Photo & Video by Aaron Black-schmidt
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If you take your finger and place it on a map marking the geographical center of the nation, somewhere above Kansas and below South Dakota, it won’t simply be resting on a blank spot, it will be touching the beating heart of true American wildness; a place of windswept, impossibly vast tableaus, ancient, grass-covered hills, and fast-flying prairie grouse.
The Nebraska Sandhills, a vast, sprawling, 20,000-square-mile region in the heart of the nation, are the largest remaining intact grasslands in the world. This is my American church of the uplands; the ancestral range of two of our most iconic gamebirds — the sharp-tailed grouse and the greater prairie chicken.
And for those who seek the solace of wild places and thrill of wild birds, the sandhills are a place to reconnect with themselves, their passions, and the land. They come here to lose themselves in the endless folds of this vast inland sea of grass. And to find themselves, in this solitude-soaked landscape, this living example of the critical connection between American wildness and the American spirit that only grows more precious and priceless as the world grows evermore cacophonous and crowded.
How did I — a lifelong southern plains quail hunter — end up here, in this place, and come to love it so much?
Like all great discoveries of the heart and soul, I found it by accident. Or maybe it found me, at a time when I needed to be found. All I know is I’d never seen any other place like it, never felt any other place like it.
I was on my way to go bird hunting in Montana. But a quick, one-day stop with a buddy who grew up in Nebraska and wanted to show me a special spot changed, in more ways than one, the course of my life. I spent the rest of that trip to Montana thinking about Nebraska. I was hooked, and the whispering grass has been calling me back ever since.
I’m a prairie rat, always have been. If you trace a path up through western Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and back down through eastern Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, that is my heartsong country, where I am most comfortable and feel most alive.
When I think about the plains, and especially the sandhills, there’s an old Joan Didion quote from a book of her essays that has always stuck with me. It goes, “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.” I’ve never forgotten that quote. It’s true for people, and it’s true for place.
Grass, sky, solitude. That’s the trinity for me, the solace of things that bring me peace. I found them here. Ninety percent of life is made up of pretense and proxy. In most of it we put on masks for the world that obscure who we really are, and we invest too much of ourselves in things we don’t care about to fill that hole, because that’s what the world tells us we need to do.
And all the while what we really care about, who and what we really are, is out here. That’s what bird hunting has always been to me. I’m 52 years old now and I’ve lost interest in pretense, I’ve lost interest in persona, I’ve lost interest in appearance. All I have left are people, place, and those moments of sublime beauty and meaning that keep me sane. Sunlight and shadow. Stand in one spot long enough and both will wash over you, and as it does, for one achingly beautiful, incredibly lonely moment, everything falls away. That’s what I seek out here, what I need.
I will never be so at ease as I am when I am exposed to the silent, searing judgement of space and sky. The problem with space, and what people not used to space don’t understand, is that space is a drug. It provokes a physical craving every bit as addictive as a pharmaceutical. You spend 25 years wandering the void, and something changes in you that can’t change back. Even if you wanted to quit it, you’re not at all sure you could.
Out here under the sheltering sky there is nothing to break the current of time and memory. What once was is stripped away, never to return, and what remains is what you are: a solitary figure always walking into the moment, because there is no other direction other than where the heart points you.
I hunt mostly alone. I am a solitary creature, always have been. I struggle with demons, as we all do. We rarely talk about the weight of depression, often refuse to acknowledge the crippling hold of anxiety, so we suffer in silence and grasp at talismans, in whatever form those talismans take. The triangulation of place, bird, and dog is my talisman. Walk far into broken, lonely country in search of birds and meaning, and you will eventually leave behind that which you are trying to escape. That’s often best done alone.
But at some point, you want to share this with someone; you want to make them see what you see, make them feel what you feel. You want to see the world through new, excited eyes again. Because to walk the sandhills is to walk with soul exposed in all its shining truth; good, bad, and everything in between. Space and silence and grass will never lie to you, even when you want it to. That’s the beauty of this place: It will always be honest, and honesty is at its best when it is shared.
So you open up your heart’s sanctuary to another, hoping they feel the tug of what compels you, the shared experience of wonder and awe and appreciation. You walk miles up and down the cresting waves of an endless, rustling sea. You sweat, you eat dust, you stop to catch snakes, turtles, lizards to sate the still-living wonder of your inner child. Under the relentless sun you drink cold, ancient, fossil water out of creaking old prairie windmills. You chase birds that seem more ghost than game; you miss, you curse, you laugh, you rib, and sometimes when it all comes together with the warm, limp bird in your hand, and a tired, excited dog at your feet, you finally understand why you needed to share your solace with another.
At night you sit and watch campfire sparks jump into the night sky, gaze at the sprawling vastness of the Milky Way spilling across the stars, eat good food and laugh and talk and be human in this most wild and human of places.
At such times, sitting with friends in a place of such ancient, undying beauty, you realize that all we have in this world, we leave in this world. The last thing we grasp with our final dying breath is not fear, or regret, or anger, or sadness, but a memory. I come to the sandhills to make memories that sustain what makes me, me. But I share the sandhills to sustain what makes me human.
And in the end, you hope that by sharing, they understand a bit of who you are, what you are. You hope they, too, become what this place has made you.
Because as you get older you feel the sting of loss more deeply. Loss of time, loss of friends and family, loss of meaning and purpose. What the sandhills teaches you – what any special place teaches you — is that there is so little time and room in life for the meaningless, so fill it with what matters.
When he’s not chasing quail, Chad Love can usually be found somewhere on the plains searching for prairie grouse and answers.
Look for this feature story in the 2023 Fall Issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Quail Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Quail Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.