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IN THE DUST
and the Voices
NEARLY ALL OF US HAVE SOME SACRED places in our lives, even if they have not been formally sanctified and recognized as such. The most obvious such place might be a family cemetery plot, or possibly an abandoned farmstead, even if the original building that was so important to us may now be missing. One of the important sacred places in my life consists of an unnamed hill overlooking Burchard Lake, in Pawnee County, Nebraska. Nearly every spring since 1961 I have spent at least one morning or evening there, to watch the annual mating displays of the prairie-chickens, which themselves have gathered on that same hilltop for a period probably much longer than the memories of any of the people who have known of the existence of this very special place.
This annual regeneration of the species is attained through ritualized but competitive male displays that help establish relative social status for every participant. Socially dominant males, which acquire and defend centrally located territories, are somehow recognized by the females and are invariably chosen by them for mating. Additionally, a cultural tradition is evidently passed on to the young and inexperienced birds, who soon learn the location of the display ground from older males.
As I returned to this hilltop site last week, I was reminded that twenty years ago I took my two sons there on one April morning, erected a small tent in the palepredawn light, and quickly set up my own small photographic blind beside their tent. We were ready just in time for the first arrivals, the males that walked or flew into their mating territories to begin their hypnotic calling and somewhat humanlike dancing behavior, which usually continues at least until sunrise and sometimes beyond, depending on the amount of disturbance they encounter.
This year, to increase the chances that the birds would start to display without too much delay, l brought along a tape player and a recording of the males' courtship calls that I made more than two decades previously. As I placed the tape in the player, I noticed that I had made that recording on April 7, 1970, and that it had been recorded on the very same hill overlooking Burchard Lake. As the soft but resonant recorded calls of the males were being broadcast out over the newly greening hills, l suddenly realized that these were calls that had been made by the direct ancestors of the very males that I was trying to attract! Furthermore, these living males would be hearing for the first time the voices of their now-deceased great-great-great-grandparents or thereabouts, assuming that each prairie-chicken generation lasts for only about three or four years on average. In this way, these voices from the distant past would be exhorting their own descendants to gather and participate in the activities they once had so enthusiastically engaged in, but that had now been quieted for eternity.
This powerful realization, that ancestral voices might pass down through subsequent generations and influence them, even though the birds themselves are now dead, made me think of how the same might apply to me. My paternal grandfather was the son of a first-generation Norwegian immigrant, who would impress the value of a penny on me. My maternal grandfather was the son of a Canadian "easterner" who died when I was less than a year old. Yet his voice also spoke to me during my childhood, through my mother's love for English literature and the legacy of natural history books that had been part of his own library but eventually were absorbed into my own reading experience.
A few weeks ago I invited my granddaughter to accompany me and watch, for her very first time, the act of annual renewal that is played out every spring among every generation of prairie-chickens on the beautiful grass-mantled hilltop above Burchard Lake. Thus, I can personally show my granddaughter some of my own sacred places in Nebraska, and introduce her to one of my very special spring rituals. There may be better reasons for viewing an April sunrise while sitting on an obscure hilltop in eastern Nebraska, but I can't think of one.
II. Water: A River of Time
Adrift in Time on the Niobrara River
The Evolution of Duck Courtship
The Elusive Musk Duck
The Unlikely Ruddy Duck
Torrent Ducks of the Andes
Seabirds of the Pribilofs
III. Sky: Migrations of the Imagination
The Gifts of the Cranes
Flight of the Sea Ducks
The Triumphant Trumpeters
The 6,000-mile Odyssey of a Globe-trotting Bird
Where Have All the Curlews Gone?
The Geese from beyond the North Wind
Citations for Previously Published Articles