Freya Brittany and Finn, her student, had fallen asleep during the drive on the right side of the front seat late at night, but the second the tires hit gravel they were up and focused, studying the tracks. of grass. along the section road, shuddering every time a meadow came out of the ditch.
It was our first day at a number of public access areas that had been very kind to us over the years. The dogs’ enthusiasm was infectious – I could feel the old adrenaline surges as we made the final ascent into the first soft morning light.
Something strange. Shadow humps in the CRP we were headed for. I stopped by the state public entrance sign. The mix of bright grass, little bluestems, and sedges that had been our first, best place had been mowed neatly, like the first rough on a golf course, round bales of mulch spread thinly along the slope of the hill.
This is the drought, I thought. In this part of the world, the weather in the winter and spring of 2021 was classified as an extreme drought. There was some relief over the summer, but the drought intensified in the spring and summer of 2022. Officials are calling it an “exceptional clearance” now, an even more extreme designation that allows farmers to mow cover on their CRP acres. for hay or fence for grazing.
It was a shocking discovery, but I consoled myself with the possibility that, if the pheasants had done well in the spring and early summer, there might be reasonable numbers in the cover that remained. It took almost eight hours of walking to disprove that notion. Not much cover, not many birds. It seemed like a long, long season and the worst part was that there would be no cover left next spring when the birds were looking for places to nest and raise their young.
Once upon a time, there were many casual phase hunters, people who went out on the opening Saturday in teams to block and drive the fields, burned a pocket of shells, and came home on Sunday with the old pump-action gun in its case . , where he was likely to spend the next year.
My understanding is that those hunters are almost gone. Those who are left look more like me—the soles of their boots are worn smooth; their bird-coats are mottled and faded; their field trousers are ragged at the cuffs and threadbare at the knees. They see pheasant hunting as something closer to religion than casual entertainment. They spend the long winter, spring, and summer months training and exercising the dogs, destroying clay targets to keep their marksmanship sharp, and waiting, like ten-year-olds dreaming of Christmas, for the return of fall and another season.
When that season turns out to be barren, when the undergrowth has been mowed or dried up and a hard day’s walking brings out a wild turkey, it is more than a disappointment. It’s a disaster. It ruins the three months that should have been the highlight of the year. Even dogs lose heart and spend their days going through the motions with no expectations. Something central to their way of life—and mine—is taken.
Windblown soil erosion in southwest Nebraska, December 2022. Anyone who thinks the Dirty Thirties are over just hasn’t spent much time on the High Plains (photo: Chris Madson).
Drought, insidious, slow disaster. It takes a little, then a little more, then even more. Last summer, for the second year in a row, my favorite river shed little more than a stream by the end of July, too anemic and too warm for the fly rod. Another amputated season. And when I loaded up on candy and drove up into the marsh last October, I found a basin of cracked mud, so dry for so long that it was beginning to fill with clumps of kochia. I have visited that marsh every autumn for nearly forty years, arriving in the last hour of the night to set up a stretch and wait for the dawn, while, out on the moors, flocks of geese and mallards murmured to each other as they dozed off. . This autumn, there is silence and the north wind is empty.
The High Plateau is on the brink of a drought that experts have described as the worst in 1,500 years. News hunters are all over the situation in Colorado, in Greenland, in the Arctic and Antarctic and, most recently, in Mississippi. These are big stories, emerging evidence that the changes we’ve made to the world’s climate aren’t likely to be pleasant for us.
By comparison, the changes in my life may seem, to many, insignificant. But, for me, they cut to the bone. They rob me of the places and moments I cherish, the experiences I live for. Climate change.
And it hurts.