Cranes in the Family

I love this historic Nevada picture! A Newe (Shoshone) gal and her tame Sandhill crane head out for a day of gathering … or gardening? She has her hoe and her basket and a bemused smile on her face as if to say, “What? You don’t have a pet this cool?”

If you want to know what it’s like to be adopted by a crane, read Dayton O. Hyde’s book, Sandy: The Sandhill Crane Who Joined Our Family. After rescuing an egg from floodwaters, Dayton gets it to hatch and has a feathered friend for life.

All that happened decades ago, before cranes became a protected species. Hatching out wild bird eggs is generally frowned upon these days. But there are marshes, irrigated fields, and riparian areas in the high desert where cranes will mosey up close, if you sit quietly and thank them for their long standing friendship.

Historic photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

Chasing Dragonflies 

Last week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.

Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.

This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion. But when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.

As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?

Male Eight-spotted Skimmer who was very patient with my picture-taking at McKenzie Reservoir, Deschutes Co., Oregon.



Illipah Reservoir in central Nevada has vanished. In a normal water year, these wild horses would need snorkels. Instead of trout habitat, Illipah has returned to its former self — a windy, parched flat. The horses — four adults and one foal — spend the heat of the day dozing, the only movement the swishing of tails. A trickle of water runs in the tiny gully, all that’s left of the creek. Short-cropped grass tenaciously colonizes the lakebed.

This scene speaks of extreme drought, but also hope. How else to read the faint green grass, the offering of water, the cooling wind, and the sleeping foal?

Horse Power

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I’m intrigued by the idea that working horses still have a job — despite the industrial and digital revolutions. Last weekend I went to the Small Farmer’s Journal 35th Annual Horsedrawn Auction & Swap. If a horse can pull it, chances are it will be on the auction block in Madras, Oregon. This year there were stage coaches, buckboards, surreys, freight wagons, sheep wagons, covered wagons, chuck wagons, gypsy carts, sulky carts, forecarts, sleighs, Amish buggies, wagonettes, chariots, a full-size hearse and that’s not the half of it. You could also find all the harness parts to go with whatever rig grabbed your fancy.

As I wandered around ogling the offerings, an antique black surrey caught my eye. Its red velvet seats showed wear and the red fringe rimming the roof had faded to pale pink. Generous wraps of electrical tape reinforced the rods supporting the top. To my eye, the old girl looked ready for a makeover or a museum.

Just then, a passel of Amish or Mennonite kids (hard for me to tell which) surrounded me like a flock of chickadees. Their plain dress set them apart. Two of them, a boy and a girl, climbed up in the buggy and tried it out. They wiggled around, operated whatever was operable, peered at various parts, then climbed out and headed to the next vehicle. I expected some adult to yell at them to get off the equipment, but no one did. Then I realized that these kids probably ride around in buggies all the time. Most of the Amish and some of the Mennonite religious communities have chosen to forego owning and operating automobiles. These kids didn’t think of that old surrey as a fragile artifact. It was just another second-hand horsedrawn vehicle to be put to good use.

I saw the sprawling wagon yard with new eyes. This was no Antiques Roadshow. There were lots of people here buying equipment who planned on using the stuff. Mixed in with the vintage rolling stock were brand new vehicles and harness, much of it made by the “Plain People.”

Being a provincial Westerner, I’m not too familiar with the Amish and “Horse and Buggy” Mennonite communities, so I did some research when I got home. I was surprised to discover that according to the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, Amish farms are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. farm community. (Their population more than doubles every twenty years.) More Amish farms means more horse-powered agriculture, logging, and transportation. Add to them the old timers, traditional loggers, historical reenactment devotees, bioregional back-to-the-landers, sustainable neo-Hippies, super-green organic farmers, and other born-again teamsters and what do you know? Horse power — as in “powered by actual horses” — seems to be making a comeback in America.

Maybe I’m not an atavistic Luddite after all? Or, if I am, I’m in good company.

(Suspect you might be a born-again atavistic Luddite yourself? Subscribe to the Small Farmer’s Journal and find out.)

Dinosaur Nation


There aren’t many places where extinct animals are more visible than living ones, but along Highway 40 in Utah and western Colorado, dinosaurs rule. You see them everywhere as they’re portrayed in paintings and envisioned in sculptures. Although these outrageous creatures died out millions of years ago, they are neither gone nor forgotten. The dinosaur has discovered a fertile habitat in the human imagination.


Although you might encounter dozens of prehistoric creatures on a drive between Duchesne, Utah and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, most of them will not resemble the real deal — not even close! There are two main reasons for this: 1) Our scientific understanding of what dinosaurs actually looked like is constantly evolving as we come across new specimens and develop more sophisticated research techniques. 2) Humans, as a species, love to tell stories and fabulous monsters are major characters in most of our primordial mythologies. We love a good monster, especially if they’re scary — but not too scary. Roadside dinosaurs are made to fit the bill. They get your attention, but unless you’re under, say, five-years-old, you’re unlikely to worry that you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park.

This disconnect between what we actually know of dinosaur biology and what we imagine them to be like is the focus of paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. After Brian was a guest on Cara Santa Maria’s “Talk Nerdy To Me” video series, she asked viewers, “How long do you think it’ll take before our romantic vision of the dinosaurs catches up with modern science?”

Having traversed our nation’s dinosaur hotbed, I’d say, “Never!” We know what bears look like but has that led to the demise of the Teddy Bear? No! There’s fossils, and there’s fiction. Something as monstrously cool as the Brontosaurus is not going extinct a second time.

(The Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) turned out to be an inadvertent hoax but that hasn’t kept it from becoming the most popular dinosaur, hands down. Read Brian’s book if you want the whole scoop.)