Sagebrush Sorrow

Today my husband and I lost out on a bid for a rental apartment in upper Manhattan. Here, housing is expensive, competition is fierce, and the application process is circular, Byzantine, Kafkaesque. (No offense to Kafka or the Byzantines.)

I spent the day on the run: ordering checks, printing documents, making conference calls with brokers and landlords. By dusk we were close, but in the final heat, another shopper jumped in and snatched up our longed-for fourth-floor one-bedroom.

I used to believe that shelter was a basic human right. Not so in New York. For us, for now, it’s back to square one.

Homelessness comes in degrees.

Sunset on the sagebrush ocean.  Photo: Flikr, Trekok.
Sunset over the sagebrush ocean. Photo: Flikr, Trekok.

I wasn’t near the news last Tuesday when the ruling came down. I learned about it later through my Facebook feed, where the words of my friends — many of them artists and writers — were sharp and simple. I sensed and shared their grief, anger and hopelessness.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that morning that the Greater Sage Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, would not receive protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The decision was the result of a year-long study, itself the result of more than a decade of pleas by environmental organizations that the bird and its habitat be defended against anthropogenic threats, including livestock grazing, the spread of exotic (and wildfire-spreading) cheatgrass, and oil and gas development.

Throughout the West the grouse has been a ray of hope for those who would protect its sagebrush-grassland habitat.

Big sage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Big sage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The grouse, a regal and spiky-looking beast, is an “umbrella species,” explains Washington Post journalist Darryl Fears — an organism whose fate, health, and numbers indicate the overall health of the sagebrush ecosystem. Rabbits, pronghorn, badgers, mule deer, burrowing owls and golden eagles share the grouse’s territory; had federal ESA protection been granted to the grouse, advocates hoped that oil and gas development might be stalled, or at least more thoroughly challenged, throughout the entire “sagebrush ocean.”

The FWS decision states that an “unprecedented conservation partnership” between state, federal, and private entities has already succeeded in buffeting the grouse’s sixty-year decline, deeming further federal action unnecessary. Its language is self-celebratory, heralding the seemingly herculean conservation efforts of the BLM, FWS, state agencies, development companies, and range operators (despite environmentalists’ concerns that such measures are weak, ineffective, and difficult to enforce.) The decision also states that the study relied on “the best available scientific and commercial information.”

How much have we surrendered, I wonder, when “commercial information” is used to determine the fate of a living, breathing, dancing, squawking, bellowing masterpiece of avian evolution?

Check out this footage of a “lek,” a grouse courtship display. Humans, it seems, can no longer be said to hold exclusive domain over the practice of “ritual.”

Greater Sage Grouse "lek" (courtship ritual).  Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Greater Sage Grouse “lek” (courtship ritual). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Why cannot science, let alone art, spirit, empathy, humanity, and shared experience dictate a species’ right to life, space, health, peace, and agency? Have we offered up every last human (and more-than-human) right at the altar of “commercial information?” Those of us for whom this matters — and you would do well to join us — weep because our words and actions haven’t (yet) succeeded in saving the grouse, the sagebrush-grassland, or the wildness that it represents.

Male Greater Sage Grouse.  Photo:
Greater Sage Grouse, male. Photo:

I think about threats to the rights and goods we consider basic, fundamental, inalienable. A right to life, to peace, to fresh air, to mating space. I both fear and live in a world, a city, where ambition trumps ritual, and where sacred rites have been replaced by laws, contracts, abstractions. Wildness is complex. Organic complexity is mysterious, yet inclusive. Human abstraction is complicated, frustrating, inorganic, exclusive.

We look to the law to confine our behaviors, to buffer the dark consequences of human engineering, to provide limitations within which we can create and thrive. But what happens when the law weakens the law, when legal limits abandon the limitations they were charged with defining?

I sing praise to the resilience of wild things. I’ll try, in loving vain, to write this bird back to life and strength, with words of hope and healing. To counter weakened laws with strengthened hymns, and to write poetry that echoes the courtship call of the male grouse at “lek.”

But this week I pour most of my hope into sorrow, into the gift of suffering. Because when we are hurt, broken open, we do a better job of reaching outside ourselves, of finding common breath in our pain, loss, uncertainty and displacedness.

I wish, without malice, that those who hold the policy pens might experience, for one day, an absence of home, of land, of safety and security, of belonging.

How much more closely would our policies conform to that Gaian ideal of “living rightly on the earth,” if we were all more in touch with our suffering?


3 thoughts on “Sagebrush Sorrow

  1. Barbara

    To rise in the darkness and wait in a frost stilled world for the first drumming sounds of the lek as the rising sun paints the grass in rose and orange, is an experience that I will forever remember. I want my grandchildren to have the opportunity to witness this too.


  2. Hilary, I had been following the sage grouse saga and knew FWS would rule soon, but only learned of the outcome after reading your post. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written essay. I hope the states charged with care of sage grouse live up to the ideal they have promised.


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