We let the dust settle for a month or two after Pop had his stroke, and then we sold the family ranch all in one piece to a cattle man from Montrose, Henson, whose name Pop didn’t recognize. I had been living on the Farallones, studying site fidelity of Ashy Storm-Petrels, birds most people probably haven’t heard of and might not ever. An oil spill or other catastrophe on the central coast of California any fall could wipe the whole species off the map. It was a plum research gig, every ornithologist’s dream job. But I love my Pop, so I gave it up and came home. That closing was the only time I’ve been happy that Pop lost his speech, because I didn’t want him to say out loud how much he wished I’d taken an interest in the damn cows instead of the damn birds.
Pop refused to let a subdivision be his last crop, so he gave Henson a good deal. We closed at the end of September. Henson signed the papers with rancher’s hands, leathery and sun-weathered, just like Pop’s. Henson is my age, plus a few years maybe—divorced, one young daughter—and I’m flat suspicious of the guy. How does anyone in their thirties come out of that recession with the kind of money it takes to buy a quarter section on the river, water rights attached, outside Gunnison?
Pop’s stroke stole a lot of things from him that I miss too, some more precious than his ability to manage cattle—verbs, for example, and with them, anything resembling sentences. Also the use of his entire right side and all our savings in medical bills, though that last resolved just fine when we sold the ranch. The worst is that he can’t say my name, Norah. Instead, Pop calls me Vera. I’ve stopped bothering to correct him. Vera, my mother, died in a puddle of her own blood and placenta the day I was born, waiting for the ambulance that turned down County Road 68 instead of County Road 68 ½.
Pop’s not confused the way you’d think. He knows the difference between his dead wife and his living daughter. For the first month or so, he’d wince every time he said it, “Vera,” shake his head sadly, look down at his shoes—New Balance sneakers with therapeutic elastic laces, not the boots he wore his whole life. A baseball cap has replaced his Stetson. He’s nearly unrecognizable. My friend Julie is his speech therapist, and she tells me that he still thinks ‘Norah’ when he looks at me, it’s just the signal gets lost in the aphasic fog that has settled somewhere between Pop’s brain and his tongue. When he thinks-Norah-but-says-Vera, it sounds like “Vvvvveera.” He gets stuck on that first ‘v’ sound, which according to the manner of articulation chart Julie put on our fridge is a labiodental fricative.
“Sounds dirty,” I said to Pop. “Labiodental.” I adjusted the magnets so I could see the whole consonant chart—the nasals and the alveolars, the voiced and the voiceless.
Pop laughed, and my heart fluttered a little, which I took as proof that it’s not broken all the way. When Pop laughs, it feels like we’re having a conversation instead of a series of Norah monologues, which are far less graceful than the stories Pop used to tell. There is no real prognosis for Pop, no clear number of months to live, no percentage of independence he’ll regain. Pop appears at once fragile and strong, like an egg. Every morning when I tie his shoes I think, This might be the last time I tie his shoes, and also I wonder, How many more times will I have to tie his shoes?
I’ve seen Henson exactly five times since he bought Pop’s ranch. I know because I started a page in my ledger just for him. I keep track of a lot of things in my ledger, how often I’ve turned the compost over, various downy woodpecker sightings, the fact that there were maybe 5000 Gunnison sage-grouse left in the entire world last spring. It’s a habit I picked up from Pop, the same way I got my head for numbers and my love of Oreo cookies. On October 30, Henson and I nodded hello to each other in the Safeway. He was pushing one of those double decker small carts instead of a family-sized one, and he was buying corn flakes and vanilla ice cream and other plain, sensible foods. On Christmas Eve, he showed up to church for the first and only time. I swear I caught the candlelight reflect off tears on his cheeks when we all sang “Silent Night,” but I can’t be sure. By the time the deacons turned the sanctuary lights back on, Henson was gone. He rode a horse in the New Year’s Eve parade, his saddle strung with tiny white twinkling lights, and he tipped his hat and smiled at me when he passed by.
The other two times I saw Henson, he didn’t see me. I was out birding on the BLM land on the west side of our old ranch property, well hidden by willow and brush, silent, patient. On March 24, I saw Henson cutting wire on the property line fence that separates the ranch from the BLM land behind it. On April Fool’s Day, about 100 yards down the fence line, he did it again. I got pictures of that one. I went down and checked for new grazing leases, and Henson’s name wasn’t anywhere. If he wants to graze the BLM land, he’ll be sending cattle across Pop’s and my secret Gunnison sage-grouse lek in the middle of breeding season, which is just as bad for those birds as a real-estate development would have been.
* * *
The Gunnison sage-grouse have as much to do with the woman I am today as Pop does. In 2000, they became the first new species of bird to be officially recognized in the United States for over 100 years. I was twelve years old. The whole town was talking about them. Part of our landscape. Part of our character. That kind of thing. I was doing all the ranch chores with Pop by that age, every day a chance to test my courage rounding up cattle, test my strength pulling wires taut on fences, or test my stamina working every last hour of light in a day. I knew by the smile in Pop’s eyes that he was proud of me, which is how I learned to be proud of myself. In my memory of Pop’s voice, he is always saying, because he always was:
Nice work, Norah.
That’s it, girl, well done.
You keep after it, Norah, you’ll get it done.
While we worked, Pop told me stories about his life, before me, on the ranch. My grandmother sucking the poison out of a snakebite. My grandfather taking the waters at the Waunita Hot Springs. The creamy sweetness of my mother’s homemade ice cream. It comforted me to know that Pop and I had other people once. The stories let me blame time and bad luck for the missing members of my family—stop worrying we were alone because something was wrong with us.
The sage-grouse had lived on the ranch all along, Pop just hadn’t known, none of us had, that these ones were threatened especially much. The first time I saw them we were out pre-dawn, checking the same fence I’d seen Henson cut. The morning was overcast, sprinkling rain. The sun rose but invisibly, behind the cloud cover, light fading in by degrees rather than streaming up in oranges and pinks from behind the east ridge. I heard their calls like bubbles popping—staccato air sac percussions, saw the males strutting, virile. They were so full of themselves, so full of life. I knew I was witnessing something important and rare. I felt then, for the first time, the mix of emotions that fragile species have always evoked in me. Precious awe. A preemptive sadness of loss. Anger and indignation about humanity’s deep apathy. Surges of what must be a sort of maternal protectiveness.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Pop said, “and camp out here while we get a fence around this meadow. If we can keep it out of grazing, at least in the spring, we can help save these birds all on our own. We don’t need to tell anyone they’re here. Don’t need a handout to do the right thing. We just need to take care of our own.”
We did care for them. We’d camp out there for a week every year, counting the high males and females, recording the numbers of viewable copulations (not many), evidence of predator interference (coyote, owl, hawk, golden eagle). Pop would write it all down in his ledger.
“It’s not a diary,” he’d say gruffly, tousling my hair, when I’d tease him. “It’s a ledger. Diaries are for feelings, and I’m not keepin’ track of my feelings. I’m keepin’ track of the facts.”
Pop kept neat and orderly notes of daily events in a series of 99-cent black and white composition notebooks he’d pick up every year with my school supplies. He was almost famous for the way he could tell you he sold only 152 head of cattle in 1993 or that the Blue Mesa Dam generates 60,000 kilowatts of energy every year while the Crystal Dam only produces 28,000. These days, quantifiers are slippery for Pop and he drops them easily. He can’t get numbers straight at all. It’s not a difference in his thinking, just his speech, but it changes everything about how people see him—even how I see him, which makes me ashamed of myself.
Pop’s ledgers are how I learned the difference between practical thinking and emotional thinking, the way lots of people who love one way of seeing things have contempt, or maybe fear, for the other. He used to mark my growth on the kitchen doorjamb every six months, copy it into his ledger. If I did that now, to him, I’m afraid I’d find he was shrinking, that the marks would run, gravity-fed, in the wrong direction. Pop writes grocery lists using his left hand, since everything that used to be dominant in him is broken. It’s like he’s in kindergarten, the poor spelling, the shaky, uneven handwriting. Pop wants bananas, grape-nuts, and orange juice. He writes: Bababas. Ceral. Joos.
There are boxes and boxes full of Pop’s ledgers in the detached garage of the old Victorian we bought in downtown Gunnison. His notes from the lek over the past three seasons document a 55% drop in the high male population on our land. He never mentioned it before his stroke, and now he won’t talk about it at all.
“Pop,” I said, dropping the open ledgers on the pine wood table he built the first winter I was away at college. “What happened?”
Pop looked at the ledgers and then at me, surprised, his face tensed, lined. He was my favorite storyteller; now, he is barely interested in simple conversation.
“Dunno,” he said, shrugging his left shoulder.
I tried again. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to adjust to this new, more limited Pop, how far I should allow him to recede. “Why so few birds? Is something wrong with the lek?”
Pop was examining his pill bottle, counting his purple morphine pearls, trying to pry the lid off with the thumb of his one working hand. He wasn’t listening, or he was trying to look like he wasn’t listening.
“Pop,” I said.
He shrugged again, then lifted his left hand into the air, annoyed. “Dunno.”
Conversations are hard for Pop, but they’re hard work for me, too, so much relentless effort to connect, to relate, to love and to feel loved by him. I wanted to yell, to grab his shoulders and shake the news out of him, or at least shake him into being interested in me, in the sage grouse, in anything. But I can’t do that. He’s my Pop, and I love him, and what good would it do exactly?
“Fine,” I said. “Boring conversation anyway.”
Pop glared at me, hummed a few bars of the Star Wars theme, and ran over my foot with his electric wheelchair as he rolled toward the bathroom.
* * *
I decided to drive out and ask Henson’s permission to do the spring count myself, to try to get eyes on the lek. Henson was sitting alone on the porch swing, drinking a can of Bud in a green foam cozy. A tiny pink bike, the training wheels bent so crooked they didn’t sit flush with the ground, leaned against the porch steps, but there was no sign of a child. Henson is a tall man, broad-shouldered, but the way he had his back to the ribboned beauty of the sunset behind him, the way the house loomed dark, surrounding him, the way the porch spread out, empty, in front of him, he looked impossibly small to me. He took another swallow of beer, and I saw a pale strip of skin, tender-soft, right where a wedding band would be. For a fleeting minute, I felt sorrier for Henson than I did for myself.
Henson stood up as I approached. He smiled, but it was guarded. “Norah,” he said, nodding a greeting.
“Sorry to show up unannounced,” I said. “I didn’t have a number.”
“All right,” he said, motioning toward a plastic Adirondack chair. “Take a load off.”
He reached into a small cooler and offered me a beer, which I took, even though I don’t much care for beer. I heard an echo of Pop’s advice: When you’re trying to sweet talk someone, Norah, you take what they offer you.
He asked about Pop. I shrugged. “Dunno,” I said.
We sat silently for an awkward minute, drinking beer.
“You here to ask me to get some kind of conservation easement?” he said. “I’ve seen the sage-grouse out there.”
My heart sank a little. Not all ranchers are Pop’s kind of rancher. Some find these birds obnoxious. Some cut fence on public land because of some misguided idea about their frontier heritage. Some really piss me off. I took a slow, relaxing breath before I answered him.
“Not today. But an easement is a good idea,” I said. “I want access to the land for a count.”
Henson’s brow was furrowed. He didn’t answer right away. I heard the screech of an eagle and rifled through my bag for my binoculars. I’m never without my bag, my binoculars, my ledger. Sure enough, I spotted a bald perched in the familiar gnarled old cottonwoods that lined the riverbank.
“Bald eagle,” I said. “Want to take a look?”
Henson shook his head no with a sort of bemused expression, like he was indulging a child. It was the same with Pop, who supported birding as a hobby but could not understand it as a dead fucking serious science career.
“They’re not exactly rare anymore,” he said. “I’ve been watching that one for days now.”
“Sure,” I said. “Old news, these birds.”
“Yeah, you won,” he said.
“You. Your people. Environmentalists,” he said.
I put down my binoculars, sat back down. “My people owned this ranch for sixty years. We’re not so different from you.”
Henson was right about the eagles though. They’ve recovered. There was a time I found that hopeful, some sort of proof that we humans could still find our environmental emergency brake, like we’d finally felt the loss of the passenger pigeon, of the Carolina parakeet, of the Labrador duck, of the thirty pages of birds under the Wikipedia Category: Extinct Birds of North America that you don’t have to be an expert to Google. But not anymore. I’m older and maybe wiser and I know better now. We only saved the bald eagles because we want to see ourselves in them—they are our national symbol, after all, which makes them exceptional in the same way we believe ourselves to be exceptional, and we set American exceptionalism and human exceptionalism as the default lens for our world view. Ordinary birds, like the Gunnison sage-grouse, we shrug and let disappear. Which is more proof, if I needed more, that we are not, that we have never been, all in this together.
The sunset was fading. Henson turned on the porch light.
“Land didn’t come with an easement.” He looked at me directly then. He had eyes like robin’s eggs, blue speckled with brown. They softened the rough of the rest of him. “Which tells me your dad knew better than to invite government regulation here, give up good grazing for the sake of some ridiculous birds. I don’t really want to say no to you, Norah, but truth is I know better than that too.”
“Pop left that land alone because it was the right thing to do,” I said. “He loves those birds.”
Henson snorted. “He was dodging the government, or I’ll eat my hat. Old ranchers are all the same. You know that. Or you should.”
I knocked my empty beer can over when I stood up to leave.
“Sorry, Norah,” Henson said. The apology seemed sincere. “I’ve put all I have into this place. I won’t risk any limited use.”
Tears prickled the back of my eyes as I drove back toward Gunnison, because Henson was right, I knew better about Pop.
* * *
Site fidelity is a beautiful, romantic idea, but it’s also dangerous. The Blue Mesa Reservoir filled in 1965, and the following spring a few hundred Gunnison sage-grouse descended on the reservoir ice in March, right above where their lek had been, slipping around and falling and failing to mate. The year after, half as many returned. The next year, even fewer, and so on until there were none. They didn’t move to other leks, didn’t find solid ground on the shore. The entire family just died out, pining for their land.
It’s one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard, and the first time I heard it, I asked Pop to get a conservation easement on the ranch, to get the birds some official, enduring protection.
“We murdered almost all of the Gunnison sage-grouse before we even knew they existed,” I said. “Building those dams. We have to do something.”
“We are doing something, Norah,” Pop said. He rubbed his head, which has always been his act of frustration, then he tugged my braid and smiled sadly.
“They need us to do more,” I said. “We can do more for them.”
“The government can’t protect them better than I can,” Pop said. “Grazing has hurt these birds, no question, but so did those dams, which the government built. Our birds, Norah, we keep for ourselves. We keep their secret. That’s how we keep them safe in the world.”
My Pop has always been the north star of my life. I set my moral compass by his worldview, consider always how my choices will affect his good opinion of me. I see Pop’s heart for ranching and his heart for the environment, and I’m grateful for the clear land ethic I learned at his knee. Pop read me Ed Abbey and Aldo Leopold, taught me to use willow like aspirin, kept me outside on a horse for fifteen hours every day. But Pop sprinkled his distrust of government on everything he taught me as a child, like salt on every meal. It felt like critical thinking for most of my life, but I realize now it was just seeing everything that one way.
* * *
I prefer camping when the full moon brightens the midnight world into something warmer, more welcoming. The starlight seems brighter at full moon, even though I know that’s not how light works. New moonlight is thin, muted, the distant shrill coyote yipping amplified, every crack of sagebrush an invisible threat. Even the temperature, which can be recorded objectively, felt colder than it should. I wasn’t a quarter mile from the campsite Pop and I used every year, but I was on BLM land, which belongs to all of us and none of us, all at the same time. It’s the same runoff stream I was camping next to, the same species of willow along its bank, but the patterns of the limbs, the music they made in the breeze—it was all off, somehow discordant. This landscape should feel familiar, safe, but at new moon it didn’t quite.
I only knew I slept because I woke up disoriented and confused around at four a.m. The inside of my tent was crusted with a layer of frost that sparkled a bit when my headlamp caught it at the right angle. It took a minute before I remembered that I was not a girl-child camping with her Pop on land they owned free and clear to count the mating Gunnison sage-grouse, but a grown-up lady scientist sneaking alone onto land she sold to pay her Pop’s medical bills.
I was wiggling into my coveralls, which are warm but difficult to maneuver, when I heard the truck on the fire road. I turned off my lamp and grabbed Pop’s old field binoculars. It was still dark. I couldn’t see much, but I recognized Henson’s old Ford. That truck has seen better days. It whines like it needs power steering fluid and there’s a quiet, rhythmic tick in the motor. It has a stocked shotgun rack inside the cab. That truck has all the wrong kind of noise, noise that could disrupt the lek, keep the birds from doing their mating dance.
I followed the runoff stream as I moved steadily closer to the truck, crouching low under cover of the willows along the bank. Nature might seem all peace and quiet, but she’s deceptive that way, and I was thankful for how loud she really is. The noise of the stream covered the noise of my breath, my footsteps. I wanted to take pictures but didn’t want to risk the glow of my phone. Henson was leaning against the truck bed, looking up at the stars. When he poured his coffee into the lid of his thermos, I was close enough to smell it. There were fuel cans in the back, shovels and rakes. It takes balls to burn public land, but plenty of ranchers have done it, claiming later that the fires on their own land just went a few acres wild.
The one thing those birds need is abundant sagebrush, and getting rid of sagebrush is the whole point of a burn in sage-steppe habitat.
“Hey girl,” Henson said, and my body panicked, blood on fire. I thought to run, but he wasn’t talking to me. He had a little girl with him, probably kindergarten age, wispy pigtails curling around her ears. Her coveralls were patched and worn, all her movements muted by the quilted fabric. She grabbed Henson’s hand, and I wondered if she had the same egg-delicate eyes as her father.
“Can you carry this shovel?” Henson asked her, half-whispering.
“I can see your breath, Daddy,” the girl said. “It’s steamy, like your coffee.”
Henson smiled, and I did too. The girl threw her arms around his neck. I felt my heart fluttering again, my pulses warming. The sky lightened with the approaching dawn.
“Next time I come we should bring the horses,” she said.
“Whatever you want, sweetheart.” The two of them crossed to the other side of the truck, walked some distance away from it. Henson was stepping off an area, measuring it. The child was laboring at cartwheels, trying hard to work her limbs against the confines of her coveralls.
When Henson turned his back to the truck, I pulled the fuel cans and started dumping them into the dirt behind the back tires. The diesel fumes made the ground shimmer and shake, go blurry, filled up my nose so much that I thought no clean air would ever get in again. I was saving Henson from himself, really, not that he’d see it that way. He couldn’t burn anything down without diesel. I heard a shout that might have been my name and dropped the cans. I snapped a picture and got out of there as fast as I could, tracking my way along the runoff stream deep into the BLM land. When the fumes cleared my head, I came back to myself. I tried to turn a cartwheel, but my center of gravity was all wrong.
* * *
By the time I got home the sun had cleared the range, burned the frost off the 2 X 4 railings. I spent the better part of last month building ramps, one out the back door of the house and one off the covered porch in the front. It’s important to me that Pop can get in or out any door, not just for safety, but for dignity’s sake, now that he’s stuck in the damn wheelchair most of the time. I’m no carpenter, but when you have YouTube and a garage full of tools you can teach yourself to build just about anything.
I squatted low to mount the binoculars back onto the rickety tripod I keep on the porch. The whole setup is asking for breakage and disaster, but birding is the only thing that has kept me sane in this house. I heard Pop roll over the threshold, felt the porch floor shudder just a little under the weight of his chair.
“Vera,” he said. He put his hand between my shoulder blades. The warmth radiated down through my heart, my belly, my heels. I imagined it vining like roots down through the porch slats, breaking up the hardpan ground below.
I stayed frozen in place, kept Pop’s hand on my back. I’d been short with Pop since I talked to Henson. I knew it. Now, I wanted to ask him whether I should take my ledger down to the BLM office, press for charges about the fences, the possible burn. I wanted to know where Pop’s loyalty was, which side of his heart was bigger. I wanted to see how he’d react if I said, out loud, Henson’s cutting fence. He’s going to graze the BLM and our lek. I could turn him in if I wanted to. He has the most precious little girl.
I turned toward him, kneeling next to his chair. “There are only fifteen of our birds left,” I said. I don’t cry much, but I was crying then. “You wrote it down yourself, in your ledger. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Umm,” Pop’s brow furrowed. His hand moved toward his brow, but I caught it in both of mine, bringing it to the wet of my cheek. He shook his head sadly. “Dammit.”
Pop can still swear like nobody’s business. He can also sing every word to “Along Came Jones” by The Coasters and a number of other novelty tunes from his high school years. He sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show, but he gets all the words. Julie tells me this is normal too, that profanity and music endure beyond prepositions and names, which feels like it must be an important fact about humans even though I can’t exactly say how. It is very endearing and I marvel, with every crystal-clear Pop cuss, how much we don’t know about the world of our own brains.
“Vera,” Pop said, his tone serious. “Oreos.”
I don’t know what to worry about most, what to cling tightly onto and what to let go. Will too many Oreos give Pop a heart attack? Will Henson burn the lek? Will his beautiful pig-tailed daughter find a way to love both the damn birds and the damn cows? There, on the porch, I wanted Pop to help me. I wanted him to teach me, better this time, how to untangle emotion from carefully recorded facts, how to reconcile the things I feel when they aren’t the same, exactly, as the things I believe.
But instead, I said, “How many?”
He lifted his index finger and drew numbers in the air in front of his face, but I didn’t catch them. Finally, he said, “Fifteen,” then “No!” but I was already laughing, tears streaming down my face.
“Me too,” I said. “Let’s have fifteen.” I wiped my nose with my sleeve. I felt greedy, ravenous. I wanted the most of everything.
“No. Ummm,” Pop held up four fingers and said, “Two. No! Son of a bitch!”
“I’ll just bring the whole bag,” I said.
Pop can have as many Oreos as he wants.
* * *
In 2005, scientists confirmed an ivory-billed woodpecker, a single male, alive in the woods of Arkansas. Reports by amateur birders had been rejected for years by ornithologists, who insisted that ivory-bills were extinct, that the birders, lacking appropriate training, were simply encountering the luckier and still in the world pileated woodpecker, an ivory-billed look-alike, and projecting (as humans do) their desire to see something both rare and lovely, declaring it ivory-billed. Eventually, though, evidence stacked against the skeptics.
This, too, I’m supposed to read as a sign of hope, but again, I don’t see it that way. I know exactly how lonely that poor bird must be, small in the world, the only one of its kind. I study these endangered species that love their land so much they’ll die without it, and I feel all the same emotions of twelve-year-old me, but lonelier somehow. It’s like I’m watching something beautiful die, the weight of the inevitable end heavy on my shoulders, and I know that all my best efforts to save them will never be enough, and I know that I will make them anyway, always and forever.
Claire Boyles is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, a middle school teacher, and a mom. Her writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, KUNC Public Radio, and the Greeley Tribune.