The vast, mostly uninterrupted space of the Wyoming prairie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It is easy to get lost in the view of the land stretching for miles and miles until it touches the sky. The sun rose to my left as I sat looking at a cliff on Saturday morning, and there was no shade except for the left side of my body casting a shadow over my right. I could hear birds chirping and bees buzzing, but I could only hear two types of birdsong and I only saw one bee.
Even though the prairie seems empty, it is full of life if you look for it. The hill I was on was covered in tall grasses, herbaceous plants, and pebbles and rocks, and the gullies where precious rainwater flows down from the hill and the cliff were filled with taller, denser grasses and small wildflowers. The slope I was facing was covered in short tufts of sagebrush, which you can find all over the preserve. The distinctive sage smell communicates a story of adaptation, survival, and interaction. In less windy areas on the preserve, the big sagebrush species stands tall in a community filled with prairie dogs, pronghorns, and other grazers. It developed its signature scent as a defense against herbivores, and the compounds that make up the aroma make most grazers sick if they consume high quantities. There are so many other stories of how the organisms, interactions, and features I’ve come to see on the preserve as “common” came to be in extraordinary, complex ways over thousands of years. Being able to experience with all five senses these stories of evolution and transformation is almost overwhelming at times, making me feel small in comparison to the forces at work on the preserve.
The stretch of land across the preserve is unfathomably large, but you can still sense the land and its contents beyond what you can see. On a hilltop, you can barely make out little specks of other people sitting a quarter of a mile away from you, but you can hear them talk like they were in another room. Sitting on the hill that morning, I could hear birds I couldn’t see flying around me and I could smell sagebrush from hundreds of yards away. During a plant community mapping activity, I could taste the accumulation of salt in a valley’s soil through saltbush leaves and feel how a particular species of sagebrush adapted to be shorter to better withstand harsh winds. Even in the uninterrupted prairie, you can’t see everything, particularly not the histories of struggle and adaptation that have created the ecosystem that exists here today. Our other senses, sound, smell, taste, and touch, help fill in the limits in our sight. They tell us what the soil is like, what plants and animals are around us, and how the components of an ecosystem are interacting away from our prying eyes.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,