Letter: On the front steps

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Dan Sobieck

There are certain June mornings here on the prairie that remind us why we chose to live here. We awoke this morning with a faint breeze from the northwest and the promise of rain and so sat on the front steps of the ranch house, enjoying a hot mug of coffee and taking in a free avian chorus. Framed by ponds on three sides, the yard forms a natural palette, if not an amphitheater, for the vocals on this open prairie. Let the music begin!

A true ornithologist could have closed their eyes and quickly documented the number of bird species participating; we make do with a dog-eared Audubon bird guide and years of applied observation. It starts around 4:30 a.m., the squeaks of flycatchers in the half-dark, the coo of doves, chirp of robins, and the chatter and buzz of swallows and blackbirds. English sparrows scold all others and mix with the winnowing sound of snipe swooping high overhead in their courtship displays.

Now add the honk of Canada geese, wigeon whistles, soft gadwall quacks, and the patter of ruddy duck drakes as they rapidly slap bill to chest in their breeding display.

Missing this morning is the warble of meadowlarks, although they are happy to offer solos once you leave the yard and travel any distance. The scaup and their raspy call are noticeably absent, along with the hard quack of mallard hens, still tending their nests.

Rooster pheasants call from distant hills and mix with the faint clatter and wheeze of our ancient pump-jack below the house as it labors to raise well-water from the depths for our Juneberries. A bittern is nearby, adding his own "pump-a-lunk" call.


The most accomplished vocalists may be the sooty and understated coot, which possess a repertoire of sounds more at home in a jungle rather than here in Prairie Pothole country. They call to each other across the yard.

A musky fragrance of sage and lilacs competes with the sweetness of chokecherry and hawthorn blossoms, but the resulting perfume cries out "Spring!" And now the black dog barks at a wide-bottomed mule deer at the edge of the yard and chases it up the driveway and over a hill before trotting back dutifully as if mule deer were the largest threat facing us these days.

There is a weight here, of the landscape, and of the knowledge that other people sat on this same spot, listening to these same birds, over many generations. There is also an undeniable sense of comfort, with world events intruding only via elective electronic media. Comfort, too, in knowing the sounds and rhythms of this landscape have continued for centuries, and sometimes millenniums, without regard to disease or human conflict and suffering—and knowing they will continue for centuries longer.

It is a lot to ponder on this windless morning, on the front steps, with a hot mug of coffee.

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