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At the Ginko Petrified Forest in eastern Washington, there's a little spot of lawn at the campgrounds, by the visitor center. As you stand there, on one side the land plunges down into canyon—the Columbia River stretching vast between those ancient rocky walls. On the other side is broads stretch of shrub-steppe, scraggly little desert-grasses and bare desert-bushes, curving slowly a distant ridge.

But at that little spot of lawn, those unkempt beautifully-twisted shrubby bushes turn, all at once, over a stark line, into bright-green short-cut suburban-as-hell grass. There's four enormous revolving sprinklers going off all the time, because when you're in the goddamn desert you have to do that kind of aggressive maintenance to keep anything so mundane as grass alive.

And even though I'd seen sights like this before, even though I'd been to this exact spot before, when I stood there Saturday morning I felt a flash of hot, unbridled anger. Perhaps the shrub-steppe just struck me as particularly beautiful that morning, or I was feeling particularly temperamental, or something else. But I thought, how stupid and wasteful and ugly seems. How stupid and wasteful and ugly lawns everywhere seemed—here we were in the heart of sagebrush country, the last untamed bit of the American West, and instead of respecting that for what it is, even in the grounds of a state park, we've got four damn sprinklers going off all at once just to preserve some perverse purity, some symbol of civility.

* * *

Potholes State Park is a curious sort of park—it's largely artificial in nature. It's another little oasis, this time flooded by bits of rerouting done from the reservoirs in the area. Of course, there used to be such areas scattered all over eastern Washington, before there were any reservoirs; but now there are reservoirs, and that water's needed for farmland, and so we dump a bit of the leftovers in a small, out-of-the-way state park and call that preservation.

Eastern Oregon has a similar landscape, but has been less aggressive with farmland expansion. You can see the result of that in Malheur Wildlife Refuge—yeah, the one that was occupied y'allqueda. That refuge has the highest diversity of breeding birds in all of North America; a tremendous abundance of species can thrive in a habitat like that.

But in Washington we have Potholes. And Potholes is lovely, lovely, I don't want to minimize the place. But when your trip leader, a lifelong naturalist, sighs and says that the population of these species is going down all the time, that thank God for Potholes but all the land outside it is being farmed to hell, you can't help but feel a tug of longing. Can't help but wonder how vastly these birds used to roam.

The same sorts of species seem to keep coming to Potholes. In smaller numbers, but they're there; no major extinctions recently that I know of. And yet you look at them and wonder—can they really survive if their territory is pushed back and back and minimized? Is a species that once wandered across all of eastern Washington, but now can only reasonably travel within the bounds of a small state park, still the same species in spirit? What's that do to them?

I think of a line in a Tiptree short story. In the story, a woman's explaining to a man that she finds women's rights a hopeless cause, that those "rights" will be taken away by men at the first whiff of a crisis, that women will never be able to exert real power. "We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine," she tells him.

I think of the birds that still return to Potholes, an oasis among farmland. I think of the house finch nest I saw wedged into a rafter at an airport a week ago. Wedged into the chinks of the world-machine.

* * *

Here's the ironic bit about that lawn at the Ginko Petrified Forest: we were birding there precisely because of that patch of grass. That little lawn had some tall, scrupulously maintained deciduous trees at its edges, and birds that are migrating through flock to those places—tiny oases where they can stop and rest on their relentless journey northward. And much as I hated that wasted water and the vanity of that lawn in principle, well, in practice, I saw fifteen species in half an hour, and I love that probably just as much as some groundskeeper loves that perfect little green lawn.

* * *

I read an internet comment the other day, in a thread about wolf reintroduction in the American West. The commenter had grown up in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, among ranchers, and declared the wolf reintroduction program an idiotic and ineffective bleeding-heart cause. He argued that having wolves around needlessly made the area more dangerous (despite close-to-zero records of wild wolves attacking humans, but whatever), and said a hell of a lot of money was being spent for something that wasn't even improving the state of the ecosystem.

It's arguably true, what he says about not improving the ecosystem. The studies on what caused the elk population numbers to return to steady-state are mixed. And the commentator mentioned that ranchers had been more correct than government scientists before—it took conservationists a while to figure out what rangers knew, that sometimes you have to let the land burn when it catches fire, because that fire's part of the cycle of destruction and renewal of the healthy ecosystem, too, even if it looks like mere destruction to an untrained eye.

And it's not just ranchers and red-staters who rankle at senseless conservation attempts. The ones making the rules, it seems, can please no one. I remember reading a book—Heinrich's Ravens in Winter, I think—where the author was so angry about a senseless law that forbade keeping a pet crow or raven, even as it allowed shooting any number of crows. Much can be learned from one living crow, he said, and little from a dozen dead ones. Probably that law was made in good faith, to protect crows from abuse by thoughtless humans, but probably it didn't do much.

And at Potholes, we couldn't go but a little ways down the path—the area was marked off until May 30th, to allow the birds nesting there some privacy. Our naturalist-leader, though he obeyed the sign's directive, still scoffed at it. The only people who'd wander out to Potholes would be birders, a group that's generally-respectful of nesting birds, and the types of birds that nest there are pretty indifferent to human disturbance to begin with, and anyway, the restriction was toothless as-written—great many birds in that area nest well into June, past that cutoff.

So the commenter wasn't making totally off-base complaints; probably he had some good points. And yet I got so peeved at him anyway, I think probably because he led with the axiom that he didn't see the point of the wolves—if they weren't particularly good for anything, or for ranchers, why bring them back?

The wolves are the point. You can grouse about this or that species's needs, grouse about what's best for the ecosystem as a whole, but if we're starting with different axioms then all that's left for me to do is sulk, quietly irritated by him, and hope too many people didn't agree with him.

* * *

It's impossible to escape that "lawn effect," really. We've done some sort of curation to about every square acre of the country, in ways big and small, and ultimately we often call those places beautiful. I remember visiting central California as a child and thinking I'd stumbled into Paradise: the eternally-perfect weather, the cutesy touristy towns, the endless stretches of vineyards and rice fields, all teeming with lush life. But, of course, so much of California—that whole central valley—is really a desert; the only way farming there works at all is due to massive irrigation, and that has its limits, as California's sporadic drought problems have shown. It's a lawn, but it's the size of half of a state. It's easy to rail at a snooty millionaire in L.A. for obsessively watering their precious little lawn. But that central valley's a place people write poetry about, and no one seems to mention that we've irrigated the hell out of it, too.

* * *

At some point during the trip—right after we'd seen a kestrel fluttering against a raucous breeze, I think—I stared out at the sagebrush, lit up all lovely in the midday sun, and for the first time I understood what people may like in westerns. You know, western as in those cheap paperbacks with cowboys shooting up each other on the frontier in the 1800s. Not that I've ever read a western—the idea's never appealed to me, the same way some people just aren't particularly interested in the fantasy-kingdom-with-dragons setting. But there's something awfully vast and romantic about the land out there, all stretched-out before you, where the bushes all look brown and tattered and bare and yet life is creeping out of everything in sneaking, beautiful ways—brown sparrows skulking and the timid buds of wildflowers just about to bloom, all of it under that harsh harsh sun and in that dry dry dirt. Looking at it, squinting your eyes, you could still pretend the west was wild as it ever was, almost.
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