For the past year and a half, I have regularly used the word “conservation” when referring to our community’s relationship with these ten acres of shortgrass prairie. While conservation has not required that The Land remains unchanged, it has created space to understand the pricelessness of The Land we would be conserving. As a practice, conservation implies that there is value in the land as it exists in its current state. As a proclamation, conservation claims that this Land, surrounded by fracking sites, busy streets, airplane paths, and housing developments is indeed priceless.
Conservation invites patience, relationship, and humility as we become the learners and The Land becomes our Teacher. We are educated not simply by this plant or that plant, by this bird or that rodent, but from the relationship between all living beings that reveals the presence of an active, vibrant, cooperative community. Through the intention of conservation, we experience The Land through the intimacy of relationships and the complexities of interactions.
The irony of conservation is that it exposes the potential conserver with inescapable loss. By its very nature, conservation cultivates gratitude and solicits grief. As our gratitude for the ecosystem expands, all that is no longer present to conserve is unveiled. We recognize we will never restore the prairie as it once was when bison grazed in massive herds and blue grama grew without cheatgrass as competition. In the value of life acquired through the practice of conservation, we learn the cost of carelessness and the guilt of extinction. We face the reality that once plants, animals, and ecosystems are gone, they are gone forever.
In the early 1800s, the shortgrass prairie was home to massive herds of free-ranging bison and pronghorn, as well as huge prairie dog colonies, deer and elk, and top predators including gray wolves and grizzly bears. Although pronghorn and prairie dogs still inhabit Colorado’s prairies in reduced numbers, the former top predators have been replaced by coyotes.
According to National Geographic, all but 1% of the Great Plains original plants have been replaced by farmed grasses such as wheat, rye, oats, and corn. In Colorado, nearly 50% of our historic shortgrass prairie has been converted to agriculture, cattle grazing, or other uses. This is the largest loss of all Colorado ecosystems.
Consequently, grassland bird species who find their home on the prairie are believed to constitute one of the fastest declining vertebrate populations in North America. Likewise, a long list of endangered species continues to lengthen. Burrowing Owl, ferruginous hawk, mountain plover, McCown’s longspur, chestnut-collared longspur, long-billed curlew, northern pocket gopher, ornate box turtles, massasavga rattlesnake, Texas horned lizard…
The original intention in the focus of conservation suggested a pause in “progress” to learn the story of where the prairie had been and where the prairie is now. Conservation was a pause with the possibility of slowing down just enough to experience connection in a habitat that offered sacred belonging long before we claimed it as our own. Our pause has become an intersection of narratives. The place where the promise of the prairie transformed our purpose from the unilateral commitment of conservation toward the reciprocal lifestyle of kinship.
In the pause, I am learning that the belief that a place is worth conserving is only a beginning. This is where we fall in love. Where we decentralize ourselves from the story of place enough to see that this story is not ours alone. When the story transitions from one about objects, to subjects to personalities that we understand to be friends. As an ending, as a goal, conservation erodes quickly into the humancentric hoarding of the natural world. We seek to function as saviors of the wild things. We work to avoid the pain of further loss we experience as personal failures. We fight to keep things the same so that we can avoid being the ones who change.
To change is the most challenging way forward. After the pause in conservation, where grief and gratitude collide, we face many paths forward. We can concede to the grief and give up as a preemptive response to failure. We can remain in the pause and expect a living system to remain in its place by submitting to human control. Or we can graduate from our role of conservers to a lifestyle of kinship where we agree to learn, to respond, to change, and to grow with the cycles of creation and the creativity of our fellow creatures. Though we arrived as developers determined to dominate the landscape, we can choose to remain as participants in a story rooted in the soil and spoken by the songbird.
Many things are true that I wish were not, but none are more painful than the reality of our ongoing involvement in the current climate catastrophe. I do not think the work we do here will save the planet nor do I believe it could save the prairie. We have not inherited the purity of the plains but the remnants of a life void of reciprocity. I do not believe that our call to a lifestyle of kinship will resurrect an ecological Eden, but I do believe it may save us from despair and offer our children and their children hope. That there will still be small spaces left where people listen to the voices of connectivity in the air and under their feet and know for certain that they are held. That they are loved. Not only by those present but also by those of us who once were and loved them enough to learn, to respond, to change, and to grow.