Basin and range, basin and range. From my grandmother’s front porch in Lund, Nevada, I watched many-colored sunsets paint the sky above the three mountain ridges visible across the White River Valley. As a child I searched for geodes in the foothills behind the town when I came to visit, and, as an adult living in Salt Lake City, I drove across the salt flats as fast as I could to get to this nearly empty, high-slung valley. Arid and largely unpopulated, the fascinating geography and resilient flora and fauna of the Great Basin are missed by many as they travel with purposeful speed to reach destinations of oasis or civilization on the Basin’s edges. With poetic sensitivity and very readable science, Stephen Trimble shows us an intimate look at the large and small wonders of the Basin’s complex and beautiful ecosystems. Here is one of my favorite impressions of The Sagebrush Ocean. ~Kirsten Johanna Allen
From Chapter 2
The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin by Stephen Trimble
Brittle curls of shrunken clay crunch under my feet. I step between tufts of saltgrass almost as brittle as the dried mud, the papery leaves as sharp as the salt crystals the grass tolerates.
Here on the dried mud flat at the edge of southeast Oregon’s Alvord Desert, kangaroo rat burrows lace the bases of greasewood clumps. Jackrabbits leap from underfoot and bounce off over the next rise. In this treeless world they seem huge–as big as antelope.
One jackrabbit does not go far but keeps nibbling on juicy, salty greasewood leaves. I creep closer and closer, eye to camera view-finder, eye to eye with the hare. it regards me sidelong, with one great round brown eye, and when I come too close, it moves through saltgrass to the other side of a greasewood and keeps feeding.
The jackrabbit lives its life in this place where I am a visitor. Most of the year, moist plants quench its thirst. Living where it cannot hide, it relies on speed and an erratic dash for cover in a “forest” of low shrubs to escape hungry coyotes and eagles, reaching forty miles per hour at full lope.
Great Basin Indians relied on jackrabbits for food and clothing. For life. Though I do not hunt, I feel an old connection between humans and game when I look the jackrabbit in the eye. Though not the only connection we can feel with animals, this is a powerful and ancient one.
We come to the desert in part to share in this flow of lives other than our own. Cities obscure the flow by banishing most animals except humans. A sensitive observer like Loren Eiseley could find the magic–the “mystery of being and becoming”–in an orb-weaving spider in suburbia, in pigeons in Manhattan. In the Great Basin Desert one need not be Loren Eiseley, or a mystic, to feel it.
Every naturalist writes about sensing this power of Life. Aldo Leopold called it “a vast pulsing harmony.” Annie Dillard found it in silence, “the blended note of the ten thousand things.”
This silence makes for clear thinking about how one fits into the world. The jackrabbit snaps me into place in the scheme of life. This single hare nibbling a greasewood clump in the Alvord Desert connects me–the mystery of all wild beings pooled in brown jackrabbit eyes.
When I stand to leave, I feel drained and exhilarated. And it matters that the jackrabbit is wild. Making eye contact with my dog, who is curled up and waiting on the dried mud of the playa, I do not have the same experience; I know him too well. There is no sense of entering another world.
The jackrabbit needs not acknowledgment. It lives in a world sufficient unto itself, a wilderness of animals. I may participate, but life flows on with vigor regardless of my presence. And its vigor shows life not merely surviving but at home in this desert.
Stephen Trimble is a friend and neighbor in Torrey who tells stories—in words and photographs—about the land and people of the West. Check out Steve on his website at www.stephentrimble.net.