IT’S PREDAWN in the vast ocean of sage and sand that bristles between the Wind River Range and the Owl Creek Mountains. I am ten miles from the nearest farmhouse, and the last gurgle of my ATV motor has long surrendered to the night. The surrounding land is full of quiet life; beyond the nylon tent walls of my blind, pronghorn rest warily and coyotes prowl. Somewhere a rattlesnake slips delicately through the sage roots. But I am tuned and waiting for one singular sound: the crescendo of wing beats that signals the arrival of the first sage grouse. Until then, I revel in the near silence.
In nature, there is nothing wrong with quiet. It exists under the weighted depths of ocean and in the cool of rocky caverns. It spills out beneath the wings of eagles as the world below freezes. Nature is never wholly silent: she speaks in breathy whistles and the jingle of dry leaves. She listens, but she is not mute. Even in the high desert, where sage-shrouded grouse have just begun to stir and a girl sits alone in the shelter of a camouflage blind, she has so much to say in her quiet.
I have been called “quiet” from an early age. Our world of constant conversation often makes me feel expendable. There is no appropriate response to the phrase “You’re really quiet.” It is observational. The same could be said to the arid flats of Wyoming: “You’re really quiet.” I don’t know what compels people to comment so frequently on this quality; perhaps it is discomfort. For those uncomfortable with silence, I prescribe five to seven hours in the Wyoming sagebrush. Take daily (with coffee) before sunrise for three months.
A ceaseless soundtrack plays in my Massachusetts hometown: mechanical screeches and hurried footsteps against concrete. Quiet in the city streets is ominous; I’m drawn instead to the hush of the wild. Perhaps this is why I chose to move from Cambridge to an off-the-grid trailer in central Wyoming for a wildlife research position with five strangers. Wild spaces are my medicine.
The greater sage grouse is known as an indicator species. The survival of these chicken-size birds is integrally tied to the fragile sagebrush ecosystem of the West. Their diet consists almost entirely of sage; they have adapted to excrete the toxins of the plant in sticky black puddles known as cecal tar. Where other grassland creatures (elk, mule deer, pronghorn, jackrabbits, cottontails, kangaroo rats, deer mice, sagebrush sparrows, and meadowlarks) supplement their winter diets with insects and other hardy plants, or migrate hundreds of miles south to warmer grazing grounds, sage grouse just keep munching sage. If you look closely enough, you might see their tiny bright green bite marks along the edges of the leaves. But chances are, wandering through the open, you won’t run into a grouse. As the sage disappears, so do they.
In addition to their herbaceous diet, sage grouse also subsist on silence. In early spring, crowds of male sage grouse gather daily in clearings known as leks to perform elaborate courtship displays while visiting females observe quietly, choosing their mate for the precision of his dance moves. On their stage, the male grouse flourish; they fan their sharp tail feathers, puff the regal white collars around their necks, and inflate the bawdy yellow air sacs on their chests, emitting a series of otherworldly swishes and an elastic pop-whistle-pop that carry for miles through the otherwise silent sage—a syncopated siren call to passing hens. Early each morning, the sage grouse are the headliners of the wild. Then, in a seemingly choreographed exit, they flush to the air, and the land returns to relative quiet. The rest of their days are spent in silence, or amid the melodic warble of songbirds, concealed in the brush, listening for disturbances and nibbling sage leaves.
Oil and gas rigs threaten this calm of the Wyoming sagebrush. The clamor of traffic and drilling deters the grouse from nearby leks. When you drive through Wyoming on smooth new highways, you pass by modernized libraries, pristine football fields, and hundreds of miles of wilderness, broken only by the slow bow of oil rigs in the distance. You are seeing a land funded by fossil fuel, where the fate of a species is pitted against the value of natural gas. Even as I write this, several years after I found myself in the company of these most eccentric birds, the Interior Department continues to lease new land for oil and gas extraction on hundreds of thousands of acres of already imperiled wilderness, opening the landscape, our climate, and the grouse to further detriment. The quiet of nature, and the creatures who depend on it, are seen as expendable. In a state of fewer than 600,000 people, wild spaces are traded for progress and silence for revenue.
Quiet is more than an absence of word: through the layers of muted darkness, it teaches me a new kind of listening. We are not allowed to talk in the blind. At first, it is hard to sit still through the cold and empty hours, with only my restless thoughts. Then, slowly, I acclimate.
You hear them before you see them. Whirring propellers of bone and feather grasp the air with mechanical grace as they land. The sunlight leaks over the horizon and there are the males, patrolling the clearing, sizing each other up and, slowly, beginning their strut. Here among the sage grouse and fading stars, I am not isolated. In these quiet moments, I am only one piece of the grand unspoken landscape.