May 29, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

Prairie in Hock

1
The house holds itself to itself, out here on the edge of the Great Plains. The prairie grasses have been allowed to run right up to the foundation, and they ripple hotly in the June breeze, a sea of tossing ephemera against the solid weight of the house. I pause on the trail, wondering if this will be the thing that lets me reach in and touch the strange, lonely heart of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been chasing that heart all spring, hoping for something that will help me break through its carefully constructed surface.

I wait, listening, feeling the wind tug at my backpack like a thief. But the house, windows boarded-up and blank, yields nothing. I continue on the trail.

I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. I have been hooked by the Arsenal’s promise—once a munitions plant north of Denver, then a Superfund site, and now a fifteen-thousand-acre urban wildlife refuge, complete with bison, eagles, and black-footed ferrets—but this is my third visit, and I haven’t quite connected with that promise. Some key part seems to be missing, and I can’t tell what.

My goal for today is to see if hiking will make a difference. The refuge has over ten miles of trail, which suggest I should be able to lose myself on the lonesome prairie—but the day is turning out to involve a lot of driving and little tiny loops of trail. A mile and a half here, seven tenths of a mile there, all of it visible from one road or another. I feel both alone and exposed, and it’s putting me on edge.

As I follow the path, restored prairie grass brushing at my calves, I lift my gaze to the far horizon, nearly five miles off as the crow flies. It’s vast and open to the sky: that is where I want to go, but I can’t. It’s closed to foot traffic because of the bison. The trail I’m on crosses a road, circles around a flagpole near the old Arsenal headquarters, and then returns to where it started.

I glance back at the house. When it was built in the early twentieth century, this would have been open country, laced with endless dirt roads and hard-bitten farms. Back then you could walk to the horizon and keep going, although the bison and wolves were long gone, and wheat and alfalfa had replaced the shortgrass prairie. You could have tightened up your pack and walked forever, but you wouldn’t, because there were crops to hoe and fences to mend, and somebody had better get these potatoes peeled in time for dinner. The longer I stare at the house the more I can feel the lingering disapproval of the Swiss immigrant family who once lived here—they wouldn’t have been out hiking on a glorious spring morning, dicking around on little trails that don’t go anywhere. They would have been off in the fields, getting stuff done.

Some of them, at least. The name of the family was Egli, and recorded oral history on a playback loop at the Visitor Center says that the requisitioning of the property just after the start of World War II was a blow the father never really got over. “It was awfully hard to give up everything he’d worked for,” says one of his daughters, on the tape. “He just sat there and cried.”

She, on the other hand, was given a way out. You can maybe hear the suppressed excitement beneath her words as she talks about life on the farm vs. life after the farm.

I like the oral histories, but in the end they feel like just another documented artifact, incorporated and explained, keeping me at arm’s length. The thing that calls to me from the Arsenal is something deeper and more haunting.

I follow the trail around a thicket of shrubby locust trees planted by the Eglis to break the wind. They aren’t native, but the refuge managers have allowed them to stay. I peer into the stripey shade.

The liquid eyes of mule deer peer back. Three, four, five—they recline in the thicket like unicorns in medieval tapestries, legs folded under their bellies. Vibrating in the air about them I sense the nearness of what I seek: something in their unconcern, their plainness, their wary but open gaze.

Like the unicorns, surrounded by fences and men with spears, these ordinary deer seem to possess something we grasping humans can’t quite touch. The official language of the Arsenal is straightforward and carefully calibrated, but what it promises—the restoration of a landscape damaged almost beyond repair—is something closer to redemption: a moral transformation. I sense that the deer are both at the heart of that redemption and indifferent to it.

I want a piece of that redemption, but I am no closer, three visits in, than I was at the beginning.

 

2
What brought me to the Arsenal were the ferrets. I was writing a story on the surreal comeback of the black-footed ferret, and I wanted to see the kind of place where this was possible. For that, you need acreage: a prairie-dog town that covers at least fifteen hundred acres. I wasn’t even sure what that many prairie dogs looked like and, since I lived in the Denver suburbs, my contacts said that the Arsenal was the closest, easiest place to find out. The US Fish and Wildlife Service had released two dozen ferrets here the previous fall, and—bonus—there was a live ferret in a pen at the Visitor Center. I made the drive.

I loved how the ferrets had been hiding in plain sight. Declared extinct for almost two decades, the ferrets reappeared, not in a remote desert canyon, not on a pristine mountaintop, but dragged to the back door of a ranch outside of Meeteetse, Wyoming, by a dog named Shep. Deep in the forgotten reaches of flyover country, the rediscovery suggested there was still hope for the lost magnificence of the prairie.

I wanted some of that hope. My husband and I, having spent our twenties roaming the wilds of western Colorado and excitedly discussing ways we’d raise our kids on trails and fresh- caught trout, had ended up in the suburbs. Our kids and our problems were all suburban—mortgages, commutes, Little League drama. We were squatting on that lost magnificence and sort of constantly hating ourselves for it.

Our house plunged deep into what was once shortgrass prairie, and our days involved driving to office parks and Big Box stores. At night my mind reached out to the soul of the place, searching in vain for a connection, for forgiveness, for a sign that all was not lost. I mentally probed the bentonite clay powdered up against the foundations, looking for the memory of what used to be here: that openness, that wind, those teeming grassland roots. The ferrets, and the restored prairie around them, gave me hope for a reprieve.

The presence of the ferrets was a miracle, a celebration, one tiny step back from the brink of the Sixth Extinction. They are, as Kimberley Fraser at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center told me, a perfect regulatory species: in order to support the ferrets, there must be sufficient acres of prairie-dog towns. Prairie-dog towns provide a rich and multilayered ecosystem, with food and homes for burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, hawks, and eagles. If there are ferrets, the prairie must be flourishing.

So the Arsenal was a disappointment. It was set in one of the most bleak and blasted industrial landscapes of the city, past refineries and warehouses and mile after mile of exhaust-stained hurricane fencing. My first view was of the eight-foot perimeter fence, beyond which were endless weeds, studded with trash. The Arsenal was less Little House on the Prairie and more a place you might dump your defunct washing machine, then use it for target practice before roaring off in your gas-guzzling pickup. It looked about as likely to be home to an endangered species as one of the warehouses.

Still, when I parked outside the stylish new Visitor Center and made my way through the sounds of wind, yipping prairie dogs, and the beeping and grinding of a nearby construction site, I could see the heart of the Arsenal, soft and rolling and just beginning to green up, sweeping north almost as far as my eye could see. Somewhere in there were the bison and the ferrets. I felt my heart lift.

 

3
On that first day, I went into the Visitor Center and learned about the Arsenal, its history and its promise. I learned about its creation—Pearl Harbor in December, requisition of farms in May, construction complete by the middle of June. The process moved so quickly that the farmers had to abandon the crops they’d blithely planted a few weeks before.

The Arsenal manufactured mustard gas, sarin gas, chlorine gas, Agent Orange, phosphorus bombs—the full quiver of chemical nightmares from the twentieth century. Even once the political winds began to shift, the Arsenal remained dedicated to toxins: pesticides and herbicides and rocket fuel. In 1987 it was declared a Superfund site. And then, according to the official narrative (listen closely and you can hear the soundtrack’s swelling chords), a government biologist saw an endangered bald eagle nesting on the site during decommissioning talks. The rest slots neatly into place: the decade of cleanup, the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge in 2004, the dedication of the new glass-and-copper Visitor Center. The arrival of bison in 2007 and black-footed ferrets in 2015 completed the circle, and now redemption, according to the narrative, is complete. Fifteen thousand acres of prairie, wetland, and riparian woodland near the heart of downtown Denver.

The Visitor Center’s account of the redemption sticks to the facts. The remediation was long and costly: the most contaminated areas had to have the entire topsoil removed down to bedrock. This soil, along with other toxic leftovers, was buried onsite in a lined pit with a protective surface built of multiple layers of rock, liner, and soil, like a barrier lasagna.

I learned that even the noncontaminated parts of the Arsenal needed rehabilitation—in terms of straight-up damage to the prairie, farming is almost as bad as making Agent Orange, and most of the fifteen thousand acres were farmed before they were requisitioned by the Army.

I listened to the oral histories: the bomb factory and the war effort and the turn, after the war ended, to commercial enterprises. Shell Oil made insecticides here for thirty years. I leaned in, tucking my hair behind my ears: this felt different, and significant. While mustard gas and Little Willies may no longer be standard weapons of war (for now), our way of life still depends on toxic chemicals. One of the things I dislike so much about living in the suburbs is the way we’ve come to accommodate things like Roundup and d-CON, almost without blinking. Here it was obvious: the acts we are trying to redeem are still ongoing.

There are other sins. The earlier land grab that gave the Swiss and German settlers the chance to own their own farms in the dry prairie north of Denver also involved the U.S. Army, although it’s given much less play time in the Visitor Center. Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians owned the eastern plains and negotiated exclusive occupation in 1851. That treaty was broken seven years later; in 1864, after years of being hounded and harassed, cheated and reneged upon, the two tribes were attacked in a winter camp on Sand Creek. Over five hundred people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.

None of this is included on the interpretative placards, but this is the act that gave us these windy plains. This is how my husband and I came to own a three-bedroom two-bath house on a mangled stretch of former prairie. This is the original conflict, but the Arsenal’s account does not really get anywhere near this particular sin.

As I followed the displays around to the creation of the wildlife refuge, grainy wartime photos gave way to photos of sunsets and tiny grass seedlings; at the end there was a huge taxidermied bison. It was all very interesting, only slightly sanitized, and matter-of-fact; it was also utterly seamless. Meanwhile, my heart yawed with second thoughts. The prairie is being redeemed, sure, but in the same methodical, rule-bound way we made the mess in the first place. Each step is carefully outlined in the 167-page Habitat Management Plan, which is updated regularly and plans for every possible challenge, from excessive visitation to toxic leaks. This seems like the most reasonable way to proceed, really, but also like it’s missing something. If the original sin was everything we did, shouldn’t the path forward start by changing our ways?

I went out to the ferret display. It was newly built, a little indoor/outdoor shelter with a viewing platform on top that was intended to look out over the open prairie. Only, since everything was new, it looked out over a basin of smoothed-out mud, reinforced in places with fiber revegetation mats. It was a little like having a viewing platform over a Richmond Homes development site, complete with the distant sound of construction and the continuous traffic from Fifty-Sixth Street.

I opened the door of the indoor viewing area and entered the darkness. The ferrets were dainty balls of fur behind glass, noses tucked under their tails; they, too, were both interesting and disappointing. I watched them sleep for a while, their sides going up and down with their breath. Was this little mammal really the key to redemption?

I wandered out on the trail, feeling bored and at loose ends. The refuge was turning out to be such a weird mix of crispness, promise, and disappointment. The wind lifted my hair; I smiled perfunctorily at a couple approaching me on the trail. I could feel myself disengaging. Maybe this will redeem us; maybe not.

Then I rounded a knob and entered an avenue of juniper trees. They had obviously been planted—junipers aren’t native to this part of Colorado, plus they marched along in a perfectly straight line. This part of the Arsenal hadn’t been redeemed, then. Not totally. I started to notice bits of crumbling blacktop beneath my feet, and beside me in the grass were parking berms. Sure enough, when I looked up, I saw that the trees here were planted in a wide rectangle, revealing the ghost of a decommissioned building. I toed the rubble and imagined an office flunky taking lunch out here, or standing out in the wind and the sun to have a smoke. For a fleeting moment a crack opened up: this, here, was the Arsenal’s secret, the thing it sings while we sleep. Much later I understood that what I saw that day was the missing piece, the element struck from all of the Arsenal’s verbiage: regret.

Then it was gone, and I spent the next several months trying to get it back.

 

4
I learned a little more about what it takes to bring back the prairie a few weeks later when the Fish and Wildlife Service took me on a tour of the release site for the black-footed ferrets. I met the refuge’s assistant manager, Nick Kazcor, shortly after nine a.m., and we headed out through the massive twenty-foot gate that keeps the bison on one side and everything else on the other. This was Wildlife Drive, the nine-mile Yellowstone-like loop through the center of the refuge that is the heart and soul of the whole enterprise.

I rode shotgun in the “six pack,” Kazcor’s lingo for the King Cab pickup truck he was driving. We made our way through the zones of the refuge, and Kazcor described the rehabilitation process in a little more detail. He was young, with warm, brown eyes and a boyish enthusiasm mixed, at odd times, with a crewcut authoritarian edge: equal parts soldier and camp counselor. He told of bringing in his four-year-old daughter on a snow-closure day to feed the ferrets, going a little starry-eyed with the wonder of it all. Then he turned around and barked at some hikers that they were out of the authorized pedestrian zone and needed to leave.

Returning the Colorado high plains to shortgrass prairie after decades of farming is a struggle, he said. Where once, in Thoreau’s words, the earth said eleven kinds of grass and a rich wildflower mix that changed with the ebb and flow of rain, it now says knapweed and Canadian thistle, mullein, and hairy-top cress and endless, endless bindweed. The invasives provide bad forage and shred under pressure, so that a little drought, a little grazing, and the land is quickly bitten down to bare dirt. The bindweed is heartier, its fleshy, mole-blind roots casting out through the soil like little worms, but its virtues are slick and fickle. The land will not return to shortgrass without help.

Kazcor described the work: the fields have to be disked and seeded. Then they have to be mowed and sprayed, irrigated and burned, grazed regularly but not too hard or too often. A one-year-seeded pasture still has lots of weeds—cheatgrass, mullein, cress. A five-year-seeded pasture burned in the fall comes back a succulent green. Except for the burning, it sounded a lot like the ChemLawn routine practiced by my suburban neighbors. I wondered how much of it was dependent on the insecticides that had caused the problem in the first place.

Out loud I said, “That sounds like a lot of work.”

“We’re so unnatural right now, we have to do some forced management,” Kazcor said. It takes five years for a revegetated field to be ready for bison, longer for it to be ready for prairie dogs. Right now bison and prairie dogs can’t graze the same ground. Eventually he hoped the bison would be able to roam the entire refuge, but for now they have to be rotated through pastures, like cattle, and the prairie dogs have to be controlled.

In other words, the refuge is currently a giant farm. The prairie here is not its own wild beast but a dependent creature—an invalid, a managed thing. The thought made me restless, and although it was a lovely day, sunny and cheerful, with early summer flowers starting to pop up along the ditches, I sank a little.

We passed twin hills; they seemed natural enough, except for rising in the midst of a rolling plain. This used to be the center of the Arsenal, Kazcor said. Where the manufacturing happened. I consulted my memory of the giant photograph at the Visitor Center: the center of the Arsenal was flat. These hills were new. Sure enough, Kazcor told me how all of the toxins from the site—the contaminated soil, the poisoned buildings and silos and tables and hazmat suits—were buried here. The hills are toxic tombs, specially built to withstand earthquakes or a nuclear strike, lined beneath to keep the toxins in and lined above to keep burrowing things out. Concrete troughs on every corner of each hill draw off the rainwater.

I stared at them as we went past. Except for the troughs, which looked like zippers, they seemed innocuous enough: gentle, slightly irregular, shimmering with grass and wildflowers. A meadowlark launched itself from one hill as we drove by, a bright-yellow bullet.

 

5
We proceeded to the ferret release site. This was the broad northern half of the Arsenal, the wildest, remotest part—although we could see the white peaks of Denver International Airport in the distance, and if you squint at my photos from the day you can see semitrucks barreling along E470.

The two-thousand-acre prairie-dog town was impressive only in size and, perhaps, its busyness: birds, prairie dogs, grasshoppers, beetles. North of us was the bright, fluttery green of bindweed. Bindweed was everywhere. This was the biggest bindweed patch I had ever seen in my life. Kazcor said the prairie dogs will eat bindweed; I asked if it ever dries up, like other weeds. Kazcor shook his head. “Nothing kills bindweed,” he said. “Those seeds last in the seed bank like fifty years.”

He mentioned the seed bank a few more times as we walked along the dirt two-track that wound through the prairie-dog town. It came across in his telling like a mystical force, a counter balance to the tedious work of reclamation. Where they had to either buy or harvest native prairie seeds, the seed bank just produced them, spontaneously, a mix of noxious weeds and old residents of the vanished prairie. The seed bank made it sound like the prairie was not so much lost as asleep. I thought of the force I reached out to as I lay in bed: was this where the lost magnificence lay?

Walking up and down along the soft, dirt road, Kazcor told me about the ferrets. They are all vaccinated and microchipped, and periodically they’re roused out of their burrows and counted. The host prairie dogs must be dusted for fleas—later we passed a crew on ATVs, squirting shots of white insecticide into the mouths of burrows. The prairie dogs were also being treated with an experimental vaccine to ward off sylvatic plague, the principal threat to ferret recovery. The ferrets seemed to rival the toxic hills in terms of the tech support required to maintain them, and I thought, as I looked out over the burrow-studded field, that this was an odd sort of redemption.

I came here for the ferrets, and here they were. Sort of. Except that what was going on here was not exactly nature, magnificent and free, but something that felt dispiritingly like mortgages, commutes, and Little League drama.

 

6
The last trail I hike at the Arsenal is the Havana Ponds Trail, an old service road out to a trash-strewn reservoir in full view of busy Fifty-Sixth Street. The sense of being both alone and exposed is stronger here than anywhere, and I have to talk myself through the last twenty feet of the trail (“Just far enough to look at the ducks. Just far enough to look at the ducks.”) I’m sweaty and irritated, and I’ve started a running tally of the Arsenal’s faults.

The trails suck. It’s overregulated. The best animals are all locked in and people are all locked out, or kept in cars. It isn’t wild. It’s like a zoo, or a farm, or a museum.

If the prairie is really to return, as wild and vital as the wind rushing down off Long’s Peak, we need more than expensively maintained ferrets and well-regulated grazers. We need wolves. We need grizzlies. We need herds of bison pouring over the open grassland.

There’s no word about any of this in the Habitat Management Plan. I mean, of course there isn’t. Fifteen thousand acres and a few dozen bison are not enough to support a single wolf family, let alone a predator-regulated ecosystem that supports ungulate migration. Still. As development creeps along the open edge of the refuge, closing in, the Arsenal prairie feels less like a redemption and more like a museum, a piece of history spit-shined and put on the shelf to remind us of what we have lost.

Perhaps the legal definition of redemption is more appropriate for what we’re doing here. Many years ago, we pawned our prairie; now we’ve finally raised the money to bring it out of hock. Only we can’t afford the whole thing.

I reach the end of the trail, count the ducks—a handful of mallards and one coot, no different than what I’d see in City Park—and turn around.

 

7
At the end of our day together, Nick Kazcor steered the six pack off the road, bumping over ruts left by revegetation or reconstruction or old Arsenal activities. We crested a rise and there were the bison—eighty-seven head, plus a few bright-orange calves peeking out from around their fearsome mothers. “Aww,” he said. It was the journalist’s ending: the bison, rippling a little in their wariness and their wildness and their beauty. They make the landscape look complete, even if it isn’t. I took photos. I am glad they are here. I am glad the Arsenal is here, and healing, and holding its own.

But, in the end, the scope is so limited. Eighty-seven animals, where once there were millions upon millions. Eighty-seven bison carefully stowed behind a fence, thirty-two ferrets tagged and vaccinated. This is not redemption—this is redemption lite. It is easy and palatable and avoids the worst of our sins. The massacre at Sand Creek. The toxic hill at the center of the Arsenal. The way we can’t seem to live without chewing places up.

When I get back to my car from the Havana Ponds Trail, I turn right instead of left and head back to the Egli House for one last look. I think I know what I want from the Arsenal, but I also am resigned to the realization that I will never really get it, not here. It’s not designed to give that.

I park in the little gravel parking lot down the road from the Egli House and behind the old Visitor Center, the one that doubled as the admittance office to the Arsenal back when it belonged to the army. The building is empty now and probably slated for demolition, but it retains a jaunty presence: the enormous picture window with its view of the pond and the mountains, its 1950s Space Age gas station vibe, its sensible brick exterior. You can see it playing a starring role in the postwar filmstrip, the man in the uniform and the regulation smile leaning out to salute you as you drive past.

And then I turn around to look, not at the house—that’s still boarded up and empty—but the screen of locust trees. I peer through the trunks and the brush, hoping for another glimpse of the deer, and equally hoping that they’ve moved on, following their own inscrutable destiny.

A plaque by the locust thicket says that this patch grew from a single line of locust trees, probably distributed by the local extension agent office. I pace it out: the thicket is almost two acres and entirely self-sustaining. This is where the deer hide their fawns, the magpies nest, and the orioles wait for the Cooper’s hawk to pass. It’s both caused by humans and independent of them. Not unlike the seed bank, or the deer.

Then I realize: this, right here, is the start of the real redemption. What the seed bank brings, with its mix of invasive weeds, old crop plants, and rare prairie flowers; what the mule deer know with their liquid eyes—this is how the ancient prairie will pay itself out of hock. It is flawed, imperfect, and stained by us, but utterly its own.

Photo of Emily Wortman-Wunder
Emily Wortman-Wunder is a place-based literary essayist and fiction writer, with pieces published in Vela, Nimrod, Terrain, High Country News, Conium Review, and elsewhere. Her work explores the emotional resonance of place by drawing on history, ecology, landscape art, and folklore. She lives in south suburban Denver and teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado. You can read more of her work at https://emilywortmanwunder.wordpress.com/