Home Range: Finding Home in Unsettling Times

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what "home" meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The "seas" of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.

The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate "home" intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.

"No sheep died," he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, "but I had an interesting realization." 

"What was that?" I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.

He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.

"I realized that I'm not comfortable in the alpine," he said. "It's not my place. It's too exposed." Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. "I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies."

Male dusky grouse displaying for a mate.

While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado's West Slope. 

We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. "Maybe for people like us," I said, "home is not a single location, but a whole area. 'Home range,' instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. "

He was quiet, thinking. "I like that idea," he said. "The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place."

"Exactly!" I said. "For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall." 

Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives--sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other's tender spots--the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback. 

In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.

I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.

Irrigating the hayfields... 

The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue. 

Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world--our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news. 

Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site. 

When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields. 

The idea of home as an annual migration between places has--somewhat paradoxically--kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.  

Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.

Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.