I often get homesick for the grasslands of southeastern New Mexico where I conducted my dissertation research. The area was called "llano estacado" by the first Spanish explorers, because the rolling, grass-covered sand dunes were so featureless that horsemen were compelled to mark their trail with wooden stakes to keep from becoming lost. It's not spectacular mountain scenery like the Rockies or moonscape desert like southern Arizona, but it has a subtle, quiet beauty that inspires you to stop and contemplate nature and time.
The dry grasslands seem empty, but they're really crawling with animals, from big, impressive pronghorn to gleaming metallic tiger beetles. Much of the area is covered with shinnery oak, which are upside-down trees; the leaves and branches are only about a foot high, and the bulk of the tree is a massive root ball buried beneath the sands. A walk through the shinnery oak and desert bluestem grass will stir up black-tailed jackrabbits, scaled quail, sage thrashers, prairie rattlers, and, if you're lucky, the jewel of the staked plains, the lesser prairie-chicken. During mating season, these birds are easy to find. They gather in display grounds and warble their goofy calls that sound like a cross between a deranged turkey and a retarded loon. The rest of the year, they're like ghosts. They blend into the grass so well that one must nearly be a psychic to have a chance to find them. I spent several years studying these birds, and, in the spring, I grow restless, knowing that they're gathering in the frigid pre-dawn, hollering out their songs and performing their silly mating dance without me.
My friend Catnapping took pity on me, and created the drawing that accompanies this post to help ease my not-really-my-home-sickness. Unfortunately, her drawing is so good that it has the opposite effect. Catnapping has the ability to make simple drawings that capture birds and fill them with heart and humor. This picture (click on it to make it bigger) captures the prairie-chicken exactly--he's beautiful and silly, but he thinks he's a tough guy. Go here to see more of her work and read some of her great writing.