This article was published in High Country News.
There had been such a racket, just moments ago. We were gathered at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge to witness the sandhill crane migration, and we heard the birds before we saw them. They cooed and clucked over our heads as the sun slipped toward the distant Cascade Mountains. Then they appeared, wings arced high, dainty legs dangling in anticipation of the shallow water below. As they landed in the crowded marsh, songbirds whistled from cattail perches, hidden frogs croaked a din, and a pair of beavers splashed in the fading light.
Now, on a hill a mere two miles west, the Columbia plateau is suddenly quiet. Arrestingly quiet. So quiet I only notice when someone breaks it by cracking a beer. The sound stuns the way a good, hard laugh exposes long-held sullenness, and leaves me wondering what has changed.
Our camp on the Seep Lakes Wildlife Area — Washington state land that hugs the refuge — sounds empty by comparison, but the view is nearly the same. All around us is a wide expanse of scrub steppe awash in spring-green bunchgrass and teal sage. Umber buttes rise where violent floods scoured the ancient basalt. Below our camp, water glints like mercury in the bottom of a bathtub. But there is no cooing, croaking or clapping. There is only the wind, into which someone gasps, “That smell!” referring, of course, to the unmistakably pungent scent of cow.
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