Where Everything is Connected

d48640bb-8171-4671-bfcc-73528df29644 By Marissa Jensen

The vast open land spreads out before me, my breath the only interruption to the scene as it curls around my face on this frigid November morning. I woke at 4:30 a.m. to make my way nearly halfway across the state, to stand in this very spot. The tallgrass prairie sways gently in the breeze, the sound ebbs and flows like the rolling of the seas. This land humbles me, lending a sense of calm that only the solitude of time spent in the uplands alone seems to provide.

I pause for just a moment to contemplate those who have walked this path before me, and what their successes may have been. With both hesitance and excitement, I push forward, breaking the silence with the crunch of the earth beneath my feet, compacted with a fresh layer of snow. The movement gives my companion her cue as she lunges forward, nose pushed to the ground, searching for her favorite scent.

Scanning the horizon, we move with intent into the wind. The brisk air stings my face, but it serves my companion well. The thicket up ahead looks promising. This fleeting thought no sooner arises when all movement in front stops. Locked in point, my partner shows the way. My heart speeds up, hands tense, and I move forward. Each step filled with anticipation, my breath feeling as if it will explode.

Finally, one step proves too much, and the prairie is filled with the explosion of noise and chaos that only comes with a covey rise. Moving with the blur of color, I find the cold metal of the trigger beneath my finger and pull.

Growing up a non-hunter, I lacked any awareness of the wealth of diversity that a place such as this held. There was a far-off recognition that these were habitats, but I wasn’t aware of the wildlife they supported, the wildflowers and grasses they held, or the opportunities they provided for all outdoor enthusiasts. These places wouldn’t reveal themselves to me for thirty years. What I lacked in knowledge I made up for in my love for the outdoors and a desire to do more, to leave the land better than I found it. I spent hours of my childhood getting my hands dirty, learning from my father and grandfather as they tended their gardens in the backyard. Some of my most cherished days were spent in those gardens, learning the importance of milkweed and monarchs, ecosystems, and the soothing affect nature can have on us all.
 
Eventually, this love I held for the environment would lead to my role as a hunter. Appreciation for quail and all upland birds were rooted deep in respect for the land. It’s a love for habitat, rich in diversity and a respect for the opportunity public lands holds for us all.

At the heart of conservation lies the hunters, those dedicated to protecting the places that drive their passions. For me, that passion burns most intensely in the sandhills and prairies of Nebraska. From the bobwhite quail, putting every ounce of his small, rotund body into his spring call, to the greater prairie-chicken whose boom can be heard from the tops of the sandhills, this land calls to me.
 
My evolution developed slowly, with my education beginning in public lands. Country roads might as well have been a foreign language, having spent my life in the jungles of an urban community. Confusion of where to park, where to begin, and what direction to take. Pausing frequently as barbed wire divided land, struggling to determine where I stood and where to go. But I learned, adapted, and am stronger for it.
 
My public access atlas is now a permanent fixture on all my hunts. Beat up, marked and muddy, this stack of papers is a prized possession, a diary where I pour out my soul as a hunter. I spend hours studying the land, determining strategy and accessibility, forcing myself to think differently, harder, in hopes this will pay off with memories and a heavy vest. I find satisfaction in hunting areas with pressure and educated birds that will most certainly outsmart me, but it keeps me coming back for more.

I enjoy learning the intricacies of each section of public land, and revere it for the uniqueness and difficulties it holds. The walk within takes on new meaning as my imagination is filled with the aroma of cooked game filling the kitchen. I relish this connection with my food, as harvesting my own game has given each bite new meaning. This fundamental, primal connection is one of my emphatic reasons why I hunt. 

Having come to enjoy the uplands for many reasons has given way to a strong desire to do more. To ensure the land remains and flourishes. So I became fully immersed in a life devoted to conservation. Every day spent with the Habitat Organization I learn more about the struggles we face trying to preserve the places we all have the opportunity to enjoy. There is an interwoven connection between hunters, habitat and wildlife. Everything is connected, and everything matters.
 
The uplands seek the strength of the hunter, calling to us to come together and have a strong, unified voice to protect them. To ensure others can enjoy the whistle of the bobwhite quail and the boom of the greater prairie-chicken, or the chance to experience the explosion of a rooster pheasant in the fall with the sun gleaming off his golden feathers, leaving nothing behind but a parting remark as he taunts new and seasoned hunters alike with his cackle. 

Public lands provide a shared solitude that no other place can offer. A respect for the environment that anyone can share, and a profound gratitude when one can experience it alone. Public lands provide an equal opportunity at the game one seeks, but public land hunting is not for the weak of heart. Rather, it’s for the dedicated, those who claim the title of public land hunter with pride and ownership. It has a way of defining who you are.

The recoil of the shot soon brings me back to the present, and I pause as the smoke dissipates in the crisp November air. The covey scatters in the distance as they become singled out. They will call and find their way back to one another again, knowing that the many are stronger than the one.
  
I envy those who found their path to the uplands earlier in life, but maybe the timing of my path merely stokes my passion further, pushing me to make up for lost time and prove I belong, as I find my personal connection between hunting, conservation and public lands, and leading for an even greater appreciation for those who have walked the path before me.                                                                                                                                                                          
Marissa Jensen is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever's education and outreach program manager                                                                                                                                                                                          This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more, join Quail Forever today