Tuesday (my dog) and I found ourselves on a rather spontaneous expedition out to the Conata Basin near Scenic on Saturday. We were invited by a friend of mine to an excursion with his brother and his daughter. Their intention was to find agates, my intention was to find bones.
Some time earlier, he spotted several dozen cow carcasses left over from a notoriously terrible winter storm, in October of 2013, known as “Winter Storm Atlas”. Several feet of unseasonably-early snow took the lives of a heart-wrenching number of livestock. I’m no stranger to spotting the scars Atlas left behind – they are everywhere. They can be seen most commonly, on hikes and drives through the hills. Trails and hill sides are littered with twisted and broken trees that once stood straight and proud. The combination of beetle kill and that pivotal storm have permanently changed our environment.
I remember driving along the highways in the weeks and months following the storm and seeing the dead livestock in pastures along the road. It was devastating. The herds huddled together for warmth, often in cut banks and in ravines and were covered with thick, over powering, blankets of blowing snow that eventually smothered them to death. The loss of livestock was crippling for the ranchers and the clean up took several months.
I’m not sure what the exact circumstances were that allowed this desecrated heard to remain out there in the rugged basin. The ivory bones were bleached white and stood out in stark contrast to the golden grasses that brushed them gently. Over the years, the animals who used the catastrophe as their grocery store scattered the carcasses and waters that flowed through the ravine mixed the bones up like a stew.
The Badlands are still a place where, for the most part, nature does what she does, mostly uninterrupted. There is a certain amount of purity and poetry to the forces out there. She is left alone without interference or the hand of man. It is this truth that made the sight of all that death easier to swallow. I don’t wish ill on any thing, but I know there is a way things work and I know that way is not always pleasant. We are guests out there, we are only witnesses to what goes on.
I walked through the bones and encouraged Tuesday to leave them be. I snapped a few photos and turned back to re-join my rock hounding friends. The bones are still there but I walked away from them understanding that they no longer care about that October day in 2013. They don’t care about the sun, the wind or the snow. They don’t care about what is next or what they will become. They are only bones; bones that lay silently to tell their story to the next person who may come across them.