SueEllen Campbell is a professor of English at Colorado State University, where she teaches courses in nature and environmental literature, 20th-century fiction and non-fiction, and literary theory. Her latest book of literary/environmental nonfiction is Even Mountains Vanish: Searching for Solace in an Age of Extinction (University of Utah Press, 2003); other publications include Bringing the Mountain Home and articles about American environmental literature and ecocriticism. She is now working on a field guide to landscape words, co-edits an ecocritical book series, " Under the Sign of Nature," published by the University of Virginia Press, and reviews manuscripts for several other presses and journals.
Even Mountains Vanish: Searching for Solace in an Age of Extinction (2003, University of Utah Press)
Bringing the Mountain Home (1996, University of Arizona Press).
Ken was finished with his measurements, and now it was our turn. He explained how to hold her, firmly but gently, by her lower legs, so that she couldn't take the jump she'd need to fly. We wouldn't be hurting her, he promised; her heart rate would have risen only a little, and when we let her go, she would simply fly a few feet and get back to her meal. Then he handed the ptarmigan to the woman on his left. I watched her face: intent, a little scared, a flash of surprise as the bird stretched her wings, then delight.
Sometimes the world paints its canvas with the indifference of an axe or a blowtorch, lopping off whole branches of life with a single blow, incinerating vast landscapes in an instant. I'd been bent under the weight of this story, the long tragic saga of extinction. But I was beginning to comprehend how evolution always follows with her intricate creative brush, a point as fine as a single hair, her unequalled attention to detail, her endless inventiveness, new ideas to try, minute changes to make, an extra mitochondria here, a curling white filament there. Even in this hard, spare place so recently buried under ice, a landscape I imagined might resemble the aftermath of cataclysm. And, I thought now, even at the worst moments in the earth's long history, when some massive disaster had brought an end to life on an unimaginable scale, something intricate and beautiful had surely been happening, as it would happen again.
I'd known that these lovely birds changed their plumage for winter and stayed high in the mountains, but I'd had no idea until today just how thoroughly they were adapted to what I would usually think of as harsh conditions. Adapted: the word is precise, but we use it so often it has lost some of its force. Ptarmigan don't just adjust their attitudes when the cold arrives. They don't even much adjust their behavior. By evolving in arctic and alpine climates, they have become what they are by virtue of surviving for countless generations in an icy world. They're made in every detail to thrive in a life of winter. If the marmot speaks of retreat and repose, of the peace to be found in seclusion or at home, then the ptarmigan's bracing lessons are all about staying engaged and active in the world, however cold or dark it might be.