The interstate traveler is likely to mistake the vastness of the Great Plains for emptiness. Get off the highway, though, and you’ll find the grasslands full of life, especially in spring, when prairies and sagebrush steppes echo with the booming, crackling, stamping, and popping of grouse.
Last Dance is a large-format volume printed on heavy glossy paper. As splendid as the photographs are–Paothong is the staff photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation–this is not just a picture book for the coffee table. Joel Vance’s engaging text briefly treats the history, a bit of the biology, and the prospects of each taxon included (three Greater Prairie-Chicken subspecies, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the two sage-grouse). As dim as the future sometimes seems for these birds, there are encouraging stories here, too: the young biology student who with “her mother loaded a VW van with a home-made blind and took a trip to Colorado to study Gunnison sage-grouse,” and the tentative first steps of an ecotourism industry dependent on the survival of prairie-chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Each of the texts is followed by a portfolio of photos, a dozen and a half or more depicting the birds, their habitat, and often the other animals they share it with. Coffee table books, no matter how beautiful, usually bore me after I’ve flipped a few pages and oohed a few aahs, but the consistent high quality of Paothong’s work and the narrative force of his photography–these dancing, strutting, prancing birds are doing something, something literally vital–captivate even the most blase reader/looker.
The book ends with a discussion of current conservation efforts being undertaken to save the grassland grouse. Here the authors drive home the urgency of their case by considering the birds in the order of the peril they face, from the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken–hanging on by the slender thread of captive breeding–to the Greater Prairie-Chicken, whch has shown encouraging signs of adapting to cropland and is being reintroduced with some success in parts of its historical range. “It all comes down to habitat,” the authors conclude,and there are small, hopeful signs, even in the face of energy exploitation and the intensification of agriculture, that we’re finally starting to get it.
I’m sure that we can expect a second edition of this book at some point, and I hope that it is subjected to close editorial scrutiny, ridding it of the occasional ornithological errors (“There is a fairly widespread opinion that heath hens merely were an Eastern adaptation of the greater prairie-chicken”) and typographic and grammatical slips; the jarring insertion of the account for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken between that for the Greater and that for the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken should also be corrected. I was disappointed, too, to see a vapid facebook aphorism misattributed to Audubon, an embarrassing lapse far beneath the dignity of this fine book.
“Anyone who studies grassland grouse falls in love.” Last Dance is an inspiration even to those of us who have never seen them to fall in love with these fascinating birds and to work for the protection of their habitats, lest a sad silent absence replace the vastness they have filled for so long.