The Greed of Exploration
by Ellen Knight
Broadcast 5.1 & 5.6.2016 and 6.23 & 6.26.2020

Common Nighthawk. Photo by Gavin Keefe Schaefer, CC 2.0.




This is a Field Note about greed. My greed.

Recently the dogs and I were out joyfully stretching our legs on a sunny, blue-sky late winter day. The dogs were far ahead of me across the grassy hills when I saw a fox! It saw me, too, but it just kept going about its business in the grass, poking around over by the gully. I know that gully. It’s full of secrets, hidden under the downfall, in the hawthorne trees, or in woodpecker holes that riddle the twisted old aspens. I love looking for treasures there: the signs of birds or animals or insects who find a home there or respite from the heat of a prairie summer.

I stood very still and watched the red fox. Oh, I loved him, too! Eventually he tucked down into the gully. I did not see him emerge. I was wildly curious and wanted to follow him, maybe see his home. I wanted to do that badly.

But I did not do it.

I didn’t do it because I remembered a powerful lesson I learned one spring many years before. I had been rambling up in the Blackfoot Valley where we have a much-loved cabin. As I was walking, a nighthawk suddenly flew up from the ground fairly close to me. I love nighthawks (I love it all). I knew they nested on the ground and I thought, “Here is my perfect opportunity to see a nighthawk nest!” I knew it would be very camouflaged so I scoured the ground extremely carefully before I took each step. When I got closer to where the nighthawk had risen from the ground, I slowed down even more. But my heart dropped hard when I heard a cruel “crunch.” It is hard for me to say this, but with all my care I had still stepped right on the rocky nest and the little speckled egg inside it. I crushed that egg and killed the tiny life that I loved. I felt a heavy dose of grief from my greed to see, to know.

So, with thoughts of the mother nighthawk returning to find her reproductive efforts gone to naught, I picked up the tiny smashed egg and brought it home. I have a beautiful painted birdhouse at the cabin. It has a scene that could easily be the glacial pot and kettle hills of the Blackfoot. Opening the front of the birdhouse, inside is the same hilly scene, but under a night sky lit by the glorious Milky Way. Inside and out the birdhouse looks so much like this prairie place that is home to me. So I placed the little broken egg inside and gently shut the door. I still look at it every so often. It reminds me to temper my eagerness to “see” the natural world. Now, as with the fox, I am entirely likely to forego my urge to probe, to poke, and I can leave the object of my curiosity free from my intruding eye. I consider my behavior; I curb my greed. There is still plenty to see and to love in the mystery of the natural world.


Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.

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