An Opinion Piece by Richard Collins for the Sonoita Bulletin

A Vast and Troubling Experiment

October-November in Sonoita is the in-between season, between the summer’s monsoon and winter’s gentle rains.  The grasses are tall and seeded out, the air is dry and balmy during the day and cool at night, and a gentle breeze often sweeps through the oak, juniper, and cliff rose.  Autumn is also bountiful time when the garden ripens, the chile turns red, the pumpkins orange, and the calves and colts are weaned.  Winter resident birds like phainopeplas and northern harriers start showing up.  

Just as interesting though often ignored are the throngs of colorful grasshoppers that explode like shrapnel when I walk through the grass.  Some are coal black with scarlet wings that cackle when they fly away.  Mexican coronels are a shiny brown color with black epaulet stripes down their hind legs.  Flightless horse lubbers the size of small mice creep along the ground.  

On the days when our grandson Liam comes for a visit, we always take a hopper census on the way to feed the horses. Because he is not yet two and is built close to the ground, Liam sees more different kinds than I do; the small cone heads and katydids that take short hops and are easy to catch.

Psychologists claim that humans form our thoughts as words.  Before children have words, they respond to their surrounds by instinct; warmth, cold, hunger, pain, thirst, loud noises, Mother’s comforting hugs, and holding onto Dad’s finger for security when taking those tentative first steps. Because Liam lives on a ranch, his first words after Mom and Dad are the animals he sees every day and the noises they make; dog, horse, donkey, chicken, pig, birds, bees, and grasshoppers. Before he can say the words, he has leaned the sounds of their names and the noises they make.  

Right now, if I say cow, he says mooo; if I say horse, he whinnies; if he hears a blue jay squawk, he waves his hand to represent their flight.  Butterflies he identifies by sight, and mimics their wing movement with the flapping of his hand.  Once, we saw a big, black wolf spider creeping across our path with its articulated octave tread, unperturbed by our towering presence above it.  Liam watched, and then looked up at me with a quizzical expression as if to ask, “What does this creature say?”  

Writer Richard Louv has coined the term, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” to link the absence of nature in today’s internet-wired, video-gamed generation of children to disturbing trends of childhood obesity, attention deficient disorders, diminished curiosity, and depression.  Most of Liam’s generation are part of a vast and troubling experiment—the first generation to be raised without real contact with the natural world.  How will they know what the horse says? Even worse, how will they know a horse?

Richard Collins is a retired rancher who lives in Sonoita.  Contact him at