Off to meet the prairie
(Part 1 of 2; here’s the other one)
As dusk fades to night, a strong wind stirs the stiff, heat-hardy leaves of oak and hickory into steady sensual contact with their brethren; the sound we know as “wind in trees” is, in actual deed, tens of thousands of leaves caressing each other. Spinning out a two-day tendril from the Rockies to the nearest edge of the eastern forest, I’ve touched down in the Cross Timbers of northeastern Oklahoma, an oak-centric forest that’s a sort of stepping stone between the prairies and the Ozarks—from which spread the piney forests of the southern gulf plain and the leafy Tennessee and Kentucky woods that stretch on to the ancient bones of the Appalachians.
Many times I’ve travelled between my home in a small valley at the southern tip of the Rockies and the moister, sylvan landscapes of the east. This time, instead of zipping through the vast open plains in a burst of I-40 intensity, the journey stretched to fill two long days—laced with detours and countless pauses along the way, and so knitting together another stretch of my experiential map of our varied continent.
For starters, I slipped off the interstate after just a couple hours, drawn by the chance to cross the Canadian River in a more exciting spot: dropping suddenly into a 600-foot canyon gouged into the western edge of the plains. From there, I aimed for the Oklahoma panhandle; yet only a few miles into this once-literal “no man’s land” (left stateless after the initial boundary-drawing of Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas) I found myself veering north from the intended due-east route, so to skirt the leading edges of the a grey mass of wind and rain making its way from southeastern Colorado, hoping to slip ahead of it for a glimpse of the Cimarron National Grasslands. . . but alas, I was running an hour or so behind the pace that was needed. Even after that became clear, I continued on a northeasterly track that paralleled its leading edge—just for the sheer pleasure of witnessing the drama of its progression across this far corner of Kansas. After about a hundred miles, my path slipped gradually beneath the ever-darker canopy until its near-opaque wall of driving rain was before me. Just then, an intersection appeared that let me veer east, angling away and ahead of the broad band of wind and rain; I tucked into a cozy motel in Liberal, Kansas, before it swept through overnight.
As day two dawned, I woke to the sun flaring forth from above the ragged backside of the same grey mass, now brooding on the horizon perhaps fifty miles to the east. After a bright morning drive, the trailing layers of wispy clouds began casting oddly transient shadows on the pavement ahead (bright and shaded strips shifting toward and away from my approach with no apparent rhyme or reason), and by midafternoon I was beneath the clouds once again. I never quite caught up with the thick rain; muddy side roads and some flooded low spots bore witness to the abundant squalls that trailed the front on its eastward journey.
It’s perhaps natural to have been telling this tale as if it were one of sky alone, for a defining feature of the plains landscape is its expansive sky, which one must indeed pay close attention to, or pay the price, whether of inconvenience or much worse. Yet the sky is the sky and the weather the weather wherever we may ramble, and the point of this journey is to get a better feel for the land itself, to begin to know the prairie that fills the center of our continent. And indeed these two days of travel were rich in little delights and large wonders down on the earthly plane as well.
Even along I-25 in the first hour of the trip, a colorful array of roadside grasses revealed a new take on the autumnal pageantry that marks what may be my favorite season (but please don’t make me pick just one!). That first day, heading through and out the northeast corner of New Mexico and across the tip of the Oklahoma panhandle into southwestern Kansas, served to open my eyes and tune my body to the ways of this land of grasses. A few stops on the roadside or a ways up a side road put the expanse and textures of the land into perspective. It’s not flat like the endless corn and soy fields of the Midwest, but rather a gently undulating landscape—sometimes long slopes or nearly-imperceptible rises, but more often an endless succession of subtle topographical waves, which, as the day progressed, came alive with wind-driven ripples across an ever-more-stunning array of grasses. The sunny morning hours were especially delightful, as gusts and currents of wind shimmered along slopes of fully-seeded grass heads in a much wider variety of color than I’d imagined: deep rust-browns, very pale tans, and rich greens were the primary components, but to evoke even a hint of the wonder, you’ll need to picture every shade of green, brown, and orange/rust, along with sudden splashes of orangey-pink, pale purple, spring green, and rich maroon-rust—all this laced with flashing, silvery, sun-infused versions of each.
Small patches of diverse colors intermixed in an endless parade of different combinations on one hillside or hollow after another, or in large expanses of one or two colors, often different on one side of the road than the other. And that’s not even getting at the mash-up of textures! Short, stubbly fields and hills pocked with foot, two-foot, and sometimes three-foot-high clumps of grass, alive with tiny fluttering waves and field-sized swells of motion, while a few tallgrass bunches swayed broadly, leaning deep in the strong winds.
[SIDENOTE: While not essential, the subtleties of this colorful palette are definitely enhanced by polarized sunglasses, which reduce glare and increase contrast, letting the underlying colors shine through. You may also have a favored tint in your sunglasses—some enhance the tonal hints otherwise hidden in shades of brown, while others retain a more natural spectrum—but in any case: polarize! Some of these photos capture the added richness of my polarized, amber-tinted view, while others closely match the “natural” experience.]
And wildlife—oh, my goodness, a diversity and density that was totally unexpected (and certainly had never been seen when whizzing past on I-25).
A falcon banking low over a field, riding the wind; hawks in every pose (perched in a roadside tree; soaring slowly, hunting twenty feet above the grass-sea; grey in flight high against grey sky; sitting head-high in roadside grass, likely on a kill; wide-winged, landing on an electric pole); a thick-bodied bird seemingly working a bit harder than most as it flew across the road—prairie chicken?; sudden swoops of flycatchers with very long forked tails; a flock of 30-50 birds in black, banking together in shifting murmuration then suddenly dropping straight down—many onto the backs of cattle lying on the ground! (What?! Craning my neck to confirm as I whizzed past, yes, clear silhouettes of black cattle with strings of birds perched along their humped spines!); and twice, flocks of water birds: the first crook-necked in a loose V (heron?), and later, in the distance, a cluster in white, perhaps snow geese.
After hours of all this grassy glory, the broad Arkansas River passed beneath the road, and suddenly there were trees all around—woah, the forest! Before long, though, it was into another stretch of grassland atop a broad knoll. . . then down again among the trees. Approaching Pawhuska, gateway to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, the land opened up once more for miles, with trees confined to the draws—where little rock outcrops poking from knolls and jutting from the sides of drainages marked the southern tip of the Flint Hills.