Where the Buffalo Roamed

Oz, the author of this blog, is on I-35, driving north to Kansas City. Although it is December, there is a strong southerly wind. (Appropriately so, for Kansas is a Native American word meaning People of the South Wind.) Taking advantage of the wind, cars and trucks speed along on the turnpike like prairie schooners pushed west by the wind.

Strong winds are not unusual in Kansas. A south wind in December is.

the shaggy grass
like a buffalo herd
galloping along

Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021, the hills were once covered in buffalo

The Flint Hills cover north central Oklahoma and central Kansas. They are part of the prairie region of the United States that stretch from Texas to Canada. Because of the rocky soil and limited rainfall on the Flint Hills the prairie grass is shorter except along the rivers and creeks and the lowlands where the tall grass takes over. This area was once the favorite feeding grounds of the American Bison, which we call buffalo. From Spring to Winter, the buffalo roamed the plains, feeding on the massive herds which covered the hills for miles, and numbered in the tens of millions. The Native American Indians who survived on the buffalo, the Osage, the Kansas, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa and others, hunted the beast by horse back and on foot, and could not lessen the numbers of buffalo. Only the arrival of the White Man and the rifle and the railroad, and the farmer who claimed the grass destroyed the millions of buffalo that once roamed the Flint Hills.

The turnpike heads northeast where the deer and the antelope once played. The wolves that fed on the buffalo are gone. The antelope too. The deer remain in the woodlands.

Following a grey car
on a gray windy day,
flying along like an antelope

Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021

It is difficult if not impossible to capture the image grass waving in the wind, of the different grasses — Big bluestem, Indiangrass, Little bluestem, and Switchgrass, all of which grow on the Flint Hills. In December, the green chlorophyll has all faded away. What remains are a golden yellow and red. The hills are mostly treeless except along the creek beds. There the dark brown trees now shorn of leaves seem naked against the steel gray sky.

Shiwasu, 師走 is the Japanese word for the 12th lunar month.

The waving Indiangrass
was golden red
— Shiwasu

Bashō no yōna,

to the wind
— Nature’s voice

Bashō no yōna, December 2021, remembering Rachel Carson

In the Cretaceous era (145 to 66 million years ago), the central part of the United States was an inland sea.

The vast Flint Hills
an inland sea
of waving grass

Bashō no yōna, December 2021

Willa Cather gave the best descriptions of the Flint Hills in My Antonia.

The red prairie grass
Like wine-stains
On a golden cloth

Willa Cather, My Antonia

Years pass on the Flint Hills and not much changes. This past autumn, I drove through Red Cloud, Nebraska where Willa Cather grew up. It is a farming community and not much has changed since Willa lived there.

“The windy springs
and the blazing summers,
one after another”

Willa Cather, My Antonia

Cather’s full text:

“The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.”

But I am not sure that all the changes are in harmony with Nature.

In his famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho spoke of the passing of time:

The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.

Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, introduction, 1689
Kansas wheat field

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