Nature Experience #3 – Tallgrass

Whoa!

I’ll say it again… WHOA! In other words, slow down. The road is not paved. There are ruts, there are CHUG holes and washboards, there are blind curves. You can not go fast. Get it? Slow it down.

So unlike the way we all seem to live our lives these days. But once, for a few hours during the winter twenty plus years ago, I decided to slow down and visit the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawkhuska, OK.

I lived west of there in Ponca City. I had a winter day to myself and decided – what the heck? I’d been wanting to check out The Preserve in north central Osage County, smack in the middle of northern Oklahoma near the Kansas line. I had read about the Bison Release on the nature preserve the previous year, and knew of the controversy about creating a nature preserve on ranch lands where bison – not the typical cattle – would be allowed to roam free on thousands of acres. Because of my educational background in ecology and zoology – and my love of nature –  I wanted to see for myself.

Travelling there, on the designated road north of Pawhuska, eager as I was to get there, I suddenly had to slow down. There was no way I could drive at a speed faster than 35 mph. Even that speed tested the ability of my car to stay on a dirt and gravel road. So I lightened the pressure on the accelerator. Slowing down gave me more time to look around. I saw nothing but grass from horizon to horizon.

Being from Enid, around 100 miles west of the Preserve, I was used to viewing the sky from horizon to horizon, a uniform growth of green in the spring, gold in June, and plowed field in late summer. But I wasn’t used to the rich quilted landscape of grass, trees and rolling hills that I found at the Tallgrass Prairie.

Waves of grass rippled in the wind, birds fluttered everywhere, and the road sliced through the grasses, going…where? 

A solitary hawk soared overhead, keening. Then suddenly- thank goodness I was going slow! – a buffalo emerged from the tall grasses on the right side of the road and lumbered directly into my path. I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop just as a second – and a third – bison followed the first. The three animals stopped right there on the road in front of me. Huffing and snorting, the trio seemed to be having a conversation.

My adrenalin raced. Would they ram my car? But then they moseyed around a bit,  without any signs of aggression. I got a good look at these magnificent animals. Huge heads, massive shoulders, thick wooly coats, skinny legs and tails.

I already knew that buffalo – actually called bison – were the original grazing animal in North America. Not imported by European settlers like cattle or horses. Native. I knew they could weigh as much as a ton. And I knew that they were wild – had never been domesticated. They were huge, and they had horns. 

One plodded past my window and the other two followed. I turned to watch them journey on down the road and discovered that three other cars had stopped behind me to watch the animals.

My heart stopped pounding. As I put the car in gear again and pressed the accelerator, I found that I no longer wanted to go fast. This was an amazing place. Giant animals could walk right out on the road as you went by. I had to slow down.

I crept down the road. Eventually, even though the day was cold, I rolled down my window. I turned off the car radio. Silence. Just the tires crunching in the gravelly dirt. At a roadside pullout, I pulled over. What was there to see here? No signage, just the rolling hills, covered with grasses six feet, maybe eight feet tall, pouring out around me in all directions. Broken up by valleys full of oak trees and piles of sandstone boulders, the grass rolled down into crooked stream beds and then back up the other side. 

The breeze tickled my cheek. Some kind of sparrow twittered in the grass. A red-shouldered hawk called overhead. I found that I’d been holding my breath. I let it out, and began to breathe slowly, purposefully. My mind emptied.

So this was peace.

I have been back to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve hundreds of times since that first visit. Granted, I went to work for the Oklahoma Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. As the state’s Education and Outreach Director, one part of my job was to train the docents at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and to oversee the operation of the gift shop. My visits there were monthly and included overnight stays as well as daylong training sessions. I saw the Prairie in every season, at every time of the day.

Never was I disapointed. Every time I was there I felt that sense of peace. When I was there, I didn’t want to leave. I became a Peace junkee, returning to the Preserve time and again for my fix of Peace. My job was secondary.

Now, years later, I haven’t worked for TNC for awhile. I still miss the Preserve. I’ve been back often, driven down those same gravelly dirt roads, seen herds of bison by the hundreds, watched the rippling grasses. I’ve pulled over to the scenic stops and marveled at the beauty and the complexity of a grassland.
 
And I always find Peace.   

(For more information about Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, visit www.nature.org.)  

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