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BUFFALO CREEK CHRONICLES: DIARY OF A CATTLE RANGE ON THE SOUTHERN PLAINS Paperback – October 1, 2003
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It was the cottonwoods that drew me out here. I was sitting four hundred miles away in a small cabin surrounded by trees when I received a call from Gary Lantz. He was researching an article for AMERICAN FORESTS magazine that delt with the trouble prairie cottonwoods were having trying to survive in a region whose aquifer was dropping and where invasive alien species were competing with natives for what little was left. He needed a photograph. I remember saying this:
"But, Gary, it's the middle of winter, there are no leaves."
So on a freezing cold December morning, I drove out of the Ozark valley I call home, through red oak, white oak, chinquapin oak, hackberry, sycamore, cedar, maple, ash, seviceberry, elm, sweetgum, redbud, sassafras, beech, paw-paw, hickory, haw, and walnut, and headed west toward the Oklahoma prairie that a neighbor of mine, who had once lived there, described this way:
"If there's a tree and it ain't growing on a river, it ain't there."
I stopped in Norman, just south of Oklahoma City, to pick up Gary, then continued northwest to Woodward. As we passed a cup of coffee back and forth over a mound of camping gear and camera bags, he filled me in on our destination--Sue Selman's ranch. I kept interrupting him:
"Fifteen thousand acres?"
"But, Gary, that's over twenty square miles."
"The Cimarron River runs right through it?"
We drove in relative silence after that. I was trying to put the numbers, the scale, into perspective. In the rugged Ozarks, an 80-acre farm is the norm, 160 acres considered big, 320 huge, and a full section of 640 almost unbelievable. I was also thinking of Gary's last comment:
"It's small by prairie standards."
A few hours later I was wading through fragrant sage along the banks of Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Cimarron, and listening to a litany of the Latin names of plants I didn't recognize. Gary Lantz is my idea of the perfect hiking companion. He will travel in silence when you want silence, lost in his own thoughts, stopping frequently to make notes in his journal, or to photograph a flower for later study, but if you give him permission by asking a question, he can identify every plant by scientific and common name, tell you if it's native or alien, and describe how it fits into the overall ecology of the prairie. That depth extends to mammals, insects, and birds as well. When we sit to rest pack-weary backs and I close my eyes to listen to the sounds around me, the noises he makes fit in naturally, a little scratching of pen on paper, a slight click of a shutter, a long sigh of delight at having found a rare plant, or my favorite--a low mumbled, just audible, "Who the hell are you?" when a flower or a flap of wings momentarily stumps him. The photograph that resulted from that trip is on page 105. Standing in the presence of those trees, the seeds of this book were planted, then nurtured with warm coffee and biscuits in Sue's kitchen a few hours later. It was clear to all of us that one day and one story would not do it justice.
Meeting Sue for the first time can be a humbling experience. She would be embarrassed to have me say that, but it fits. Rancher, daughter of a rancher, and granddaughter of a rancher, the energy and determination and physical strength and discipline that she brings to bear in running the business is the humbling part. It makes my daily routines and procrastination-plagued projects seem ludicrous. But spend some time around her and there is also an empowerment as you feel your own attitude changing, as if a message has been telegraphed to our subconscious:
"You can do anything, so get off your butt and do it."
We had talked for an hour, that first meeting around her kitchen table, before it struck me how unusual the conversation seemed. I was talking to a rancher, yet she had not once bemoaned government regulations, lamented stupid tree huggers, or spit on the floor at the mention of endangered species. Her driving consideration seemed to be how to make a living on this land without destroying it in the process. And wrapped up in that determination was clear sense of her place in the continuing history of the ranch, from her parents to her grandparents to the native Americans whose presence on this ranch stretches back further than her box of yellowing family photographs.
The prairie is POWERFUL and INTENSE. That is the impression that I take with me. Its human history, natural history, climate, and topography. It is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. And like nowhere else I know, it can make you feel absolutely ALONE. Through the eyes of Gary, naturalist and wordsmith, and Sue, rancher and businesswoman, I have been able to see the prairie with greater understaqnding. It is so much more that just learning the names and niches of flora and fauna, how to distinguish between overgrazed and healthy pasture, or what combination of plants will guarantee a diverse wildlife population. It has been an opportunity to open a door and see into the past, and then to open a second door and see what the future might hold if people who love the prairie are allowed to do what needs to be done. I have been given a gift, and with Gary's insights and Sue's remembrances, we pass it on to you.
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The current generation of Selman's offer a retreat for birders, outdoors people and horse riders. I am looking forward to my late spring adventure along the Buffalo Creek.