“In the book of the earth it is written: nothing can die.”—Mary Oliver
“Have you noticed?”
In her poem, “Ghosts” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote compellingly about our native bison and their disappearance from the world.
Have you noticed? she asks, then continues: “In the book of the Sioux it is written: they have gone away into the earth to hide/Nothing will coax them out again/But the people dancing.“
Have you noticed? In 2016, the “dance” at the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Morocco, IN, began with 23 bison brought to the preserve. Today, the herd has grown to around 90 animals, a few of which are barely visible this afternoon in the freezing mist.
At the bison viewing area, I hike to a slight rise in the landscape for a better look.
My hands quickly grow numb in the raw, moist air. Along the trail, mist-scattered diamond droplets cling to every plant.
A wet prairie’s colors in December are intensified. Especially under an aluminum sky.
Little bluestem’s rusty red glistens.
The soft pads of great mullein sparkle in the damp.
Wild saplings drip, drip, drip.
I notice the way the mist changes the prairie. Sharp edges: blurred. Horizons: hazed.
I notice the way the mist changes how I feel.
Which is…a deep melancholy. A sense of loss.
A loneliness that many explorers encountering prairie for the first time in their travels hundreds of year ago wrote about in their journals, and mentioned in their letters back home. It’s a December feeling; a pensiveness I rarely feel on the prairie in spring or summer.
The loss of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest is incalculable. It’s not only the disappearance of rare plants. It’s the loss of a whole community that vanished. How can we not feel grief in the midst of this knowledge?
And yet… I feel hope here at Kankakee Sands, as well as loss. I know the dance of restoration is not one of instant gratification. But a new future is being written for prairie. It’s not a clear future, and there will be plenty of obstacles along the way. I’m inspired, however, by those who care enough to make it happen.
The mist muffles the sound of traffic just off the prairie on U.S. Highway 41; obscures the farmland beyond the preserve’s borders. I can almost imagine I’m hiking with those early explorers or the Native Americans who once called this area home; encountering the vast expanses of tallgrass prairie that once blanketed the Midwest.
Under the slate-gray afternoon sky, lost in the mist, the prairie seems like a dream. The dream of a future where the tallgrass prairie community is vibrant and healthy again.
With the help of people, it’s a dream that is slowly coming true, right here at Kankakee Sands.
Have you noticed?
The opening quote and poetry excerpts (Have you noticed?) are from Mary Oliver’s “Ghosts”, included in her poetry collection American Primitive (1983). Read more about this late great poet (1935-2019) here.
All photos in today’s blog were taken at Kankakee Sands, a Nature Conservancy site in Morocco, IN. If you find yourself in northwestern Indiana, or are looking for a delightful day trip from the Chicago Region, I can’t recommend this preserve highly enough. For more information, visit the website here.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter!
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.