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1 At Home on Prairie Earth According to Osage tribal historian John Joseph Mathews, a division of the tribe, the Heart Stays People, got their name from their allegiance to the earth beneath their feet—they were a group who liked to stay close to home. I’m not Osage, but I came of age in Osage country, and the lack of wanderlust inherent in the Heart Stays People must be integral to this particular portion of prairie earth. I’ve spent much of my adult life living away from the place of my birth, but these rocky hills covered with grasses that wave in the wind always remain a beacon. The older I’ve gotten,the more I’ve realized that my best place remains my first place. It has taken several fits of wandering to figure this out, but in my case the adage fits—there’s just no place like home. One of my earliest memories is of being barely three years old and, when no one was watching, slipping away from our house in a little valley bordering the headwaters of Sycamore Creek. I sat down in the tall grass near an oak grove and, even though dozens of people eventually began looking for me, I didn’t make a sound. I remember being absolutely happy there under a wide sky, hidden in the high grass, alone and content until an adult stumbled upon my hiding place. Since then I’ve always felt most at home in my own Heart Stays place—the southern edge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie in 2 At Home on Prairie Earth Oklahoma’s Osage County, a place of grassy mounds with lots of rocks underfootandclustersofcrookedlittleoaksprovidingshade.Itstarted young, this long-lasting love affair with a landscape that unnerves the uninitiated a little, mostly because it just seems so empty. But as a proud grasslander, I’ve learned over the years that the place I call home is biologically fulfilling, unique, and increasingly rare. Biologists from the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy agree that a healthy prairie remains one of the most ecologically diverse and dynamic ecosystems on this planet—as well as one of the rarest left on earth. Unfortunately, this landscape that once inspired rapturous exclamations from travelers heading west on horseback now mostly exists in fragments exiled from each other by cropland, cities, and interstate highways. Historically, tallgrass prairie stretched from Canada to Texas, from central Kansas to Indiana. Now the last major expanse of tallgrass occurs in the Flint Hills, a verdant landscape extending in a north–south strip across eastern Kansas into northern Oklahoma’s Osage County. I grew up learning grassland ways by helping neighboring ranchers feed cattle in winter and work calves in spring. I helped fight wildfires and listened attentively as our county extension agent lectured about native grasses, cattle, and wildlife—maybe not your typical academic agenda in most parts of the country, but perfect for those of us cloistered in a schoolhouse built from blocks of native sandstone by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s Depression.Five of us started in the first grade and finished together in the eighth,none quite prepared for the culture shock of high school in a town that teemed with twelve hundred citizens, maybe a few more on the weekends. After college, I went to work for Oklahoma’s state wildlife agency, writing news releases and stories for the agency’s monthly magazine. I learned how to photograph wildlife and how to craft stories about wild birds and animals without forsaking scientific fact. But mostly I spent as much time as possible with biologists who knew the names and habits of the creatures that lived, died, and interacted in my prairie world. I soaked up their words like some Grecian youth of old sitting at the knee of Socrates. Some of these biologists have gone on to do great things in the realm of conservation ecology, and I’m still amazed by their patience as they fielded my endless questions when I tagged along. 3 At Home on Prairie Earth As the years progressed, I wrote for the Oklahoma Wildlife Federation , for a number of hook and bullet magazines, and eventually for national conservation publications I’d once regarded as near-religious texts while dreaming about publishing in those lofty pages. And whenever I could I traveled, camera and notebook in hand, from the Adirondacks to the Rockies, from the South Dakota...


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MARC Record
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