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7 Clarion Call It was the same every morning. I’d listen for a man on horseback, wailing like some wild animal in distress. For months he was part of the winter landscape, a ritual of motion, a mantra steeped in supple horseflesh and bawling cattle. The high-pitched summons began in autumn, after the native grasses grew dormant and the cowboy began feeding cottonseed meal, or “cake,” in pellets the size of a grown man’s big toe. They’d nurture the hundreds of Hereford cattle wintering in the pasture where we lived. Not long after sunup, the cowboy would ride past our house on a big sorrel quarter horse, a lanky animal with a long head, a white stripe from forehead to tip of nose, and a contrasting red-brown coat and mane. This lean man with his weather-creased face followed a trace of dirt road west, riding at a fast trot, dressed in jeans, brown canvas work jacket, lace-up work boots, and a billed cap pulled down tightly to keep it from blowing away. And as his longlegged horse jogged along,the cowboy would issue a wild and wordless lament, his cattle call. It was our morning anthem, a signal to begin the half-mile trek over the hill to the school bus stop. Soon the cattle came galloping into sight,moaning and grousing in cow talk,each the same reddish brown as the cowboy’s horse, all with white faces, all galloping to the little green shed where sacks of feed were stored. The cowboy would cut 8 Clarion Call open the hundred-pound bags and fill long sheet metal troughs. The cows would jostle each other, crowding to line up for breakfast. Later they would drift away to graze, loaf, and go about the business of being cows. The cowboy would ride back to his ranch house beyond the hill, and quiet would spread over the little valley where the headwaters of Sycamore Creek trickled from a small spring. When the weather warmed, generally in early April, the grasses broke dormancy and sent up new green shoots among the parched tan clumps of the previous summer’s growth. At that time the cowboy ’s morning ritual would end, to be resumed in late October or early November. Until then the cattle would fatten on the native and nutritious prairie bluestems, Indiangrass, and switchgrass. Oftentimes in early spring, a smoky haze hung over the rolling prairie as ranchers set fire to old, dry grass stalks to hasten new growth. Spring thunderstorms added to the swelling greenery underfoot. By May, the rolling topography of the prairie was as verdant as any Irish dell. Ours was a grassland economy in a land tailored for cattle and grazing .The Flint Hills,the most extensive stretch of tallgrass prairie left in the United States, reach from near the northern Kansas border south into Osage County, Oklahoma, where I grew up. These hills contain a mostly unbroken strip of native grassland more than two hundred miles long and nearly eighty miles wide in places. It’s a landscape of rolling topography, where outcropping limestone and shallow soils have preserved original prairie plants, protected them from the plow, and allowed this to remain some of the best grazing land in the world. My childhood home lies at the southern extreme of the Flint Hills, less than fifty miles south of the Kansas state line near the Oklahoma town of Pawhuska. Pawhuska, named for an Osage Indian chief, is the Osage County seat and the tribal headquarters of the Osage Nation. Although geologically and botanically the same as grassland north of the Kansas line, this southern extension of Flint Hills grazing land came to be known as the Osage Hills or, simply, the Osage, because the country was,prior to Oklahoma statehood,the tribe’s final reservation. To the south, the prairie fades into the timbered Arkansas River bottoms . To the east, it eases into patches of dense Cross Timbers woodland , an ancient, scrubby forest of mostly blackjack and post oaks. To the west, the prairie begins to climb, level out, and lose its rocky substrate . Soon the land becomes a tidy checkerboard of industrial agriculture , mostly fields of winter wheat. 9 Clarion Call These wheat fields are planted annually. The perennial grasses on the prairie renew themselves from rootstock,regenerating for decades before they die. They’re nourished by rain that falls mostly during the growing season and averages thirty...


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