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148 An Osage Thoreau In the spring of 2015, the Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy announced that they’d acquired acreage to add to the organization ’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Included within the acquisition was an old cabin built of native sandstone, circa 1932. For many years it had been the home of John Joseph Mathews, Osage historian, novelist, artist , poet, and philosopher. The sturdy old dwelling was the one he built when he decided to cut short his travels, return home after studying at Oxford and Geneva and hunting in Africa, and live in harmony with the land of his upbringing. Over the years Mathews would write five books in this simple structure, including a Book of the Month Club best seller, a prairie version of Thoreau’s Walden, and a poetic history of the Osage tribe. Mathews’ cabin, hidden away from the road at the edge of a miniforest of blackjack oaks, had neither electricity nor running water. Heat came from a carefully designed arched fireplace also built of native stone. Mathews’ daughter Virginia remembers visiting her father in the summertime and showering under a pan with a number of holes poked in the bottom, Mathews’ backyard concession to cleanliness. The cabin sits at the edge of an oak-studded ridgeline. Beyond the front door the world opens to encompass miles of rolling high prairie. 149 An Osage Thoreau Streamshavecutdeepdraws,andcattledrinkfromstockpondsfilledby wet weather seeps and springs. The Nature Conservancy soon replaced the majority of the cattle grazing on the surrounding pastureland with buffalo. The bison roam freely and replicate ancient grazing patterns. Their keystone presence is part of the conservancy’s mission to restore biological integrity to the preserve, the nation’s largest protected tract of tallgrass prairie. Mathews’ gravesite lies near the old stone dwelling, and now bison dung rather than cow manure fertilizes the adjacent countryside. Somehow it just seems fitting that nearby blackjacks will serve as scratching posts for bison grown weary of their winter wool. Not even a visionary like John Joseph Mathews could have guessed that someday his Osage Indian allotment would be home to an animal that the Osage people once revered, yet one that had vanished long before Mathews was born. By the time of the Osages’ final buffalo hunt in the mid-1870s, only a few of the animals remained on the high plains of extreme northwest Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, and these too would soon disappear due to pressure applied by hungry Indians and a swarm of white hide hunters. In his youth, John Joseph Mathews lived the life I often dreamed about while riding my horse not far from where he was raised. Born in Pawhuska in 1894, Mathews witnessed firsthand what some historians have labeled the last chapter of the old Wild West, a turbulent era that had grown into legend by the time I was born in 1947. Of Osage descent, Mathews spoke the language and played with the children of Osages only recently removed from the lives of warriors and buffalo hunters. And when young John Joseph explored the rolling hills along the headwaters of Bird Creek, train robbers, whiskey runners , and horse thieves were still around to share a path through the rocky grassland. Mathews roamed the prairie when the prairie-chickens still gathered in great flocks, when Eskimo curlews still landed to feed on greening spring pastures, and when wolves still howled from blackjack -studded caprock and cougars carried away small children—one of them his infant brother. John Joseph grew to manhood at the end of a raucous time in the region’s history, a time soon to be replaced by near-total chaos courtesy of an oil boom and the environmental and cultural corruption that go hand in hand with the discovery of black gold. When he left the Osage prairie for college, service in World War 150 An Osage Thoreau I, and time in England as a Rhodes Scholar, the departure would have been, for most, a ticket to a more sophisticated world that Mathews was quite capable of flourishing in. Yet the pull of the Osage countryside and its people remained strong. The son of a Pawhuska businessman came back to the tallgrass, built the little sandstone house, and began to reconnect with the rhythms of the land and its people. Creatively inspired by his homecoming, Mathews began to write seriously about the region. His first book, Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road...


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