Tickling the belly of buffalo: no more

[When I lived in Amarillo, Texas, from 1966-1990, I gazed upon the landscapes of the Panhandle-Plains and saw distances and life in those distances.  Not barren, not unlivable, but inhabited.  Sandhills Crane, burrowing owls, sagebrush, mesquite, cool waters of the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, geese, Mallards, mule deer, white-tailed deer and the Barbary Sheep of the Palo Duro Canyon.  I hiked into the edges of vast ranches and found campsites of cowboys and Kiowa tribes, they not-knowing, the owners that I was even there, lightly I trod.

In the midst of all this wandering, I taught at Amarillo College and I impelled my students in anthropology to sketch corn-grinding sites in the canyons for practice and awe.

Somewhere along the way of field trips and hikes, I came across Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He died fighting a prairie fire.  Here is an excerpt about the Silphium of the Aster family.  It is more than a plant cut under the progress of road.  It is the canary in a cage in a mine, deep into the earth.

From the University of Texas, http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html This excerpt is from Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.  Other excerpts are included at this website.]

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.



All photographs of the plants, courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Center for Plants in Texas.


Filed under Life Out of Balance, Plants and Shrubs

11 responses to “Tickling the belly of buffalo: no more

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Tickling the belly of buffalo: no more « Sage to Meadow -- Topsy.com

  2. Bless your heart for posting this, in this way, Jack.

    The Plants, dagnabbit. They deserve so much better than what we’ve given ’em.

  3. I’ve not read a lot of Aldo Leopold, but perhaps should remedy that. I love the notion of wildflowers tickling the bellies of roaming buffalo. It is sad, to see the changes wrought by encroaching society. Thank you for reminding us of what was and, perhaps, can be again.

  4. Kittie Howard

    Your post needs to be printed in every paper nation-wide. So much is dying out I fear survivors will be forever muted, unable to prosper in a world meant to be interactive.

    • Kittie: Forever muted unless we do better as a culture. The odds are against us it seems. I will work till the day I die to protect the habitat we have and to see its creatures reproduce. It may be futile, but I will try.

  5. Val Erde

    This sort of thing makes me sad to be human.
    I moved to rural Wales from an urrban environment in England a few years ago and watching the changing of the seasons and how man has encroached on nature (mostly without being in the least bit natural himself), is a constant sadness to me.

    I was reading a book of reminiscences from a local about how things have changed here since farming became automated and how the wild meadow flowers have disappeared in the wake of the machinery. It’s something that, having lived most of my life in a city, had never even occurred to me. Thank you for posts such as this, it’s going to be a wake up call to whoever reads it, whoever sees it, who has also not thought of these things.

    • Val Erde: Wild meadow flowers do still abound here in Texas, in the New World. I do hope you can see some previous posts of mine with the wild flowers within our regional habitat. Even so, I have neighbors that shred their fields so that the fields will look mown! And, there goes the wild. Thank you for your comments. I love your blog and will visit often.

  6. Pingback: Naturalist quote of day: Aldo Leopold on danger of not owning a farm | Sage to Meadow

  7. Pingback: Compass Plant. | Find Me A Cure

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