Crawling on my stomach through the grass, concentrating only on keeping my presence unknown and not damaging my Nikon camera, I temporarily forgot about my fear of snakes. It was a misty South Dakota morning and the sun had just started to push through the washed-out prairie sky.
Earlier, I had been out with Dan, gathering a group of renegade bison that had crossed a downed stock-dam fence. It is on these rare gatherings that I am discouraged from bringing my camera. I’d been busted a time or two before, but decided to risk it, and had tucked it safely inside my bulky jacket.
There were a few mothers with spring calves in the group of escapees, so we took extra care and swung out far behind them, hoping they would accept our subtle encouragement and turn back the way they had come. They took the hint and headed toward home.
Other than my vehicle breaking down, the event was a success, lasted a couple of hours, and I had the opportunity to sneak in a couple of shots.
Dan picked me up when he saw me on foot, and gave me an “aha” look when he saw my now exposed camera hanging around my neck. I reciprocated with a smile and a wink. We trailed behind the buffalo, and as we passed through the gate we noticed the “maternity ward,” a group of expecting and new mothers, about a quarter mile to the south. Tucked behind a plum thicket even closer, was a mother giving birth. Dan quickly turned in the opposite direction to remove any pressure she might feel. “Wait! I want to see this,” and asked him to slow enough so I could roll out. With his famous half grin he said, “What about all of the snakes, and how will you get back?” This time I threw him a winced ha-ha smirk and said, “I’ll walk.”
I reached the edge of the plum thicket just as the calf was being delivered. My breath was heavy, and my heart sounded as if it was beating out of my chest. The sun was bright and high now and hit last year’s straw colored grass with a glare that made it difficult to see.
I hadn’t been invited to this new union and felt a bit like an interloper. But, I was there, and I had an opportunity to take a photo of the prairies newest arrival. I crawled deeper into the thicket, thorns clawing at me with every wiggle.
I sensed that she sensed me, so I started talking to her very softly. The words were just a murmur, but I believed she could feel them. “It’s all right little momma. Good job. You’re so beautiful. I love you.” I watched with delight as she licked and nudged the little golden ball of fur up onto its legs.
My heart was still pounding and my face stung as the tears rolled over my thorn-scratched face. I needed to gather my emotions. I took a couple deep breaths, steadied my hands, blinked my eyes a few times, and propped myself on my elbows to take a couple of shots.
The new mother looked my way, so I stilled myself and buried my head into my coat. I waited, peaking out only occasionally for a glimpse. After the baby had nursed, the mother buffalo laid down for a well-deserved rest. The baby buffalo moved out in front of her and tried out it’s new legs, making small attempts at a leap and a kick before she grunted it back close to her side.
I slowly slithered out backwards toward a low crevasse. The ground had started to puddle so I rose up onto my hands and knees. Suddenly I noticed movement in the grass and froze in a panic. “Snake,” I thought. Simultaneously, as my mind was telling my body to leap 20 feet in the air, a Great Plains Toad exposed itself from the sandy soil. I collapsed back into the earth and allowed the dampness to fill my lungs, before moving away ape-like as if I too were coming out of the earth.
A version of Jill's story was printed in the May 2016 Patagonia catalog.