The end of September is when the meadowlarks begin to gather in flocks of ten, twenty, or more. They are feeling the nights cool and I suppose they are dreaming of warm afternoons in the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma. I see lots of meadowlarks and when they rise up from the grass ahead of an ATV, or a horse, it barely registers. They are such a part of the grasslands of our ranch that I have to slow down and make myself listen for their song. In spring that song seems to spiral upward from every habitat edge between the species of native grasses. In autumn there is a resurgence of the singing, as the photoperiod shrinks to the length of the spring equinox.
This September, a retired farmer and his wife came to tour our ranch. They had farmed in northern Illinois for forty-five years, beginning on small, diversified, family farms where they were both raised and ending with a large, high input, corn and bean farm. They pulled into our yard in a shiny new GMC Yukon but it was easy to see that they were not comfortable riding in a gleaming new vehicle. Though they had modernized along with industrial agriculture, they could not hide the fact that they were farmers like the ones I grew up around in northwestern Ohio. The wife was Eleanor and she let me know that they had retired a few years before and that their oldest boy was now operating the farm. By the way she talked, I knew they missed living on the land. “It’s changed a great deal,” she said. The old man nodded but did not meet my eyes. His name was Roy and, when he spoke, the words came out soft, with thoughtful pauses. “Things are different now.” He stared at the ground, and shook his head almost unperceptively. “All technology,” he said. “Spraying everything. Not a weed in sight.” He tried to raise his gaze but couldn’t quite manage it. With great effort, he finally looked out and gestured toward at the rangeland that runs from our house to the Cheyenne River. “There are no more grassy pastures like this at all.”
I tried to lighten his mood. “Well, you’re going to see a lot of grass today.” I touched Roy gently on the back and pointed them to the ATV. He tried to usher his wife into the front seat beside me but she demurred in no uncertain terms.
‘No, no. You’ve been looking forward to this for a year,” she shook her head while she crawled into the back seat. “You sit up there with Mr. O’Brien. This is your trip.” She looked at me over her glasses. “First time we’ve been west of the Mississippi.” She shook her head. “He looked you up on the internet, Google,” she said. “Only time he ever tried it.” She nodded to underscore the wonder in her voice. Roy looked straight ahead, but from the corner of my eyes, I saw a tiny nod.
When we got to the top of the driveway, where the land flattens out and where homesteads were briefly established in the early years of the twentieth century, I stopped to explain how the homesteads had failed and, as the ATV’s engine died, an iconic, looping spiral of song washed over us with the breeze. Roy tensed and looked over the seat to his wife. “Meadowlark,” I said and went on with my explanation of the Homestead Act that had brought half a dozen northern European families to that part of what was now our buffalo ranch. “They scratched around in this dirt and tried to make farms but it didn’t work,” I said.
But my passengers were not listening to me. They nodded politely to me but they were listening for what the morning breeze was bringing us. All I could see of Roy was the weathered profile that could have been one of millions of men just a few years older than me. From just that glimpse of a profile I could tell that he was re-running his life. I knew the farm he was thinking of because our family had one very like it. Red barn, white house, pens for pigs and cattle - chickens and couple ducks. There had to be a thirty horse-power John Deere tractor in Roy’s mind’s eye, a manure spreader, and a two wheel drive pickup. It probably began as a half section of land, a tree grove and green, specie-diverse pastures rolling down to a little creek where kids like me played to the soundtrack of thousands of meadowlarks.
We traveled down the driveway to the bluff that ran the length of the ranch above the Cheyenne River. From there we could see a huge section of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland where our buffalo spend the winter. We looked out over miles of protected land. “Almost all native grass,” I said. Roy’s wife was nodding, looking pensive as I explained the history of the Lakota people who died just over the high ground east of the river, at Wounded Knee Creek in the winter of 1890. Roy was listening too, but I could see his eyes shift as the meadowlarks continued to rise up around us. It dawned on me that Roy was more interested in the ground nesting birds than the human history, the buffalo, or just how we could make a living out in this land that most would say was far less fertile than the land he had known all his life.
I altered the tour to showcase the work we’ve been doing to rehabilitate small sections of grasslands after attempts by previous owners to grow crops. Without looking at me. Roy said, “I plowed up thousands of acers like this. Deep,” he said. “I was a damned good farmer.” He paused. “Killed everything in the township that wasn’t corn or beans.” I had to lean toward him to hear. “Did just like the seed and chemical guys told us to do.”
Eleanor reached over the seat and touched his arm. “You were a good farmer,” she said. “A good provider.”
We drove out to a two-mile square pasture where the buffalo were grazing. Buffalo birds rolled up by the hundreds as the buffalo stirred up insects from the grass. A half a dozen species of sparrows popped up, flew a few yards and popped back down into the jungle that was their home. But Roy’s eyes were always drawn to meadowlarks. All the way back to the ranch house they continued to flutter up and settle back down in our wake. I tried not to stare but I watched Roy’s face. It was hard to read that wrinkled old face but I’m pretty sure the cheeks were wet.
He asked if he could use the restroom as we drove into the parking area in front of the machine shop. He stepped out and headed for the house before we came to a complete stop. He left Eleanor and me alone and a little embarrassed in the ATV. I fumbled to continue a polite conversation but Eleanor felt a need to explain. “Before we left Illinois he told me that he hadn’t see a meadowlark for twenty years.” I turned in my seat to read her face. She was grief-stricken for her husband. “He’s so sad about the part he played in it.” For an instant I thought she would cry too. “He’s very sad,” she said. “Sad and ashamed.”
Roy is a good man and is no more the villain in this story than the rest of us. He can teach us where we went wrong. His message moves like wind through the prairie grass - but we must listen.