A Prairie Thanksgiving

For people who enjoy the out-of-doors, the weeks before Thanksgiving are crucial. I have a brother in Ohio who suffers great anxiety about November weather. He is a golfer and a warm autumn insures that he gets another couple of weeks to play. In the years when that happens he is thankful indeed.

I am not a golfer. I’ve never owned a set of clubs, never belonged to a country club, never paid a greens fee, or waited in line to tee off. In November, I hope for frosty mornings and a smart northwest wind. I want sandhill cranes and Canada geese riding that wind high above my head. I want cold fingertips and long stretches of prairie surrounding me to the horizons. I need a horse and a pair of English setters casting back and forth a hundred yards ahead.

My brother plays golf seven months a year and, when the weather allows, he plays on Thanksgiving morning and treats himself to the afternoon feast as a sort of reward for a good round or a particularly excellent shot. He claims to enjoy it greatly, though he grumbles incessantly about his slice, or hook, or the way the greens are manicured. My field of play has no grounds keepers except a few hundred buffalo. They graze in a mosaic pattern that encourages different grasses to grow in patches. That way of moving over the land massages the soil and their grazing creates infinite edges between the grass types. The last remnants of green plants linger there in those edges, along with a few of the toughest insects. Those edges create a paradise for sharp tailed grouse. They can easily step from one micro-ecosystem to another. Where buffalo roam free, grouse are a near-certainty.

That is where the older of the two setters knows to run. Where as the younger bumbling puppy is over joyed to stumble upon a covey. The dogs are supposed to stop and point the instant they smell grouse, but the joyful puppy has a tough time doing anything but accelerate, and chases the grouse until they are out of sight. The older dog huffs in disgust. He wants me to shout my displeasure and fumble for the button on the training collar, but I can do nothing but throw my head back and laugh. I pull the horse up gently and wait for the puppy to figure out that he can’t catch them and he returns.         

I think about my brother in his golf cart and laugh again. He once told me that golf would be much more satisfying if it was played in an endless rough with dogs trained to find your ball and point it. The puppy is looping back to me with his tong flopping from left to right, nearly touching his shoulders. I wonder how interested he would be in hunting for golf balls. I imagine my brother stepping from his golf cart and selecting the perfect club to make the green and set himself up for the putt that will cinch his par and make his Thanksgiving dinner a roaring success. 

I send the old dog on and lean from the saddle to give the puppy a squirt of water from a plastic bottle. By the time I look up the old dog has found another covey and is standing, silhouetted against the powder blue horizon as if had been turned to stone. We lope to within twenty yards of him and I dismount and get the puppy stopped. I want him to watch this. I stroke his back and tell him that he’s a good dog, then slip the shotgun from the scabbard and pause before I walk forward. In front of me, invisible in the grass, is the accompaniment to our Buffalo roast for Thanksgiving dinner. I am in a dream and move forward. An all-encompassing thankfulness washes over me.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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  • Your words make me want to be you.

    Gerald Carl
  • In Northern California & Southern Oregon, we understand your connections to Nature and your wish to preserve our heritage. We salute your efforts, gladly order your products and count our blessings, too…in our case it’s RAIN that has finally arrived to help put out the wildfires…a Thanksgiving blessing for all!

    Danny Swanson
  • Many thanks, and not just at Thanksgiving, for continuing these essays! They make the heart happy, and the spirit rise high.

    Carolyn Jacobi
  • What a beautiful story and beautiful animals. So thankful to have met you and Jill and know you are raising bison the best way possible.

    Jim and Kitty Rogers
  • Happy Thanksgiving buffalo friends! Good looking horse and dog companions!

    Kathy Treanor
  • Dan/Jill- great story and photos and the prairie there is looking very fine. I love the tricolor face on that young setter, and the mixed bag of beautiful prairie grouse.

    Brian Mutch
  • DH you still have the flair with the English language and are a true friend of the environment — have a great holiday season — on a more somber note HP died this week He was 92 . I sure enjoyed him as a neighbor for over 25 years .Keep on keeping on . Your blobs are something I enjoy very much . Your old Ohio friend.

    Tom Parke
  • You and you family and Wild Idea’s mission have given us all gifts beyond measure. There’s hope!

    Donna Fisher
  • I’m not sure which pictures were more vivid and beautiful——Jill’s photographs or the images painted in my mind with Dan’s words. What a wonderful message on this Thanksgiving morning!

    Kathy Day
  • Amen, and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Penny Gray
  • Hunter, horseman, rancher… conservator. Thanks for sharing your images of a Thanksgiving hunt, and the thankfulness you portray is blessed, indeed. Very happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and entire crew.

    George Frantz
  • Thank you for beautiful commentary and Jill’s beautiful photos. They touch my heart and help my appreciation of the prairie ecosystem grow, from deep-rooted prairie grasses to snorting bison talking to each other to all the creatures that benefit from the interplay of these primal elements. It all is a lesson in how to love and deeply value our environment. My best to all at WildIdea this Thanksgiving.

    Sue Fowler
  • to live in the beauty your heart practices, to deepen the roots your knowing expands, now watered in your patience and clear purpose. thank you for sharing your vision in words and photos to assure us how blessed we are to have one another in the big family of man. happy Thanksgiving.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • Happy Thanksgiving to Dan and Jill, Jilian and Colton and their kids. . Greetings from this offshore Atlantic isle, where the wind is blowing as it will all winter and beyond. We pause to remember you—as we do throughout the year—thankful for your lives, your passion for nature, and your hard work on nature’s behalf—and ultimately on humanity’s behalf as well. Thank you so much!

    Keith and Kay

    Keith and Kay Lewis
  • My heart simply ACHES for the prairie!! So far from home, and I am so grateful for your taking the time to tell us about your excursions there!

    Kathryn Spieker

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