Of Meadowlarks & Men

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.

MeadowlarkWe 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.

MeadowlarkI 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.”

Buffalo Herd with Buffalo Birds

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.

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  • Thank you, Dan. Grew up along the Missouri at Bismarck, ND, and my favorite sound was meadowlarks waking me first thing in the morning. Still my favorite sound. How can we exist without it? My family had a nursery and seed business and I’ve come to understand how we’ve all been part of the change. Now I just try to eat less meat, primarily your bison, and make a smaller impact on the environment. From my first reading (as a kid) of your book on falconry, to your present posts, I find your writing wonderful. Thank you.

    Susan Will
  • Love the piece but we are the choir – how can we get this ahead in Washington and the State Capitals. I read an article yesterday how the millennials have rejected the traditional “American Slices” of what is supposed to be cheese and are demanding better cheese. Restaurants and stores are taking notice and changing their supply orders. We have to forget Washington and the State Capitals and do it fork by fork only way business will listen. But the politicians could quicken the pace rapidly with some simple changes. Mid Term elections probably won’t help as too much lobby power in Washington.

    Mark Priest
  • What a poignant story — thank you for sharing.

    Joyce Cross
  • I pray to Christ the power and comfort of God’s Great Spirit unleashes all the gifts that Roy’s and Eleanor’s son and daughter inherited to steward the land they continue to farm so that it returns to a model of what 21st century renewable agronomy will finally get right. . .what the indigenous Americans have known all along about the herbs of the field. Good on ya Roy for getting to see it first hand!

    Vernon Cross
  • Thank you.

    Audrey Cullen
  • Poignant.

    H Rooks
  • Dan, your essay strikes a cord in my life. That is spending year of summers at the family farm NE of finley ND.and seeing the destruction of the native flora and fauna along the creek that ran through the farm.I remember you couldn’t take a step along the banks of this waterway without a plethora of frogs hopping into the water or turtles and seeing minnows darting to cover. Crayfish were relatively plentiful back in the fifties. You might be lucky enough to even find a tick crawling on you person at the time There were two things that hang in my memory of that time these were first; scaring up a great blue heron about two feet away and being both thrilled and scared at the same time. 2nd Seeing a badger running across a field about fifty yards away and being transfixed ,and almost getting to close to a skunk..

    My last summer visit was just before I left for the the fall of 66. I didn’t return until the mid 70’s with my wife at that time and young son.It was a dry year and I went for a wlk down by the creek. there were not as many frogs or other critters there as I remember. We had only stopped by to say hi as we were heading for the Seattle Area to visit my family What stuck with me on this trip was that the new ,old barn had fallen in and the old barn was nothing but a rotting pile of rubble.

    My next visit wasn’t until I entered college in Fargo in 2004 , the changes didn’t surprise me that I expected .The differences did . There were less of everything birds not a one no frogs no minnows ior crayfish the creek in it course was mostly dead though I did see a turtle. My cousin now owns the farm but rents it out so I haven’t been to the farm since around 2008 I don’t know why I feel responsible somehow but I do

    Bob Mahoney
  • Beautifully seen and written Dan. The eco-criminality of what we’ve done to mother earth in the name of progress is just astounding.

  • heartwrenching ….

    Patricia Sandoval
  • You’ve knocked it out of the ball park once again, Dan. As I read your blog, I relived the tour you gave my sister and me just two weeks ago. It was an experience I won’t forget, along with the meadowlarks, whose song I hadn’t heard for years until I met your ranch.

    James E. Swab
  • Brilliant little piece Mr O’Brian. Brilliant because it cuts through so much political and cultural garbage to get to the American heart. The first question might be, how did Roy know he had been duped and had screwed up? The vast majority are clinging to the old corporate mythology. I met a Roy 40 years ago in Cordova. Sitting upright in a straight backed chair in a kitchen in the fishing village of Cordova with suspenders over a checked shirt and what was left of his hair sticking strait up. He talked in blank verse: Left San Frsanisco when the herring failed, saw the anchovies fail, went north just ahead of the salmon species failures. Saw the rescue efforts with hatcheries as the mines and industrial logging cut the top off Vancouver Island and plugged the Canadian rivers with slash an mud slides. Saw the big dams eliminate the June Hogs on the Columbia to the last fish. There he was at the end of a 19th century land-and-water based career wondering what the hell he had been part of.

    Your buffalo adventure is a brilliant piece of work and I wish you well. The news dosen’t seem to travel fast. The supermarket has a hell of a lot of beef in it.

    Eric Forrer
  • I greatly appreciate what you are doing for the environment, nature and the good of all mankind. I grew up on a farm in South Dakota based on the Missouri River. I returned to South Dakota after being gone for 40 plus years and it saddens me to see how much has changed in the health of the soil and water and the lack of so many times of birds and wild life that used to be abundant. There is a big misconception in American agriculture which is the belief to feed the world at any cost by the use of chemicals to kill weeds and insects and the use of excessive nitrates at the expense of the environment, nature and eventually mankind. I pray that we wake up before it is to late.

    Randy Graves
  • Thanks for sharing this deeply personal story… while we have meadowlarks here in Boulder Utah, it wasn’t until I traveled to your country that I was completely transported by their soul catching voices , riding every little breeze wherever I wandered!

    Holly Hopper
  • Well written, Dan! Having grown-up on a small dairy farm in NE Wisconsin, I can relate very well to your essay’s observations. Hope to visit your ranch soon!!

    Alex Piciask
  • Western Meadowlarks are my favorite songbirds, mostly for their song. Ay, liquid gold it is to hear it. :) I grew up with them, too, in a bunch of vacant lots around our city…once vacant lots. Home to dozens, maybe hundreds (if you count the insects and other invertebrates, which you should do) of different species. There was farm land, too, little family farm patches here and there still (my preschool was right next to one, so close I could feed the yucky pork and beans out the kitchen window to the next door neighbors’ horse) that could grow just about anything they were called upon to grow, because we were actually on a coastal plain, where the rivers would wash down all that lovely sediment, and the weather was perfect. :)

    Then, one by one, all my family could do was watch as all those lovely places were plowed up for the last (or first) time, the still-lovely soil dumped into trucks, hauled out to the beach, and chucked into the ocean, because obviously it didn’t serve any useful purpose. Then the city planners and developers put up another hotel on a block that had 20 of them, or expanded a shopping mall because people can eat concrete, right? Far more important. Never mind the songs and other voices that were lost.

    And the small mom-and-pop business places on our main street had to go, too, of course. Can’t have the kids just riding their bikes down there and indulging in real, breathing history; might make the big boys look bad.

    That’s what it was like, growing up. For awhile, though, it seemed like sanity and compassion might help adjust/fix things like that, but I worry that the kids of today, 2018, will have to deal with the same kind of thing again, now. Hopefully it’s not too late to retain what we need to and encourage it to grow. :)


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