On Bison, Bluestem, and “Osage Moon”

March 5, 2011

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If you’ve never seen a bison up close then you can’t know how big they are: massive wedge-shaped heads, calling to mind an anvil or the head of a maul, and bodies that look like what you’d get if you crossed a cow with a moose.

So imagine hiking through the tall grass prairie and rounding a bend to find a whole head of these prehistoric-looking beasts, staring and snorting at you on the open plain.  Awestruck is the word that comes to mind. And that was me in the mid-90s at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

I was there with Annick Smith, helping edit her book, Big Bluestem: A Journey into the Tallgrass, which she wrote for The Nature Conservancy and Council Oak Books.

We spent a lot time out on the prairie, when we weren’t working on drafts of the text at the big farm table in the ranch house.  We walked in the bluestem, sometimes with experts, sometimes alone, and always struck by the power and beauty of the landscape and the ecosystem.

One night, after we’d stopped wrestling over sentences, put the manuscript to bed, and all was quiet on the plain, I stepped outside onto the porch to take in the night sky.  The sky was huge — Montana has nothing on Oklahoma skies — and the stars were so bright and plentiful, they formed an opaque glistening broken only by a chalk white moon.

Here is my poem, “Osage Moon,” which appeared in The Cortland Review in 2002:

Osage Moon

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Pawhuska, Oklahoma

The moon
is a soft pinprick
in a sky
so expansive
even Ursa
Major seems minor.
A dog barks
and ghost voices
echo down Indian song—
piercing the Osage hills.
Grasses are weather-worn
and wild; wild-
flowers lay dormant—
everything abides green days.
Besides, cold weather slants
in from the north, taking the plains,
where a few days ago
hot winds came
up from the Gulf of Mexico,
fooling the dogwood,
and fires seared the earth
the color of burnt toast.
Miles, miles of dry grass
and sky
in every direction.
And there, where bison stood
at noon, sheltered
by blackjack oak,
only shadows—
unruly apparitions,
under the Osage moon,
awaiting the culling
of their existence;
binding grasses,
four-color wildflowers,
and forbs pressed between pages,
tangled in bluestem.

–Scott Edward Anderson, The Cortland Review

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