Shawnee News-Star Sunday Oct. 22nd 2017 Becky Emerson Carlberg On the way to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, one drives past the Ree Drummond's Pioneer Woman Mercantile in Pawhuska. The renovated 25,000 square foot building usually has a long line of people extending well down the sidewalk.   The Inside has a bakery, restaurant, deli, coffee shop [...]

Shawnee News-Star Sunday Oct. 22nd 2017

Bison at Tallgrass Prairie

Becky Emerson Carlberg

On the way to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, one drives past the Ree Drummond's Pioneer Woman Mercantile in Pawhuska. The renovated 25,000 square foot building usually has a long line of people extending well down the sidewalk.   The Inside has a bakery, restaurant, deli, coffee shop and stocked general store.   At 7:30 am there was no line, but the restaurant was full of people.

We drove out of Pawhuska and into the tallgrasses that grow on the Flint Hills of the Great Plains.   Mile after mile of rolling grassy fields with belts of trees hiding in low areas clued me in that we were within the vast interior grasslands of North America.   The Great Plains formerly extended from Texas into Canada.   The plains grasses drop in height from tall to short in the drier environment influenced by the Rocky Mountains.  To the moister east the grasses blend with forests and form the Cross Timbers ecosystem in TX, OK and KS.

The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy.   The preserve was part of the Chapman-Barnard ranch complex, and we were to meet at headquarters for a brief introduction and fall foliage hike sponsored by the Nature Conservancy.   The ranch headquarters has been converted into a bunkhouse, restrooms and gift shop with bison prominently featured.   The tallgrass prairie is home to 2,500 bison which are about to participate in the annual fall round-up in early November.   They really don't like it, but right now seem quiet as they graze on freshly burned patches of newly sprouted grass and mature grasses.

Entrance to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

The clouds of the next cold front could be seen building to the north over Kansas.   We were just miles from the border.   The front would usher in our next rain during the night as it swept through the state.   Harvey Payne greeted us as we arrived on this windy warm autumn day.   Harvey serves as a Tallgrass Preserve docent and the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy's Communications Relations Coordinator.   He is a lawyer, rancher and photographer by trade, but enjoys being outdoors and knows practically every aspect of Tallgrass, from the diverse realm of prairie plants to the wildlife, including bison.

'Be on the lookout for Norther Harriers' Harvey said.   Tallgrass usually has an influx of Northern Harriers as winter approaches.   Great horned owls and screech owls are residents, but short-eared owls are also now migrating into the grasslands.   Our group followed the trail through the bottomlands past Big Bluestem, the tallest of the 'Big Four' grasses in Oklahoma.   Big Blue is known as the giant redwood of the grass kingdom.   At Tallgrass, one plant was measured at 10 feet 4 inches.   The dominant big bluestem makes up 40% of the plant community.   Indian grass seed heads have dispersed most of their seeds.   In the Tallgrass Prairie over 760 plant species have been identified; 10% are exotics.   One exotic cropping up everywhere is Chinese Bushclover, more commonly known as Sericea lespedeza. The Asian legume has no predators and cattle won't touch it after the clover gets over 6 inches tall.   The seeds can live 30 years in the soil.

The intricate prairie has been controlled by bison, elk that were killed out by the 1830's, fire and killing frosts that arrive mid-October.   This is why it is a prairie and not a forest, although 20,000 years ago the area was indeed a spruce and Jack pine forest.   Burn it and they will come, be they bison, deer or insects.   All are essential to a healthy prairie population. The prairie is shaped by fire and needs fire to exist. At the top of the hill we looked at the upland forest of scattered post oaks and blackjack oaks surrounded by grasses. These oaks grow in sandstone derived soils and could form a closed canopy if no fire occurred to limit their expansion.   This prairie is a 'human induced landscape.'   The 40,000 acre Tallgrass Preserve is bordered by 120,000 acres owned by conservation minded ranchers and the Mormon Church.

The Mesonet weather system was operating on a nearby hill, issuing updates every 15 minutes.   Stands of sumac were turning red.   We stood within the diverse plant community of grasses and broadleaf plants, including many legumes, and felt the vitality of the prairie.   Broadleaf species support insects that are food sources for ground-nesting birds, rodents and other wildlife.   Wild quinine, goldenrod and Jerusalem artichokes have gone to seed.   Even ragweed seeds are valuable protein packages.

Our path took us down into the gallery forest.   Ash trees, bur and shumard oaks, elms, hackberries, redbuds and roughleaf dogwoods grow along the slopes of Sand Creek.   Blackberries, green briers and other shrubby understory plants also provide shelter and additional food.  We ended our excursion through native bottomland forest, Cross Timbers and tallgrass prairie.

Fireplace inside the John Joseph Mathews cabin.

After a short break, our next hike, led by Patricia Webster, was to the historic cabin of her relative John Joseph Mathews, fondly known as “Thoreau of the Plains.'  The Mathews cabin was in another section of the Tallgrass Preserve.

J J Mathews distinguished himself by earning degrees from University of Oklahoma and Oxford University in England, was a pilot in World War I and worked as a newspaper correspondent in Europe for much of his career.   He returned to his Osage roots and had a cabin built in 1932 northwest of Pawhuska on original Osage allotment land.   Mathews wrote several books in his small primitive cabin with no electricity or running water.   His first book was 'Wahkontah' (Great Spirit in Osage), followed by 'Talking to the Moon,' a story about his first 10 years living in his cabin in the 'blackjacks' of his homeland, the Osage culture and the complexity of nature.   His most famous 'The Osages, Children of the Middle Waters' was based on his interviews with full-blood Osages who spoke of their customs and beliefs.

In 2015 the Nature Conservancy acquired an inholding that included the old cabin which has now been renovated.   The cabin walls are of heavy rock 2 ½ feet thick.  During construction the rocks were measured not in pounds but in men sizes.   Several rocks were 3 or 4 men rocks excavated from the hillside below the cabin.   The mantel above the fireplace is inscribed in Latin:   'Venari Lavari Ludere Ridere Occast Vivere' translated into the cheerful message 'The hunt, the baths, play and laughter:   that's the life for me.'  The saying comes from an inscribed stone in the middle of an in-ground Roman board game formed of stone slabs discovered in Timgad, Algeria dating from the 2nd or 3rd century.

One huge ancient post oak with 2 large burls grows to one side of the cabin.   It was here John Joseph hung a water bag and took his showers.   The man liked to walk around au naturel.   Visitors were warned to honk their horns or yell as they approached.   Mathews was born Nov. 16th 1894 and died June 11th 1979, so say the dates engraved on the gravestone (where he was buried) at the other side of his cabin. The atmosphere on that hill of trees surrounded by prairie was quite peaceful.