The following memoir excerpt was first published in DASH Journal, Vol. 11, Spring 2018
One spring afternoon when I was about six, Dad took my younger sister, Cynthia, and me to Showman’s Pasture, an eighty-acre swath of treeless, virgin prairie one block south of our house in Conway Springs, Kansas. It had rained that morning, and the forsythia blooming at the edge of our driveway still sagged with moisture. As he led us down the dirt alley past Ethel Thew’s barn and the Rutherford’s snarling, fenced-in dogs, Cynthia and I tromped through every mudhole we could find.
“I bet you kids have never seen a buffalo wallow, have you?” Dad said.
“What’s a buffalo wallow?” I asked.
“Well, I’m gonna show you one. It’s where buffalo used to roll to keep the flies off. There used to be millions of ‘em on this prairie before they were hunted out—buffalo, that is, not flies. They’d roll till they wore off the grass, and they’d keep rollin’ on that spot, gettin’ dust all over themselves and makin’ a dent in the prairie. You’ll see.”
At the end of the alley, we came to a barbed wire fence strung on posts of hand-hewn hedge. Dad pushed the lowest strand of wire down with his left foot so that Cynthia and I could slip through without snagging ourselves. He maneuvered himself through the higher strands, and we began walking over ground that had never been put to the plow. The wet, native grasses cleaned our mud-caked shoes. The south wind lifted the scent of soaked prairie to our noses. To our ears, it bore the slog of feet, the lilt of distant meadowlarks and the sound of itself billowing north under a blue, empty dome of sky.
About a hundred yards south of the fence, we came to a depression in the earth, an almost perfect circle about thirty feet in diameter. It was filled with rainwater and spiked with the rust-and-gold stalks of bluestem still dormant from winter.
“Now, that’s a buffalo wallow. If you look southwest, you’ll see another one,” Dad said as he pointed with his long, wiry arm.
Cynthia and I ran to the second, rain-filled wallow, a larger and somewhat deeper formation. As we trotted along its edge, scores of nickel-sized frogs leaped through the grass. We stopped, looked into the clear water and spotted hundreds of small, oblong balls of gray-black flesh wriggling themselves through the bluestem with their tiny tails.
“Dad! Come look!” I said. “What are these?”
My father walked over to the second wallow.
“Why, those are tadpoles,” he said. “They’ll crawl outta there soon enough, when they grow some legs.”
“But you said the buffalo wore all the grass off. How come there’s grass here?”
“Well, the buffalo have been gone a good eighty years. And cattle don’t roll the same way.”
“How’d you know the buffalo wallows were here?”
“I used to play out here as a kid,” Dad said.
Throughout the rest of my childhood, my friends and I would walk Showman’s Pasture often—every inch of its grassy high ground, every meander of its lower reaches where runoff, over eons, had cut through thin topsoil and exposed layers of red clay and faint-green limestone. After I left for college, I’d always find time during visits home to walk the pasture again. It remained for me an anchor to something I couldn’t name, something beyond words that always brought me back to who I am. I knew it had never been broken out because its soil was thin and poor, suitable only for grazing cattle. I thought it would always be there, inviolate and whole.
But in the early 1970s, after the U.S. Government began selling huge quantities of surplus grain to the Soviet Union, the price of wheat skyrocketed. The owner of Showman’s Pasture, E.J. Frantz, had several truckloads of dirt hauled in. He ordered his tenant farmer to fill the buffalo wallows, then plow and sow wheat—fencerow to fencerow.
“That ground’s no good for farmin’,” Dad said not long afterwards. “I wish E.J. hadn’t done that. It’s just a shame.”
A few years later, wheat prices dropped, and my childhood haunt was allowed to revert to grass. But a remnant of untouched prairie had been gouged, and the wallows were gone forever. It wouldn’t be long before Showman’s Pasture would vanish altogether—graded and carved up for a new church, a nursing home, and in the early 2000s, a baseball diamond.
It takes work these days to find a buffalo wallow in south-central Kansas. The last time I looked for one was in 2006. I drove mile after mile of dusty section roads, scanning the horizon for signs of never-tilled land—a lone stretch of grassland bounded on all sides by plowed fields, a narrow enclosure of native grass tufting along a slough or creek, a sliver of terrain too ragged to work with farm implements or a pasture snaked with low ridges of red clay.
At last, I found a wallow on a grassy rise southwest of Conway Springs. I looked out over the land. Wind scoured my ears. As I walked the wallow’s perimeter, I imagined the time before white settlers came to these plains, the millennia of the Kiowa and Comanche and other native peoples who had leaned into the same wind that I, too, had come to know as the breath of home. I saw bison grazing the boundless expanse of which this rise was once part—the great herds that darkened the horizon in undiminished number as late as the 1860s, only thirty years before Dad was born.
I saw my father driving cattle with his father in 1907—Dad on his quarter horse, Old Whitey, my grandfather on a bay mare, the two of them riding in a hush disturbed only by the creak of saddle leather, the soft clomp of hooves against earth.
I stepped again into that distant day when Dad took my sister and me to Showman’s Pasture.