Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where what once was...still is

I've written a number of articles and stories about Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie.  I've also taken thousands of photographs of the area.  Some might say there's a bit of obsession involved.  Maybe so...but, I prefer to think of it as...well, let me try to explain.

Most people have never heard about the tallgrass saga, and most probably aren't aware that there are three distinct prairie regions in North America.  First, there's the short grass prairie which encompasses the western sections of the plains states.  It is characterized by short scrubby grasses...a hot and dry climate...and higher elevations found along the landscapes that reach eastward from the Rocky Mountains.  Then there is a thin ribbon of an area called the mixed grass prairie where the climate begins to change and a blending of the short grass and tallgrass area begins.  Finally, there is the tallgrass prairie.

The tallgrass region at one time was perhaps the largest eco-system in North was a massive sea of tallgrass species that grew taller than a man and stretched from southern Canada, across the eastern Dakota's, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and into Texas almost to the gulf coast.  It stretched across southern Minnesota, almost all of Iowa and a good part of Illinois and northern Missouri, and there were even isolated pockets in Kentucky and Arkansas.

Three forces helped to create and sustain the tallgrass prairie:  1. The climate with hot summers, cold winters, and good moisture.  2. Millions of American Bison (buffalo) roamed across the area which grazed the grasses low, disturbed the soil, and dropped tons of fertilizer. 3. Fire...which burned across the grasslands often for days or even weeks clearing thousands of acres and preventing the encroachment of brushy plants and trees from choking out the grasslands.

The tallgrass prairie saga today is one of loss and restoration for between 1840 and 1890, in less than one generation, over ninety percent and in some areas as much as 99 percent of the tallgrass prairie was destroyed.  This destruction took form in multiple ways when civilization discovered the rich fertile lands.  The tallgrass region was plowed under, replanted with crops, fenced off and replaced with single species of range grasses.  The bison were killed, and fire was suppressed.  Within 50 or 60 years, almost all of the original tallgrass area was gone. The only place now where horizon to horizon vistas of original tallgrass prairie can still be found, is the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas and northern Oklahoma.  It's difficult to grasp, but the Tallgrass Prairie is the most endangered land form in the world...even more endangered than the rain forests.

Northern Oklahoma is home to the largest of the few protected areas that remain...The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy, is unique in the world.  No other location still uses all three of the original forces that sustained the prairie.  The climate has remained basically the same in the region, and there are around 3000 bison that roam free and wild across the preserve.  Fire is also used, although controlled, in the same way as the wildfires that once scarred the landscape.

I began my affair with the tallgrass saga over 15 years ago when I first visited the preserve.  It was pretty new at the time and only a few hundred bison were on the preserve.  Most of them I was able to watch from high atop a knoll as they grazed across a slope a few hundred yards away.  I watched my first legendary prairie sunset that day and even though I didn't own any quality camera equipment at the time, I made a promise to myself to return and photograph what was there.  It took over ten years before I would live up to that promise, but eventually I did return with camera in hand and began capturing the flavor and drama across this wonderful landscape.  Little did I realize at the time that six years later I'd still be searching that landscape for all of its photographic potential.  I've not even come close to finishing.

Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie is truly a place where what once was...still is.  At one time I thought of the prairie as just a big field full of weeds.  No more...for I've spent hours sitting under the shade of an isolated cedar tree just letting the sounds of the prairie infiltrate into my heart.  I've watched legendary sunsets and amazing sunrises.  I've face prairie storms and encountered close up angry bison.  I estimate that I've driven hundreds of mile on the gravel roads and hike dozens of miles through its fields and across its hills and arroyos.  I've sat atop a high knoll and surveyed a landscape that stretched from horizon to horizon with not a single man made object in sight.  I've watch white clouds drift across a blazing blue sky.  I'm still in wonder of this landscape and will continue to search its quiet beauty and the soul cleansing that it affords.

I'm often questioned about why I keep returning after all the thousands of photo's I've already taken.  I quit trying to find an answer because there is no answer that will satisfy that question.  The best I can do is to show you what I've experienced.  Please find time to watch this video...after doing so...maybe you will understand as well.

1 comment: said...

Thanks for sharing. Your well-written story makes it clear how important the tallgrass prairie once was and how endangered it is now. It's a story I hope you share often. Mind if I link this story to
-- Dennis Toll