The Last Buffalo


I’ve got a story to tell. A string of low, rolling hills trails down from North Dakota halfway through South Dakota. It was through here in the late 1800’s that one of the last wild buffalo wandered on down into the township where I now live, where it was sighted. He turned around and disappeared into his fate elsewhere. He must have been puzzled at being surrounded by prairie familiarity, but finding everything so empty. Where had all his fellow buffalo gone? The grassy potholed hills were the same; he was the same; but something else wasn’t. There was just this big empty, an empty reach of sky and grass. He turned around and around, looking for something that couldn’t be seen anymore. The wild buffalo is no more. What is tamed and fenced in is just not the same.

The next migration into this emptying land will never be the migration into this land after the last wild buffalo left. What is being emptied out will be forgotten unless our memories are gathered.

Sons and daughters of land starved peasants of Europe, I am one of the last of you. I am one of the last buffalo. I turn around and around. What once was is gone.

The Butterknife

The old house that my great-grandpa had made
for my great-grandma
lay in a collapsed wreck
with fallen-in spaces,
no longer safe to stand in,
the last stage
before becoming a pile of boards.
Why, I ask,
isn't there something to greet me,
someone who had stayed and kept this place up?
It was as if I expected
the old folks from the old photographs
to step out from the weathered wood
to answer the What and Why,
to tell me about a day in their lives.
Then I saw the butterknife.
Where the house had split open
and exposed the kitchen room,
there on the tongue and groove floor
it lay waiting,
the only utensil left.
I picked it up.
It was rough with rust.
I took it home to put in my house,
a gift.


All the old ones tell me
that mother was the center
of all that was good.
Mother at the oven.
Mother in her garden.
Mother that they all adored.
She had little to say,
but moved easily to laughter
from all the little things that had to be told
as they sat at her dining table
even after they were grown,
bringing along their own families.
She came to know
each of her grandchildren
as they sat on her lap.
She was a proud lady,
believing in making the best of what you had.
I feel her spirit moving
in a widening circle of love.
The hands that raise a child
death will never stop.
After she left, Father lived thirteen years more.
He died one night after supper
with a Bible in his lap.
He called her Lizzie.
They called her Mother.
She was the center of all that was good.





Women in the old family photographs
look old
at an age long before
what we now call old.
My great-grandma Elizabeth
was a bride of three months
when her clothes caught fire.
Gabe, her husband, tore the clothes off her back,
saving her life.
They had been burning hay for fuel
in their soddy.
She lay on her stomach
for six weeks in a neighbor's shack
with lard on her burns to heal them.
The scars remained
for the rest of her life.
She'd lost all her household's contents.
It was October.
As winter came down, Gabe built another soddy.
They continued into fifty-two years of marriage
and had twelve kids, all of whom lived.
Nowadays, few farmers' brides stay
on the farm.
They soon make a beeline
for the nearest town.
A second income pays the bills,
buys the sport utility wheels,
and it's just about the only way to get health insurance.
In the good old days
all some could do was be strong
and endure.

A Prairie Prayer


I have learned much by walking out my door each day. I have come to see great beauty and wonders unfolding in my everyday working world. I know that many others who live on this prairie also see what I see and feel what I feel. They, like I, have also come to realize that we live in a place and time that is, in so many ways, sacred. This is where we want to be, where we have stayed and wrested a living out of a frequently difficult land.


There are, indeed, giants in the earth, and they live all around me.

A Prairie Prayer

Here, on this arc
of grass, sun, and sky,
I will stay and see if I thrive.
Others leave. They say it's too hard.
I say hammer my spirit thin,
spread it horizon to horizon,
see if I break.
Let the blizzards hit my face;
let the heat of summer's extreme
try to sear the flesh from my bones.
Do I have what it takes to survive,
or will I shatter and break?
Hammer me thin,
stretch me from horizon to horizon.
I need to know the character
that lies within.
I want to touch a little further
beyond my reach,
for the something that I seek.
Only then let my spirit be released.


In central South Dakota
wherever old men gather
because of family obligations
or community events,
they sit in tight knots
in the corners of rooms,
out of the way of the younger folks
and the women,
talking to each other in serious,
studied ways about workday events,
their big, age spotted hands
resting in their laps
like so much soft, piled-up leather.
They tell each other no secrets;
their everyday stories are like the clothes
they wear – everything fits and is tidy.
The older women
move the food and coffee around,
making sure that even the dill pickles
are properly presented;
the big serving bowls make clicking noises
as they are put in place on either side
of the long tables. No one leaves hungry.

The Staff of Life

All my great-grandfathers and grandfathers
laid the earth over with their plows,
grass side down.
The wheat seeds, planted among the dead roots,
struggled to sprout and grow.
The harvests were meager, but still,
they were harvests.
When I was young,
an uncle smashed freshly harvested wheat
between two rocks and said,
"Eat. This is bread."
The coarse powder had the same taste
as the golden loaf my mother placed
each day in the center of the table.
So this is what we did –
we were the beginning of bread.





Church of the Holy Sunrise


The South Dakota Missouri Coteau region ("coteau" is French, meaning "rolling hills") is a place that has its own unique ecosystem of fertile grasslands, swales, and rocky hillsides, a place that has its own sense of community and culture, a place in which I've lived my life.


Southwestern Faulk County is a part of this region, where my great-grandfather was one of the first settlers. My father, at the age of five, walked behind horses doing field work, and I myself, in my boyhood, have guided work horses feeding cows on a winter's day. Now satellites guide machinery through those same fields. This is a land that never was densely populated, and has, in recent times, become even more sparsely populated. This depopulation has been occurring in the face of ever-increasing agricultural development. Those of us remaining on the land try to come to terms with the very real paradoxes that we find in our environment, an environment that can be rich and productive but is also, in many ways, harsh and unforgiving. If you are looking for an easy way of living, this is not the place.


So why do we who remain stay here? Perhaps, for many of us, it is the spiritual connection we feel with the land itself as we step out our doors and greet each new day, aware that we can still find a sense of natural order. We all feel a connection that comes from being birthed under a wide and limitless sky, knowing the certainty of belonging to this place. Our place. We sense that the way of life we are pursuing may be in danger of disappearing. When you share your life with the land and with the living things that grow and pause upon it, you either grow to love it of you leave.


My poems are my description of this world, my corner of The Missouri Coteau, where domestic animals, people, and wildlife co-exist on a daily basis with the comings and going of the seasons that flow through it all, a place where everyone and everything has a story to tell, if we listen.

In Our Hearts

What connects us to the scent of rain on the earth,
to the last sight of geese in the fall,
to the first sight of geese in the spring,
to the first gasping breath of the newborn calf,
to the warmth of our homes when winter winds blow?
We are the sum of our senses and more;
we who grow a living from the land
cannot live without being connected
to this sky and to this earth,
needing to feel the soft rustling of long green corn leaves.
brushing against our legs and bare arms,
to feel life in our very steps as we stride through our days.
Still, we lie awake at night
worrying whether ends will meet,
whether the path we have taken will work out,
whether the rain will come,
whether the sun will shine,
whether our will and physical core
shall weaken or stay the course.
We have found the good, while dealing with the bad.
We have stayed, when others have left.
Such is the power
of our land's beating heart.


On the flat plains, our fist impulse is to see
vast emptiness.
Fill this earth! Change this skyline!
But Look!
The sky is always changing.
The earth is already filled.



A Regular

You'll find me where the light meets the darkness,
where the earth touches the sky.
Like the songbird's trill at dawn,
I am here only for a little while.
But as long as I am able,
I shall greet each new day
in my open-air cathedral,
saying my daily grace
with the early morning sunshine
full upon my thankful face.