7.28.2008,9:28 AM
Where the Buffalo roamed.....Part II
An early morning ride on the Blackland prairie in Texas


While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but that the Prairies and Plains last longer, fit the aesthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America's characteristic landscape. -- Walt Whitman

When people ask me where I live, the typical answer is "On the Texas plains." That can be almost anywhere in Texas. Before European and Euro-American settlers came the plains and prairies covered two-thirds of the area now known as Texas: low desert and semi-desert grasslands, the rolling grassland prairies and tabletop plains of the Edwards Plateau and Llano Estacada, the Blackland and Coastal prairies. Much of the plains are still here, but the prairies have drastically changed over the last 150 years.

My current home resides in the transition area of the Grand Prairie (or Fort Worth prairie) and the Western Cross Timbers. From atop my hill of rolling prairie grass I can see long and wide swales and patches of oaks dissecting rolling hills covered in grasslands. Several species of oaks, often intermixed with ash, pecan and sumac, mark the location of creeks and springs. My humble five acres is bordered on the east by thick gnarly Cross Timber land and a ravine which catches runoff. I have it all.

The region where I live lies in between two major rivers that flow southeast: the Trinity and the Brazos. Creeks and springs intersect these prairies and timberland like worm tunnels through a rich garden. They serve as part of the headwaters for the nearby rivers. Looking down from the air above, you could spot the swollen bellies along these rivers, the man-made reservoirs that water towns and cities.

My weekend ride would take me over areas of the Grand Prairie, Eastern Cross Timbers and onto the Blackland prairie, one of the two 'true' prairies in Texas (the other being the Coastal Prairie). Spanning about 15 million acres (6.5% of the land area of Texas) from the Red River north to near San Antonio, Texas, it is one small part of an ancient prairie covered by true prairie grasses. This prairie stretched from what is now Mannitoba, Canada, to the Texas coast and along the eastern edge of the Great Plains which covers the central region of North America. The land is still there, but the 'true' prairie is not.

The 'true' prairie was a belt of grass land predominantly covered by three grasses: porcupinegrass, prairie dropseed and tall dropseed. Anyone whom has seen acres of these grasses can never forget them: the seed heads are so long they literally look like green flowing waves as a breeze swims over them, or long fur on a giant green mammal. They bow in submission to the wind as it literally whistles through them. To stand in their midst almost makes you want to lay down and be stroked by their soft stems and leaves.

Now most of the 'true' prairies are gone. Lost to cultivation, asphalt, development, and overgrazing. Before settlers imprinted cart wheels and drove plows into the deep soils periodic fires and grazing by bison managed the prairies by reducing encroaching brush species and weeds. Even the tall bluestem and Indian grasses that followed behind Western settlement gave way to short grass grasses and noxious weeds.

Now the bison, antelope, bear and cougar are gone. Fire is suppressed while overgrazing continues to reduce the indigent populations of vegetation. Less than 1% of the Blackland prairie remains in Texas today. And it disappears more each day. I wanted to see the remnants of the prairie while I still could. And imagine what it was like two hundred years ago.

I wanted to see where the buffalo roamed.

Tx prairie rd pan1

Sunday, I was on the road by 7am to take advantage of the cool temperatures of the morning. Typical for an early Sunday morning, traffic was sparse; just how I like it. I stopped at a gas station in Sanger to fuel up, hoping the convenience store was open and had coffee. It did.

I drank a cup of coffee by the pump and stashed something to eat for breakfast in the bike's tail bag. I wasn't very hungry and wanted to get on the road. I headed west down FM 455, the town giving way to scattered farms and ranches. Soon they too became separated by miles of creek bottoms and oaks and wide open pastures. I rode past a few remnants of failed dreams, or dreams left behind to return back to the brush and soil.

farm ruins1

Riding a winding road across a creek bottom and up again I topped a hill to find what I sought: the prairie and savannah. The new Blackland praire. I navigated the small bike off the road far enough for safety but keeping in mind the almost useless right leg and foot. I didn't want to get myself in a position where I couldn't get out. Kick stand down, helmet and gloves removed, I munched my breakfast, caught in between modern and ancient time.


I gazed out over the rolling velvet blanket of grass. Little islands of tall stately oaks dotted swales and undulating hills. Their silhouettes in the haze were ghostly statues whose canopies resembled ball caps atop thick round towers. The morning glare of the rising sun was diffused by a hovering gray-white shroud of damp air. Shadows from roadside trees slithered across the roads and grass as if refusing to relinquish remnants of the night’s darkness.

Reflected hazy morning sun light cloaked the road and ground with vibrant colors. Heads of tall grasses across the prairie stood like raised shimmering bushy tails wagging in the breeze. It was as if thousands of little glimmering sentinels raised themselves above short grasses and damp black earth to greet the sun and announce its arrival across miles and miles of rolling grassland. “Good morning, sunshine!”


It is in these early morning hours that I rejoice in the living; in the damp and cool air, the silence, while tall grass heads dance in the slight breeze and odors of life swirl around you. It entices memories to pour out from underneath long buried coffins nailed shut by the daily grind. Odors tickle associations flowing forth with crushed wormwood, fragrant horse manure, acrid cow urine, musty molds and mushrooms in duff, damp creek bottoms and rotting wood, drying pasture grass mingling with the sweetness of green blades hiding in deep shade.

You ride through clouds and islands of sinking swirling odors, sometimes so thick you can taste them. You push your helmet’s face shield up so all your senses can revel in their tickling and teasing presence before they all dissipate into the air, driven asunder and away by the intense heat of the day.

I crawled up the road bank to stand by the wire fence and revel in the dawning of the day. The wide open space around me and beyond was almost intoxicating. The urge to run amongst the prairie grasses was nearly overpowering. Islands of oaks in the distance were half hidden, moving in and out of the hovering silver haze. I was transfixed by an ocean of grass heads shimmering like sun flecks on waves.

I was caught in between two worlds; the savannahs of Africa and these prairies around me. Here was our American savannah. I could easily imagine slow moving ribbons of grazing bison and small bands of antelope peppering the grasslands. Instead of the big mighty cats of the African savannah were cougars, bear and wolves. Coyotes, like their close cousins the hyenas, aided vultures as janitors of the prairies and hunted smaller grass eaters.

Here was a community that revolved around grasses and a network of wooded creeks. The common enemy of them all were, and still are, man and fire. Yet the infrequent but cleansing fires renewed the ground. Instead, we destroy and recovery is sometimes never given a chance. I wanted to reach out and embrace it all to protect it. But I'm only one in a universe of many. All I ask is the opportunity to see and experience it all before I leave the face of this planet and become another cloud of dust strewn over the land.

TX prairie pan3

I don't know how long I stood there. Eventually a truck or two drove by and broke me out of my reverie. Soon it would be uncomfortably hot. Time to move on.

Entering the town of Decatur again, and again getting lost, I pulled next to the sidewalk at the square and across from the courthouse to check my location on the GPS in the tail bag. Three bikes passed me and pulled in around the corner and across from a cafe. It was tempting to join them for another coffee, but I was now anxious to get home. My foot and ankle throbbed and it needed ice before the swelling inside the boot was painful.


Finding my way back on track, I pulled onto the familiar gravel road leading to my house and smiled looking at my own unmowed prairie grass. I decided to leave it in its 'native' state: unmowed. The deer seem to like it, and I do, too.

I have my own little prairie upon which I live. And all us critters seem to get along just fine.


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posted by Macrobe
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