A bison bull is standing 30 feet from the car. Straight on, it looks narrow though quite tall. The perspective changes when he slides to his right and gives us the long, full angle of his body shedding the winter coat. A massive hump of muscle on his back supports his equally massive head as it sways back and forth over grass, dipping into the sinew of blades and blooms like a wobbly pumpjack. I’ve never been this close to a bison. I’ve read enough stories to know to stay in the car – a mature bull can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, more than half this sedan.
I’m snapping a photo every five seconds in a gap between the A-pillar and my wife, who is leaning all the way back in the passenger seat while she balances her camera out the window. I’d seen a herd in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, but that was at a distance of a half mile. I want to reach out and touch this bull’s crown, which is like a mane right behind his horns – it’s as fluffy looking as a shag rug. Occasionally I can see his eyes, big and dark, but dwarfed by his forehead. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, or just coming up for visual air. I can hear him eating. I can hear him eating.
There’s an emptiness in the Plains. It’s not a literal emptiness because it is our absence which is most present. And yet our existence has redefined the absence: you can get lost in a corn field, lay down in the wheat and just vanish—no one will ever find you.
It’s a dangerous thing being lost to the horizon. Walking any open field we are both compass point and sun dial, searching for home in the time allotted us on this earth. At most we will discover that while alive we’re as ethereal as a memory. Cross paths with a mountain lion or sandhill crane or butterfly or prairie dog and we will know the silence we carry inside, the silence we insist upon field after field. There’s nothing here because we made it so. Our absence is present in the rows stretching to infinity off the highways and county roads.
But stop. A dung beetle is moving from shadow to shadow underneath the sunflowers, pushing its brown marble over pebbles, past cracks, and through thick brush. When I was a kid I’d sit near an ant hill—the inverse funnel pushing out ants like a great heart pumping blood. Each body scatters in every direction, following the marked trails out beyond the center of their lives. Can you imagine being an ant or a dung beetle? Can you imagine? You have never been anything else, following the narrow path laid out for you, but pushing your burdens before you like they were the only treasure you’d ever had. When we enter the earth from another perspective we become our truest selves—we give up the right to take away other lives and enter into an unwritten contract that we signed at our births. We are here, made of the same stuff as everything else. We are here for only a moment, too, already absent in our presence until we go mad with the terror of our short lives and break the contract. The only way to rewrite ourselves is to walk the horizon, with seed in hand, until the prairie comes back.