An Appreciation of The Land I Occupy

Sunflowers flank either side of the dirt road. In years when rain is plentiful, they grow tall. When drought persists, they are short, desiccated things. The soil is sandy. Whenever the wind blows, that sand billows like loose snow. These hills are a remnant of the ancient Niobraran Sea. Fossils of prehistoric beings that lived in this inland body of water a hundred million years ago are constantly found in South Dakota and Nebraska. Grass thrives in the eon year old sand. Yucca, cacti, sandburs are also populous in the prairie.

Lakota elders speak of things that used to grow, but were wiped out by the introduction of cattle to the plains. Two hundred years ago, the prairie might have been bountiful, where now only sparse, homogenous vegetation grows. Berries, wild flowers, varieties of herbs, there are many things the grazing habits of cattle proved noxious for. Cattle are destructive grazers where the buffalo that used to roam this land were not. Some environmentally minded range managers would even like to begin replacing cow herds with buffalo herds for this reason.

The Pine Ridge reservation is one of the last refuges for nature. It is one of the last places where the flora and fauna are allowed to exist in their natural states and cycles. At the end of the dirt road, a creek runs along the Nebraska border of the reservation.  My family has lived there since the late 1800’s.  An entire band of Lakota lived by the creek back then. Not much marks their little camp, except for burnt rocks, every step along the water. These rocks are what remains of dozens of old sweat lodges. 

In all that time, not a lot has changed on the land. A handful of houses now stand on the prairie, but the creek still flows where it wills, full of toads and leeches. Meadowlarks trill each dawn until the sun is full over the horizon. During the Nebraska deer hunting season, many four legged refugees come to wait out the gunfire in the foliage around the creek. Rattlers and bullsnakes constantly vie for territory like some reptilian version of the bloods and crips. Red tailed hawks and eagles swoop around the property. A badger sometimes wanders in and makes camp in the hills. One summer, all the cats kept vanishing. In the fall, we found an empty burrow. In it were at least a dozen cat skulls and bone fragments. The cats are a typical casualty when badgers move in.

Down near the creek, chokecherries bloom in the rich soil near the water. The older generation would lay them out on tarps after mashing them. This is how they’d prepare them for storage, to be used in wasna, a patty of dried chokecherries, or wojape, a pudding traditionally made from chokecherries. Poison ivy grows in patches. A girl who came with Christian missionaries, ignorant of all wild things, once thought the ivy would make a nice tiara. Her face was an itchy agony for two days. The rest of us grown up around here know what those three clustered green leafs mean and avoid the stuff. When the sun goes down, the coyotes begin to roam. An uncle runs a sweat lodge on a ridge above the creek. Sometimes, the coyotes run directly below. It almost sounds like they try to warble the sweat songs as they pass.

All the modern world marches onward, guzzling down ecosystems, making extinct nearly two hundred species a day, polluting swaths of water, scarring landscapes beyond recognition. Yet for now, this place goes on mostly untouched, out of mind of the rest of the world. Maybe it can’t continue that way forever. Expansions of uranium mines are poised to poison our water supply. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the history of civilization, it’s that industrialism has an unquenchable greed for more and more resources. Perhaps this place will be devoured too eventually. Yet for now, the land thrives. The natural cycle goes on with minimal interference.  

What a great honor to subsist in the middle of all that life and history.

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