Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oklahoma -- Part 2 -- Wichita Mtns

As a boy growing up an hour north of the Wichita Mountains, and later during visits, I remember that on a clear day you could see the mountains off in the distance. To be fair, they may be more like large hills, though the two highest peaks reach over 2,400 feet. This portion of our 8 day voyage was probably the highlight (or tied for it)--I've never felt so at home in Oklahoma as I did here. The place was incredible, and we saw only a small fraction of it, made evident by the fact we only saw longhorns and bison, no elk. I'd go back in a heartbeat. I can't believe I just said that. It did not feel like Oklahoma at all, even with the red dirt.

Near Lawton in southwest Oklahoma is the unplowed and untouched WM Wildlife Refuge (60,000 acres), as well as Fort Sill--the latter being the largest artillery training school in the country, and comprising a large chunk of the mountains as a firing range (alas). More on the fort later.

One range of many set against the undisturbed prairie

Within the refuge are many lakes, I mean dammed creeks. Below is Lost Lake, where for a brief time I did indeed feel its name.

The diverse vistas--water, prairie, woods, rocks

Cactus bloom

Central Oklahoma used to be awash in a north / south strip of post oaks and blackjack oaks called cross timbers, which are short, thick-trunked, wind-stripped trees that were virtually impassable for wagons. Below is a small remnant in the WMWR.

We also took the winding road up Mt. Scott, the second highest peak in the range. I was absolutely terrified driving the car, thinking that at any moment I'd suddenly go insane and rev the car off the road and make us plummet to our deaths (I hate 6' ladders, mind you). My wife scoffed. But once our ears popped and we made it to the top, she was scared to climb the rocks and peer down, whereas I felt like a little boy, giddy as I hopped large boulders in a single bound. I'm a prairie boy, so it was a whole new plain of existence (get it? huh?).

The Wichitas are over 500 million years old, the oldest mountain range in the U.S. In the late 1800s gold was reported, and many soldiers deserted from nearby Fort Sill to strike it rich, but no gold was ever found.

That's a road way down there
Wind farm in the distance

We met a drawly man at the top with a troop of teenaged boys, and he pointed out what must have been tens of thousands of lady bugs. They were on trees, rocks, leaves.... Why were they there? He gathered some to take home to his garden (he also later told us how he recently went on a junk-hunting excursion when a local lake was drained, and about all the neat bottles he found).

One of the few black-tailed prairie dog colonies is also in the refuge. There's one in Lawton, too, after the townsfolk gave up eradicating them from their parks. It seems to me the plow did a good enough job of that in the Plains.

Mom watching the kids?

Would love to know what ground cover they were eating.

I want these flowers carpeting my lawn.

I had to literally pull my wife away from the prairie dogs. I see giant rats, she sees cute furry squirrel things to play with and kiss. But it was neat how, driving through the refuge, you suddenly roll right through their town. They scamper across the road, walk right up to you, call to one another from hole to hole, dart in and out of holes, peek their heads out like womp-a-moles at the arcade....

The last bison?

The refuge has a small bison herd, started from a NYC zoo contingent, as wells as re-introduced elk, deer, and longhorn cattle that look more menacing than the bison even while they're lounging.

Then there's dung beetles hard at work rolling stuff around backwards:

And after days of my wife pointing out darting scissortail flycatchers to me, I finally got a picture:

Northwest of the range is Rainy Mountain, a Kiowa sacred site that author N. Scott Momaday writes so eloquently about in his book The Way to Rainy Mountain. You might have noticed me quoting him in three previous posts the last two weeks as an invocation--a sort of watching over of the trip.

"Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation began." -- Momaday

North of Lawton, and extending all along the southern edge of the mountains, is Fort Sill, established in 1869 shortly after the massacre of Black Kettle's Cheyenne band up the Washita River (that's the next blog post). It is the only remaining fort from the southern Indian Wars and the Red River War still in use today--and in lots of use. We drove by about 100 cadets training in full gear near a patch of woods. Machine guns. Camo. Trucks. It was strange how at the main gate the guards simply scanned our driver's licenses, then waved us through, along with hundreds of other cars. The guard who greeted us had a hook for one hand.

Ft. Sill is the resting place of Geronimo and several of his wives and children. Why do we yell "Geronimo" when we make physical leaps of faith? Because we're culturally ignorant. No, (yes) it's actually after a presumed leap Geronimo made off the nearby Medicine Bluffs on horseback while trying to escape, but no such thing ever happened. Paratroopers stationed at the fort used his name while jumping from planes.

Quanah Parker is also buried at Ft. Sill. However, unlike Geronimo, his grave is at the center of the fort, not several miles west across I-44. Parker was the last of the Comanche chiefs to surrender--his mother was a captured white woman who was adopted into the tribe. Parker went on hunting trips with Theodore Roosevelt, and was one of the founders of the Native American Church, a blending of the peyote religion and Christianity.

And it is fitting, with all this Native American history buried at the fort--and the similar (ab)use of the rare ecosystems of the Wichitas--that our last image be of this:

My grandfather would have driven something similar--a mobile howitzer--in the Korean War. There were many impressive track and field artillery pieces dating back to WWI on the grounds, and of course, original buildings from the 1800s, including the guardhouse where Geronimo was held.

Oh, I can't end there. Here's something my wife pointed out:

I wonder how he managed during that night's baseball-sized hail? We were fortunate to JUST BARELY avoid hail and tornados the entire trip. When we left Oklahoma to return home, the interstate we drove that morning near El Reno had a tornado cross right over it in the afternoon, killing several people nearby.

Next and last stop, my family's 1894 homestead, and the Washita Battlefield where Custer began the myth behind the man. And, perhaps, where Oklahoma truly ends and begins.

(For part 1 of our trip to Bartlesville, the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, and Oklahoma City, link here.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Oklahoma Trip -- Part 1

This is the first of two posts, maybe three, on an 8 day trip my wife and I just took to Oklahoma. My next memoir will be based on the state--where I was born and spent 10 years of my life, where my great great grandparents homesteaded, where so much of what America is can be seen in a supercharged microcosm of greed, ignorance, violence, hope, faith, and denial. Somehow, I have to navigate the collision of Native Americans, immigration, homesteading, farming, prairie, oil, and religion--and my own feelings about a place full of darkness for me. Hence my second trip in two years to face this emotional thing. I never knew Oklahoma, certainly never wanted to, but now I've turned to face that thing which has been stalking me all my life--indeed, my family since 1874. I had to finally begin to SEE Oklahoma, at least physically.

Bartlesville--OKC--Lawton--Corn / Weatherford--Cheyenne

So to begin, we'll go chronologically. My wife and I started in Bartlesville, in the northeast corner (the trip map is above, our path highlighted in green). Along with Tulsa, Bartlesville is an oil mecca of Oklahoma, where towns of tens of thousands sprung up literally overnight. Of course, the same can be said for towns that resulted in land runs. Northeast Oklahoma is hilly and full of trees, and by the time you make it west, the soil has become red, there are few trees, and lots of cactus and yucca.

How "loose" are the bison?

Our purpose in this city was to talk with one of my grandma's sisters about her childhood, and also to see the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy. The 30,000 + acres were never plowed, just grazed, and the Conservancy has been working for around 20 years to restore the flora and fauna. Part of that restoration includes a herd of 600 bison.

These guys crossed the road in front of us,
then scratched themselves on the info sign.

Small herd on a hill

While we were a bit early to see wildflowers--and certainly early to see the tallgrass of late summer--it was nevertheless inspiring to see this remnant prairie, one which tangentially extends far north into eastern Kansas in the Flint Hills. As an aside, the backroads of southeast Kansas were far more beautiful then I'd imagined.

Bartlesville also has the last surviving steam engine from the AT&SF line, 1 of 332. The 940 was built in 1903 in Philadelphia, and was in service for 51 years. It is 80 feet long and weighs 150 tons loaded with water and coal / wood. It's top speed was 35mph. Restored just a few years ago, it's a marvel to me, and an iconic image of westward expansion, the dicing up of Native American lands--something both monstrous and beautiful in its design.

Also a marvel, were the many painted bison in town--clearly a community arts project. My wife pointed out this bull to me with disco ball "maleness."

Nota bene--don't try this with a real bull.

There was a man on a nearby bench watching us.

Bartlesville is home to the only "skyscraper" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the 19 story Price Tower, built in 1956 for an oil pipeline mogul. The building is clad with copper.

After Bartlesville we drove 90 minutes to Oklahoma City, where I wanted to visit both the OK Historical Society and the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

The memorial was, if this doesn't sound crass, the most beautiful, subtly moving, and elegantly designed memorial I've ever seen. It was evocative in its minimalism, creating silence and peace and reflection in ways even more powerful than the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. The Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19, 1995. Each chair is inscribed with one name of the 168 men, women, and children who died. Every row represents the floors where each victim either worked or was visiting. The south end of the grounds still has some of the original foundation walls, where rusting rebar protrudes from the poured concrete.

"We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope, and serenity."

We then visited the Oklahoma Historical Society, along with at least 100 junior high kids (loud, and constantly texting as they viewed exhibits). It's a nice building overlooking the state capitol--the capitol is the only one in the nation that has a working pumpjack on its grounds pulling up black gold.

We also talked with an older gentleman, a volunteer docent, who was once a professor whose field I can't remember. But his son is working on trying to make ethanol from switchgrass (die corn, die!), and I couldn't help feeling that here in Oklahoma, at the heart of collective history, across the street from big oil, another world was beginning to violently collide with an old one, just like it did during the land runs only a little more than 100 years ago. But that's a story for the next post, one of nature, the Cheyenne, and Custer; it's a more personal story, too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

An Evocation, Part III

On Summer afternoons I went swimming in the Washita River [western Oklahoma]. The current was slow, and the warm, brown water seemed to be standing still. It was a secret place. There in the deep shade, enclosed in the dense, overhanging growth of the banks, my mind fixed on the wings of a dragonfly or the flitting motion of a water strider, the great open land beyond was all but impossible to imagine. But it was there, a stone’s throw away. Once, from the limb of a tree, I saw myself in the brown water; then a frog leaped from the bank, breaking the image apart. (31)

Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch. There, in a very little while, wood takes on the appearance of great age. All the colors wear soon away in the wind and rain, and then the wood is burned grey and the grain appears and the nail turn red with rust. The windowpanes are black and opaque; you imagine there is nothing within, and indeed there are many ghosts, bones given up to the land. They stand here and there against the sky, and you approach them for a longer time than you expect. They belong in the distance; it is their domain. (11)

East of my grandmother’s house the sun rises out of the plain. Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. (83)

-- N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain

Friday, May 20, 2011

An Evocation, Part II

The hardest weather in the world is there [Rainy Mountain, in southwestern Oklahoma]. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil’s edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. There are green belts along the rivers and creeks, linear groves of hickory and pecan, willow and witch hazel. At a distance in July or August the steaming foliage seems almost to writhe in fire. Great green and yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time.

Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation began. (5)

I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plains in the late spring. There were meadows of blue and yellow wildflowers on the slopes, and I could see the still, sunlit plain below, reaching away out of sight. At first there is no discrimination in the eye, nothing but the land itself, whole and impenetrable. But then smallest thing begin to stand out of the depths—herds and rivers and groves—and each of these has perfect being in terms of distance and of silence and of age. Yes, I thought, now I see the earth as it really was; never again will I see things as I saw them yesterday or the day before. (17)

-- N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Evocation, Part I

In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain [in Oklahoma, a Kiowa sacred site] is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language. The verbal tradition by which it has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay—and of course the idea itself, as crucial and complete as it ever was. That is the miracle.

The journey herein recalled continues to be made anew each time the miracle comes to mind, for that is peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination. It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made wit the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural. And the journey is an evocation of three things in particular: a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit, which endures. (4)

-- N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain

Friday, May 13, 2011

Around the Garden

From 95 to 45 in a few days. That's temperature, not angles of view. But it could be either one, I suppose. Shall we?

Prairie Smoke


'Tiger Eyes' Sumac

Shooting Star

'Globemaster' Allium

Nice View?

Peony Sweat

Variegated Red Twig Dogwood

View From Under Arbor

Black Chokeberry

Purple Smokebush

Mountain Bluet

'Carolina Moonlight' Baptisia


Smokebush Bloom

Evidence of my first ever Baltimore Oriole--
he's eating elm seeds.