Little Lesson on the Prairie

As I write these words from Tulsa, Oklahoma there are noises outside that I can’t distinguish. Are they gunshots, thunder, fireworks, cars on the overpass, the train, a transformer blowing miles away? It’s hard to know, especially in the dark and in the rain on the last day of the year 2020.

A lot has happened this year. That seems like it can go without much elaboration. Turns out, global pandemics can turn every human’s experience into shorthand. So I’ll say a lot happened after this residency. A few weeks after returning to Tulsa, a consistent hot-spot for Covid-19 that I’ll attribute mostly to the failure of elected officials who regularly claim to be “volunteers”, I myself contracted the coronavirus. 

I won’t linger much on the description of that experience other than to say that it took my previous musings on isolation and loneliness that I was having out on the vast prairie expanse of Matfield Station and amplified it into “do I need to get a lawyer for end of life arrangements?” kind of considerations. Growing up in the Osage community, I estimate I’ve attended nearly 100 open casket funerals in my lifetime. I am no stranger to death. Being an Indigenous person on the prairie land of my ancestors, I have grown up alongside so many forms of life and death – something with which I think most rural folk can especially relate. However, I now know that awareness of death as an unavoidable event and facing your own potential death are very different things.

If I have had any revelations as a result they are the following loose thoughts:

Prairie life feels the most honest to me. As an adult I see more clearly how profound was the freedom of my rural middle American childhood. Growing up on the land, with the land, makes a person strong in ways that are multiform, expansive, and reciprocal. People on the prairie remember the names of their non-human kin, something I think is important if we want to continue living alongside any of them in the future. They know the names of plants and bugs, they know when something is showing up outside of its season, they know the rhythm of the worlds around them.

While conceptual artists in the coastal cities of America are trying to create heady art projects that reconnect their disconnected audiences to the world they are standing within, children of the prairie are already cognizant of and utilizing concepts such as fluvial time, whether they ever call it by that name or not. Prairie folk are deep observers, practitioners of kinship ecology, and talented at balancing tradition with innovation. It takes tenacity and deep awareness to live on prairie land and I admire those that live here, knowing that is the tone of the relationship.

Nearly everyone who lives on or is drawn to the prairie has a favorite relationship, whether they consider it framed like that or not. When I hear someone say what they love about the prairie are the rolling beetles or the prairie chickens, what I’m hearing is someone saying that they love that organism in its relationship with this place, to a memory, with another organism, etc. When I say that I love fire on the prairie, really what I’m saying is that I love the relationship fire has to the rejuvenation of the grasses in tandem with grazing, a term called pyric herbivory. Fire is my favorite relationship for a lot of reasons, but the reason that feels the most true is because I grew up seeing it and I think it is beautiful. 

Growing up on the prairie of Pawhuska, I’ve seen fire happening not just on our preserve, but on ranches and in yards throughout Osage county, since I was a child. Commuting between small towns, there would be times that we’d get turned back, destined to take another set of roads because these ones were closed down by volunteer firefighters who were tending to a fire that had decided to take advantage of some straight winds and cross the road. We all grew up with a reverence for this powerful entity, a partner we could collaborate with towards great renewal, but one which could excite easily and expand beyond your control if you weren’t careful. 

So many life lessons seem to stem from that practice of burning just enough, not too much, so that the important processes which need that kind of pressure can take place. It is powerful to see burn lines cresting hills in the darkness of night. It is powerful to see how dark the prairie earth is after a prescribed burn. It is powerful to see how green a field can be when it begins to grow again.

Recently, a friend explained something called Dark Forest Theory to me. Do you wonder, perhaps, why we haven’t found other life besides that on Earth in a universe so big? According to Dark Forest Theory, one must think of the universe as a dark forest. To turn on a light and look around would not only allow us to see, but it would allow us to be seen. It relies on the fear of being seen to explain our cosmic isolation. This idea had me reflecting on a similar experience I had while I was on the prairie near Strong City. After hiking for several hours and miles into the prairie preserve, I stopped my somewhat mindless trudging and took a good long look at where I had gotten myself to. 

What lay out before me was cleanly divided into near equal parts earth and sky, almost like two perfect mirrors of one another except one was achingly blue and the other was vibrant green, soft and rolling, rippling and flowing like waves in the wind. It made me a bit dizzy and this was enforced by the sound of it, which was buzzing and alive, all joining together with the wind in some ancient chant or chorus. I turned slowly in a full 360 and realized that I suddenly felt afraid. This landscape is the epitome of being alone. There is no rock someone is hiding behind, no “just around the river bend” out here. The lights are on and if no one is home, then you are home alone. 

I settled into this thought slowly — alone. Then the counter-thought hit me — not alone. Suddenly I was afraid of not being alone, realizing that the inability for others to hide from me also denoted my own inability to hide. I was vulnerable out there against all that sky and grass, which became more apparent when I redirected my attention to all of that buzzing. I watched eternity play out in the most brutal games of tag between insects, lizards, and birds all expressing their will to live, which here we know means an exchange has to take place. 

Eventually I stood and looked at the whole picture again, this vast expanse of unbroken prairie where, save for the prairie ecosystem itself, I saw no evidence of humanity not even in myself, for there were no mirrors present at the time, and I took my shirt off because I suddenly felt powerful in my immense vulnerability. Yes, anyone I would see could see me too, but the flatness of the land gave perspective a new meaning — I would see you coming from a distance. 

When you can see things coming from a distance, you have plenty of time to prepare for the worst, but the best part of having time to prepare for the worst, in my opinion, is that you also have plenty of time to prepare to receive blessings. Things at a distance are hard to understand in clarity, even with binoculars. Patience and open-mindedness are required as distances are being closed. Who we are when we arrive is rarely who we were when we left.

I remain excited to see who we are becoming. 

All photos were taken by my friend, collaborator, and fellow child-of-the-prairie Jessica Price on the prairie lands of Kansas at and around Matfield Station.

Lydia Cheshewalla is an Osage artist with a passion for community, social justice, and environmental activism. Over the past four years she has led women’s circles and co-founded the art collective Holy Mother, which served to connect, encourage, and support femme-identifying creatives in Tulsa, OK. Collaborating with artists, activists, and organizations within her community, Lydia has striven to facilitate meaningful experiences and generate inclusive narratives through thoughtful art events centering community care, systems of equitable exchange, and healing practices.

She has created and taught art curriculum to children ages 4-12 with the purpose of encouraging curiosity and understanding of our unique place within the symbiotic systems of nature. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, she worked as a studio assistant for multiple artists within the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and led community conversations around art as remediation and responsible activism in a time of climate change. Currently she serves on the board of PostTraditional, an organization raising the visibility of Indigenous contemporary artists; curates a project called Spatial Intimacy, a responsive archive of creative ways to stay connected in a time of physical distancing; and is creating two new bodies of work exploring non-anthropocentric interdependence within a framework of borders and pandemics.