Writing and Photography by Wesley Gush
ASC Landmark Crew Member

You can sense the history of the earth in this place. It’s everywhere you walk. The landscape is old; coursed and molded by massive fluvial processes millennia ago. To my South African eyes, however, the prairie is a fresh vista.
For the most part, grassland and sagebrush dominate as far as the eye can see. But here and there, an exposed shoulder of the land reveals a bank of dark soil, dotted with clumps of greasewood like the flank of a molting bison. Half-hidden watercourses wind and unwind across the plains, as if gigantic serpents laid tracks here when the world was young.

Each day boasts a new tapestry of clouds in Big Sky country. It is not unusual to see ranks of cumulus puffballs sailing across the blue expanse, an armada aimed at the distant horizon. On other days, lenticular clouds hover like alien spaceships waiting for the right moment to abduct an unsuspecting mule deer. At times the roof of the world is covered in a fathomless fog. The sun shines through sporadically, a bright coin on a smoky window, and the grassy plains take on unexpected beauty. 

​By night, a kaleidoscope of stars greets my upturned gaze. The Big Dipper, a household name in the Northern Hemisphere, is a never-before-seen wonder to a sub-equatorial visitor like myself. I was intrigued to read that African slaves gave it that name—strange to think that they, too, came to this continent from across the Atlantic, albeit by a very different road.
As I write, Husker, the chocolate-colored hairball of a hound that belongs to Reserve managers Ellen and Lars, noses into my leg in search of scratches. He is a comfort to me, a reminder of my own unruly dog back home. Husker often sneaks off to join us on bird walks, chasing voles and flushing sage grouse from the undergrowth. Closing my eyes, I can picture him bounding across the prairie, head bobbing above the tall grass, all ears and tongue and silly grin.
My fellow crewmember Dove Henry takes flight on her afternoon run, and Husker tears off in hot pursuit, a brown blur of canine enthusiasm. Suddenly a piercing whistle stops him mid-gallop. Lars emerges from the workshop a little ways off, mopping sweat from his brow and wearing an expression of mock exasperation. Husker strains after Dove as if on an invisible leash, but when Lars whistles again, the dog slinks back to the shade of his master’s pickup. He’s learning that good behavior and freedom go hand-in-hand on the prairie.
In some ways the landscape, too, mirrors my home at the southern end of the Dark Continent. Grassland, that bounty of herbivorous sustenance, differs little across the globe in terms of ecological importance. I’m also fascinated by the apparent forces of convergent evolution in species separated by 10,000 miles. My favorite bird and unofficial spirit guide, the black harrier endemic to South Africa, has a cousin on the prairie—the northern harrier—that swoops and arcs in identical fashion. Its long tail feathers and distinctive white band even provide me with the same exciting jolt of recognition.
On transect hikes we find arrowheads and stone tools that belonged to Native American Indians: nomadic tribes who once wandered these plains in much the same way the Africans of old did in their homeland. Shards of petrified wood lie half-buried in low-lying areas, a reminder of nature’s shifting equilibrium. Trees are only a scattered presence on the prairie and although we are not responsible for deforestation in this environment, I still feel like we have tipped the scales in our favor on Great Plains, leaving little room for other species to flourish. Apex predators are virtually non-existent here, and while large herbivores like bison and elk are being returned to the land, it still feels as though nature is wrong-footed.
That is perhaps the main purpose of the American Prairie Reserve, at least in my mind: to restore symmetry in which the interests of our grassland co-inhabitants are balanced with our own. A gradual untaming of a land that was once as iconic as the African Serengeti.
We cannot entirely go back. But perhaps we can hold up a mirror to the past—one that reflects the wildness that once was, but framed in part by our own needs for physical and spiritual sustenance. To quote the wisdom of that literary druidess, Barbara Kingsolver:

“We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully.”

Wesley Gush has lived most of his life on his family’s farm near Grahamstown, South Africa. After graduating from Stellenbosch University with a degree in Conservation Ecology, he worked as a field guide on Amakhala Game Reserve, and as a consultant in the Rhodes University Journalism Department.
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