By Elisabeth Shapiro

First impressions of a barren land space can distract one from the reality of the plains.

While the open landscape can feel quite transparent, much is hidden away in coulees and stream banks, or just out of sight over the nearest hill. This subtle opacity keeps us forever conscious of our surroundings: Reaching the top of a ridge not only affords one a new vista, but can also result in close encounters with wandering ungulates.

This duality runs deep. The openness leads us to haphazardly estimate distances, and hills that loom like mountains on the horizon become mere molehills when ascended. While all the species in this ecosystem are inherently connected, the ways in which they occupy and utilize space are on entirely different scales.


Photo by Mike Quist Kautz

Bison trod across the entire Sun Prairie parcel. The herds surprise us each morning, seeming to undertake a migration under the cover of darkness. Groups of deer and pronghorn briefly appear on top of a nearby hill before disappearing into gullies just out of sight. 
Wide plateaus between neighboring ridges host a variety of creatures, invisible until startled by our proximity. Birds take flight when we venture too close. Tiny field mice wend through trails of their own making, their paw and tail marks in the snow the only proof of their presence. The prairie teems with life. One only has to look for it.

With each snowfall, calmness settles over the land. Tufts of grass poke up above the white blanket and our boots crunch across firmly frozen ground. The silence runs deep, broken by the swish of nylon and heavy breathing as we walk. 

Such an absence of sound is hard to find in this world, and it is abundant here in the winter months. This quiet makes the bounding of a snowshoe hare, or the yips of a coyote pack seem all the more piercing and abrupt. We savor these moments and greet them with great reverence. 


Mule deer on the horizon (Photo by Mike Quist Kautz)

Also running through the prairie binaries is another sense: one of infinity.
Winter tends to stretch on forever here—a feeling mirrored in the landscape. The undulating hills, and vast expanses of open space stretch far beyond the limits of our vision. If our maps didn’t impose boundaries on this space, there would be no reason to suppose the prairie is finite. 

Days and nights blur into one another. Clouds shift quickly across the open sky. Temperatures drop and surge hourly. Snow melts and falls. Herds migrate daily from one corner to another.

The prairie is a land of extremes, but it has been here for millennia, and in that we find consistency. In order to thrive here, one must surrender.

Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Elisabeth Shapiro is a volunteer on the ASC’s Landmark Adventure Science program on the American Prairie Reserve. Learn more this and other ASC projects on our website, the Field Notes blog, and by following us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google+.