When I was a boy growing up in Kansas and my family went on a vacation, it was always by car. To my kid’s mind, there was nothing more monotonous than driving though Kansas. Sweeping along a hunk of pavement in the middle of a prairie, with seemingly endless stretches of wheat fields and ranch land on either side of you. Riding in the back seat hour after hour, there was little for my brother and I to do except annoy one another, and Mom and Dad.
I would enjoy driving in Kansas now. I’d especially like to go back to the one place in that expanse of brown and yellow I really enjoyed and it seemed like we passed by the spot every year. It was a pasture where about a half of mile from the highway a small herd of buffalo grazed. Maybe 50 head or so. My dad said that once 50 million buffalo roamed the plains but these were the last of the great bison . . . it was the last buffalo herd in the world.
Thinking back on it, I’m sure he said the last buffalo in Kansas, because there were buffalo on Catalina Island and at Yellowstone Park. However, it is a fact that by the early 1900s there were less than 500 . . . anywhere.
It has been said that after 1870 it was the official policy of the United States government to wipe out the buffalo, part of the greater U.S. policy to exterminate Native Americans.
The memory of driving by the buffalo each vacation is one reason why I have always liked this poem by Vachel Lindsay, who was born on this day in 1879:
The Flower-Fed Buffaloes
The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:—
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by the wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us, long ago.
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:—
With the Blackfeet, lying low,
With the Pawnees, lying low,