Last updated on 2014.12.03
If you see a pasture with just one kind of grass, that pasture's dead.
—Rep. Charlie Hoffman, 2014.08.19
My friend Charlie Hoffman (yes, that Charlie Hoffman) wasn't talking one-party rule in Pierre. (We'll get to that issue in another post.) He was talking about the prairie, several acres of which he currently occupies east and north of Eureka, west of Long Lake.
Charlie invited me up to his McPherson County farm last week to get the four-wheelers out and learn what the prairie is really about. I was all excited to hear a Republican legislator go all Aldo Leopold, but four-wheelers? I hadn't ridden four-wheeler since I was kid and rode three-wheeler. I figured I'd break my neck trying to keep up with hell-for-leather Charlie before I could get back to the motel to write up his prairie oasis.
Fortunately, Charlie showed less enthusiasm for the throttle than for the native grasses, the virgin soil, and the economy, geography, and archaeology of his land.
Charlie Hoffman shows the cropland he's restoring to grass. He said his dad once told him there's no money in crops; the route to coming out ahead in farming is grass and cattle.
Just try plowing this field. The glaciers dumped rocks all over the uplands here. Some ambitious croppers tried to clear the rocks, but winter and water just bring more rocks to the surface. Rocks grow better than corn here.
Charlie's land ranges in elevation from around 1,900 to 2,000 feet, amid the swells of (if I'm reading the map right) the West Missouri Coteau. Water doesn't drain here; it collects, stands, and soaks into this hummocky ground in all but, in Charlie's memory, one really wet year when the heavy snow and spring rain rose high enough to run west to Lake Oahe.
Charlie worried we might find a dead calf in one of the transient wetlands. He saw a calf struggling last week and wasn't sure the little guy would make it. Maybe the calf's mother finally prodded him to recovery. Maybe the coyotes moved in and made him disappear. Maybe we just didn't look hard enough in the sea of grass.
Charlie's grandpa told him that if East River ever experiences a massive flood, the best place to be will be the north ridge of the Hoffman farm, topping 2,000 feet.
Charlie took me to the crest of that ridge, which he calls Indian Hill. The name comes from the ring of rocks Charlie showed me in the grass at the top. He says that ring was a smoke pit, part of the telecommunications network used by ancient occupants of this land. The Indians probably got better reception with their smoke signals than Charlie gets from AT&T down at the house.
High ground vistas don't come easy in East River. We stood talking on Indian Hill for a long time, air still, watch unwatched, sun baking and sliding west, no sound but the eager stories told by Charlie and the songbirds.
Then our reverie was interrupted by a sudden swarm of small black insects. "Where'd these guys come from?" I asked.
"They're piss ants!" Charlie shouted. "Let's get out of here!"
We hopped on the four-wheelers and growled down the hill. We were greeted by an updraft, not the wind of our movement, but a solar gust pushing up the slope on its own, brushing the bugs back.
"Did we just have to sweat a while for those bugs to smell us?" I asked.
"I had some scotch last night," said Charlie. "Maybe that's what they like."
Charlie says he finds circles and piles of rocks all over his land. Many are hard to pick out in a wet, green year like this. Charlie says he thinks this pile may be an ancient grave.
Speaking of mysteries of what lies beneath, Charlie says he's heard that the U.S. Geological Survey came through this northern tier of the state once upon a time and took samples that revealed oil shale. The feds have kept that quiet, he says, perhaps to keep a future enhancement to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Charlie doesn't mention how he'd feel about oil derricks springing up amidst his recovering prairie grass.
Charlie proudly showed me Crater Lake and the geological hypothesis he offers to explain the unusually round lake. He envisions no meteor but a big chunk of glacier calving off, tilting upward, and gouging down into the ground as it melted.
Take out that line of trees in the distance, and you see the sea our ancestors saw as they traveled into this land for the first time. Charlie paused in a few places where the grass takes on a violet tinge. He pointed to the turkeyfoot blossoms atop those stalks. "Bluestem!" he exalted. "Ice cream for cattle!" He says that grass used to prevail on this prairie but got overgrazed and didn't get a chance to naturally recover. Bringing back the bluestem is key, says Charlie, to healthy pasture and tasty beef.
We bounded up and down the gentle slopes, scooted around the edges of those tiny lakes, and bounced about the ubiquitous rocks, praising bluestem, cussing piss-ants, and hoping the best for that errant calf, hoping it made it back to its mother to enjoy some more ice cream on the rich living prairie.
And then we rode back to the house to talk politics... but that's another post.
Whew—ass not over teakettle, all four wheels firmly on the prairie.