I am lost, swimming in the soft light of the bison’s umber eye, where I feel myself reflected. Above me the sky arcs, an incredible big top of robin’s-egg-blue that dips down to meet the vast carpet of tawny grasses on a distant horizon. I do not think it is especially wise to be staring into the bison’s brown eye. This shaggy creature looks to be about six feet at the shoulder and must weigh over a ton. But I am rooted to the spot, suspended in time, breathless and jubilant about coming back to the tallgrass prairie and what remains of the herbaceous ocean that, as little as 100 years ago, covered 142 million acres of this continent.
I fell in love with the tallgrass prairie many years ago when I and a number of fortunate others were introduced to it by Francine Ringold, a poet and Tulsa resident truly generous with the treasures she shares. It was a warm autumn day and the grasses—big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, compassplant—surrounded us in breeze-tickled curtains of varying height. The heat; the slow, susurrating swish of the tallgrass; the occasional chirp of insect and bird; and the vaguely vegetable smell mesmerized us. I thought I could feel the pulse of oil far below me, feel the spirit of the fiery Plains Indians: Comanche, Apache, Pawnee, Wichita, Kiowa and the Osage. I was one with bramble and branch, with bison and brave. I experienced a sense of connectedness so profound that it seemed almost sacred.
I have always been entranced with nature. When I was a girl, my father, an outdoorsman, made it a point to take his children to national parks around the world. My mother was always the willing accomplice, standing aloof in her sunglasses and scarf, with her hamper of sandwiches and cold drinks, a stock of wet towels with which to clean dirty faces and hands at the ready as we tumbled and danced through the forests and streams that were our playground. I remember clover-filled meadows and long walls of blackberry bramble in England; bruise-colored mountains and towering pines in Montana; badlands in the Dakotas, deserts in California, crystal clear lakes in northern Japan. We put up tents in Glacier National Park, skipped rocks across rivers in Yellowstone, fashioned hats from giant fuki leaves in the parks in Akita, Japan.
When I grew older I blazed my own trail from one wild place to another. From the Okefenokee swamp to the plains of the Serengeti, from the 24,000 islands and skerries of the Stockholm Archipelago to Costa Rican rainforests, I traipsed and trekked in search of that same swept away magic of place, the arresting sense of wonder and connection that the natural world can engender. But it wasn’t until I was revisiting Tokyo, one of the cities of my youth, and hardly a place anyone would expect to connect with the natural world, that I understood exactly what I was feeling.
Tokyo today is a city of around 12,790,000 souls. It is one of the most populous urban environments on the planet, a maze of mainly high-rise residences and businesses through which trains and subways thread in an intricate and fast moving web. Three million people a day flow through Shinjuku Station alone and the various wards of the city—Shinjuku, Shibuya, Minato, Chiyoda, and so on—teem with traffic of every kind. In spite of this, in spite of the constant hustle and din, it’s a city of unusual peace.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Excerpt: Read the entire essay in the summer issue of Mia Magazine.
Photo: Linda Watanabe McFerrin