O Holy Night on the Prairie

FOLKS used to bustling, fur-wrapped shoppers, and greenery hung with lights would see the wide prairie that stretches in front of me as a bleak place to spend Christmas. The grass is the color of a mountain lion pelt - not one color, but gold, fawn, red, brown, and colors for which no name exists - blended into the appearance of one smooth shade over the rolling hills. A few limestone outcroppings studded with pale-green lichen, a few white and granite-gray boulders decorate the scene; there are no trees, no green, cone-shaped evergreens that mean Christmas to many. In the deeper gullies, a few bare cottonwoods show white, lightning-stripped trunks against the grass; buffalo berry and plum bushes stand bare in crevices beside ground-hugging juniper bushes in green-tinged bronze.

In the eastern distance are the Badlands, pink, gray, and blue spires a finger's width above the horizon, made higher this morning by mirage which is rapidly spreading, to disappear as the sun comes up dull gold. To the west rise the Black Hills, a hands-breadth of tree-covered hills, rising in five distinct ranges and glowing blue in the morning light.

Here, while Christmas songs play on the pickup radio, I see nothing at all to remind me of the season. The grass is short, because we graze these distant pastures in summer, and bring the cattle closer to home in winter. I am making a last survey, picking up salt blocks and fence panels, making sure gates are closed against the neighbor's buffalo. When I turn homeward today, I will be shutting the door on this part of the ranch until spring, when we'll bring cows and young calves here.

A coyote slips down a draw, glancing over his shoulder. Except for his quick movement, a flash of white at his throat and a nearly black ridge on his spine and tail, he would be invisible. My eye catches movement again, and I turn to see 30 antelope run over a hill, white rump-patches flashing. One pauses, silhouetted against the sun.

The gray limestone of Silas Lester's house has descended a little more toward the ground this year; the blank windows look like half-shut eyes. The house was never finished; dry years came, and Silas sold his land for two dollars an acre to my grandfather, who took the risk and stayed.

The spring Silas found and enlarged still runs gently from the hillside, into a tank my husband and I dug into the hillside and covered with wood chips to keep the water from freezing. I open the gate to it, so the wild animals can safely drink, and leave a few chips of salt nearby; a really thrifty rancher would take them home to the calves, but I like to think of the antelope and smaller creatures - porcupines, skunks, mice - enjoying the rare treat of salt.

Another year has passed. Some years my husband and I made this final trip in deep snow, laughing as the pickup plunged into a drift, apprehensive when it dropped too deep and the tires spun. We've shared picnics here under the talking leaves of the cottonwood in summer, shoveled together when the pickup was stuck in winter. Feeling a little foolish, we shut off the motor and observed a worldwide moment of silence in honor of John Lennon a few years ago, then sang his songs on the way home, and didn't feel foolish at all.

The chores we did together I now do alone; my husband is buried beneath prairie grass in the town cemetery 10 miles away. The Christmas songs on the radio mean the solstice is near, when the days will almost imperceptibly begin to lengthen. Now the sun has risen far south; it will make a shallow arc in the southern sky all day, and the moon will shine in the south windows of the bedroom tonight.

We started a tradition a few years ago, when my husband's son came in a dry summer with a trunkload of fireworks; it was too dry to shoot them then, so we saved them for his winter visit, and fired them on New Year's Eve. Last year, I did it alone; this year, I may invite friends to share the ritual.

On Christmas Eve I will join my cousin and his wife and their children in church. I attended the same church when I was five years old, and my mother sang in the choir. It's famous for its massive organ, and as the tones swell into the familiar ``Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,'' I - who have been anything but a faithful churchgoer - will find myself in tears. The organ tones express to me the largeness of the land, rising over the small bodies who live upon it.

Slowly, as Christmas passes, snow falls, the grouse mate with bell-like calls in the winter stillness, the days will grow warmer, and spring will come. If we get spring rains - which have not come for three years - the tawny grass will show a hint of green at the roots in April and by June the hills will be rich with new life.

Surely no one who sees the seasons turn as I do, who observes the prairie's stillness in this season of rest, and the inevitable coming of spring life, summer's lushness, the harvests of fall and the chill of winter again and again, can fail to believe that all is arranged as it should be. That no matter how great are our personal sorrows, the world is proceeding in an orderly fashion. That we are all part of a great cycle, and our job is to help the earth in its turning, to keep it pure and beautiful for those who will surely come after us.

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