Published in Written River #10
Halfway through the fall we drive west, far from urban glow,
To see the stars that we have never seen at home.
We go to the Badlands, at night, to the primitive campground
And listen to the coyotes singing from rim to rim
Of the valley where we are trying to sleep.
The voices of three packs rise like questions:
Who are you? What are you doing here?
Weary from driving, observe how much you want to stay awake
Now that you are here. Explain
And give examples
From all your senses.
If the wind blows across sage, then what follows,
and how do you first know it?
What is the feeling of the prairie wind at night,
And why is it now new to you?
Dry weeds crunch under sleeping bags stretched out under the cold, living sky.
Our arms swing to point at Orionid flares.
We speak in the whispers of worshipers entering a cathedral for the first time.
How long have we lived here,
On the prairie, and never felt it on our skin, all night long?
Compare and contrast
The Milky Way.
Before tonight, you have never seen it turn.
Consider all the stars,
And the difference between reading about them and watching them slowly slip across the sky.
Wake to the feeling that it is not yet dawn, but no longer night.
With your eyes still closed, ask yourself how you saw it,
How this dry land exposes you to yourself.
For a little while, you hold your eyes closed,
And remember the bright green lines of shooting stars.
Holding still, you listen:
This is the sound of bison, breathing. Nearby
The staccato chickadee and the whirling meadowlark
Greet the new day
In this place we have so long avoided.
The prairie dogs at the edge of the campground eye us warily, and bark a warning
As we load the car for the drive home.
David O’Hara is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he teaches Environmental Philosophy. He also teaches Field Ecology in Guatemala and Belize, and Nature Writing in Alaska. He has published articles in a number of journals, including Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Books and Culture. He is the author of three books, most recently Downstream, about brook trout in the Appalachian Mountains. He is an advocate of the Norwegian idea of Friluftsliv, or life in the free air; and of experiential humanities classes. All his favorite classrooms are outdoors.