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Oklahoma Prairie Country

~Miscellaneous Items of Interest~

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Home Page
About Me
Prairie Grasses
Photos II
     John Joseph Mathews
     The Doomsday Vault
     What About Elk?
     The State Reptile
     All About Lichen
     Will the Dust Bowl Come Back?
     Facts About Geckos
     Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana
     Prairie Ants
John Joseph Mathews

John was born in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in November 16, 1894. His father was William Shirley Mathews, a banker, and his mother was Eugenia (Girard) Mathews. His grandfather was John Allan Mathews, a trader and his grandmother was Sarah Williams, the mixed-race daughter of A-Ci'n-Ga, a full-blood Osage, and "Old Bill" Williams, a missionary and later Mountain Man who lived with the Osage. Pauline Eugenia Girard's parents had emigrated from France. John had a brother and three sisters. His brother was killed as an child by a mountain lion just a few steps from the family home in Pawhuska. All of the Mathews children attended local schools in Pawhuska.

World War I came before he could enter college. John entered the service and became a flight instructor and Second Lieutenaant after a short time in the cavalry. After the war he attended the University of Oklahoma. John was a brilliant student and won a scholarship to Oxford University in England. He turned down the scholarship because he felt it would be too restrictive, so he attended Oxford at his own expense, graduating in 1923. He then went to the Unviversity of Geneva and the graduate Institute of International Studies. In 1924 while in Geneva, John married Virginia Winslow Hopper. He traveled in Africa before returning to the United States. John and Virginia settled in California and had two children, John and Virginia. They later divorced.

John returned to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1945 Mathews married Elizabeth Hunt. His ambition was to study the culture and traditions of the Osage. Elizabeth helped John do the research related to the Osage and the historic forced migration from Missouri to Oklahoma. So in the late 1920s he began his first book, a literary non-fiction, Wah'kon-tah: The Osage and The White Man's Road (1932). It was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It was the first book by an academic press to be selected by the new Book-of-the-Month Club. The book became a bestseller.

In 1934 his book, Sundown was published. It was his only novel and was semi-autobiographal. The story is set during the oil boom and depicts the frictions within the tribal community caused by the great wealth the came to the Osage. It depicts the swindles and numerous murders of the Osage, as white opportunities tried to get control of the Osage headrights. The newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation was sent to Oklahoma to investigate the murders and crimes against the Osage.

During the 1930s Mathews was active within the Osage Nation. He helped the Osage Nation restore its self-government. He was elected to the Tribal Council, serving from 1934 to 1942. He also helped found the Osage Tribal Museum, which opened in 1938 in Pawhuska. In 1940 Mathews served as the United States representative to the Indians of Americas Conference at Michoacan, Mexico. From 1939-1940 he lived and stuldied in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Mathews then concentrated on his writings. In 1945 his Talking to the Moon was published. It is a narrative of the ten years he spent in his cabin in the blackjacks, near Pawhuska, observing nature and reflecting on the influence of the environmaent on Osage culture. Some compare it to Henry David Thoreau's Walden. He lived in his rustic cabin without electricity or running water. The cabin remains in the southwest part of Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

His other books are Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters, and Twenty Thousand Mornings.

     Most of the above information came from Wikipedia.

Image of Mathews' Cabin
Mathews' Cabin
Photo by Van Vives

Image of Mathews' Fireplace
Mathews' Fireplace
Photo by Van Vives

Image of Mathews' Pumphouse
Mathews' Pumphouse
Photo by Van Vives

Image of Mathews' Pumphouse
Mathews' Pumphouse
Photo by Van Vives

Image of Mathews' Pumphouse
Mathews' Pumphouse
Photo by Van Vives

Image of Mathews' Grave
Mathews' Gravee
Photo by Van Vives

The Doomsday Vault

Catastrophes happen. Sometimes caused by nature, but often by man himself. In 2002 the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s seed bank containing carefully collected seeds. In it were seeds to help that nation rebuild the capacity to feed themselves. The looters took the plastic and glass jars and dumped out the seeds. They were only interested in the containers. The seeds were salvaged, but now they are an unidentified mixture. The collection had been a representation of the diversity of native crops. Terrorists ransacked an international potato seed bank in the Peruvian Andes in the late 1980s.

There are seed banks in many countries, but they are not protected from natural or manmade disasters. There are companies that offer seeds of heirloom plants. There are seed collections that function as a library. You can withdraw a certain amount of seeds.

A Doomsday Vault is being built on a small Norwegian island 1000 kilometers from the North Pole. Temperatures are always freezing. A large concrete room on a mountain side is designed to hold two million seeds. The seeds will represent all known varieties of the world’s crops. The purpose is to safeguard the world’s food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the collapse of electricity supplies. If need be, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on the planet. Seed collecting will be in the hands of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

What About Elk?

Many visitors to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve ask us if we are going to reintroduce elk along with the bison. The answer is that the Nature Conservancy does not plan to put elk on the Tallgrass Prairie. It is true that elk roamed the prairie many years ago, but they were completely hunted out. There are still some elk in the western parts of Oklahoma. The Nature Conservancy has a rather new preserve in the far eastern part of the state near the city of Tahlequah. The J. T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve is the largest privately protected conservation area in the Ozarks. The preserve is made up of 15,000 acres in the Cookson Hills near the Illinois River. The J. T. Nickel family made it a land gift to the Nature Conservancy. The plan for this area is to protect it and to restore it to a fully-functioning ecosystem. Native grasses and wildflowers are being introduced. Elk were once common in this area, but have been absent for more than 150 years.

Just recently elk have been reintroduced to the preserve. Twenty elk were released to roam freely and hopefully multiply at the Nickel Preserve. Each elk has a radio collar and they will be regularly traced to follow their roaming patterns. Hopefully they will remain on the preserve, but they will have the freedom to go beyond it. Our hope is that they will thrive and be free of poaching. The plans are to introduce another group each year until the desired herd size is achieved.

This is an exciting addition to Oklahoma. We look forward to again hearing the bugleing call of the bull elk.

The State Reptile

The Oklahoma state reptile is the Eastern Collard Lizard, Crotaphytus collaris. It has two black rings which form a partial collar around the neck. The males are blue-green to olive green with many light spots and a golden throat. The females are tan with many light spots and a white throat. Pregnant females develop red bars on the body which disappear after egg laying. Immature lizards are yellow to orange with dark bars. The collard lizards in the Wichita Mountains have a darker blue-green color.

These lizards eat insects, spiders, and other lizards. It is diurnal and very territorial. The lizard is known to be feisty and will bite. It is also known as a Mountain Boomer, although it has no voice. It will hiss when threatened. It may run using only its back legs.

Image of an Eastern Collard Lizard
Eastern Collard Lizard
Photo by Van Vives

All About Lichen

We have all noticed rocks with gray/blue/green lichen on the surface. Rarely, if ever, do we get down on our hands and knees and take out a magnifying glass to look at these strange life forms. It could be rewarding.

There is no such thing as a single lichen "plant." This is one thing that makes it so interesting. Lichens are only formed from a symbiotic combination of a fungal partner and an algal partner. The fungal filaments surround and grow into the algal cells and the combination becomes "lichen." Lichens will grow almost anywhere, from the arctic to the desert. One requirement is that there be abundant light. It will grow on soil, rock, or trees. When we see it growing on trees we tend to regard it as a parasite, but it is not. Although it may absorb some mineral nutrients from the substrate, it generally is self-sufficient in feeding itself through photosynthesis in the algal cells. Lichens growing on rocks, however, may release chemicals, which speed the degradation of the rock, and thus promote production of soils.

These hearty forms of life can live over 100 years. In very arid weather the lichen can become very dry and brittle. When the wind blows, particles may slough off and be transported a distance away. Some may also be caught in the hair of animals and thus deposited elsewhere. When moisture develops from rain or condensation, the particles can be revived and more lichen patches develop.

The growth forms that we are most likely to see at the Tallgrass Prairie in Oklahoma are crustlike (crustose), growing tightly against the substrate or freestanding branching tubes (fruticose). If you see lichen that is light green to white and rough textured it probably is the second growth form.

As hardy as they are, the lichens are very susceptible to air pollution, especially urban and industrial pollution. Because they are so sensitive, they are now being used to quickly and cheaply assess levels of air toxins in Europe and North America. The next time you come across lichen on the trail, stop and take a close look at this not-so-simple life form and ponder its age.

Will the Dust Bowl Come Back?

With the current drought situation in Oklahoma, I have been interested in the Dust Bowl era and have been reading about it. I recently came upon an article with the above title which contains data from the USDA. The unfortunate thing is that they do not answer the question. A map, called the U.S. Drought Monitor, shows that almost all of Oklahoma is still under drought conditions. Most of the state is considered to be in the Severe Intensity, with a section in north-central Oklahoma being in the Extreme Intensity region. A similar area in the south-central part of the state is also Extreme and it extends into Texas.

The present drought started in Oklahoma in June of 2001. In eastern Montana the drought started four years ago and has had a drastic effect on wheat farmers, with over a thousand farmers giving up on farming. Another result of the drought is that the affected states have had over four times the number of wildfires.

Image of Dust Storm    
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a major disaster. It is usually considered to have started in 1931 and ended in 1939, but some claim the ending was in 1941. The causes, besides lack of rain, started in the 1920s. The farmers at that time seemed to be worried about insect outbreaks rather than the drought. The Indians pleaded with the farmers to leave the grass where it was.

After World War I the farmers saw a great opportunity to make enormous profits during the post-war era. Consequently, they plowed every acre they could, even those areas that would have been considered poor farming soil. Wheat farmers pushed the bison herds, which normally had fertilized the soil, off their land. Large portions of land were denuded of grass and trees for plowing. All of this may have been successful with sufficient rain and proper farming techniques. The rush to the markets was a compelling force.

Image of Dust Storm    
I came to Oklahoma in 1952 and remember the dust storms we had almost every weekend. One could look to the west and see the orange dust cloud approaching over the Osage Hills. Sometimes with a little moisture, it rained tiny mud balls. The storms were not nearly as severe as in the 1930s, but it was interesting that they still occurred at that late date. I have not seen a dust storm since the late 1950s.

But the rain slacked and slowly stopped. The farmers were deep in debt and crops failed one after the other. Over 500,000 Americans were left homeless. Many went west to find work, while a few stuck it out on their homesteads. As the rain slacked and the winds came, so did the storms. April 14, 1935 was known as “Black Sunday,” with one of the worst “Black Blizzards.” Visibility was down to five feet. It was known as a “roller,” because the black cloud seemed to roll across the plains. On that day Woody Guthrie saw the black cloud coming and he began to write the song, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” His inspiration was the fact that he thought his life had come to an end.

Image of Dust Storm    
The five inches of topsoil were blown to the eastern states and much landed in the Atlantic Ocean. New York had red snow. Cars and tractors were almost completely buried and banks of dirt collected against houses, much as snow banks do today.

One wonders how anyone could survive those days, but some did. I am reading a firsthand account of what a woman living in the Oklahoma Panhandle had to do to survive. Her name was Caroline Henderson. She was a gifted writer and obtained a Master’s degree in literature at the age of fifty-eight. She made a small amount of money by writing articles, “Letters from the Dust Bowl,” for the Atlantic Monthly. In the hardest of times survival came from chickens and eggs that she sold. Her husband planted wheat, corn and other grain crops, but often they only reaped enough to feed the chickens and pigs. Wheat sold for 31 cents a bushel, eggs were 7 cents a dozen, hens at 8 cents a pound, calves at 3 cents a pound, steers at 2 cents a pound, and milo, maize and Kafir corn at 30 cent per hundred pounds.

Image of Dust Storm    
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first 100 days, set up governmental programs to try to restore the nation. He formed the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Recovery was to take time, with the Great Depression following upon the heels of the Dust Bowl. Even when the rains came there was a reluctance to take another chance at farming.

Hopefully we will not have to hear that phrase, “If it rains.....”

References: “Letters from the Dust Bowl” by Caroline Henderson, University of Oklahoma Press.

“The Dust Bowl,”

“Is the Dust Bowl Returning,” Oklahoma Dept. Of Libraries,

“Dust Bowl,” Wikipedia,

Facts About Geckos
Anyone who watches television is probably familiar with that cute, computer-animated, green gecko that speaks with a London accent for the Geico Insurance Company. What about the real geckos slithering around the moist leaves and rocks at the Tallgrass Prairie?

Being from south Louisiana I am very aware of the green lizards or chameleons that can quickly change color from green to brown, depending on the color of the surface upon which they were standing. What is the difference between them and the many species of geckos found around the world? A distinct difference is that the gecko can vocalize, making chirping sounds when associating with other geckos. There are over 700 species of geckos, some of which can emit a very irritating liquid from their tails for protection against enemies.

Some species have the gift of parthenogenesis, which means that the females can reproduce without the aid of a male. So if a female finds itself on a distant island where there are no other geckos, it can reproduce successively and populate that island.

Many people have a great fascination for this little creature. There is a group called the Global Gecko Association, which one can join to learn all there is to know about them. Children often have them as house pets. There is a Gecko Chat and Gecko Network on the Internet. People in the tropics welcome them in their homes because they feed upon unwanted bugs and insects. One organization states, “The best average age for a youngster to start out with their first gecko is about 8 years old. Match the gecko to the youngster. Learning to care for a gecko can be a very rewarding experience. They can live up to thirty years.”

Geckos have the ability to climb up walls, slither across ceilings, and even walk up polished surfaces like glass. One would attribute that skill to the fact that the underneath of their toes have a sticky substance or something like vacuum cups. But they can walk on fine sand and then climb up a mirror. So much for the sticky substance. They can climb up smooth surfaces under a vacuum. So much for vacuum cups. Scientists have been fascinated with the gecko’s toes. The explanation for their mobility up and down smooth surfaces centers upon the actual makeup of the foot pads and the principal of van der Waals forces.

Only recently have scientists discovered the answer to the gecko’s “stickiness.” The pad on each toe has tiny scales covered with millions of hair-like bristles and each bristle has about a thousand microscopic pads. Each of these tiny pads is only about 200-billionths of a meter wide. They are so small that they can bond to actual molecules on the surface material. If all the toe pads were in contact with the skin of a person, it could hold up a man weighing 265 pounds. What a powerful little fellow!

you can understand why scientists are eager to fabricate a material with similar microscopic hairs. Someday there may be a real live Geikoman. Manchester University in the UK had claimed to be able to fabricate a tape from a material called Kapton which has hairs measuring 2.0 microns in height and 0.2 microns in diameter - the same as geiko hairs. The tape is made by a lithographic process. One square centimeter of the tape has about 100 million artificial hairs and can support one kilogram. Here is another example where Science is looking to nature for new ideas for progress.

Tarantulas have 8 closely grouped eyes; the large middle pair are circular with 3 eyes on each side. Each leg has 2 claws at the tip and a tuft of hair underneath. Although they have venom that is used to kill prey, there are no tarantulas in the world that are considered dangerously poisonous to humans.

Fall is the time that we usually see tarantulas crossing country roads. Did you know that they are the male of the species and are 5 to 12 years old already? They have lived in burrows for up to 12 years or until mature. The cooler temperatures and shorter days induce the stirring of romantic ideas in the male. He finally comes out of the burrow and goes searching for that perfect girl tarantula. Many perils await the newly emerged male, not the least of which is the female herself. During this time the female is sitting in her burrow near the surface, waiting to feel the vibrations of a passerby. If the vibrations feel like that of a small animal such as a cricket or another spider, she rushes out and grabs the unsuspecting prey as she sinks her fangs into it. So how does the male tarantula escape this fate when he has only romance on his mind? Well, sometimes he doesn't! When a male tarantula approaches the burrow of a female, he first tastes the silk that lies around the entrance. If he detects a mature female in residence, he responds by drumming on the surface with his legs. The drumming is to let the female know that he is interested in mating--and would rather not be mistaken for a meal by the larger and always hungry female. When a female emerges, he continues to drum as he approaches her. If she's receptive, she will raise up the front end of her body and allow him to grab her fangs with the hook-like projections on his forelegs. He then transfers his sperm to her.

Now, that was the easy part. He must release her fangs, disengage himself, and make a hasty retreat before she can overpower him and make him a meal. Adult males, however, die before winter arrives (mated or not).

The male tarantula must also be alert for other predators, such as wasps, owls, skunks, and foxes. His most effective defense against a predator is to quickly use his hind legs to kick some of the hairs off of his abdomen. The hairs dislodge easily and are light enough to float into contact with the nose and eyes of the approaching predator. On contact the hairs produce a burning sensation. This line of defense works well against mammals and birds, but not against a wasp called the Tarantula Wasp, which is much smaller than the spider. When the wasp finds a tarantula, it lands and approaches the spider. The spider assumes a defensive posture, raising the front legs and baring the lethal-looking fangs. This posture allows the wasp to quickly dart in and sting the spider in a soft spot where the legs join the body. The sting immediately paralyzes the tarantula and it is dragged to the wasps burrow.

(Much of this information was obtained from the website

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana

As you can see from the scientific nomenclature the Red Cedar is not a cedar but a juniper. It grows throughout the eastern states and from North Dakota to Texas. It will grow in almost any type of soil, other than wet, swampy areas. The average tree size is 14 to 16 in trunk diameter and 20-50 feet in height. It has lacelike fronds rather than needles. The reddish brown bark can be easily stripped from the trunk. The wood is mid-weight (33 pounds per cu. ft.) and the wood strength is about 80% that of white oak. Red Cedar develops pale, blue-green berries that can be readily distributed by birds.

Red Cedar wood has a fine grain and soft texture. Among the uses for the wood are: boat trim, cedar chests, closet linings, house siding, exterior trim, boxes, carvings, and wafer board. The Oklahoma Redcedar Association works to find new commercial uses for the tree and promotes known uses. Perhaps one of the reasons for the rapid spread of the Red Cedar is the absence of large scale commercial uses for the wood.

The Red Cedar wood contains an aromatic-smelling oil, commonly known as oil of red cedar or cedar oil. The oil content of the wood is 2.94%. A tree 12 inches in diameter can produce 17 pounds of cedar oil, valued at about $120. If you buy a 32 oz. can of processed cedar oil it will cost $50. A concentrated form, known as essential oil of cedar, can cost $5 for a small vial.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that the Red Cedar is increasing at the rate of 762 acres per day or 300,000 acres a year. A survey in 1985 estimated that 3.5 million acres of rangeland, pasture and forest land had been invaded by the Red Cedar. In 2004 that acreage increased to 12.6 million. By 2013 it is estimated that 28% of the Oklahoma landscape will be invaded by Red Cedar if there are no control measures taken. It has become a problem in all of Oklahoma except the panhandle and a small part of the southwest.

What has caused the increase in numbers? Native Americans started fires in the spring and fall to improve wildlife habitat. Fires were also set by lightening strikes. These two things helped curtail the spread of cedars into grasslands. The coming of the settlers brought fire control and heavy grazing, both benefitted the spread of the cedar. Wild fires set by lightening strikes were extinguished when possible. Man-made fires on the prairie were considered hazardous to homesteads, cattle, and farm crops.

The encroachment of Red Cedar trees into grasslands and other native plant communities affects the composition of wildlife habitats. Studies by OSU scientists indicate that only three cedar trees per acre can displace sensitive song birds. They also said that 5,000 quail coveys per year can be lost due to the spread of Red Cedars

Large populations of Red Cedar can reduce the amount of useable grazing land due to producing shade that hinders grass propagation. In addition, cedars can decrease the amount of available water and threaten water sources. OSU research shows that one acre of cedar trees absorb 55,000 gallons of water per year. Also contributing to water “usage” is the fact that snow and rain falling upon the leaves and branches have a good chance of evaporating rather than seeping into the soil.

In 2000 it was estimated that Red Cedars cost Oklahoma 218 million dollars annually through wild fires, loss of forage, loss of wildlife habitat, and water yield. Without adequate control measures that figure may rise to 447 million dollars by year 2013.

(Further information can be found at the following: Oklahoma Living,; Oklahoma Redcedar Association,; Oklahoma House of Representatives Media Division,; OSU, Rangeland Ecology and Management,

Prairie Ants

Here is some information about the prairie ants. This material was found at the web site

Ants are very abundant on prairies and as in other ant colonies they live in a complicated social order. All prairie ants are eaters of flesh and enjoy sweet nectar and honeydew.

The largest group of ants in a colony are predators, which hunt other invertebrates. They patrol the ground and nearby plants, killing insects and spiders for food. The food they scavenge is rich in protein and is fed mostly to the ant larvae. Some insects, such as hairy, hard-bodied, fuzzy, or smelly insects, are mostly avoided.

The sweet substances gathered by the ants are used as food for the adult workers. Many prairie plants and wild flowers secrete nectar from glands on leaves, stems and flower heads. The ants lick up the sweet nectar and transport some back to the ant nest. Since the nectar flows so slowly the ants will spend long periods of time waiting for it to form droplets. If leaf-eating insects show up the ants will attack them, thus protecting the plant.

Leaf- or stem-sucking insects excrete excess sugars as a clear fluid called honeydew. It is not surprising that some ants protect and promote the aphid population on a plant. The ants will chase away any plant-chewing insects to protect their host plant. So it is a mixed blessing for the plant as the aphids extract sap and this can weaken the plant, while the ants protect the plant from leaf-eating insects.
Some of the Acanthomyops and Lasius species give up the job of hunting above ground for a job of tending and rearing “livestock” below ground. They live among aphids and they protect and care for them much like cattle ranching. The aphids produce honeydew and the ants softly caress the aphids with their antennae and the aphids excrete the honeydew in response to the gentle touching. The ants that do this constantly can not live on honeydew alone, but must have some protein. They get this by killing some of the young aphids.

Most ant gather plant fragments, seeds and other plant parts which they eat, or incorporate into their nests. Certain plants rely on this for seed dispersal. Violets, sedges, trout lily and trillium produce nutritious and attractive appendages on their seeds to take advantage of this ant trait. The seeds are taken home by the ants and the soft appendages are eaten. The remaining seeds are then discarded in the ant’s trash heap, where they find ideal conditions for germination.

Large amounts of soil are moved due to the tremendous number of ants on the prairie. This is done in the normal activity of nest building. The mixing of earth by the ants is beneficial to the prairie ecology. Waste, discarded dead remains, and inedible parts of their food enrich the soil surrounding the ant hills. Some plants thrive on the abandoned ant mounds. Certain small animals and parasitic arthropods spend most of their lives in ant nests.

The prairie ant is just another species which we normally view as a pest, but which has positive ecological traits.

JKJ Benefits

Copyright 2004 by Van Vives
This page was updated on 11/16/2015.
Request permission before using photos by Van Vives.