My recent visit to the Montana prairie got me thinking about how an author organizes ideas and chooses what to include in a piece of writing and what can be left out. Any new subject presents so many possibilities, and possibilities are what writers thrive on. Each of us has her or his own ways of working through this process of considering alternatives and then focusing in on some topics while passing over others—here’s an example of mine.
I already have the main focus for my book, the life of bison on American Prairie Reserve (APR), a developing project that aims to protect a parcel of an ecosystem that once spread from north to south across the middle third of America. Already, enough land is protected by APR so that the bison and other wildlife have a significant area to roam. My book will focus on the life of one bison calf born there and will have sidebars featuring various aspects of the life of bison and their habitat. What topics should I include and what can I pass over? A 48-page book can only have so many words!
|A lone bison bull on the American Prairie Reserve
While I bounce along in a sturdy four-wheeler with my driver and guide, Dennis Lingohr, my mind scans possible topics as my eyes scan the landscape. Our vehicle climbs up a steep slope and heads down the other side, and I know there’s one point I’ll be sure to make—the prairie is far from being a rolling plain. It is a wrinkled landscape, with hills and valleys, nooks and crannies, streams and ponds. Some areas seem quite barren, while others are lush with spring grass.
Dennis explains how this variety of habitats reflects both the geological history of the area and the human usage of the land. For example, glaciers scraped some of the land of its topsoil, while flood irrigation by ranchers created grassy swaths that provide good forage for the bison. The landscape will play a major role in my book.
|An alert prairie dog checks out the intruders
|Penstemon on the prairie
We pass through a prairie dog town—the bison and the prairie dog are both key ingredients in a healthy prairie ecosystem, so I’ll be sure to include the prairie dog. But what about the wildflowers? They are beautiful and visually appealing, but do they play an important role in the life of the prairie itself? Do the bison nibble on them or leave them alone? I’ll need to find out. Then there’s the weather—just this one day we are experiencing some of its variety. The day starts out with broken clouds and a light breeze. As we lunch sitting on an overlook, the sun peeks out, disappears, and comes out again. The storm clouds gather in the distance, and I get nervous about the possibility of rain, which can make the roads impassable.
As I ponder my experience, my mind begins to make lists of possibilities. I remind myself that the topics I include must spark the interest of young people. Luckily, my book is not a textbook that has to include certain facts. It’s a collection of tidbits and stories that, taken together, will introduce this complex ecosystem from the viewpoint of its largest and most powerful inhabitant, the bison. But before even one word is written, I must sort and balance, take on and discard, until I reach a point where I’m confident my book will both inform and inspire.
Now that I’m back home, where the streets are paved and the landscape is dotted with houses, I think back to my prairie experience of wildness and openness, lonesome landscape and companionable creatures, and I look forward to the challenge of organizing and presenting this quintessentially American animal and its complex habitat to young readers.