Searching for John Joseph Mathews

by Richard Higgs


He showed his anger in fantastic play of lightning, and thunder that crashed and rolled among the hills; in the wind that came from the great tumbling clouds which appeared in the northwest and brought twilight and ominous milk-warm silence. His beneficence showed on April mornings when the call of the prairie chicken came rolling over the awakened prairie and the killdeer seemed to be fussing; on June days when the emerald grass sparkled in the dew and soft breezes whispered, the quail whistled and the autumnal silences when the blackjacks were painted like dancers and dreamed in the iced sunshine with fatalistic patience.

Sundown, by John Joseph Mathews, 1934

“I think I hear one!” I called out. I had never heard one before, and the sound was far off and indistinct, so I could not be sure. My friend Dennis Bires and I were facing east, the sun still 15 minutes below the horizon. On the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, at a pullout where the gravel road crests a ridgeline, we braced ourselves miserably against the wind. The predawn cold penetrated our clothes with stiff, bullying gusts that blew tears from our eyes. We cupped our hands to our ears and scanned left and right. It was during the month of April, or the Osage Planting Moon.

We were there to observe the crazy, predawn mating ritual of Tympanuchus cupido, commonly known as the greater prairie chicken, a rare sight, likely to become rarer still as their numbers and their habitat continue to dwindle. This preserve is one place where they’ve been able to make a stand.

Much of our misery was self-inflicted. The evening before, in camp, instead of prairie chickens in the grass, we’d found Wild Turkey in a flask. We’d sat facing the fire, as it settled into coals, and sipped our drinks until the fire was ready. Then, along with our dinner of oak-grilled venison, we’d polished off a bottle of cabernet. Dennis, big-game hunter, farmer, gourmand, and retired professor from the University of Tulsa College of Law, had provided food and drinks. After dinner, the flask had turned up empty. I’d lain down in my tent just before midnight.

The alarm startled me out of sleep and into a stupor at 4:30 a.m. I crawled out of my tent and stood reeling in the dark as Dennis emerged from his tent. It was a 40-minute drive to the viewing site, and we had to get there before sunrise.

It was imperative that I have coffee. Before I could make coffee, I had to build a fire. Before I could build a fire, I had to find a lighter. Dennis, always an organized camper, turned on his lantern, and everything flowed from that. Soon, we were well caffeinated and driving west.

Prairie chickens were once common throughout America’s vast tallgrass prairies. Osage writer John Joseph Mathews used to drive his station wagon to a spot near a mating ground and watch their antics from close range, sitting in the back of his car. He wrote about them in his memoir Talking to the Moon in the 1940s:

I have watched this dance every spring for years, and, as in the case of the Osage dances, I’ve never grown tired of it… Before the white man came to the Osage these grouse populated the range to the point of saturation and on April mornings filled the prairie with their booming as they danced on the high hills.

Despite the habitat pressures of intensive oil exploration in the area, Mathews was able to describe his pleasure in watching flocks of 30 to 40 as the hens gathered in a wide circle around the mating ground.

This Land Radio makes an excursion to Oklahoma’s Osage Prairie to learn the story of John Joseph Mathews.

Inside the circle of hens, the cocks fan their tailfeathers, erect their pinnates, dance, leap, spar, lower their heads, inflate the saffron sacs on their necks and blowout their long, sonorous mating call. Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds describes the sound: “ ‘Booming’ male in dance makes a hollow oo-loo-woo, suggesting the sound made by blowing across a bottle mouth.” It can be heard over a mile away.

“I don’t know, Rich. That could be a mourning dove,” Dennis replied after hearing it again. We scanned the horizon in vain with our binoculars.

“Yeah. Probably a dove,” I agreed.

* * *

The day had grown warm, sunny, and hypnotic by the time Dennis and I sat in the untended yard of Mathews’ longabandoned rock cabin, and quietly pondered his endangered legacy. We’d bounced gently along a serpentine, seldom-used lane for nearly a mile to reach the old house. The skeletal remains of a wisteria Mathews had planted were woven into the rusty wire fence around his yard. We could smell wild onions sprouting in the new spring grass. Through a screen of oaks, we looked down onto the surrounding sunlit prairie, which swayed in a wind that we could not feel.

Mathews rested in his grave across the yard in the shade of an old cedar tree. Behind us stood the little home he had ordered built, circa 1935, on his family’s allotment, after several years of drifting through much of the Western world. He had lived alone there “in the blackjacks,” as he called the place, for a decade. Talking to the Moon was his account of a typical year there. He divided the book according to the Osage moons. It was published in 1945. His widow, Elizabeth Mathews, begins her foreword to the 1981 edition: “This is John Joseph Mathews’ Walden.”

After his wanderings, Mathews returned home to Osage County because he’d had an epiphany, sometime in the late 1920s, while on a hunting trip in North Africa. He recalled the incident years later for Guy Logsdon in a conversation at the Osage Tribal Museum:

I remember very distinctly one evening, when we were preparing our meal, suddenly it came to my guide and my cook that it was time to worship. So they fell on their knees, their faces toward Mecca, as usual. In this situation you feel so clumsy, so out of things—you feel that you are an absolutely sinful person. About this time some Kabyles, a wild tribe of Arabs, came up who were not Mohammedan and had no known religion at all—wild! They came racing across the sand. I think there were about six or eight of them firing their Winchesters, the model 1894 lever. I thought, here, we’re in trouble. My guide and my cook were prostrate. They surrounded us shooting all the way on their Arab horses—all mares, incidentally. Then they got off and ate with us, they were very friendly. That night I got to thinking about it, and I thought that’s exactly what happened to me one day when I was a little boy, riding on the Osage prairies. Osage warriors with only their breechclouts and their guns had come up and surrounded me—firing. Of course, I knew some of them, about them; they knew me, who I was. That’s what we called joy shooting, you see, just joy. So, I got homesick, and I thought, what am I doing over here? Why don’t I go back and take some interest in my people? Why not go back to the Osage? They’ve got a culture. So, I came back; then I started talking with the old men.

Upon his return, Mathews devoted the rest of his life to chronicling the history and protecting the interests of the Osage Nation. He published five books, represented the tribe in Washington, D.C., facilitated the WPA-assigned oil portraits of Osage notables of the day, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Osage Tribal Museum, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.


At the time of his epiphany, Mathews was living in Switzerland, where he acquired a certificate in international relations from the University of Geneva, and attended the League of Nations sessions. He had come to Europe by way of Oxford University, where he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences from Merton College. Before Oxford, Mathews had acquired a degree in geology from the University of Oklahoma. As his time at OU came to an end, Mathews made a curious decision, detailed in Charles H. Red Corn’s introduction to Mathews’ autobiography, Twenty Thousand Mornings: “While waiting for graduation, he was approached about applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. After some soul searching, he proposed to…pay his own expenses, thus freeing up funding for someone not able to pay.”As we strolled the grounds, musing over Mathews’ reason for declining the scholarship, Dennis and I agreed that we’d rather believe he did it simply because the timing conflicted with his plans to hunt bears in Colorado, which is what he did, delaying his enrollment until after the hunt. Mathews had been to Europe before Oxford. During World War I, he interrupted his studies at OU to enlist in the armed forces. He served as a fighter pilot in the skies over France.

Mathews was born in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, on Agency Hill, November 16, 1894. In the introduction to The Osages, his history of the Osage Tribe, he tells this story from his Pawhuska childhood:

“I was a very small boy when the seed which was to disturb me all of my life was planted.” He’d been moved from his mother’s bedroom because of the arrival of his baby sister, and given a room of his own. He’d lain awake all night, alone and afraid, as he recalls, “…I remember the hour before dawn, when the silence was the heaviest. There floated up to my room through the open window… a long, drawn out chant broken by weeping. It filled my little boy’s soul with fear and bittersweetness…”

Looking back, he realized, “It was Neolithic man talking to God.”

* * *

Mathews was an early environmentalist, but his motive for moving to the blackjacks was more personal than ideological. He wrote: “My coming back was dramatic in a way; a weight on the sensitive scales of nature, which I knew would eventually be adjusted if I lived as I had planned to live; to become a part of the balance.” Talking to the Moon offers readers an example rather than a manifesto, which may be why his name, even in Oklahoma, is virtually unknown among environmentalists.

There is a photo from 1937 of Mathews sitting by his fireplace, pipe in hand. His hounds lay stretched out at his feet on a bearskin rug. Along the front of
the fireplace mantle is this carefully hand-lettered Latin inscription: VENARI LAVARI LUDERE RIDERE OCCAST VIVERE, which Mathews had seen among some Roman ruins in North Africa; the motto of “some unit of the Th ird Augustan Legion” when that area was a Roman frontier in the fi rst century. Mathews interprets it as TO HUNT, TO BATHE, TO PLAY, TO LAUGH—THAT IS TO LIVE.” Dennis and I stood in the ruins of Mathews’ cabin and pondered the still-readable inscription. Dennis, who knows his Latin, suggested an alternate translation:

“When Romans went to the baths,” Dennis explained, “they were engaging in social recreation in what we today would describe as a swimming pool. So lavari could be loosely translated as ‘to swim,’ in much the sense Americans might use when they ‘go out for a swim’ in a back yard pool or an Osage County swimming hole. And an alternate translation for ludere is ‘to make love.’ It is entirely possible that Mathews, classically educated at OU and Oxford, translated the inscription for himself ‘to hunt, to swim, to make love, to laugh—that is to live,’ though he was perhaps too discreet to put it that way in writing.”

Also in the photograph, on the mantle above the inscription, are two stuffed prairie chickens. The man loved to hunt.

Standing in Mathews’ room surveying the collapsing roof, the fallen ceiling plaster, the glassless windows with rotted frames, I imagined the building and grounds restored to the conditions he’d kept, and made available, for short, spartan stays, to poets, writers, artists, and scientists whose works were relevant to the grass and trees outside. The walls, fieldstones 18-inches thick, are still strong and true. But a counter-thought intruded: Let the earth take it back, bit by bit, until even the stones have been pulled back below the soil, relieving the sensitive scales of their weight. Which would be the greater honor to Mathews’ legacy?

If a snake were slithering along in definite search for food, and suddenly he became aware of the shadow cast by the wings of a red-tail hawk, high-circling, he would draw his head back and retract his body until it formed into a series of half-loops, then he would freeze, with only his forked tongue darting for messages. He would be like a carelessly dropped rope; like a new rope that had not the kinks stretched out of it.

That is the way the Osage River of central Missouri and eastern Kansas looks, as it comes down from the high prairie to flow through the wooded hills. It lies shining there, among the hills, like a snake under the shadow of wings, or like one that had been touched on the end of the nose by a snake stick.

—The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters by John Joseph Mathews, 1961

In the afternoon, we visited the Osage Tribal Museum. Uncombed, unshaven, wind burned, and reeking of camp smoke, I approached the gift counter and asked if they had any of Mathews’ works for sale. I was referred to the public library. Although one cannot buy his books there, traces of Mathews are evident. There is a plaque with this inscription:

Devoted to preserving the culture and history of his Osage tribe and inspired by the natural world of the Osage Hills, the written works of John Joseph Mathews evoke the enduring spirit of the land and the people. Here on Osage Agency Hill, Mathews’ birthplace, the Osage Tribal Museum, established in 1938 primarily through his efforts, is designated a Literary Landmark by the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations.
November 17, 2009. There are the WPA portraits that he facilitated; there is a formal portrait of him; there is his name among the original allottees; and, there is the museum itself.

* * *

Next morning at dawn, we parked where the gravel road veered north, but the fence line continued east. Meadowlarks sang out from all directions as we exited the pickup. We closed the doors quietly, and began to hike along the fence line, up the still-shaded slope of a rounded ridge. The previous day, in a chance encounter, we’d gotten a tip from Bonnie Gall, a volunteer at the Sutton Avian Research Center, that atop this ridge might be a good place to watch the prairie chickens dance their ancient dance. Our legs and lungs felt good to be climbing. The morning breeze was fresh on our faces. Finally on the ridge, in the first rays of the sun, we stopped to catch our breath.


All was grass, in shadows and light. To our south, the soft folds of a valley dropped ever deeper as the slender watercourse in its bottom meandered eastward and down. Across the valley, a coyote went about its morning mouse hunt, following its nose with that curious coyote gait of quick, short steps. Overhead, wave after wave of cormorants, black and silent, flew straight north in large V-formations, returning from Belize.

We turned to the north and scanned the ridge with our binoculars.

“I think I see one!” I called out.

Visit Oak Tree Bookstore in Tulsa on Cherry St. to find the largest available selection of John Joseph Mathews’ work.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 16. August 15, 2013.