LAKE PAWHUSKA — As he laughingly observed, Gary Lantz may be growing older and losing brain cells faster than he would like to admit, but he has an unusual advantage. He’s been taking detailed notes for decades and keeping them.
Lantz, 70, moved back to northeast Oklahoma from New Mexico three years ago, intent on writing about the land he loves the most – the tallgrass prairie of Osage County.
That project has come to fruition with the publication of a book titled Heart Stays Country: Meditations from the Southern Flint Hills. Issued by the University of Iowa Press in November 2017, it consists of about 192 pages of text and source listings, and is available at the Osage County Historical Society Museum for $25.
Lantz is a homeboy writing about his childhood stomping grounds, but he’s more than a genial old boy with a big pickup truck, a friendly dog and a gift for storytelling. He’s a craftsman, a specialist with more than 40 years of experience in journalism, editing and creative writing.
“I wanted to write this book because this is home and I’ve always loved this part of the country,” Lantz says, explaining he had planned for some time to return to the Osage after he turned 65. “The area meant a lot to me as a kid.”
His heart is still drawn to the hills and grasses and creatures that make Osage County unique, but he is also anxious about the possibility that humans in a rush to make a buck might be blind the to glory of the life around them, and wipe it out.
“We’ve got a really cool deal, getting born on this planet,” Lantz said during an extended interview on a sunny, damp morning recently, in a small green clearing alongside Lake Pawhuska. Birds chattered while his Labrador retriever, Cody, lounged under a brick and concrete picnic table.
“If we don’t care for our planet, we don’t have anything to show, we don’t have any life,” Lantz said. “Every one of these plants and trees have evolved over millions of years to fit together and work together.”
“It’s just this marvelous puzzle and it works in a way that keeps us alive, too,” he said, adding that his advocacy for nature has become “a little bit of an evangelical thing.”
Lantz comes by his passion for the countryside the old-fashioned way. He grew up there in the 1950s, with no air-conditioning and no indoor plumbing. But there were cattle and horses and other animals, and the family raised its own food.
Lantz’s family lived near the headwaters of Sycamore Creek, between Grayhorse and Pawhuska. His dad was a World War II veteran who worked as an oilfield roustabout and trained dogs on the side. His mom wrote newspaper columns and poetry when she wasn’t rearing children.
Reading was the window to the outside world. Tulsa newspapers and The Saturday Evening Post were staples, and there were books through which to travel widely via the imagination.
“I learned to love books. I got to see the world through words put on paper, and pictures,” Lantz said. “Books allowed you to dream about places.”
During college days, Lantz began writing for newspapers and, after he graduated, he started working for the state Wildlife Department. That’s when he began compiling his now-extensive resources of notes and photos.
“When I started with the Wildlife Department, I started taking notes on everything I saw or did while I was out,” Lantz said, and he followed up on his observations by asking questions of the biologists around whom he worked.
So Lantz has built up volumes of notes since the 1970s, has talked at length to biologists about the details of natural processes, and has done in-depth reading on natural history subjects.
“If you’re going to write about natural history, you’ve got to be credible,” Lantz said. He has also taken large numbers of photos during his continued development as a writer and photographer.
By now he has written three books, ghostwritten a couple more, and placed articles in dozens of periodicals such as newspapers and magazines. He was Oklahoma Conservation Communicator of the Year in 2000.
In his new book, Lantz turns to the work of the noted Osage tribal historian John Joseph Mathews for an explanation of the term “Heart Stays.” It is derived from the Heart Stays People, a division of the Osage tribe that “got their name from their allegiance to the earth beneath their feet,” Lantz writes, adding that he has “always felt most at home in my own Heart Stays place — the southern edge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma’s Osage County.”
In the text of his book, Lantz acknowledges his debt as a student of the prairie to earlier writers. Among those he honors are John Joseph Mathews, the “Osage Thoreau,” who built a sandstone cabin on the tallgrass prairie in 1932, and the conservation writer John Madson, whose 1982 book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, is now a standard work. Lantz describes Madson, an Iowan, as “a native grasslander who dreamed about the past and better days yet to come and gave the land he loved his voice.”
And so Lantz now gives the tallgrass prairie his voice, in the hope we will learn to love it before it is merely a memory.