Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Tallgrass Prairie

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 2 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening…  The roads were but faint tracks in the grass and the fields were scarcely noticeable.  The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.”
Part I (The Wild Land), Chapter II
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Prairie as far as the eye can see:
My children on vacation at
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Several years ago, my family and I took the 90-minute ranger-led prairie bus tour of  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas.  It was my destination request.  I wanted to get an idea of what America’s vast plains looked like before European settlement.  The 10,894 acres of Tallgrass Prairie offer one of the few available approximations of a landscape that once stretched out across the American Midwest, seemingly forever.

The O Pioneers! description above describes the prairie before it was tamed into farmland.  Even though John Bergson (father of heroine Alexandra Bergson) has spent 11 years working the land at this point, his work has barely changed its appearance.  Over a subsequent 16 years, Alexandra marshals her feel for the land and new agricultural  resources to create the farmland that we now associate with the Midwest.

In Part II (Neighboring Fields) of O Pioneers!, Alexandra gives the land credit for the transformation that has made her wealthy:  “The land did it.  It had its little joke.  It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right;  and then, all at once, it worked itself.  It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.”

Driving around the Midwest, you can see the land that determined people like Alexandra nurtured into being.  These days, it takes work to ferret out the rare places like Tallgrass Prairie that offer a suggestion of what the land might have looked like in 1883.  The National Park Service has been thoughtfully developing Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve since 1996.  The tour bus takes tourists like my family out into the middle of the prairie which stretches out flat and quiet all around you.  From a distance, it all looks the same;  close up, you start seeing variety.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
in Chase County, Kansas.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to a beautiful day and a knowledgeable ranger guide, the prairie didn’t feel depressing and disheartening at all on our visit.  My memories are of a sublime beauty, albeit a little frightening in its sheer scale, gazing across miles of seemingly unbroken grassland to the distant horizon.  If you were abandoned here, no one would ever know.  You feel small. But looking down at the ground, you see that the unending acreage is speckled with life.  Hundreds of plant species live on a healthy prairie, along with a wide variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.  While it all looks level and dry at first, creeks meander through the tall grass, creating mini-ecosystems within the broader prairie.

This isn’t the precise world that is described in the early chapters of O Pioneers!  Cather based her novel on memories of the land around Red Cloud, Nebraska, approximately 150 miles northwest of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  Elevation can make a big difference in the ecology of the prairie.  Tallgrass Prairie is only about 1,200 feet above sea level while at 1,700 feet, Red Cloud is really more of the tabletop described by Cather in the opening sentence of the book.

Maybe Tallgrass Prairie is more representative of the low-lying river farms that Alexandra visits in the concluding chapter of Part I of O Pioneers!  Alexandra decides that their Nebraska land is better than the farmland of the low-lying valleys and resolves to stay planted on her father’s rough and windy tabletop land.

I haven’t visited the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, managed by the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska.  Here the Foundation preserves a 608-acre tract of native prairie, untouched by plow.  Red Cloud is the town where Willa Cather spent much of her youth.  This may be as close as we can now get to the prairie land that Cather first saw when she arrived in Nebraska in 1883, an experience deeply reflected in the descriptions in the first part of O Pioneers!

We’re lucky to have these isolated places where you can still squint your eyes on a windy prairie, remember Cather’s words, and imagine life on the prairie, circa 1883.

Historical markers at Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, located on the
west side of U.S. Highway 28 just north of the Nebraska-Kansas
border in southern Webster County, Nebraska.
Photo by Ammodramus.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

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