Lost Horizon

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Behind my grandparents’ house, the house in which I was born, rose a high pasture, little used in my boyhood and then only for grazing a few head of cattle. Crowned by tall weeds and scarred by runoff gullies, it was my first prairie, the one that still drifts behind all my images and notions of that phenomenon even though it was only forty or fifty acres bounded by timber and bean fields. Perhaps, technically, this Missouri pasture was not a prairie at all, but its vegetation reached nearly shoulder-high during my crossings to and from school, and its abundant life—bumblebees, bull snakes, blue racers, meadowlarks, quail, foxes, rabbits, groundhogs—brought color and excitement to my daily journey. And, too, it provided an ideal vantage point from which to watch the green-stained violence of a thunderstorm or the gray-white curtain of advancing snowfall.

While a high school student, I helped, for a time, tend a small patch of Iowa prairie that a museum in Davenport was trying to reestablish. I cataloged the grasses, did a pocket gopher count, and eagerly gathered evidence of any addition to its population.

Ultimately such experiences produced more longing than satisfaction and generated a growing desire to comprehend the real thing in all its immensity rather than some neatly fenced acreage surrounded by cultivated land. I wanted to sense how this landscape would have appeared to Americans 140 years ago.

Virtually no one can cross this country from east to west without a confrontation with prairie. It endures in a variety of forms and expressions, from small parks tucked around Chicago to enormous preserves established in Kansas and Oklahoma. And, too, the cultivated fields and pastures that dominate the landscape between the Mississippi and the Rockies, though profoundly transformed, remain an expression of prairie, revealing qualities inherent in the place regardless of what grows or feeds on its surface.

Like that of most contemporary travelers, my prairie experience, as an adult, has been limited to that of the cross-continental driver, rushing from one side of the United States to the other and entering with dread the long, dull sameness of Kansas or Nebraska. While the prairie facilitates fast and uninterrupted driving, it requires deliberate engagement to be appreciated, a willingness to be slowed, stopped altogether if it is really to be seen. It is, as its settlers have testified, not a place to be taken lightly. Our vision must be refined, trained for the long view, and yet made alert to nuances of light and movement. Everything I have read, everything I remember, suggests that the prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.

The lush catalog of prairie vegetation resonates like a Walt Whitman poem.

It is hard to imagine now, but when U.S. expansion, moving at the incredible rate of as much as eleven miles a year across a thousand-mile front, crested the Appalachian Mountains, surged down the western slope, and rushed through the eastern timber zones, crossed Kentucky and Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana, and at last jumped the Mississippi, a pioneering life that had served Americans for the better part of two hundred years faltered and broke in the presence of a landscape without precedent in either our New World or our Old World experience. Two centuries of contending with forests of such scope and grandeur that they seemed eternal brought us at last to a vacant wilderness, virtually treeless, where the very terms of life differed so dramatically from what we had known that we could describe it only through contradictions—a sea of grass, a desert garden. And for more than a generation, Americans viewed this expanse, greater in size than the vast wooded regions they had just crossed, as some huge ocean separating east from west, itself no place at all.

The pioneers who had pushed the frontier across the eastern third of the United States had, for the most part, been looking for breaks in the forest, places where they could settle and begin cultivation with the least amount of effort for the greatest return. But the “log cabin zone”—the domain of this old approach to settlement—ended when our ancestors left the Eastern forests behind, ended, at least, until the mountains of the West had been crossed and settlers entered the more familiar landscape of the Oregon Territory, a landscape more amenable to the tools and institutions of the East. Thus Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century, like many of their 1980s carowning counterparts, crossed the continent’s interior as hurriedly as possible, clinging to established trails, following their guides, and looking straight ahead to the Rocky Mountains. In this place they felt more vulnerable, exposed, than at any other geographical point in the American experience.