Lost Horizon

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The Jesuits who entered by way of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River in the seventeenth century had seen the vast meadows of Illinois as an earthly paradise, “the finest and most fertile countries in the world,” supporting vegetation “ten or twelve feet high at all seasons.” But Coronado, who had, in the sixteenth century, approached from the south, recorded a different view. He found natives, even cities of a sort, but what seems to have impressed him most was the emptiness of the place. His journals rarely complain of the physical discomforts, which were many, but time and again they remark on this vacancy. “The country is so level,” the journals report, “that men became lost when they went off half a league. One horseman was lost, who never reappeared, and two horses, all saddled and bridled, which they never saw again. No track was left of where they went, and on this account it was necessary to mark the road by which they went with cow dung, so as to return, since there were no stones or anything else.”

In 1803 the United States purchased title to much of this territory, doubling the physical size of the country and gaining control of both sides of the Mississippi from its source to its mouth, but mostly acquiring an enormous, unexplored landmass of uncertain value, desired less for its own sake than as a route to what lay beyond it: Oregon and the Pacific Ocean. As late as the 1840s senators were given to tirades against Jefferson’s buying spree, complaining that Louisiana was at once too much and too little. Sen. George McDuffie of South Carolina insisted in 1843 that most of this land was uninhabitable, barren, of use only because it connected the Eastern states with the Pacific coast, an advantage he found less impressive than the difficulties in reaching it. “Why, sir,” he proclaimed, “of what use will this be for agricultural purposes? I would not, for that purpose, give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory. I wish to God we did not own it. I wish it was an impassable barrier to secure us against the intrusion of others. This is the character of the country. Who are we to send there?”

My approach, like that of La Salle and Joliet, came from the eastern side. Illinois is familiar ground, since I grew up there and live, now, just a river’s width away; it is as well a prairie state, the place where the smaller meadows or “oak openings” to the east swelled into enormous grasslands. It was to Illinois that Europeans and travelers from the old states came for the most accessible, least taxing prairie encounters, day trips with inns and companions conveniently at hand. There is a wisdom in this for us as well. Better to start without the pressure of enormous distances, the frantic compulsion to get to the other side.

I began at the prairie preserve in Searls Memorial Park beside Cottonwood Airport near Rockford, Illinois. Sandwiched between neatly mowed playing fields and concrete runways, it is at once manageable and impressive: manageable because it can be observed, like an animal at the zoo, through the safety of a fence and because, on the viewer’s side, the manicured grass keeps its place beneath our feet; impressive because the plants across from us grow seven and eight feet high, blocking everything beyond from view. In the mid-August dawn of this visit, the Rockford preserve was bright with color, thick with flowers—thistles, blackeyed Susans, goldenrod. The grasses, too, added their tints, a range of greens and beiges, shades of blue and yellow, that changed with the light. The first breezes from the approaching storm moved the tallest of the plants in great swells; one reason for the abundance of sea imagery in prairie descriptions: this is a place where a person could sink in turbulent weather, be lost beneath the surface. In this modest preserve, however, the approaching violence could be paced. I escaped to my car just as the first great drops of rain splattered on the windshield, though not before the winds carried through the tall grasses—writhing before the onslaught like wild-bodied dancers—the scent and feel of wilderness, the hint of an old excitement.

To French explorers it seemed an earthly paradise; to pioneer families a nightmare.

Charles Dickens, having pushed his own American exploration as far west as St. Louis in 1842. decided to see a prairie for himself. He, too, was directed to Illinois, to a site just east of the village of Lebanon. His introduction came at sunset. “There it lay,” he wrote, “a tranquil sea or lake without water, if such a simile be admissable, with the day going down upon it: a few birds wheeling here and there: and solitude and silence reigning paramount around.” But Dickens did not care for the place and complained, “I could never abandon myself to the scene, forgetful of all else; as I should do instinctively, were the heather underneath my feet, or an iron-bound coast beyond; but should often glance towards the distant and frequently-receding line of the horizon, and wish it gained and passed. It is not a scene to be forgotten, but it is scarcely one, I think … to remember with much pleasure, or to covet the looking-on again, in after life.” This was not an English landscape; nothing about it evoked Dickens’s English instincts or located itself in his English experience.