- Historic Sites
A hundred and fifty years ago, a sea of grass spread from the Ohio to the Rockies; now only bits and pieces of that awesome wilderness remain for the traveler to discover.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Early Sunday morning, with the temperature already in the high nineties, I drove out of Pawhuska on U.S. 60, drove through more grazing land, flatter than that to the north, still made up of hills but of hills that had been drawn out, elongated. The length of grass varied, cropped short where the grazing had been heaviest and most recent, but jumping to five feet along the fencerows. A scattering of oil pumps labored up and down like huge, clumsy cranes, dipping their heads to drink, lifting them to swallow, and dipping once more. A buzzard circled overhead, equally unhurried, content that dinner would not run away. Often, at a fence corner, the wire had been drawn into a circle, then filled with rocks, an anchor against the weight of cattle and of time, and, like the limestone fence posts of central Kansas, another ingenious response to the idiosyncratic place.
Swells of grass drifted ever so slightly back and forth in an immaculate light.
I turned north toward the towns of Carter Nine and Shidler on State Highway 18. The grass, almost at once, asserted itself. Eight-foot clumps of bluestem grew along the road, erasing the horizon, their thinly branched seed tops filtering the sky in a lacy filigree. The waxy blue-green stalks gleamed beneath yellowing crowns. Meadowlarks sang from the fence posts, and, at the edge of a dirty stock pond stood an egret, white and long-legged.
Shidler is a town that lives on oil, a town that seemed in the Sunday heat to be dying, drying up. The Baptist and Methodist churches, to judge by the cars parked outside, were well attended, but empty storefronts on the main street and empty houses at the edge of town hinted at decline. Still, there was the sturdy, no-nonsense look of today’s prairie town, the knowing, unflinching face of a player who will not fold but understands the odds. It is a town where the children will go elsewhere to have their children.
North of Shidler I turned east onto a gravel road lined with tallgrass. No cattle had cropped the vegetation. I stopped the car, climbed over the fence, and entered a field of bluestem higher than my head. Twenty feet from the road I could see only grass, and that indistinctly. I could not keep my eyes in focus. The grass closest to my face blurred what stood behind. The layer upon layer of swaying stalks and seed tops were dizzying and forced my gaze downward. I knew where I was, how to reach the car, but sensed, nonetheless, the dislocating power of tallgrass. Graceful, hypnotic, and enervating, the constant motion of thousands of independent forms blotted out all sense of vacancy in an overwhelming assertion of possession. Later, as I watched from grass that came only to my waist, the prairie’s movements created an elaborate cross-hatching, a complex choreography with myriad groups of dancers moving according to their own height and thickness. There seemed an inclusive pattern, but one intricately woven from hundreds of distinct rhythms, yet all somehow coordinated in a larger whole. As I walked back to the road, a burning smell rose from the pollen broken free by my passing.
Travelers who only look to reach the other side may find its special beauty too subtle.
I remembered George Kendall and looked up his words when I returned to my books. A journalist accompanying an ill-fated 1840s expedition into the Southwest, Kendall described the confusion and despair he experienced when separated from his party. “You must recollect,” he concluded, “that there, as on the wide ocean, you find no trees, no friendly landmarks, to guide you—all is a wide waste of eternal sameness. To be lost, as I and others have experienced, has a complex and fearful meaning. It is not merely to stray from your friends, your path, but from your self. With your way you lose your presence of mind. You attempt to reason, but the rudder and compass of your reflective faculties are gone. Self-confidence too, is lost—in a word all is lost, except a maniacal impulse to despair, that is peculiar and indescribable.”
This was a landscape that threatened dissolution. As the Nebraska novelist Willa Cather declared, “Between the earth and sky I felt erased, blotted out,” as in some awful variation on the medieval nightmare in which the traveler who has successfully crossed the Atlantic comes, half a continent later, to another sea and this time falls off the edge. There were those, including Senator McDuffie, who thought that more than persons could be lost in such terrain, that a young nation could lose its way and be diverted from its appropriate route. “You cannot civilize men,” McDuffie argued, “if they have an indefinite extent of territory over which to spread. … Civilization can best be effected when the country is hedged in by narrow boundaries.”