- 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
From Osage County I drove to Tulsa, a city once prosperous on the profits of oil and religion—both currently depressed industries. I wanted to visit the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, wanted to close my own exploration with the work of those who had committed the prairie to paint. It is a dazzling display: the strong horizontal lines—broken only by tepees—and the crystalline light of Jules Tavernier’s Indian Village; Alfred Jacob Miller’s Mirage on the Prairie, a wagon train being watched by two Indians. And there is a wealth of Catlin, the result of his tireless effort to picture cultures on the brink of destruction. Like the writer Francis Parkman, Catlin saw the prairie as a vast stage for tragedy, but unlike Parkman, he was captured by the energy of what he saw, and painted triumphantly rather than morosely.
The work to which I found myself returning, however, was by a painter I had not previously known, William Jacob Hays. A powerful evocation of what can only be described as an “animalscape,” his A Herd of Buffaloes is a panorama of beasts that have themselves become a broad river, complete with tributaries, flooding in a great brown surge.
There is in these paintings the special beauty of the prairie, something perhaps too subtle for those who looked only for the rise of mountains on the other side, for the more conventionally magnificent world we see in the work of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
Strolling under the oaks beside the Gilcrease, I thought of all I had seen. The prairie that I had been recovering was not confined to the parks and preserves but was as well, I realized, the land in between, the fields and farms and schools and churches and towns. When the first of our non-Indian ancestors got here, “There was,” Cather has written, “nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” That which, half a century earlier, was unsettling in its apparent lack of form had become, by the time Cather was writing, ordered and shaped, its boundaries asserted by surveyors and reinforced by barbed wire, its roads relentlessly following section lines until viewed from the air; the old chaos had become, at last, the most orderly of American landscapes.
If that accomplishment speaks of discipline, the prairie also mirrors back an unspeakable wastefulness, an indulgence of enormous proportions. Within five decades the fifty million buffalo were gone, killed sometimes for just their hides or their humps or their livers or their tongues or for just the killing. With the buffalo went the Indian. This destruction, regardless of what we have made of the prairie, was a binge both wanton and senseless. And the excesses continue into our own time.
The judgment of the prairie persists for a people spoiled by plenty, a people who often appear incapable of restraint, unto whom much has been given and who sometimes seem determined to consume it all. And, too, it reflects a people who can find themselves even in apparent vacancy, can center themselves and each other in a strange new world and make that world productive beyond all precedent.
What we have done in this case could not be undone even if that were a thing to be desired. There has been loss as well as gain in the transaction. And the greatest mistake would be to oversimplify what we have experienced, misunderstand what we ought to have learned about the land, about ourselves, and about our need for limits. But most of all perhaps, we should learn a lesson in humility—that hardest of lessons for Americans to accept. When we got to the last place, the place that denied all our conventional assumptions, the place we said was not America, not even a place; in that place where the old native-born pioneers either turned aside or rushed ahead in search of more reassuring landscapes, we learned with the help of all those newly arrived Scandinavians and Germans and Russians— whose names appear on prairie mailboxes and businesses —all that we yet know, good and bad, about the heart of America.