PRAIRIE WOODS AND WILD FLOWERS

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To most people, prairie country is farm country—big fields of corn and oats, rolling pastures with lone trees standing on the slopes. But when the virgin timber that originally covered the river valleys was slaughtered to make room for corn and cattle, homesteads and town sites, good bits of it were left, down along the creeks and river bottoms, under the crests of low hills. These are the prairie woods, where farmers turned loose their cattle and where country communities held Sunday-school picnics and Fourth of July celebrations. Every town had its woods close by—“Somebody’s Grove,” or “down by the creek.” “Going to the woods” was an institution with which prairie children grew up.

Trees have their own significance on the prairie. When they stand solitary—a big oak outlined against the sunset or a wild plum in bloom on a pasture slope—or when they stand in groves, seen across the swell of plowed fields, a thick dark brushwork on the very rim of the world—always they gain meaning because of the prairie setting. To go from the prevailing big openness of air and sky and sunlight into the coolness, depth, and mystery of the woods, where all kinds of wild things grow haphazard instead of in the neat, planned rows of the worked land, is to savor the natural variety of the prairie country.

The woods of my own prairie state, Iowa, are as characteristic, in their way, as is the farm land. To my taste, there is a nice blend of the tame and the wild in the woods of Iowa. This is characteristic of Iowa woods: smooth, rounded slopes with fine, long green grass; open spaces through which the sunlight falls, gracious and wide; trees—white oaks, large and well spaced, bur oaks in clumps, elms standing apart, scatterings of nut trees—hickory, walnut, butternut—with their double leaves, casting a patterned shade; a brown creek that bites its way through banks which cave in on either side; a boy sitting on the bank above a pool, fishing for bullheads; whirring insects, calling birds, cattle cropping a hill slope; wild gooseberry bushes, bitter-smelling white yarrow, clumps of catnip, clover humming with bees; elderberry in bloom, with its creamy green-white tufts of flower-lace; close by, a wet clayey place rank with weeds, nettles, vines, where one must “look out for snakes”; deeper still, a thicker woods, with high undergrowth and trees tangled with wild grape and cucumber vines.

In my girlhood, one could never forget the closeness of the woods. Around old-fashioned houses grew the transplanted wild flowers: bluebells, bloodroots, violets, spring beauties. (For prairie woods and wild flowers go together.) It was the women of my mother’s generation who lived close to these things. In those days, some woman hitched up “a good safe horse” to the family buggy and drove out into the woods for wild flowers for her garden beds. I remember the whole scene —the mild and gentle horse with its fearful driver, the buggy splashed with the mud of those unworked country roads, the iron step with its little edging of hard dried gray mud; the two women, in old jackets and hats resurrected from attic boxes, cotton gloves on their hands, my small self squeezed in between them; in the back of the buggy, baskets lined with newspapers holding a knife and a trowel—one of them, however, holding a lunch. There was the feeling of a long, leisurely spring day ahead; the slow trot of the horse; and everything all ready, back home, to get supper in a hurry when the ladies returned.

“Going to the woods” began with the first day of spring, when pussy willows budded down by the “crick.” A day came when people left the windows open in the bank and the doctor’s office, even in the millinery store, where all winter the Misses Brady had huddled by the stove in fear of drafts. Farmers, on such a day, drove into town with their buffalo coats thrown open, the smell of spring mud on the wheels of their wagons. I remember such a day, in late March, when we went to the spring for water cress: a soft, dark rainy day after a mild winter, the pasture slopes still dead brown, trees bare, the creek narrow and brown and chill, and the mats of water cress that filled it green, cold, the leaf edge tinged with purple, chilling our reddened hands with an icy freshness. In school we children, dreamy-eyed, kept turning to see the maple branches spread out upon the blue sky, fringy with half-opened reddish buds. After school, we were out looking, first for the windflowers, then for the bird’s-loot violets that grew in great patches on the old burned-off places along the railroad tracks. Offerings now appeared on teachers’ desks: pussy-willow branches that kept lipping over the tumbler; bowls of furry, blue-purple windflowers opening out to show their yellow centers, the stems silky, glistening, gray-green under water, making little bubbles; then bunches of violets, Dutchman’s-breeches, wilted and drooping from little hot clutching hands. Some country child brought in a bunch of rare and sought-for cowslips. You could pick up a limp violet here and there that a child had dropped.