April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
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.
As soon as school was over, all the little girls were off to the woods. A crowd of us together, in jackets and caps and rubbers, went flying down the cold, muddy road. We must go to the woods nearest town—a small oak grove, belonging to some mysterious farmer, hedged in with a rusted barbed-wire fence from a pasture where fierce cattle were popularly supposed to wander. Some of the most venturesome of us would lie down in the withered leaves and roll under this fence, careful of mud holes where the cattle had stepped, to find a bloodroot. All the little paths were buried deep in old brown leaves. The limestone rocks had a cold, wet smell. Moss was beginning to thicken on them; and in shallow holes were water, dead ferns, and new, bright leaves. There was something ancient and fresh at the same time, something that subdued our shrill voices as we poked about among the leaves and mould to find the first wake-robins.
It was different on those days when I drove out with my mother in the buggy. Then, while the two women found plants for their baskets, I went softly about alone, never out of call. They used to let me get a drink for them at the spring. It flowed out from under the limestone. The ground about it was trampled and wet. It made a dark, bright pool under the rock, with one long ripple in it, then flowed out bright and shallow into the creek. There were white clamshells under the water. I had to step gingerly upon the stones that lay half in the pool, brace myself against a rock, and lean perilously over. I drew out one of the shells from the sand where it was half embedded, held it to the ripple until it was washed clean. It was mysterious and wonderful to dip it into the water and drink, feeling the chipped edge of the shell against my lips, the cold, clear water. I always had one drink from the shell—a secret with myself—before I carried a cupful to my mother.
They always brought something good in the basket. Sandwiches and an apple, a piece of homemade cake. We found some dry place and ate them. I lay back on the sun-warmed grass, trying to make them forget that I was there, listening with a dreamy intentness to the grown-up talk.
All my memories of the spring woods come together in one May day when four of us went with baskets to gather flowers for the church—four, and a collie dog. We met at the little wooden bridge over the creek near a pasture. I remember waiting, leaning on the scarred, battered rail carved all over with initials. A cool air came up from the water. It swished the long grasses and gushed into silver over the rocks—shallow, rushing, making a clear springtime burble. . . . The little town lay off to the west, impersonal and strange, a picture I was looking upon—the white houses motionless among the trees, the brown road rising in the distance, a wagon rattling slowly along with an old man bowed over the reins on the high seat. . . . There was a sense of vastness in the way trees were set here and there on the sweep and slope of the great earth, their trunks so still, their upper branches blurred with buds moving against the blue. On the south, the soft, smooth swell of the rolling pastures, earth-brown, pale green, emerald, and from them, birds calling in long-drawn sighs of peace. . . .
There was a wooden fence-gate to open and fasten again with an old wire. A little trampled path led over the swell of the low hills. I followed it, after the others, feeling my face grow warm and damp under my hat. I saw how they stepped eagerly and softly, on the lookout for flowers. I stopped on the hilltop. My skirts stirred slightly, blew back. A joy strained at my heart, like a tree pulling at its roots in a spring wind. The air was divinely fresh, the sun warm over us, the earth sweet under us—the swelling fields, the bird song, the motionless, sun-drenched sweetness. . . .
I could see the other girls bending over, moving a little, kneeling as in the motions of some strange, slow dance. They beckoned. They were finding buttercups, short-stemmed, shining and yellow, making sudden happy patches of gold among the bright green grass. They aroused in us the lust of flower-getting. We stepped warily, wide awake, eager now.
Then there was the moment of getting surfeited with bloom, the secret, lonely moment when I rested on the spring grass, leaning on one hand so that it pressed down against the cool, damp grass roots. Blossoms lured me—one almost white, big and frosty pure, one of a deep purple-blue. Old thoughts came over me, but faintly, like a shadow—no more than the shadow of a cloud across the pasture.
It was a different feeling down in the woods beside the swimming rock: cool and shadowy after the fresh prairie openness of the pastures. A chill, fine breath came from the creek, from the limestone rocks fringed with new green ferns. It was almost tremulously still. Down below was the dark shine of the creek.
There were wood violets here, smaller, a deeper purple, half hidden in nests of dark heart-shaped leaves. There was a jack-in-the-pulpit. I felt guilt, a loneliness, when the others dug up the plants with little trowels, putting them, wrapped in moist black earth, in the basket. We wandered far from each other, led on from blossom to blossom. At each new discovery would come some faint far-off call.
There were bloodroot leaves in a cold, watery place. I leaned over to touch the snow-white blossom. The six white petals fell apart like great flakes. … In a little patch of bushy timber a whole nest of anemones, pinkish, delicate, clear as bells on their hairlike stems, blowing in the sunny air. … I held up the fence wire and crept into a little hollow where the cattle’s hoofs had left watery circles in the black mud, and there, close to the bushes, were pointed dogtooth violets, frosty and white and crisp, just flushed with pink at the. petal tips. …
When we met again, our baskets were filled with pale green crisscrossed stems, masses of pink and blue. We walked back, down the brown, dusty road. We went into our cool kitchen and sat there, eating fresh bread and honey like the queen in the nursery rhyme. Our flowers were in water, filling the house with spring. We were warm, tired, happy, satisfied, with a woods smell on our clothes and a fragrance in our hearts.