April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
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.
Behind my grandparents’ house, the house in which I was born, rose a high pasture, little used in my boyhood and then only for grazing a few head of cattle. Crowned by tall weeds and scarred by runoff gullies, it was my first prairie, the one that still drifts behind all my images and notions of that phenomenon even though it was only forty or fifty acres bounded by timber and bean fields. Perhaps, technically, this Missouri pasture was not a prairie at all, but its vegetation reached nearly shoulder-high during my crossings to and from school, and its abundant life—bumblebees, bull snakes, blue racers, meadowlarks, quail, foxes, rabbits, groundhogs—brought color and excitement to my daily journey. And, too, it provided an ideal vantage point from which to watch the green-stained violence of a thunderstorm or the gray-white curtain of advancing snowfall.
While a high school student, I helped, for a time, tend a small patch of Iowa prairie that a museum in Davenport was trying to reestablish. I cataloged the grasses, did a pocket gopher count, and eagerly gathered evidence of any addition to its population.
Ultimately such experiences produced more longing than satisfaction and generated a growing desire to comprehend the real thing in all its immensity rather than some neatly fenced acreage surrounded by cultivated land. I wanted to sense how this landscape would have appeared to Americans 140 years ago.
Virtually no one can cross this country from east to west without a confrontation with prairie. It endures in a variety of forms and expressions, from small parks tucked around Chicago to enormous preserves established in Kansas and Oklahoma. And, too, the cultivated fields and pastures that dominate the landscape between the Mississippi and the Rockies, though profoundly transformed, remain an expression of prairie, revealing qualities inherent in the place regardless of what grows or feeds on its surface.
Like that of most contemporary travelers, my prairie experience, as an adult, has been limited to that of the cross-continental driver, rushing from one side of the United States to the other and entering with dread the long, dull sameness of Kansas or Nebraska. While the prairie facilitates fast and uninterrupted driving, it requires deliberate engagement to be appreciated, a willingness to be slowed, stopped altogether if it is really to be seen. It is, as its settlers have testified, not a place to be taken lightly. Our vision must be refined, trained for the long view, and yet made alert to nuances of light and movement. Everything I have read, everything I remember, suggests that the prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.
It is hard to imagine now, but when U.S. expansion, moving at the incredible rate of as much as eleven miles a year across a thousand-mile front, crested the Appalachian Mountains, surged down the western slope, and rushed through the eastern timber zones, crossed Kentucky and Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana, and at last jumped the Mississippi, a pioneering life that had served Americans for the better part of two hundred years faltered and broke in the presence of a landscape without precedent in either our New World or our Old World experience. Two centuries of contending with forests of such scope and grandeur that they seemed eternal brought us at last to a vacant wilderness, virtually treeless, where the very terms of life differed so dramatically from what we had known that we could describe it only through contradictions—a sea of grass, a desert garden. And for more than a generation, Americans viewed this expanse, greater in size than the vast wooded regions they had just crossed, as some huge ocean separating east from west, itself no place at all.
The pioneers who had pushed the frontier across the eastern third of the United States had, for the most part, been looking for breaks in the forest, places where they could settle and begin cultivation with the least amount of effort for the greatest return. But the “log cabin zone”—the domain of this old approach to settlement—ended when our ancestors left the Eastern forests behind, ended, at least, until the mountains of the West had been crossed and settlers entered the more familiar landscape of the Oregon Territory, a landscape more amenable to the tools and institutions of the East. Thus Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century, like many of their 1980s carowning counterparts, crossed the continent’s interior as hurriedly as possible, clinging to established trails, following their guides, and looking straight ahead to the Rocky Mountains. In this place they felt more vulnerable, exposed, than at any other geographical point in the American experience.
The Jesuits who entered by way of the Great Eakes 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.
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.
The park at Rockford only hints at the prairie Dickens encountered. It points to the beauty and variety of plant life, witnesses to the riches that the deliberate observer can discern, but ultimately the prairie’s power, the power that troubled Dickens, lies in magnitude, a magnitude both of what there is and of what there is not.
Along miles of Illinois highways, the grass is no longer cut but grows, instead, wildly and unevenly. Signs declare the unmowed vegetation a consequence of conservation, not miserliness or neglect. Similar signs have begun to appear throughout the Midwest, part of a growing effort to reverse the eradicating work of mowers and herbicides, to allow remnants of the old grasslands to reassert themselves, and to save such endangered species as running buffalo clover. Driving south toward St. Louis, I found myself continually aware of the encroaching right-of-way, pleased by the beauty of the full-grown grasses, but vaguely disconcerted by the ebb and flow at the edge of my vision.
Immediately north of the expressway, to the west of State Highway 177 and south of Manhattan, Kansas, lies the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, an 8,616-acre tract of land that has never been plowed and is now overseen by Kansas State University. Seen from the back—its only public entrance is off McDowell Creek Road to the west—there was a sameness to it all. Pleasant enough country with its low, grass-covered hills, it seemed to me, as I drove past, the backdrop for something rather than the thing itself, at most an unobtrusive setting for the broad expanse of sky, a sky that the little Rockford prairie filled in its upward thrust. I circled, swung around from Manhattan, looking for a way in. Once entered, the Konza was transformed. There remained the distant vistas, the long, unbroken stretch of land against sky, but there was, as well, a vitality that the Rockford preserve could only suggest.
I could identify only a few of the plants that make up the Konza but have read the names given to prairie vegetation, a catalog that reads like a Whitman poem, a prairie litany: bluestem, needlegrass, Scribner’s panic grass, Indian grass, switch grass, Canada wild rye, dropseed, American slough grass, fawn manna grass, hawk weed, compass plant, prairie button, button snakeroot, fringed loosestrife, stiff bluntleaf bedstraw, Jerusalem artichoke, buffalo grass, prairie cat’s-foot, beard tongue, lousewort, bastard toadflax, locoweed, rattlesnake master, willow aster, blazing star, prairie rose, star grass, and oxeye daisy. The names testify to richness both of life and of imagination, suggesting the variety growing here. But the part of the grasslands we cannot see was what defeated the first efforts at cultivation. Beneath the surface a network of roots and rhizomes interlace to form a dense thicket of subterranean connections, over the millennia creating a sod so thick as to defy anyone who would turn it. Roots extended downward to depths of fifteen and sixteen feet, the thick growth aboveground equaled only, perhaps even surpassed by, what lay below.
This day in August, at noon, there were no shadows, nor, in the 104-degree heat, were there other people. A limestone house and barn marked the entrance, but a half-mile into the low hills and shallow valleys there was nothing but prairie. From this perspective a prairie is not a landscape that hurries the traveler on, but rather one that slows him. Its immensity, its apparent visual redundancy, makes pointless a rush to somewhere else and creates an overwhelming suspicion that there is nowhere else.
If Dickens found this sensation troubling—a reasonable enough reaction—I found it comforting as well. In time the prairie calls us away from a headlong horizontal dash and invites repose.
Time and again I found myself motionless along the path, unsure of why or when I had stopped, but rooted, watching and listening. No breeze stirred, and where the path swung close to a grazing area, even the cattle seemed immobilized by the heat. Everything was subdued. Still, the swells of grass moved, drifted ever so slightly back and forth as though the earth were breathing, and after a while a sighing could be heard, so soft as to be almost imperceptible, rising and falling with the vegetation. With each vague turning the grass spoke and the colors and textures of the landscape changed. The dry, baking heat rose from the ground as much as it fell from the sky; the air shimmered above the grass; and the grass continued to move like a listless sleeper for as far as I could see in this immaculate light. In a thicket of sumac and wild plums, insects began to whine. I brushed against a bush, and a cicada, thick-bodied—half blunt head—and still shiny green from its recent metamorphosis, blundered against my arm.
In the midst of so much life, it is difficult to remember that throughout the first half of the nineteenth century mapmakers identified this area as part of the “Great American Desert,” following the lead of such explorers as Zebulon Pike, convinced that treelessness and desert were synonymous conditions. Life surrounded those early visitors, but it was not a kind of life with which they felt comfortable, and so they were inclined not to regard it as life at all, but as some perversion of what they thought nature, naturally, to be.
The first question raised by a place like the Konza is, Why are there no trees? Thomas Jefferson, always eager to account for everything, suggested that fire was the answer, that fire kept encroaching forests at bay. Josiah Gregg, in The Commerce of the Prairies (1844), offered, as evidence for this hypothesis, the trees that fringe prairie rivers and streams, seeing in those waters fire protection rather than nourishment. Further, he argued, where the “devastating conflagrations have ceased their ravages,” timber is already advancing into the old barrens.
In contrast, Horace Greeley returned from the prairie fifteen years after Gregg and declared that far from yielding ground, “the desert” was “steadily enlarging its borders and at the same time intensifying its barrenness.” This he attributed not to fire but to winds whose velocity prevented the growth of timber.
The circuit-riding missionary John Mason Peck, in his A Gazetteer of Illinois (1834), noted the presumption in asking why there are no trees on a prairie. “We might as well,” he argued, “dispute about the origin of forests, upon the assumption that the national covering of the earth was grass.” Grass, not fire or wind, was the decisive factor, he insisted, asserting that “where the tough sward of the prairie is once formed, timber will not take root. Destroy this by the plough, or by any other method, and it is soon converted into forest land.” Only the plow, Peck claimed, could bring trees to the prairie.
Fire receives the vote of the people who wrote the Konza Prairie pamphlet, and fire, carefully managed, is a part of the Konza’s maintenance program. But it is the Flint Hills, a two-county-wide strip running south from Interstate 70 down into Oklahoma, that most resembles the terrain burning in America’s best-known portrayals of prairie fire, the paintings of George Catlin. There, in the late-afternoon light, I could see the rounded slope down which Catlin’s braves rush on horseback, barely escaping the flames and smoke. Neither is it difficult to imagine buffalo on these hills, in part because much of the land now belongs to cattle, diminished reminders of the earlier inhabitants, and because it seems, like the arctic tundra, a place prepared for great migrating herds. It is easy to picture a rough brown line interposed between the lines of blue and green. Even the house-high rolls of hay seem designed for larger beasts than those I saw seeking shelter in their shade.
In large part because of the buffalo, the notion of desert eventually yielded before a notion of an American garden, and some Americans began to suspect what Coronado had suggested: that an ecosystem that could sustain millions of head of buffalo had, in fact, an unequaled life-supporting capacity. So in 1857 William Gilpin—that sometime soldier and politician and, above all, tireless promoter of the West —declared, “These PLAINS are not deserts , but the opposite, and are the cardinal basis of the future empire of commerce and industry now erecting itself upon the North American Continent.”
In time the enthusiasm for cattle, the most obvious analog for buffalo, gave ground to a cultivating impulse. Farming adapted to the tallgrass prairie, then to the higher plains, bringing with it a new agricultural technology and creating a new culture as it transformed both the North American grasslands and the food market of the world. After the Civil War, a war fought in part to determine what culture would prevail in the prairie states, the old American desert became the foundation of a very different nation. Its agriculture differed from that practiced in either the pre-war North or the pre-war South, and its physical presence, which just a few decades earlier had merely separated east from west, came by the end of the century to be what held the two together and provided the cohesion for a restored Union. It had become, however, a transformed place: the buffalo gone, the surviving Indians herded onto ever-shrinking reservations, the lower prairies plowed under, the high plains either grazed by cattle or given over to winter wheat. And it was as well a transforming place, changing the institutions and laws that had emerged from the timber zone earlier in the century to serve the realities of a new landscape and culture.
The Flint Hills, like the grasslands of Oklahoma, remain cattle country, the wide expanses have continued in grass, and in Oklahoma’s Osage County, north of a line running from Pawhuska to Ponca City, a vast tallgrass prairie preserve has been proposed by the National Park Service. If approved, the preserve would contain around one hundred thousand acres in a tract more than ten times larger than the Konza.
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.
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.
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 Gather 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. … Givilization can best be effected when the country is hedged in by narrow boundaries.”
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,” Gather 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 Gather 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.