What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass …
My windshield and passenger windows often offer dreamy drive-time visualizations of what a sea grass of prairie might have looked like. They say the big bluestem grew so high and thick that it wore through the toes of a horseman’s boots in a season of riding. Such landscapes, those vast seas of grasses, are no more.
Nor can you photographically capture a horizon of a wide prairie sky with a native prairie stretching toward focal infinity. More common is a foreground of 20 to 40 acre remnant with a mix of Indian grass, side oat gamma, big bluestem and seasonal forbs with a field of row-cropped acres draped across the horizon.
A friend dismisses the entirety by saying, “It is what it is.” Crops and cropland are necessary, yet so is a balance that is missing in this altered ecology that is slowly being eroded away.
I’m new at this prairie watching. Yes, it is big sky and horizon. Most days you can see the very top of a grain elevator in some rural railroad town a dozen miles in the distance. Maybe even a water tower at half that distance. A prairie also offers views that are close and personal. Yet it is a prairie without prairie, a land mass naked of its namesake.
When photographer Brian Peterson was working on his book, “Voices for the Land,” he admitted struggling to find a way to photographically define this vastness. One day he felt he had captured a sense of it not through an image of big sky and horizon, but rather in a photo of a small ant climbing the stalk of a cone flower. Yes, there is sky, along with four other cone flowers in the photograph, yet he focused on a small, intimate detail to define an undefinable landscape. Some claim it is practically impossible to accurately portray the vastness of the prairie, to portray that vastness in contrast to individual insignificance. Perhaps they’re right.
So we look at parts of the whole, at ants on cone flowers, or other symbols.
A prairie is not just defined by the grasses, but also the winds that ruffle and bend them. Ah, the wind. Curators of the area county museums can usually put their fingers on letters from the wives of sod busters describing how the wind became so unbearable, of how someone, perhaps the letter writers themselves, “had lost their mind” from the constant wail of the wind when there was so little to stop it. Especially in the dead of winter, a mind lost while huddled for warmth in sod huts and remote farm houses.
Yes, there is that rumble and roar of blizzards, but there is also a hush when grasses rise through the snow as in defiance of that rumble and roar. My wish has been to get a feel for the prairie when winter it isn’t quiet, when raging winds whip grasses with a vengeance. Then again, to return to portray the hush.
Although we have lived on this dispatched ecosystem for 22 years, this is my first to really concentrate on the prairie in winter. Twice I’ve driven off the farm yard during wind-whipped white outs to two different restored prairie remnants, including a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), to take pictures. In the scheme of seasons, winter is supposedly a quiet time, a rest perhaps, for the prairie. In winter, green isn’t evolving through dead and dormant grasses, nor is there a punctuation of color from blooming forbs in a blanket of green, nor are the acres of golden grasses painted by the fall sun being whipped and bent by autumn winds. So in that sense, winter is the season of rest despite the turmoil of arctic winds.
On one of those forays, with the sun muted by driven snow, the grasses of the Clinton prairie yielded to the winds, yet captured enough snow to create sea-like drifts. Enough snow was being captured that you could see a depth of perhaps a hundred yards … which was impossible on adjacent tilled fields. It was a wild moment in the “rest” — a wail that could cause one to lose their mind with a long exposure, for this blow continued for two to three continuous days. Cold and continuous.
A week or so later, on a late afternoon, the hush of both the prairie and wind had returned. There on a clear and windless day, in the captured depths of snow, in both stem and shadow, were wind poems that spoke of silent secrets.
Perhaps if we listen closely these poems may speak an endless and epic story, one our cultures of settlers, sod busters and industrial farmers have failed to silence. If you look close enough to find wind poems, and take time to listen close enough to hear those silent secrets. Take a moment, however long, and be quiet, however silent, and simply listen.