Have you ever found a spot on earth where you dream of just laying back and breathing in the sweet significance and savory fragrances of life? Where there are no worries? No pain? With just the soft shuffle of leaves in the oaks above and the prairie grasses all around, with the singing of birds, and perhaps a chorus of peepers from the fen in the valley below … all in harmony in a moment of time?
The late prairie essayist Paul Gruchow called these “empty places,” although they’re really not all that empty. As he writes in his book, The Necessity of Empty Places, “We are drawn toward wildness as water is toward the level. And there we find the something that we cannot name. We find ourselves … ”
In other words, empty places may also be “filling places” for the soul. This is how I see a small oak savanna at the base of my country road … which has as it’s official designation, “County Road 9,” or as the dispatch folks call it, “770th Avenue” — a country gravel known around here rather more poetically as “Upper Meadowbrook Road.”
It wasn’t long after moving here to Listening Stones Farm that I became entranced by this small savanna. Located on a hilltop just down road apiece, it has a mere handful of burr oaks. When turning onto Upper Meadowbrook, my eyes are instantly and naturally drawn toward this quaint savanna. It’s like an interesting woman who draws your interest away from all others in a crowded room.
Part of the attraction is the tall ridge, a rill created and left behind perhaps by the Glacial River Warren. The ridge itself curves north toward the beginning of the Upper Meadowbrook prairie where my small farm is located. At the very apex of the ridge stands a single burr oak. The sentinel. Down the hill a bit are the neighboring trees, creating a sweet cluster, a neighborhood that speaks of both brutal strength and poetic beauty. A small piece of life where Gruchow warns that “ … nothing is sustainable and permanent. Maybe that is the beginning of wisdom.”
The ridge angles further down the hill into a rather narrow and perhaps violently created valley, for the neighboring hill is likewise steep and cut close. Across from the savanna on the adjacent and stranded hilltop sits a small, pre-built cabin placed there by my dear rosemalling artist friend, Karen Jenson. Just beyond Karen’s cabin is a ravine etched into the flattened prairie that stretches several miles eastward.
Here the prairie lands must have yielded to the rapid violence from the melting glacial waters to leave behind this cut of a ravine that is now home to numerous deer, wild turkey and undoubtedly dozens of unseen fauna species. A stream can be seen draining into an enticing wetland, with a lengthy, low-angled waterfall that empties an overflow into the fen stream. On the adjacent hills guarding the ravine are a couple of staunch oaken savannas, each numbering many more trees than the one I’ve chosen to claim as my own.
Meandering in from the north of the small savanna is another small stream that starts high up in the farm fields and abandoned household groves before cutting through the hillsides to create the fen stream at the base of the ridge of this small savanna. Nearby to the south, state DNR crews are cutting away the invasive trees to restore the original fen in the state park land. Without the highway and byways, and before humans like me, this entire “empty place” would have been so interesting to discover and explore.
I suspect the view from my seductive little savanna is stupendous. Especially at sunrise. I’ve passed the ravine more times than I can count on my early morning forays with a camera. I’ve rarely been let down. To the right of the ravine is a sloping, grassy pasture where wild turkeys come in the spring to fluff and prance, and deer are often in the meadow to graze.
Behind the sentinel oak is a view across a wide, vast valley that stretches across to the sweeping hills of the South Dakota Coteau. Big Stone Lake lies within that stretch, along with the prairie meadow and the continuing fen within the confines of Big Stone Lake State Park. From the sentinel tree you could watch the dawn rise through the distant ravine to the east, or catch a sunset painting the hilly Coteau in the glow of pre-darkness.
Then, there is this small savanna itself, on the defining ridge in the midst of it all. Over the years so many images have been made of it, with and without whitetail deer, with and without wandering wild turkeys; with intense sunsets and quiet, satiny mornings, with and without the glitter of a hoarfrost.
This hilltop savanna is still a wonder, however, for I have not actually hiked the ridge, nor have I eased up against the sentinel or laid in the prairie grasses on the hillside slope. This isn’t mine to use, yet I am constantly seduced by its beauty, this small savanna that always catches my eye as I leave from my prairie land farm, or return from afar. This is my glance of beauty across what could be a crowded room — a mystery of the unacquainted, those masked truths of the unknown; those elements of a dream-scape we cannot name.