The wild open spaces

By Joan Zwagerman
Special to The Progressive Populist

During college years, some of the states I traveled to or through included Colorado, Washington, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In each, the natives declared: "This is God's country," implying, of course, that the state down the road did not enjoy the Almighty's beneficence. Hearing this while in Minnesota and hailing from Iowa, the message was clear: "You live in God-forsaken land."

I used to believe it, too. I used to want to live in one of those wildly attractive places. While traveling through the Colorado Rockies, I envisioned it as a future home. The profusion of trees abutted by sheer mountain cliffs overlooking clear streams made me thirst to put down roots.

I never made it to the Rockies, but I did live between Seattle and the Canadian border for a time. The old TV tune from Here Come the Brides was true:

"The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle,

And the hills the greenest green in Seattle."

All the while I lived there, though, I'd sigh at the sight of an open field. Encountering Puget Sound made me homesick, although such large bodies of water were foreign to me. When I realized the mountains, the focus of my longing, were responsible for causing emotional claustrophobia, I took the first train of opportunity home. (Who cared if "the train" was a U-haul truck!)

Returning to Iowa confirmed an inescapable fact: I was marked. I was forever a child of the prairie. And I was glad. Now when I drive through the Iowa countryside, I see beauty and bounty, not blandness and desolation. I try to see the land as the sea of grass it once was. Some historical accounts tell how the vast stretches of grass and ceaseless wind drove settlers mad. But others, as though drawn by Sirens, fell under its spell.

In his book Grassland [Viking, 1996], author Richard Manning discovers this lure: "The solitude of the prairie is like none other, the feeling of being hidden and alone in a grassland as open as the sea." Which, it was, long ago. Before it was prairie, this land was covered by shallow seas. The grass was merely the water's grandchild.

Thus accounts for the inexplicable draw to Puget Sound. Primeval memory was at work in me, as in the grass.

Although the water is long gone, the sailing here is fine. Those early settlers in their "prairie schooners" tasted the salt and spray in the wind. They knew. The lilt of the land summons sea chanties from all kindred souls.

Still, it isn't always easy to imagine this land as pristine tallgrass prairie. Imagine what it must have looked like before corn and soybeans became king, before fences and telephone poles accentuated the divisions that parceled the sea into neat section acres.

Imagine grass taller than corn, grasses reaching twelve-foot heights. Imagine such a sea of grass, a sea of thick, impenetrable canes, a sea so dense it could drench any horse and rider. It could swallow any four-wheel-drive vehicle whole without so much as a belch of appreciation.

Which brings to mind the whole notion of appreciation. What is valued and by whom?

Iowa prides itself as the "tall corn state." The great irony is that European settlers mowed and plowed the grass under only to plant corn which is, itself, a grass. Nature's cycle doesn't continue so much as shift when humans impose their will on it. The elk and bison once native to tallgrass prairie were driven west to the shorter grasslands of the plains states until that, too, was plowed under and put to someone's idea of "good use." The Dust Bowl was no freak of nature; it was Man's hit-and-run accident. In the end, the bison were decimated and the elk fled to the mountains.

Was all this plowing and planting done as divine directive to subdue the earth? To make something of what appeared to be nothing? To prove we could? Which we did.

But when springtime storms kick up the wind and the sky turns gray-green with silt and broken promises, I wonder at what cost comes our proving ground.

Perhaps change is blowing in the wind. Richard Manning visited Walnut Creek Preserve, an 8,000-acre stretch of land south of Des Moines that is being converted to prairie. Surely this goes against the grain of many a farmer. (Pun intended, sorry.) Farmers are the most pragmatic of people. They have to be, and I imagine genuine disbelief and disgust might greet such a decision. Land, after all, is their livelihood. Unplowed ground is untapped potential.

And yet, if we use the land beyond productivity, into meaninglessness, we are reduced to lifelessness. The land is a trust, the land is legacy as well as livelihood. The land holds secrets, too, in trust, secrets we may have brushed aside for the sake of expediency.

So places like Walnut Creek are important not because they signal the wave of the future. Not because they can be used as a finger to point at the mistakes and excesses of farming. But because as Pauline Drobney, a botanist hired to work on the preserve, told Manning, "We as a species are lessened by the loss of unknown places."

The early settlers, hungry for their place in the sun, viewed this flat and open land as an apple ripe for the picking. Perhaps those first gardeners forgot that gardens are not simply means of sustenance. They are also places of wonder and mystery, and these sustain us, too. Those like Pauline Drobney see prairie preservation as vital to understanding our own place on the earth, a place that grows increasingly tenuous as we grow increasingly rapacious.

Joan Zwagerman writes from Alta, Iowa.

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