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Barefoot

The first time Molly Rozum started telling me about the genesis of her book, Grasslands Grown, I said, "Molly, stop! You’re making me cry."

She was talking about the importance, to boys and girls growing up on the prairie, of going barefoot. And many of you hearing this know exactly why that might move me to tears.

Wallace Stegner, who grew up in southwest Saskatchewan, referred to this as “imprinting.” (He was influenced by pop psychology of his times, the 1950s.) Willa Cather, who grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, spoke of the “freemasonry” of children of the prairies, the catalog of common experiences that constitutes a sort of secret handshake among them.

Molly and I are members of that not-so-secret order who went barefoot, which is the first reason I celebrate with her the publication (by University of Nebraska Press) of her book, Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies. Another reason is that the work holds profound importance to thinking about the Great Plains experience.

Molly focuses on a particular generation of boys and girls who were “grasslands grown”--not the adult immigrants, but their children, the first settler generation raised on the prairies. They were the ones who fashioned the sense of place in the land.

“Children came to know the northern grasslands at a stage of life when physical stimuli proved especially powerful,” Molly writes. “Children’s bodies soaked up the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of wild grasses, wildflowers, wild animals, and the tamed grasses of modern grain agriculture. These children,” she goes on, “welded experiences and sensuous feelings into patterns of cultural expression.”

She puts it more powerfully yet: “Place entered the body through daily, physical encounter with the grasslands, grafting smells, touches, views, sounds, and even tastes of the land to the body and mind,” she says. “Daily landscape encounters interweave inherited cultures and environments into senses of place.”

Any questions? It is possible I cannot answer them, because we are talking about the transformation of things palpable--going barefoot, for instance, skin in direct contact with sandburs and stubble and soil--into something intellectual: personal identity associated with place.

If I am inadequate to convey all this, then perhaps we should just talk about animals. Animals, wild and domestic, “were ubiquitous” to the grasslands-grown generation, Molly points out. “Animals interacting with children “shaped their perceptions of the grasslands,” “helped introduce children to the life and rhythms of grasslands. Animals acted on instinct, and children followed them across the land.”

Personally, I file this under the category, “Why I love Labrador retrievers.” I have long argued that animals are mediators, something like saints, who lead us to knowledge of higher things. I realize that by going here, I am in danger of losing my Lutheran card. . . .

Children write about animals, and they draw animals --what a vivid body of evidence. And so I take down from the wall an art exercise drawn by my Cousin Bernice a century ago. To the backing she affixed a handwritten note, “My father’s cows: Rosie, Texas, and Lady.” Under that, some forty years ago, I taped another note headed, “What Bernice told me about Uncle Alvin’s cows.” Three cows.

“Lying down is Rosie, who had such a nice pug nose, like Dad always liked.” At right is Texas, orneriest of the trio. “Standing at left is Lady, who was ‘so nice and well-behaved.’” Now I’m going to pour myself another cup of coffee and just sit a while with Bernice and her cows.

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