When I drive across the North Dakota landscape I often think back to what the grasslands would have looked like a couple hundred years ago. No farmsteads and fields, oil wells, transmission lines, etc. Needless to say, the landscape has changed. But thanks to some old written records as well as more recent descriptions, we can get a sense of what that landscape looked like.
O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth is a classic novel about pioneer life on the prairies of Dakota Territory. The book opens with this description of the prairie: “Bright clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon ... Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.”
Then later the immigrant wife Beret opines: “This formless prairie had no heart that beat, no waves that sang….the infinitude surrounding her on every hand might not have been so oppressive ... if it had not been for the deep silence, which lay heavier here than in church ... could no living thing exist out here, in the empty, desolate, endless wastes ... How could existence go on, she though desperately? If life is to thrive and endure, it must at least have something to hide behind!”
While at Fort Stevenson in the 1860’s, De Trobriand recorded observations of the landscape in his diary : “The plateau stretches out uniformly to the east and west for great distances until it finally merges with the sky ... There is nothing especially picturesque about all this. The character of the countryside is completely desert-like; space and solitude ... Nothing here suggests limitation.”
John Madson puts an interesting perspective on prairie in his book Where the Sky Began-land of the tallgrass prairie: “A man could stand in a small grove of virgin white pine of the same size and feel that he was in primeval forest. Not so with prairie. To the average man, a scrap of native prairie is just a shaggy weed patch between cornfields. Prairie must have sweep and perspective to look like prairie. It is more than native grasses and forbs: it is native sky, and native horizons that stretch the eye and the mind. To be good prairie, really good prairie, it must embrace the horizons.”
That prairie landscape is hard to find these days. So, if you have the opportunity to observe it, stop and savor it! It could be gone tomorrow.