Prairie: In Search of a Lost Continent
has a breathtaking skyline.
I admire its soaring heights and dizzying abysses.
Looking out onto Lake Michigan and then back at the city,
I am swept away by a vision of immense space.
In Lincoln Park, alongside the lake, stands a monument
to the American Indians. It depicts a couple, but this man and woman do not scan the
lake's horizon as I do.
They look away from it,
toward the vast West.
their gaze, I drive westward on perfectly straight streets
with infinite vanishing points. I pass shopping malls and drive through
suburbs with one-story buildings on geometrically outlined
plots of land with neatly cut front lawns, one after another.
ask myself: What was here before "civilization"
took over? What do these two Indians see as they look
westward from their pedestal?
the Nature Museum of Chicago, I learned that Illinois
was the land of tall grass prairie.
"We have seen nothing like this river that we enter
(the Illinois), as regards its fertility of soil, its
prairies and woods, its kettle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards
(Canada Goose), swans, ducks, parquets, and even beaver.
There are many small lakes and rivers. [Jacques
Marquette, quoted in
Illinois, Prairie State: Impressions of Illinois
1673 - 1967 by Travelers and Other Observers," Paul
Schulenberg Prairie in the Morton Arboretum is the first
prairie I see. It was restored from scratch on former farmland. The seeds came from cemeteries and the
sides of railroads, the only places spared from the hungry
the prairies were turned into farms, they were perceived
as barren land. The prairies are one of the few landforms
that in their virgin state are considered a featureless
and monotonous sea of grass.
"What they thought was desert was actually
a diverse and complex ecosystem. "The settlers ordered
the vast space into square mile sections, divided it into
farms and cities, and made the desert bloom." ["Recovering
the Prairie," Robert F. Sayre (ed.)]
Painters of the Hudson River School neglected the prairies.
When 19th-century artists tried to paint the prairie,
they just painted empty space and a faraway horizon. The
Midwest landscape was not seen to be beautiful
before it became farmland, fruitful and domesticated.
the end of winter, the prairie is burned and the soil
blackened with the promise of rebirth. In spring, many
different grasses, flowers and weeds emerge from deep
roots. In summer, big bluestem grows six feet high.
By fall, the green vanishes from the plants and gives
way to muted shades of yellow and orange.
All through winter, the grasses withstand bad weather
and sway in soothing rhythms. The blue sky is cold and
the ground is covered with snow, but yellowish Indian
grass conveys warmth.
search of the original landscape of Illinois, I find Wolf
Road Prairie, a small nature preserve that was never used
as farmland and where the ecosystem closely resembles
that which existed 10,000 years ago. This place is teeming
with life. I feel deep joy while drawing an endless variety
of plants and crooked trees, handsome reeds and sunflowers
taller than men, butterflies flattering among them. There
is so much going on in there that I do not know what to
is this civilization heading?
place was too wet for farming, and in the 1970s, nature
lovers decided to save it from the threat of development.
grass prairie, along with savanna and woods at riverbanks,
covered all of Illinois and the Midwest only 200 years
it possible that a whole landscape could have been erased
to almost nonexistence in such a short time?
It was a landscape that explorers described with
scenery, already rich and pleasing and beautiful, was
still farther heightened by immense herds of buffalo,
deer, elk and antelopes which we saw in every direction
feeding on the hills and plains." [Meriwether Lewis,
diary entry, September 16, 1804, cited in "Undaunted
Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose]
scenery that was about me! "Even the soft tones of
sweet music would hardly preserve a spark to light the
soul again, that had passed this sweet delirium. I mean the Prairie, whose enameled plains
that lie beneath me, in distance soften into sweetness."
[George Catlin, in: George Catlin And His Indian Gallery,
Lake Prairie, south of Chicago, also helps me imagine
the landscape that prevailed in the Midwest not too long
for the first time, trees or housing developments do not
interrupt my view of the prairie.
My gaze can travel into the distance, where the
grassland melts into the vast sky. The prairie and an adjacent wildlife preserve
lie in a triangle among three cornerstones of our urban
civilization: a nuclear power plant, a chemical factory
and a refinery. Parts of Goose Lake Prairie were once
used as farmland.
One day I see a farmhouse lifted on a huge trailer.
There will be a new place for the house as the farmland
returns to prairie.
Americans had their movable villages in savannas close
to riverbanks, and hunted on the prairie.
They were sometimes cruel to neighboring tribes,
they often went hungry, and they died younger than we
did not, however, change the environment in which they
lived for thousands of years.
Fire causes prairie vegetation to bloom and grow richer
in the following spring.
the enormous glaciers of the Ice Age flattened the land,
they melted into rivers, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. These
became the basis for the rich savanna and prairie ecosystem,
feeding a huge variety of species and has remained stable
for at least 10,000 years. Prairies, like forests, can
endure cold winters and hot summers. Scientists believe
that prairie became the dominant landscape of the West
because of fire. Fire does not harm the deep roots of
the prairie plants. On the contrary, fire causes prairie
vegetation to bloom and grow richer in the following spring.
must have been such a culture clash when white Christian
settlers from Europe first met Native Americans! While
the latter crawled into tents of birch bark or into cottages
made of reeds and grass, people in Europe had castles
and churches and lived in solid townhouses. City people
could read and write. They had a past and wanted to build
a future. They were never satisfied with what they had,
and were always heading towards something new.
Americans had a cyclical notion of time.
"Change and innovation are unwelcome and,
when possible, ignored. Thus an unusual action or happening...is actually the repetition
of some similar event in the past. In a like manner, all modifications of the natural environment
or the creatures in it are justified as a restoration,
a return to the original form as it is determined by the
Gods.... But for the individual, time was a linear quality,
a progress towards a definite goal or event, and it is
this linear concept of time, acknowledged in Christian
doctrine and especially in the concept of a last judgment,
that has characterized our European-American culture,
"While it is obvious that neither landscape (the
European-American and the Native American) was exclusively
loyal to one notion of time "-cyclical or
linear- it is no less obvious that the distinction between
them is -based on diametrically opposed concepts of reality
: timeless eternity, manifesting
itself in the yearly recurrence of the seasons; and time
as gift, to be accounted for when history finally comes
to an end." ["In Search of the Proto-Landscape,"
article by John B. Jackson in "Landscape in America,"
George F. Thompson (ed.)]
The vast grassland, called prairies (French: meadows)
does not exist any more. What is left is the basic formation of the land, now either
covered with concrete or turned into farmland. Nature preserves offer an opportunity to re-imagine an ecological
system that has been stable for millennia. The experience of being in these places nourishes the soul
and leads to protective thinking that is concerned with
Profile of Marianne A. KINZER