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The Prairie: In Search of a Lost Continent

by Marianne A. KINZER

Chicago 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.

Following 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.

I ask myself: What was here before "civilization" took over? What do these two Indians see as they look westward from their pedestal?

In 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 Angle (ed.)]

The 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 plow.

Before 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.

At 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.

In 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 capture first. 

Where is this civilization heading?

This place was too wet for farming, and in the 1970s, nature lovers decided to save it from the threat of development.

Tall grass prairie, along with savanna and woods at riverbanks, covered all of Illinois and the Midwest only 200 years ago.  Was 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 amazement:

"The 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]

"Soul-melting 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, 2003]

Goose Lake Prairie, south of Chicago, also helps me imagine the landscape that prevailed in the Midwest not too long ago.  Here 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. 

Native 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 do.  They 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.

After 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.

It 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.

Native 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 ecological issues.

- . -

A Profile of Marianne A. KINZER

E-mail: marianneinternational@yahoo.com

This issue is dedicated to the legendary author and scientist Sir ARTHUR C. CLARKE for his 85th Birthday...


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