An essay written during the Prairie Writers Workshop, May 2010, at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, Neb.
Where are the hard edges when we consider this prairie before us? Perhaps a photograph would create the illusion of them: freezing a crystalline moment. But in motion, in real time, there are no real edges. Like Heisenberg’s particles—position and place and motion are not a unity. The edges of the prairie itself as a named formation are vague too. Its very name denoting “a little meadow” shows the lack of a suitable term. Those French trappers had known no such place to relate it to. Prairie is to place as impressionism is to art: it’s a genre of place.
Prairie skies are the most frenetic creatures, and truly their color and form depends entirely on externals; the angle of light rays, the dust, the nebulous ice crystals and vapors. A lone jet trail is so out of place, but it will soon be smudged and rendered part of the pastel skyscape. There go the people, I thought, that once rode the rails through Red Cloud. From that arteriole, cultures diffused into the prairie tissues of Webster County. The Swiss, the Bohemians, the Volga Germans, the Scots, the Brits.
Cather was trapped here for a time but found her lymphatic channel out through the barrel of her pen. As the ink flowed, so did the essences of this diverse place, finding a channel to the general circulation and immortality. And now a few people return to this prairie.
As clouds cast their moods on the ancient landscape below, ephemeral and leaving no trace, it is the precipitation they brought that worked and shaped this land most recently. I’m reminded of Cather’s commentary on human stories. Like clouds, no two exactly alike but the patterns repeating over and over. Pushed by the winds, the great equalizer of pressures and moisture in a Sisyphean task, one wonders, “how can it ever be still in one place and not another?” Human migrations follow these same whims, but for now Red Cloud appears to be a still place. Or is that illusory as well?
Winds brought the loess here, piled in drifts and sheets over vast ancient sea floors. Now the wind would carry it off as well but for the prairie. We forget how recent the prairie is: how Eiseley reminded us that flowers, and especially grasses, changed the world. Grasses use the wind as ferns had for eons, to disseminate propagules, but both pollen and seeds are new creations of high sophistication. Grasses are anything but simple. And in the soil they have set revolutionary roots. Roots that both bind and build a black, rich, living tissue. The loess itself is blond and uniform and sterile. Grass captures and imports new elements from above, the burrowers mix, the fungi share and bacteria compost. All is communality. Trees are like the many immigrants before and after Cather. A few find suitable but difficult purchase here, many other pass on or perish. They raid the prairie storehouse of nutrients and crowd out the natives. But they never truly adapted here, and never will until they listen to the ways of the prairie. Treasure and embrace diversity, be compliant yet steadfast, leave a better soil behind you.
Instead they brought edges; the plow, the rail, the fence line. They had to have edges or sanity sifted away as loess crept under their windowsills. Time had to be linear. Progress required a scale, however arbitrary. What struck Cather when she first saw her childhood home here? The edges and angles of it. Europeans brought edges and hardness to the prairie, the natives preferred rounded dwellings. Their earth lodges covered by the prairie, in accordance to their circular cosmology and the minimum of edge.
My attention is drawn to the variety of soft, pliant forms at my feet. The edgiest of all are the sedges, straight and three-sided (again, the minimum edges for nonrounded stem). But even these cannot resist a splay of soft and intricate flowers, asymmetrically placed to one side. Around these I see extravagance of form and color: the showy vetchling, the scarlet guara, the evening primrose. Even the names evoke beauty and emotion. Ah, but there is a patch of prairie rose, and surely here there will be sharp edges. But the thorns are few, and tiny at that, more like accents for the blood-red stem than armament. The petals are softness incarnate, with rich red margins, melding to white and pink taffy-like bases. Here they meet a circus of bold, butter-colored stamens like a tight cluster of flags. The olive leaflets have edges that defy linearity, like the edges of a chert arrowhead. On the underside, as adorns so many prairie plants, I find a soft pubescence. “I could comfortably lay down in this bed of Rosa suffluta,” I thought. So I did.
My repose brought upon me an astonishing variety of life: metallic green bees, curious hoverflies, varicolored butterflies and a few ballooning tiny spiders, as would occur on any random bit of prairie real estate. I decided that being prostate, or merely horizontal, was the proper attitude in which to appreciate prairies. Someday I must try this with my contact lenses out, with uncorrected, near-sighted vision. We are sometimes too reliant on vision. Closing my eyes I absorb the sounds, smells and tactile stimuli. I could hear and feel the vegetation moving, the hum of insect trespass, the melodic call of distant birds, the curious clicks of cricket frogs at some unseen distant spring. All this is merely air in motion, but rich in latent meaning. Set in motion by the collective metabolism of the prairie.
Beneath me I could imagine the burrowing and probing of Stygian life of the hypodermic layer. In mysterious, unseen ways I knew concretions were forming there. They are the closest thing to rocks in this prairie, but softer with no edges. They grow like little prairie eggs, some so large they were called by the Germans the Loess Kinder—children of the prairie.
I found one of these where a badger had excavated a gaping maw in a loess bank. It’s a fitting memoir of this day. I thought of their varied forms beneath me as I watched the cloud forms passing over me. Each one begins around a nucleus, be it a mote of dust, a tiny, intricate land snail shell, a shrew’s tooth, or a bit of bone. It grows under the influences of all around it, kind of like Cather. Stories, too, are concretions about a nuclear idea or emotion, with the same amorphous properties of similarity and uniqueness. But one difference remains. This concretion will grow no more but wear away. Stories can do likewise, but some are immortal. As for clouds: they bear watching.
Image Credits: Adrian Olivera