Book Review: Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie: A Nebraska Year by Paul A. Johnsgard

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Review by Jack Phillips

Title: Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie: A Nebraska Year
Author: Paul A. Johnsgard
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie: A Nebraska Year by Paul A. JohnsgardOn a sunny October morning I sat in my favorite Omaha coffee shop with a strong Ethiopian, waiting for the day to warm before my weekly botanical walkabout. Purely by chance my literary coffee buddies were Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: Second Series and Paul Johnsgard’s Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie: A Nebraska Year. Reading multiple books together indulges my wont and creates some interesting conversations. Paul and Ralph have a lot in common across more than a century, and together over coffee seemed to agree on what I needed most to hear. Ralph began:

There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches her perfection; when the air, the heavenly bodies and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring.... These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather which we distinguish by the name of Indian summer.

These words read easily that morning. Here in the Plains, we can use all the halcyons we can get, and a warm October day helps. But Ralph did not seem to have any pressing engagements; he wrote long essays with long sentences filled with ethereal images and all the time in the world. His vague halcyons were “everything that has life.” For Paul Johnsgard, those halcyons are immediate, bodily, and local:

... there is boundless joy in sitting quietly among prairie grasses along the Platte River with an azure sky overhead and a chorus of crane music drifting down from a thousand feet above. As the silvery-gray birds wheel gracefully about in a giant vortex of life and call excitedly to one another as they descend to their safe and ancestral resting places in the river, I too know that I have witnessed my personal Elysium.

A halcyon or elysium can be a dream-like image of bliss—other-wordly and immaterial. Not for Johnsgard. His Elysium is akin to that of Homer, the ancient Greek poet who provided a location and directions (just west of the Okeanos River; if you reach Hades, you’ve gone too far). Johnsgard’s elysia (sometimes nirvanas, if one can pluralize either) come with specific directions as well: on the Platte River south of Gibbon, the prairie near Denton, the loess mound north of Cedar Bluffs, the wetland below Kingsley Dam, and other very real but unlikely places. He even finds the mythic thunderbird in a falcon named Zeus, the bringer of beauty, pleasure, and hope if not rain, right in downtown Omaha.

If you are reading this review, you might be wondering why I am using coffee and Emerson to interpret Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie. Even though Johnsgard is clearly one of the world’s foremost and most-published ornithologists and a leading expert on North American wildlife, he writes downstream in American natural history; Emerson writes at the headwaters. To write in this tradition is to directly or unwittingly strike up a conversation with Emerson. Nonetheless, the lasting influence of any nature writer begins in a specific time and place and like coffee beans, bears the colors and flavors of local earth. For the clearest voices in this tradition, nature is not an idea to be contemplated but a concrete reality to be encountered and engaged.

Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie reads like the landscape to which it is devoted. This prairie-prose is open and spare, richly textured and colored in subtleties, complex without complication; it is a broad meander with true north always in view. (They contrast with the essays of Emerson the forest-dweller that require the reader to sometimes double back to find the way forward.) I thought it might be strange to read literature like landscape, so a few days later I sat down in my favorite Lincoln coffee shop with a strong Tanzanian and my friend Aubrey Streit Krug. Aubrey, a UNL English instructor and PhD student in literature and Great Plains studies, indulged my comparisons and invoked the “reader-response theory” of literary criticism. Johnsgard writes with clean, plain, Great Plains simplicity that provides the framework for the reader’s personal experience and imagination, or as Aubrey said, to let the reader make meaning.

Johnsgard’s framework is constructed with science, history, and politics. But it isn’t Paul Johnsgard’s elegant writing, honest analysis, and solid ecology that makes Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie so potent. It is what Johnsgard does for the reader, humanity, and the planet. For more than fifty years his clear Holocene voice has joined those of Pleistocene cranes to awaken the best parts of us:

In March 1962 I drove out to Elm Creek, then turned south to cross the Platte. Suddenly the fields were alive with seemingly endless flocks of sandhill cranes. Like Dorothy landing in Oz, I found myself in a world transformed. From that moment on I knew I would remain in Nebraska for the rest of my life and that cranes would become a constant leitmotif.

A half-century on, Johnsgard begins his latest book along the Platte River once again, not with a crane but with a Pawnee boy. In the deep time of legend, a time familiar to Johnsgard by way of animal guides, the boy was guided by a magpie to an aboriginal Oz, a Neolithic Elysium that prefigured Johnsgard’s magical vortex of sandhill cranes. In the sacred cave of Pahaku (near present-day Cedar Bluffs) the boy received secret animal wisdom and healing powers. The boy imparted power and wisdom to his tribe and opened a path to prosperity in harmony with nature.

Paul Johnsgard knows that primal path and invites us to follow him to the parliament of owls where eagles gather with a plethora of pelicans. We will hear the melodic proclamation of meadowlarks and the perpetual prairie-chicken chorus that “penetrates to some ancestral part of the brain, producing a kind of restful mantra that makes on believe that all is well with the world, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” A true naturalist, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, finds healing, hope, and perpetual youth in woods and prairies: “Nature says: he is my child.” Paul Johnsgard is that child, and he shows us the way forward. I finished my coffee, drove to the Loess Hills, stuffed Seasons into my field bag, and headed into the prairie.

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