Growing up with the ocean ever present in my life, I couldn’t fathom living without it. The salty tang of the air, the lullaby rhythm of the waves, the restoring sandy walks–I couldn’t imagine or even desire living apart from its presence.
And yet, for the past twenty years I have done so. I traded the ocean for trees and mountains. The ocean is still a part of me, though we are now parted. There are aspects of my adopted environment that have also become woven into my person. I call this the sense of setting.
Because of my familiarity and connection with the ocean, forests, and mountains, I find myself drawn to reading about unfamiliar landscapes, and for some reason my list of setting interests includes an abundance of stories about the prairie.
Initially, I don’t think I could bear the flatness, the unyielding run to the horizon from end to end, nor bear the extremes of seasons and the monotony of view. This is where the marksmanship and craft of writing happens. Writers, poets, authors portray the prairie in such a way I find myself surrounded by the grass, the wind, and witness vicariously the openness and beauty through another’s eyes. The sense of place.
Recently two writers have presented their sense of place, their love of the prairie so profoundly, my paradigm has shifted. I now understand the fullness of this unique setting, and respect it and perhaps even admire it, which replaces my former disdain. True writing, the skill of a wordsmith can do this.
While I have read many prairie pioneer books in my life, Laura Ingalls Wilder being the first, my most recent read is Willa Cather. She provided readers with a portrait of the midwest through her trilogy Oh Pioneers, My Antonia, and Song of the Lark. A memorable passage from My Antonia:
Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
Cather presents both the starkness of the prairie and the greatness. The plough represents the solitary efforts of those who tried to tame the vastness of that flat, grassy expanse, and while the abandoned plough could have been viewed as sad or even tragic in its loneliness, Cather displays it as heroic. And this is the view I now have of the prairie. It is like the ocean in its vastness, its grasses the tide upon the land. Those who worked it by tilling the land, navigating its immensity with their ploughs, horses, and tractors are much like those who navigated the ocean with their own crafts of boat, steamers, and ships. Both land and sea represent the need to explore the unknown and forge a living from it.
Another view comes from today’s Poem-a-Day offering:
Poppies on the Wheat
by Helen Hunt Jackson
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,–I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.
I smile, too, grasping the juxtaposition of frivolity of the simple flower merged the purpose of the land.
I may never go to Kansas or Nebraska, but I can say I have traveled to their prairies.
- Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice (nybooks.com)
- Poppies… on a sunny day (loiselden.com)
- Cather makes NYT front page (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- “She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” (vtpanther.typepad.com)