In his poem “The Prairies,” William Cullen Bryant wrote: “These are the Gardens of the Desert, these / The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful, / For which the speech of England has no name.” The French named them prairie (meadow or grassland) from glimpses of the phenomenon in their central and southwest regions. The herbaceous makeup of the prairie was so diverse, each species extending roots as deep as its height, that even the frightful fires from lightning strikes, with flames forming tearing twisters a hundred feet high, couldn’t destroy it. Then plows came. An early passenger on a buckboard said, “As I looked about me I felt the grass was the country, as water is the sea” (Willa Cather, My Ántonia). This sea was later divided: tallgrass prairie, mixed prairie, and shortgrass prairie, all of which now exist only in tracts preserved by ranchers and farmers and bureaus of the government—although the lay of the land remains: as Tim O’Brien writes in The Things They Carried, “All around us the Minnesota prairies reached out in long, repetitive waves of corn and soybeans, everything flat, everything the same.”

Larry Woiwode