trembling prairie

A prairie is by nature trembling, being made of grass. The phrase seems to describe an interesting quality of optical illusion, that rising shimmer over a vast expanse of disparate entities, which, in the tumbling liquid motion of the wind, gives a panorama the appearance of a single living thing. A couple of lines from Paul Hoover’s “At the Desiring Vine” capture the term’s primary meaning: “We’re decaying gracefully, thank you,/as shaky as a ‘trembling prairie.’” The reference here is to instability beneath the apparent ground, as with the Seminole word okefenokee, meaning “land of the trembling earth” and the given name of a peat bog region on the Georgia coast. The term is commonly used around freshwater and brackish coastal marshes on the lower Mississippi. Experts at the Center for Environmental Communications at Louisiana University explain that these are a special form of marsh, called flotant by the locals and often referred to as la prairie tremblante, a floating marsh not anchored to the ground beneath. It consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat; typically, there is water flowing below it, over a layer of clay covered with oozing soil. In 1899, George W. Cable wrote in Strong Hearts of “a maze of marsh islands—huddling along that narrow, half-drowned mainland of cypress swamp and trembling prairie, which follows the Mississippi out to sea.”

Susan Brind Morrow