The Prairie: From Vast to Vanished

Sarah W. Oelberg


Even as the people changed the prairie, by plowing and tilling and bringing trees to their homesites, the prairie changed the people. The prairie and the vastness beyond it were uniquely American. The men and women who settled there were also unique, or became so. They were new people in a new land, and to the European, such people and land had not been known before. The struggle between humans and this vast land was fierce and long. But aided by John Deere's sodbreaking steel plow and other technological tools it would appear that humans have gained the upper hand. Certainly in terms of acres under cultivation and species reduced the score stands heavily in our favor. However, riding on the winds of a prairie blizzard, the land still occasionally strikes back to remind us that we had best keep up our technological guard or suffer the consequences. In addition, stories of the ashen skies of the thirties serve as a constant reminder that technology may not be enough if we too far overstep our bounds.

—Mystique of the Prairie, by Daryl Smith

For whatever reasons, good or bad, I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound—a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.

This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it. But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is an how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one person, or in one generation. Surely a person would have to be almost dangerously proud to think themselves capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt. And that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.

—The Hidden Wound, by Wendell Berry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . Bright, clear sky, today, tomorrow, and for all time to come."

Thus begins O.E. Rolvaag's great novel, Giants in the Earth. It is a story about Norwegian immigrants, not unlike those who settled here in Minnesota and started Nora Church in Hanska, when they first experienced the vast prairies which made up the great plains. The vast waves of rolling grass reminded them of the sea they had left behind, but, for the most part, the land seemed very inhospitable to those early immigrants. It would take a long time for them to adapt to it, and even longer to feel that they were a part of it, and it was part of them.

To the Lakota peole who lived here when the immigrants came, the plains were very different. As one of their genesis myths states: "Our legends tell us that it was hundreds of years ago since the first man sprang from the soil in the midst of the great plains. . . . One morning a lone man awoke, face to the sun, emerging from the soil. He looked about, but saw no mountains, no rivers, no forests. He kept his face toward the sun, and in time the rays hardened the face of the earth and strengthened the man and he leaped about, a free and joyous creature. From this man came the Lakota nation and, so far as we know, our people have been born and died upon this plain; and no people have shared it with us until the coming of the European. So this land of the great plains is claimed by the Lakotas as their very own. We are of the soil and the soil is of us."

The great American prairie was once a landscape covering 750,000,000 acres in the middle of our country. Its prime features were grass, sky, and space. Before the coming of the white man, all this grass had to interruption save the great rolling rivers, and the trees that grew along the rivers' courses. The area that makes up the present Prairie Star District of the Unitarian Universalist Association was mostly tallgrass prairie. Its most notable feature, at least from the distance, are the great grasses—indiangrass, switchgrass, cordgrass, and big bluestem, with roots going down six or more feet into the earth, and plumes rising ten or more feet into the air. These grasses are the redwoods of the prairie—tall, majestic, ancient.

The explorers who first say the prairie had varied reactions to it. Some saw only unending sky and grass, an spoke of its monotony, its inhospitable nothingness, its unprotected bleakness. Others felt drawn to it, and saw in it a beauty that they often described quite eloquently. One observer wrote that the prairie stirred in him an emotion toward God and his fellow creatures. . ."It was like a great green sea. On every side the earth heaved and rolled like the swell of troubled waters. Birds, flowers, grasses, clouds, wind, and the immense expanse of sunny prairie, welling up into undulations like a woman's breasts turgid with milk for a hungry race."

In a sense, we are all of the prairie. Those of us who live in this district have a bit of the prairie in our souls. To some extent, it is also in our genes. Scientists tell us that 14 million years ago a pre-man called Ramapithecus came out of the forests of Africa onto the tallgrasslands of that continent and had to learn to stand upright to see over the tallgrasses to observe his enemies and to hunt. Ramapithecus continued to develop, until he became human—it was the grasslands that started him on this evolutionary process.

To those of us who were born on the prairie, whose ancestors have lived here for generations, the prairie has a deep, intimate effect. We are all shaped by landscape and inheritance. There is something that draws us to the environment of our forefathers and mothers. We become who we are, to a large extent, by where we become. We cannot claim, as the Lakota do, that we are of the soil and the soil is of us, but something there is that makes the prairie part of our being.

My English Unitarian ancestors, afte a two-generation stopover in New England, came to northwest Iowa in the 1850s and settled there. My parents and grandparents were born there. I, too, was born on the prairie—in Kansas—where I lived for ten days. For the first forty-odd years of my life I lived many places, but not in the prairie region. Yet, when I moved to Iowa sixteen years ago, I knew I had returned "home." I felt a comfort, a connection, a confidence I had not felt anywhere else. I sensed that the prairie was part of my being.

I am most content when I am literally in the 15 acre piece of virgin prairie that my great, great grandfather set aside when he broke the sod 135 years ago, and which has never been plowed or mowed or grazed in all that time. If I were there now, I would marvel at the grasses, high enough to hide a covered wagon and team of horses making their way through to the west. I would notice the different configurations of leaves, and stems and seeds on the dead plants and look for signs of their inevitable renewal. I might even get down on my stomach and look for some of the tiny hidden "belly flowers" that nestle amidst the residue and often stay green all winter long under the snow. I would search for the pale-pink, waxy petaled Pasque flowers, the first native flowers of spring: nature's promise and gift of resurrection. While doing so, I would surely encounter some of the rare insects that exist only in such virgin areas. I might lie down for awhile and let myself blend into the prairie community. Then I might flip over on my back and watch the clouds roll by overhead. If I were very lucky, a storm might be developing in the west, and the wind would rustle through the dry grasses, the horizon would be a steely grey, and the distant elevators in the nearby town would glow with an enhanced luminescence. If I were truly blessed, I might be treated to a sound and light show as streaks and sheets of lightning put on their show, punctuated by the booms and rumbles of thunder. There is nothing that could make me feel closer to creation, to nature, and to my heritage.

Most of the early settlers in the prairie, like my ancestors, had lived in America for a while, had experience freedom and democracy, and yet wanted something more. Many of the first pioneers in this region were the more liberal, even radical, members of society. They were the restless ones; the people who needed new chanllenges; he people who didn't quite "fit into" eastern culture. Many of them brought liberal religion with them. If you stopped by the table display put up by the Davenport church and looked at all the pins on the map of Iowa (over 200), you got an idea of the numbers of Unitarian and Universalist Congregations in that state alone before 1900.

But, although many came with their religion, they found that the prairie had an effect on them that changed it. The men and women of the Western Unitarian Conference, under the leadership of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, organized churches in the name of "freedom, fellowship, and character in religion." They started a complex left-wing versus right-wing polarization, known as the "Issue in the West," over whether there should be strict creedlessness in the Unitarianism; whether or not an "ethical basis" alone was enough for religious fellowship and action. The eastern Unitarians were appalled at the thought; and even some theistic ministers in the midwest denounced the Western Conference for wanting to ". . .create a new and different order of Unitarianism in the West. From the beginning," wrote Jabez Sunderland in 1886, "this new Unitarianism has shown an especially warm sympathy with the Free Religious Movement, and the Ethical movement; it has steadily sought to differentiate itself from the Unitarianism of the East as being something 'broader' and 'more advanced' than that; it has long been adverse to the use of the Christian name, and for a few years pas has been more and more distinctly moving off from even a theistic basis, until now it declares openly and strongly that even belief in God must no longer be declared an essential of Unitarianism."

Now, I wonder—could there be a connection between living on the prairie and adopting a "broader" and "more advanced" Unitarianism? Is there some correlation between a free, open landscape and a free, open people? Does the unfettered freedom of the endless prairie lead to a free and open search for truth and meaning more than the constrained, obstructed feeling of forests and mountains? Is there a greater tendency toward optimism when one can see far ahead? Does one tend to be more thoughtful and reflective in a prairie, with its silence—the way it makes a space for us in the midst of noise? Does the power and the interrelatedness of the parts of the natural world impact upon us so that we more easily see ourselves as part of the interdependent web when we stand in the midst of it? Do we get a more realistic sense of the proportions of things, and our place in the universe, when we can see the sky and the horizon as eternity? Does the gaiety of the prairie in embellishments of bright flowers and glistening grasses give us a sense of hope? Does the brightness of the open land, its qualities of light and space, instill in us a sense of wonder?

I think so. I believe there is a reason why midwestern Unitarianism is different from Eastern Unitarianism. I think that the experiences of people living on the plains and having to depend upon one another in order to exist contributed to our strong convictions in the worth and dignity of every living thing. I think it is no accident that Humanism was, and is, found more in the midwest than in the rest of the country, because people learned that, as awe-inspiring as nature can be, it is also fickle. It is tempting to believe there is no God when drought, grasshopper invasions, prairie fire, tornadoes, and floods destroy your means of livelihood year after year. And, when you live in close community with others, upon whom you depend for your very existence, the idea of human responsibility and the need for a strong ethical foundation and a just society becomes self-evident. I also think that coming to a new place, and having to try new ways to do things in this new environment opened people to embrace change and new ideas. Prairie pioneers learned the importance of women, for example, and found it difficult to exclude them or treat them as less than equal when they worked side by side, doing the same jobs as men. I suspect this is why women minister flourished in Iowa and surrounding states a hundred years ago in Unitarian and Universalist churches.

I am going to take a leap here, and suggest that this new, "more advanced" Unitarianism came about because those liberal pioneers confronted, and learned to live with, the prairie. I suspect that the vastness and the brightness and colorfulness of the prairie when it was in bloom from March to October, caused them to appreciate the expansiveness of nature, and of life. They were optimists, and the ideal of "onward and upward forever and ever," became real where people could see the landscape, the horizon, the sky as being endless. Yes, I can understand why, after a time on the prairie, these Unitarians would adopt a religion which seemed "broader" than that they left behind in the dark forests of the east. Like the Lakota, they found themselves a "free and joyous people" living on the great plains.

Now the prairie has been ripped apart and plowed up, and in the place of the waving grasses, we see only miles of corn and soybeans, or now, miles of bare earth—unless it is covered by water. The land looks naked, and raped, and uninviting, and I pray for the first little shoots to erupt to cover up its ugliness. The remaining tallgrass prairie has been reduced to tiny islands and some narrow strips along railroad tracks. It has all but vanished. And, it seems to me, the sense of hope and optimism in our liberal religion has all but vanished as well. Could there be a connection?

But there is much more to the prairie than just its spaciousness. The tallgrass prairie, because of the relatively abundant rainfall in the central lowlands, is the most intricate of the three kinds of prairie. It once covered 400,000 square miles, and was a teeming factory of life. It supported eighty species of mammals, three hundred species of birds, and thousands of insects, as well as over 700 different kinds of plants. It is considered by scientists to have been the most complex, yet the most balanced, ecosystem on earth. After the last great glacier, the tallgrass prairie evolved into a perfect balance of wind and water, plant and animal.

Professor Kuchler of Kansas University claims that the prairie is a community in climax—"it is so finely attuned to its environment and so perfectly integrated into the ecosystem that one can only marvel." We might even look at it as the ideal prototype for community—each species has found its identity, has established its rightful place in the system, and, without struggle, is free to evolve into the best that it can become. This is not to say that it is stagnant. Quite the contrary. There is still a very dynamic, interactive and cooperative community going on—many species are dependent upon and contribute to other species—geology, botany, soil chemistry, wind, fire and water must all be in some sort of balance.

To me, that sounds like the definition of a healthy church. I think the concept of the integrated, whole and wholesome "family farm" kind of community Shannon Jung has spoken of comes from the experience of the early settlers on the prairie. They saw the succession of plants, the interrelatedness of all the elements which made this ecosystem continue to exist and produce without failure or interference, the interdependent web of life at work. And that served as a model and metaphor for community. Mary Safford, one of the women ministers in Iowa said, "Religion is morality on fire with love for humanity and whatsoever is pure and true and beautiful. It can be expressed only in terms of life." It has meaning only as it is lived in community with others.

But at the same time that the prairie is a model of community, it is almost past the point of being able to be a model for anything—there is simply not enough of it left. It has been "downsized" nearly to the point of extinction. And as we know from some of our congregations that have suffered the same fate, (coincidentally?) the smaller the communities are, the harder it is to keep them going. Small communities are more apt to suffer from outside forces; they are much more vulnerable.

When our ancestors saw the prairie, it seemed endless and inexhaustible. Its disappearance was inconceivable. Their concern was not for the preservation of plants, but of people. Some early philosophers talked about the need to preserve nature, but they were mostly ignored. Thoreau, following the axiom that "every creature is better off alive than dead—men and moose and pine trees," argued that nature should have legal rights like oher things oppressed. Naturalist John Muir also recognized nature as part of the total created universe of which humnas were one small part; he felt nature must exist first and foremost for itself and its creator. "Would not the world suffer," he said, "by the banishment of a single weed"? Yes, indeed, it has.

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson talks about "biophilia," which he defines as the tendency of the human mind to affiliate with other forms and with the life process. He core of his thesis is that the human mind evolved in association with myriad life forms and needs them, even if subconsciously, for the continued survival of what he calls "the human spirit." It is a question of kinship with and respect for the ten billion "bits" of genetic information in even the humblest living creature. He claims humans belong, physically and psychologically, to both past and present ecosystems. In other words, we need the tangible presence of the ecological archetypes we grew up with in order to retain our connection with the earth and each other. If Wilson is right, the loss of the prairie is even more serious than anyone thought, for it means an entire ecosystem has virtually disappeared. It also means that even for those of us not raised on the great plains, the prairie is in our souls—part of our spirit, and insofar as it is destroyed, so is a bit of our soul. This could be the "hidden wound" that Wendell Berry talks about.

The wild tallgrass prairie must be allowed to seep into all of America's consciousness. From it we can reread our history and our character. It is important, therefore, that we preserve all that is left of it, and try to restore as much as we can, knowing that even the best restorations will be incomplete—too many species have already been lost. The loss of any natural community leads to a loss of spirit, and the crisis in ecology causes a break of the physical and psychological bonds with the land the Wilson says we need. We need the prairie because it is part of our personal past; we need a variety of plant and animal species because they are part of our continuity and hope for the future. We need to work, as Wendell Berry says, to heal the hidden wound within us.

We Unitarian Universalists in the Prairie Star District need to keep the prairie in our souls, and we need to understand how it has informed our unique form of religion. Perhaps we should tell ministers coming new into our district that, unless they can take the prairie into their souls, they will have difficulty ministering to us. Our well-being may depend upon recapturing the essence of the prairie—the heartland in our hearts. I know mine does.