Over the Tall Grass Prairie

prairie1In the early 1970s my parents moved from Iowa to Seagate in Brooklyn, New York City.  At this time Seagate was nearly exclusively populated by Jews, so much so that I believed menorahs were Christmas decorations and didn’t understand why our house didn’t have one.

Women often tried to speak Yiddish to my dark haired, dark complected father, while my freckled WASP mother fielded questions about whether folk in Iowa still had problems with the Indians.

prairie2Problems with the Indians.  In 1973.  Bear in mind most residents of Seagate have been no further west than Staten Island, but still…

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The Midwest of America has a rather poor reputation, when it has any reputation at all.  Most people in the UK when I tell them where I am from say “Oh, right…that’s one of those middle ones,” in a disappointed voice because I am not from New York, Florida or California which are the only states most of them recognise.

Presidential election coverage gives the Midwest a different reputation as being that swath of Republican red which streaks through the country like a bloody wound (my two states Iowa and Illinois are nearly always the solitary splotches of blue on that map by the way).

prairie4Even our fellow Americans seem to look down on us as being that enormous thing which prevents them from enjoying a shorter LA-NYC Red Eye flight.

prairie5I used to feel the same way.  I would look around the endless miles of cornfields broken up only by endless miles of soybeans and just feel depressed.  Flat, boring, stupid Midwest.  Then a friend of mine told me to shut up and look up.  “Just look at that sky,” he told me.  “There aren’t very many places where you can so that much sky.”

prairie6I looked up.  He was right.  Midwestern sky is overwhelming.  It’s dizzying.  How could anyone not realise the world is round after looking up at that enormous bright blue dome?

prairie7My next revelation of the beauty all around me came when I began regularly biking along Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  In the early 1990s, an effort was made to encourage native prairie grasses and flowers to grow along the edges of the trail making a beautiful path for walkers, runners and bikers.

prairie8Signs were posted at regular intervals informing bikers, runners and walkers not to disturb the natural growth of the prairie.

Many other city planners and conservationists have worked hard to preserve the Midwest’s ecological heritage.  As my father explained to his granddaughters, in pioneer days there would have been tall grass prairie as far as the eye could see across most of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.  West-ward expanding nineteenth century Americans on horseback would have waded through it up to their chests.  The idea astounds them.prairie9

In the twenty-first century, nature reserves throughout the Midwest,including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, offer visitors an opportunity to see, smell and hear the history of the land.

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Look up, look down, look out on the beauty of the prairie.  An “alien” landscape to English gardeners (according to my Mother-in-Law), but as much a part of the Midwest as big sky and rolling cornfields.

All photographs taken at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge by Paul and Freya Elmer.