Tallgrass: where we became ourselves

prairie at Oak Valley WMA, Nebraska

Tallgrass prairie at Oak Valley Wildlife Management Area, near Battle Creek, Nebraska.

In an earlier post I talked a little about the importance of getting to know the land where you live. Today I want to say just a bit about the region where I happen to live, the prairie states of the central US.

I’ve lived in tallgrass country my whole life, though in fact very little prairie remains —- because what’s good for growing big bluestem and buffalo grass is also good for growing corn (maize to most readers outside the US). Virgin tallgrass prairie is a rare find, and is almost never found in a piece large enough to give it its natural scale and biodiversity.

Prairie is best seen up close anyway. From a distance it can look like a whole lot of nothing if your eyes are used to trees or buildings. Only close at hand do you see its detail and complexity. Crouch down on the windiest day and the air becomes perfectly still —- together the individual stems are that strong —- and your horizon is reduced to just a few feet in any direction, cut off from the outside world by a wall of vegetation more dense than than a forest.

“It was tall grass that made man stand up: to be on all fours, to crouch in a six-foot-high world of thick cellulose, is to be blind and vulnerable. People may prefer the obvious beauty of mountains and seacoasts, but we are bipedal because of savannah; we are human because of tallgrass. When I walk the prairie, I like to take along the notion that, while something primal in me may long for the haven of the forest, its apprenticeship in the trees, it also recognizes this grand openness as the kind of place where it became itself.”

—William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth (1991), p. 28.




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