Our little free library has been a hit for exchanging reading materials in the neighborhood, but until recently it hadn't yielded a book that really piqued my interest. When a hardback copy of John Madson's Where The Sky Began (Bur Oak Book, 1982) showed up last week, I dived in to see what he had to say about the American prairie. He had a lot to say, and he said it well and with an unmatched passion for the subject. The book (I haven't managed to finish it yet!) is full of nuggets-- botanical, historical, and sociological. As an example, I've seen my share of prairie remnants over the years (I'm a Duvick, after all!) but I can't say I ever tried to extrapolate the few acres at a time I saw to what must have been an ocean's worth of grass at the dawn of the Westward expansion. Madson quotes a number of early travelers beyond the Mississippi, and their various reactions to what they saw. Some were ecstatic; others, disgusted. It's important to note that at this time, the whole Eastern region was still predominantly forest land, and Madson speculates (as reflected in his book title) that the unmitigated openness of the prairie landscape was repellent to some who had lived their whole lives under the leafy Eastern canopies (although these were rapidly being clearcut for agriculture and timber-related progress, and their extent and depth are now just as much a legend and a dream as the prairie realms).
It's possible to get a small taste of the prairie close to home. After you scale 'the big hill' going north on the Saylorville bike trail, you wind your way through sunny dips and turns along an oak-hickory margin that slopes back down towards the reservoir and forms a backdrop for prairie plantings. The colors and textures are enchanting in early August.
Then you ascend a sloping path towards a large-ish prairie restoration overlooking the lake beyond. The lake, of course, didn't exist in those older days, but the prairie land could well have.
I'm savoring the aforementioned book, as I am savoring these sights and smells of the early August landscape-- not wanting it all to end too soon. Eventually I will have to examine my conscience about putting the book back in the little free library to share it further... so I may just have to order a copy to keep.