On the prairie, the background is the story. More than most other places, the vast grasslands of the Dakotas make us stop and look for a moment at open spaces and realize that they are far from empty.
Gretel Ehrlich says in The Solace of Open Spaces, “We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We gave only to look at the houses we build to see how we build “against” space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”
When driving “out west,” as people in my half of the country call it, the prairie is the part of the trip to be gotten through before you get to the good stuff, the mountains and national parks of the west. Yet on a recent trip to the prairie of South Dakota, I realized that the vast ocean of grass that stretch as far as the eye can see is a fascinating destination in itself.
We went on a tour of the Nature Conservancy’sSamuel Ordway Prairie Preserve. Aberdeen is the closest town, if you don’t count the really tiny farm communities in between. When the prairie was my destination, not something to be barreled through on my way somewhere else, I began to really look and found that the amazing grassland is teaming with wildlife, from tiny frogs and butterflies to birds and enormous buffalo, if you take the time to look at it. Actually, it’s hard to miss the buffalo.
To people who are used to city or suburban life simply to be in such a vast uninhabited grassland is amazing. In her memoir, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris talks about a friend who asked her what there is to see there. She responds, “Nothing.” And that’s precisely the point. So much open space—no telephone poles, buildings or trees and no people—is something rarely seen. It also struck how different one’s perspective on life would be, politically and otherwise, if you lived in such an area rather than a city.
On this 7,800-acre preserve, the Nature Conservancy staff manages a bison herd and conducts research on the plants and animals of this ecosystem, especially in relation to invasive exotic species. However, I was most fascinated with the land itself and the size of the sky. It would take a much tougher person than I am to live in this expanse, especially in winter.