I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.
- Gretel Ehrlich, “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light (1987)
Eternal prairie and grass, with occasional groups of trees. [Explorer John] Frémont prefers this to every other landscape. To me it is as if someone would prefer a book with blank pages to a good story.
- Charles Preuss, Exploring with Frémont (1842)
The ocean of grass…is no longer what it was…
- John Graves, Introduction to Texas Sky (W. Meinzer, 1998), p. 11, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX
That was my country—Terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness.
- Georgia O’Keefe, Lovingly Georgia (ed. C. Giboire, 1990), Simon and Schuster, New York, NY
Sunset on the prairie! It was haunting, unearthly, lovely.
- Marian Sloan Russell, Land of Enchantment (1954), p. 22, Branding Iron Press, Evanston, IL
The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.
- Wayne Fields, “Lost Horizon” (1988)
I must describe it. Its physical characteristics are somehow close to the heart of the matter.
- Mark Helprin, “Mar Nueva” (1988)
There is no describing [the prairies]…They inspire feelings to unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt.
- John C. Van Tramp, Prairie and Rocky Mountain Adventures (1860)
The first experience of the plains, like the first sail with a “cap” full of wind, is apt to be sickening. This once overcome, the nerves stiffen, the senses expand, and man begins to realize the magnificence of being.
- Richard Irving Dodge, The Plains of the Great West (1877)
The disappearance of a major natural unit of vegetation from the face of the earth is an event worthy of causing pause and consideration by any nation. Yet so gradually has the prairie been conquered by the breaking plow, the tractor, and the overcrowded herds of man…that scant attention has been given to the significance of this endless grassland or the course of its destruction. Civilized man is destroying a masterpiece of nature without recording for posterity that which he has destroyed.
- John Ernest Weaver, North American Prairie (1954)
We look at prairie and we see a great emptiness, a void that staggers the psyche and leaves much too much room for a mind to wander.
- Randy Winter, “Nature Notes” (1987)
Loneliness, thy other name, thy one true synonym, is prairie.
- William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea (1905)
The plain gives man new and novel sensations of elation, of vastness, of romance, of awe, and often nauseating loneliness.
- Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (1931)
The question is always asked by the curious travelers who have crossed the Plains at Interstate speeds, “How can you live here without the mountains, the ocean, the woods?” But what they are really speaking to is their desire to “get it” right away. The sublime of this place that we call the prairie is one of patience and looking. There is no quick fix…If one is to understand the beauty of this place, the old answers just won’t do.
- Keith Jacobshagen, “Personal Journey” in The Changing Prairie (1995, A. Joern and K.H. Keeler, eds.), Oxford University Press
Then I discovered the prairie, and a slow healing began.
- Stephen R. Jones, The Last Prairie (2000), Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, ME
These eastern grasslands [of Colorado] lack Aspen’s panache and dazzle; they don’t dress the part of High Society in Denver, and have been misunderstood and mistreated accordingly. As a naturalist who finds vigorous grandeur in these grasslands, I resent their consignment to a lower social status. They are not loaded with flamboyant landforms, breathtaking rock sculptures, dancing waterfalls. Instead they have a sparse, sinewy beauty, full of character, that does not depend on a pretty face…oblivion may be the only way they will retain their intrinsic character and not be tarted up by come-on neon signs and gambling palaces…
- Ann Zwinger, Colorado (2001, D. Muench, M. Muench, and A. Zwinger), Graphic Arts Center Publishing, Portland, OR
A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever…
- Eliza Steele, Summer Journey in the West (1840)
There was something about the prairie for me—it wasn’t where I had come from, but when I moved there it just took me in and I knew I couldn’t ever stop living under that big sky.
- Pam Houston, Cowboys are My Weakness (1992)
…the silence out there was greatly favored by every kind of fugitive as was the open country itself…
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985)
I saw my Mother eagerly memorizing the Colorado red rocks, jagged peaks of her Boulder college days, greening and fragile aspen, purple lupine, and red Indian paintbrush blooming alongside the mountain roads. “Oh,” she murmured, “I was so happy here once.”
I wondered whether she had ever again been so happy. She would, of course, assure me that she had. But something about that longing in her expression as she breathed in the wild rampage of Bear Creek running springtime high and the wide horizon of perfect blue and big clouds gave me pause.
- Brenda Peterson, “Detours” (in A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West, Marlene Blessing, ed., 2002)
The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.
- Walter de Maria, “Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information and Statements” (Art Forum magazine, 1980)
The Llano Estacado was first described by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in a letter to the king of Spain in October 20, 1541: "I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues . . . with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . . there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."
On the prairie, what you are left with is the bare truth, the land pared down to the bone, the basic dirt and grass and sky that shape the lives that play out upon it.
- Tom Groneberg, The Secret Life of Cowboys (2003)
It is here, I repeat, that the voyageur feels most fully that he is gazing upon an unfamiliar land, for the realization of which no previous experiences of travel could have prepared him.
- G.D. Brewerton, Overland with Kit Carson: A Narrative of the Old Spanish Trail in ’48 (1993 ed., Univ. Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE)
…the great grasslands—also known as the Great Plains and prairies—test a person’s fortitude as few other places do…Yet mysteriously, almost imperceptibly…the Great Plains and prairies grow on you. (p. vii)
The vast grasslands appeared never changing but were in reality always changing. (p. 10)
Nowhere in the Great Plains does there exist a vestige of a naturally functioning grassland ecosystem, or even a close simulacrum, because the prairie ecosystem has lost not only grass, but also wildlife. (p. 19)
The factors responsible for the destruction of the grassland ecosystem have been so multi-pronged and so interconnected that it is difficult to know where an examination of them should start. (p. 52)
The conventional villain in the destruction of the grassland ecosystem is agriculture…[but it] is not so much that agriculture has converted 43 percent of the prairie biome to cropland but that it has fragmented virtually 100 percent of the entire prairie ecosystem. (pp. 52-52)
- Daniel S. Licht, Ecology & Economics of the Great Plains (1997, Univ. Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE)
While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.
- Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (1982 ed., p. 864, Viking Press, New York, NY)
…there don’t seem to be words, let alone colors, to do justice to the land and sky-scape that surrounds me.
…as empty as this place can seem, a person might never weary of looking at the land and sky.
- Kathleen Norris, Introduction to On the Plains (1999, Peter Brown, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY)
For a time again everybody wanted to live along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. A thousand people a week, a million newcomers in twenty years, they filled the high prairie from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs…They came first as visitors, gasping at the elevation, marveling at the sunset trip along fourteen-thousand-foot summits to the west, catching a Rockies game at Coors Field and arguing over whether home runs are cheap in the thin air. They imagined a life: skiing six months of the year…a half-acre lot of their own…Arriving from the East, the Front Range was the first place to drop your past, leaving it in the Great Plains dust.
There is no place where failure is so remote.
- Timothy Egan, Lasso the Wind (1998, Vintage Books, New York, NY)
The radio announcers often speak of the fall colors in the hills this time of year, and people drive miles to see them, but I always appreciate the subtle prairie colors too.
- Linda Hasselstrom, Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains (1987, Barn Owl Books, Berkeley, CA, p. 27)
It does seem indisputably clear to me that the encounter of Americans with the western landscape has been formative and profoundly revealing.
- Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (1992, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, p. viii)
…the still empty land beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes…
- Ian Frazier, Great Plains (1989, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, NY)
I must confess that I have a weakness of empty places.
- Tony Hillerman, “A Museum Etched in Stone” in Travelers’ Tales American Southwest (2001, S. O’Reilly and J. O’Reilly, eds., Travelers’ Tales, Inc., San Francisco, CA, p. 138)
Whenever I leave the agitated sphere of consciousness that comprises the likes of cities such as Albuquerque or Phoenix, and the mountains barrier themselves behind me, I feel a breath of fresh air moving in my soul. (p. xvi)
It is as if an enormous and moving consolation has been made out of emptiness and wonder. (p. xvi)
- Sean O’Reilly, Introduction to Travelers’ Tales American Southwest (2001, S. O’Reilly and J. O’Reilly, eds., Travelers’ Tales, Inc., San Francisco, CA)
The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie…The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses. Its sublimity arises from its unbounded extent, its barren monotony and desolation, its still, unmoved, calm, stern, almost self-confident grandeur, its strange power of deception, its want of echo, and, in fine, its power of throwing a man back upon himself.
- Albert Pike (1831-32, Journeys in the Prairie)
We have left less than one-tenth of one-percent of our prairie. The rest of it died to make Iowa safe for soybeans.
- Loren Lown (p. 139 in Richard Manning 1995, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, Penguin, New York, NY)
The tender plants, the sweet flowers, the fragrant fruits, the busy insects, all the swarming lives which had been native here for untold centuries were utterly destroyed…[The prairie] had vanished as if it had all been dreamed…The pigeons, the plover, the chickens, the vultures, the cranes, the wolves—all gone—all gone!
- Hamlin Garland (1899, Boy Life on the Prairie, p. 388, Harper and Brothers, New York, NY)
Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed.
- Wendell Berry (1972, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, pp. 68-69, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY)
This land has invested me with its personality…
- Linda Hasselstrom (1991, Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land, p. 89, Fulcrum, Golden, CO)
…boundless and beautiful / For which the speech of England has no name-- / The Prairies…
…Fitting floor / For this magnificent temple of the sky…
- William Cullen Bryant (1866, “The Prairies,” D. Appleton, New York, NY)
…The somber plain began betime to take / A hue of weary brown, and wild and wide / It stretch’d its naked breast on every side. / A babe was heard at last to cry for bread / Amid the deserts; cattle low’d and died, / And dying men went by with broken tread, / And left a long black serpent line of wreck and dead…
- Joaquin Miller (1897, “Pilgrims of the Plains,” Whitaker and Ray, San Francisco, CA)
…the joy of prairie lies in its subtlety. It is so easy—too easy—to be swept away by mountain and ocean vistas. A prairie, on the other hand, requests the favor of your closer attention. It does not divulge itself to mere passersby.
- Suzanne Winckler (2004, Prairie: A North American Guide, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, p. xi)
When Linda and I had planned our travels, we had allocated ten days for Colorado—five to be spent in the grasslands and five in the Rocky Mountains. The fact of it was that we spent nine days in the grasslands and one day in the Rocky Mountains. If this does not attest to the magic of the high prairies, I can’t imagine what does.
- Pete Dunne (1992, The Feather Quest: A North American Birder’s Year, Dutton, New York, NY, p. 222)
Soul-melting scenery was about me…
- George Catlin (1975 ed., Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, ed. by M.M. Mooney, Clarkson N. Potter, New York, NY)
It seems to be a constant contradiction of itself. It is delicate, yet resilient; it appears to be simple, but closer inspection indicates that it is extremely complex; it may appear monotonous, but it is diverse and ever-changing throughout the seasons.
- James Stubbendieck (1988, The Shortgrass Prairie, R.C. Cushman and S.R. Jones, Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder, CO, p. 92)
It is an environment where nothing comes between me, the sky, the horizons, and my dreams.
- Ed Butterfield (1988, The Shortgrass Prairie, R.C. Cushman and S.R. Jones, Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder, CO, p. 94)
What a thousand acres of compass plant looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo
is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
- Aldo Leopold (1949, A Sand County Almanac)
Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon. (p. 82)
And then I understood: I like this prairie county because of its illusion of being away, out of, and I like how its unpopulousness seems to isolate it. Seventy percent of Americans live on two percent of the land, but in front of me, no percentage of them lived. Yet, in the far southeast, I could see trucks inching out the turnpike miles, the turbulence of their passage silenced by distance. And I could see fence lines, transmission towers, and dug ponds, things the pioneers would have viewed as marks of a progressive civilization but which to me, a grousing neo-primitivist, were signs of the continuing onslaught. The view I had homesteaders would have loved, and the one they had of unbroken vegetation and its diversities I would cherish. (p. 83)
…while I’ve not lost my pleasure in wooded hollows, I’ve come to cherish absolute treelessness. (p. 199)
- William Least Heat-Moon (1991, PrairyErth, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA)
The mind fills the emptiness with speculation…
- Robert M. Davis (2004, The Ornamental Hermit, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, TX, p. 89)
There are people who think of the prairie as boring, and it is hard not to pity them. (p. 2)
Yet the more we love this place as it is, the more we feel the pain of what it so recently was. The wild prairie ecosystem is gone. And this tragedy is compounded by the realization that we don’t even know exactly what it is that we have lost. (p. 18)
- Candace Savage (2004, Prairie: A Natural History, Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC)
The wind will make you sick, they told me…It will blow your body out of balance. But I keep my balance against the wind. I lean into it and let it hold me, push me firmly upright. Wind blows sickness away from me, out of my head and lungs, scours my skin, empties that thick darkness between cells, fills it with cool, moving space.
- SueEllen Campbell (1996, “The Elements,” Bringing the Mountain Home, Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ)
On the plains, there is nothing to obscure your view of the sky, nothing to help you kid yourself that you will not die. That starkness is beautiful and awful, and completely irresistible.
- Sandra Scofield (2005, “Genesis” for “Indignities, A Memoir,” Writing on the Wind: An Anthology of West Texas Women Writers, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, TX)
…I am convinced that no matter where I go or what I do, pieces of the Great Plains will haunt me…
- Monica Teresa Ortiz, (2005, “Genesis” for “The Summer My Engine Died,” Writing on the Wind: An Anthology of West Texas Women Writers, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, TX)
From James R. Page, Wild Prairie: A Photographer's Personal Journey (2005), Greystone Books, Vancouver:
"Grasslands challenge our senses, calling us to open our eyes to impossibly broad horizons and then, in the very next breath, to focus on some impossibly tiny critter hidden in the grass."
-p. vii, Foreword by Candace Savage
"...prairie is embedded permanently beneath my skin."
"The analogy [of prairie] to ocean--featurelessness, vastness--was once obvious. Today, however, you need only backtrack on foot a few hundred yards to step into your car and rejoin the twenty-first century of highways, cities, and towns, and between them, great farm operations, corn or wheat to the horizon, monoculture at its most extreme. Everywhere prairies are contained."
To imagine nothingness, yes—
but so much of it?
And so—physical? Earth, horizon, sky, unredeemed
- William Wenthe (2004, “W. H. Auden, Leaving Lubbock, Texas, Writes a Sonnet” from Not Till We Are Lost: Poems, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA)
…I walk here and there, seeking open,
flat spaces against a sky up high.
I have discovered, too late, perhaps
that I always preferred the empty
more than the full
for breathing and forgiving.
- Teresa Palomo Acosta (2006, “The prairie farmland fields” from Between Heaven and Texas, W. Meinzer, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, p. 63)
The grasslands are largely undiscovered treasures of an important national heritage.
- Francis Moul (2006, The National Grasslands: A Guide to America’s Undiscovered Treasures, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, p. 7)
…it wasn’t long before virtually all of the Great Plains prairie ecosystems had been converted to something resembling, from an airplane, an elaborate game board.
- Allison Wallace (2006, A Keeper of Bees: Notes on Hive and Home, Random House, New York, NY, p. 125)
A passion builds inside anyone who spends time on the prairie.
- D. Showalter (2007, Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains, Skyline Press, Pueblo, CO, p. 21)
From Mary Taylor Young, Land of Grass and Sky: A Naturalist’s Prairie Journey (2002), EarthTales Press, Englewood, CO:
Maybe it’s my contrary nature that makes me love a landscape despised by others. (p. 9)
As the cool cease-fire period of early morning passes, the sun reminds me only too well who rules this land. (pp. 17-18)
…on the shortgrass prairie, where each tree is revered, the cottonwood is a blessing. (p. 18)
The prairie is not a land to tell its story easily. (p. 45)
The High Plains are semi-arid…In the tract-home twenty-first century, as in the sod-bustin’ nineteenth and for 10,000 years before that, water remains the great limiter on the shortgrass, the tyrant that will eventually determine how much life the region can support. (p. 99)
Where will we go to learn our lessons when the prairie is gone? (p. 100)
The Great Plains have been plowed, irrigated, overgrazed, planted with trees, depopulated of native wildlife, and built upon with cities and sprawling development. Though native plants survive in places, no natural prairie, functioning as it evolved to function, still exists. (p. 101)
…mere open space, a lack of trees, and vegetation that doesn’t rise above the height of a man’s head do not make a prairie…prairie refers to a natural community which, like a giant organism, is composed of a multitude, a sum total of its parts. It is a complex ecosystem of grasses, flowering annual and perennial plants, shrubs, a few trees, and a variety of wildlife, from the macro-vertebrate to the microcosmic. (p. 101)
Our view is horizon to horizon, far and free, and I revel in it. (p. 118)
My life in Colorado began as a journey to the mountains, but now it is to the prairie I most often turn. (p. 157)
Agriculture is not just the backbone of the High Plains economy, it is the High Plains economy. The 174,000 square miles of the plains—just 5 percent of the land area of the United States—produce 30 percent of the nation’s irrigated agriculture and 40 percent of its beef. Ninety-five percent of the water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer is used for irrigation. More than 99 percent of the land in some High Plains counties is classified as farmland. The plains are not a bioregion; they are a food production facility a quarter of a continent wide. “Don’t be fooled by all the fresh air and sunshine,” remarks National Geographic writer Erla Zwingle: “This isn’t ‘landscape’ any more than an office or a factory is.”- William Ashworth (2006, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, p. 45)