Tillage

You can­not tru­ly love liv­ing where the prairie used to be with­out con­stant won­der and sad­ness about how the prairie used to be.

The soil is the land, and the land is the only thing that has kept peo­ple here all these years. Every time the crops are har­vest­ed and the sur­face is turned over, the dark mat­ter of this place exposed yet again to the unfeel­ing ele­ments. I rejoice in the life that soil rep­re­sents and sup­ports. But I grieve, too, for all that had to per­ish to make this pos­si­ble.

Often, when I look across the wide expanse of cul­ti­vat­ed fields stretch­ing for miles in every direc­tion across the rolling land­scape, I try – large­ly in vain – to imag­ine what it must have been like here before: before the sur­vey­ors plot­ted the prairie vast­ness into a one-mile grid, before count­less plows turned over the tall prairie grass­es to reveal the dark earth hug­ging their roots, before the clap­board farm­hous­es with their dou­ble row of poplars and cot­ton­woods dot­ted the face of the earth here in the mid­dle of Amer­i­ca. Before noth­ing was left of where the buf­fa­lo roamed. Occa­sion­al­ly I can catch a glimpse: some pre­served patch of grass­land where I can stroll through, run­ning my fin­gers through the switch­grass and big bluestem, breath­ing in the tire­less wind, lis­ten­ing to the trill of the mead­owlark and the aque­ous call of the red-winged black­birds.

Some­times, if there is a bit of a dip, I can lose sight for a moment of what is all around, block out the view of farm sites and row crops, and see only wav­ing grass­es and sky. It is sort of like imag­in­ing a fab­u­lous cake from the few flakes of ossi­fied frost­ing that are left on the serv­ing plate the morn­ing after the par­ty. Not even a taste, just a very dim glimpse for the very imag­i­na­tive.

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