Prairie Song: Seeking Harmony in Our Relation to the Land

Autumn prairie grass © Ryan Klataske.jpg

“To see and know a place, is a contemplative act. It means emptyingour minds and letting what is there, in all its multiplicity and endless variety, come in." - Gretel Ehrlich

In the dead middle of the last finals week I would endure in college, sleep-deprived, empty-stomached, and mind-numbed, I climbed into my car without any particular idea of where I needed to go – “away” being the only direction I had in mind. About an hour later, I found myself on a prairie hilltop overlooking miles of dirt roads and acres of Kansas grassland. The south wind was blowing a spring thunderstorm across the blue sky.  I sat on top of my car watching the green of the grasses slowly saturate as the clouds formed a filter for the bright sun.  The longer I sat and watched, the dusty browns of the road, steely grays of the thunder clouds, and vivid greens and blues of the grasses came alive right under my eyes. The wind blew so hard it nearly shoved me off my perch multiple times. Upon recovering myself after one of these gusts, my eye caught a little clump of dry, browning grass dancing in the wind. I rested my gaze there for a few minutes, not knowing why I saw this short, drying clump out of the prairie’s collection of tall, lush stems. Then, a realization struck me like another burst of wind: this tiny clump of grass, its roots extending perhaps two rods down into the prairie soil, might outlive me! This seemingly insignificant little plant life, perfectly integrated into its place, would weather the prairie’s Spring storms, Summer droughts, and Winter freezes over and over again and I would be six-feet under its happy stem before its life was complete. Walt Whitman came to mind. Whitman went so far as to say the grass represented an eternal picture of the democracy of existence: 

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the 

end to arrest it,

And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses…(Whitman 6.38-42)

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles…(52.11-12)

I leaned back on my windshield and let these thoughts wash through my mind, listening all the while to the song of the south wind rushing through the Kansas grasses. I went back to my studies clear minded and humbled, overwhelmed by a sense of oneness with my place. 

As I deepened my study of the interplay between identity and place that both Ehrlich and Whitman write about, I thought about the intensity of my place’s impact upon me in that small moment. I had allowed my place to imbue me with a sense of humility and calm by way of its beauty and power. I felt a unity with the prairie even while contemplating my insignificance. However, this was just a small interaction, a mere moment of contemplation; I wondered what “multiplicity and endless variety” I would experience, what I would come to “see and know” if I transformed my whole way of life to one of contemplation and emptying as Ehrlich urges. Would my own nature become intertwined with the nature I contemplated? Was this sense of connectedness with my place, so transformative for me in one brief interaction, one that all people needed on some fundamental level?  If it were so, what are the repercussions of our culture’s current disconnectedness? 

Understanding the reality that people must both live on the land and use it, I would like to propose a corrected relationship mutually advantageous for both parties.  Through emptying ourselves of preconceived assumptions of ownership and recognizing the land as an entity set apart and sovereign in its own relations, humans have the opportunity to marry their own purposes to nature’s, replacing an exploitative relationship with a symbiotic one.

I unconsciously underwent the first steps toward a symbiotic relationship when observing the prairie during finals week. I humbled myself entirely in the face of nature, and found myself awestruck at its power and purpose as an organism.  Perhaps only because of my mentally exhausted state, I was psychologically open to observe the power of the landscape and its elements in their own otherness, meditate upon them, and come to an appreciation of what I could only call the holiness of the land. The land struck me as a holy entity, set apart from me in its power and purpose. However, my interaction with the land stopped at this observation. I did not go on to living with it. 

History affords a testimony of how we might step toward a lifestyle of living with the land. The Kansa and Quivera tribes venerated the prairie while simultaneously working it for sustenance. In the native view, intrinsic to nature was the spirit that harmonized her elements. The Kansa equated wind with the spirits of their ancients and believed the cottonwood tree a conduit of the spirits’ presence and wisdom. The cottonwood never ceased to sense the wind, even on days that seemed completely still. The Kansa believed the cottonwood could sense the presence of the spirits, her waxy leaves fluttering against each other in response, whispering their spiritual presence to any living listener (Heat-Moon 305). The Quivera tribe had a similarly intimate relationship with the prairie. The tribe’s respect for the grasslands translated into their cooperation with and efficient use of the land. Recent excavations in Rice County, Kansas, have revealed that the land that could hardly support 10,400 people in 1990, was supporting  “‘well over 25,000 people’ or about thirty-five [Quivera] natives per square mile” (Jackson 8).  A lesson in how we could view and treat our land today can be derived from the Kansa and Quivera peoples.

European settlers introduced an entirely different attitude toward the prairie, replacing the Kansa and Quivera’s initial respectful attitude toward the land with a domineering one fraught with the ideal of Manifest Destiny, a privileging of human purposes and power over the land. Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideals led the pioneer march into the frontier lands. Jefferson wanted to promote democracy through the agrarian ideal of land ownership for each citizen. 

By the mid-nineteenth century, the primary goal of science was to . . .

complete the Jeffersonian formula of property, yeoman, and democracy. 

The land had to be diced up in rectangular parcels so that it might be owned to  

create freeholders as opposed to the free roamer who had inhabited the West 

before (Manning 103). 

This mindset gave the land, its natural functions, advantages and limitations, hardly a thought. The dominating perspective of 19thcentury frontier folk was that the land owed people predictable livings. By taking ownership of the land, pioneers entered an “indissoluble compact” with it (95), a perspective reflected in the worldview of Willa Cather’s father in O Pioneers!, her novel about the Nebraska frontier set in this time: “John Bergson had the old world belief that land, in itself, was desirable” (Cather 14).  By being an object that owed its owner dues, the ground he claimed had been reduced to economic value. This perspective was far from the veneration that the natives previously gave the land and is indicative of the beginning erosion of Midwesterners’ respect for their landscape. 

Wes Jackson, author, farmer and researcher of renewable agriculture and crop management methods, states apocalyptically that “we have sent our topsoil, our fossil water, our oil, our gas, our coal, and our children into that black hole called the economy” (Jackson 12). The prairie was “mechanized” in the period of industrialism under the assumption that we understood how to run the land better than the land knew how to run itself. Certain necessities that the land required, like rest and fallow time, were ignored since this land was no longer treated as a living organism, but as a machine. However, as Richard Manning has written, “The face [of the land] reveals itself only slowly, over the centuries of cycles of drought, wind, and fire. It does not reveal itself to an impatient people with a manifest destiny, machines, and a guiding assumption that nature is just another machine” (Manning 262). 

What is farming for? The current industrialized system used all over the Midwest is curious in that it is not about providing the happiest consumer, the happiest plants, a healthy farming community, or even an ample supply of food to assuage world hunger.  If farming were for the happiness and health of the consumer, much more attention would be given to the genetic diversity of crops so a healthier plant could provide the consumer with more food options. In the case of corn, “roughly one-third of our current crop comes from four inbred lines, which is roughly the same as the amount of variation that may be found in as few as two individual plants” (Jackson 22).  Such a streamlined genetic pool creates a high risk for “ genetic vulnerability” (Jackson 22).  Furthermore, monocultures provide a target for insect predation. Apparently industrialized agriculture does not aim primarily for the benefit of the crops. And it cannot be for the benefit of the farming communities themselves since it has resulted in their eradication, scattering farming youth in all different professions and locations around the country, with machines taking the roles that sons and daughters used to fill (5).  Finally, industrialized farming cannot be said to be beneficial for solving issues in world hunger since the surplus of food produced disrupts local markets of production, sale and consumption, putting third-world farmers out of business (Manning 167).  

Our industrialized food system pays no attention to the limitations of the land itself.  Large-scale wheat and corn monocultures compete with the limitations of nature, which are ignored along with the identity of the land itself. Aridity serves as a perfect example. Human respect for the nature of a place is discarded.  Grasslands typically receive “between ten and thirty inches of rainfall a year,” so that native “plants survive by as many strategies as there are plants” (2). Industrialized agriculture disregards this ingenuity of nature. If this ingenuity were tapped into, it could produce better, more long-lived results than any system fighting the source of the production itself. Wes Jackson advocates farming in “nature’s image,” substituting in crop production polycultures that mimic nature’s own fields. He and his fellow researchers at the Salina Land Institute have had success in their efforts, the Kernza grain being an example of their perennial polyculture vision. 

Jackson and the Salina Land Institute researchers have the long-term reality of the grain, prairie, and community in mind as they develop their grains.  This is the kind of alliance that is vital for the survival of Midwestern agriculture.  We cannot be sure that we will have enough fossil fuels to keep the engines running, enough pesticides to keep the plants bug-free, enough soil additives to keep the dirt productive, or enough water to keep the plants green. Ultimately, the problems that we deal with in our modern agricultural treatment of the grasslands are the consequence of antiquated worldviews steering our actions. Rather than adapting our worldview according to the limitations we encounter like the land herself does, our human tendency is to grasp worldviews that have come before us, and adapt our actions to these mindsets, regardless of the reality in front of us. The Midwestern agricultural community has functioned under Baconian and Jeffersonian worldviews for as long as it has been in existence. Francis Bacon, whose ideas were articulated nearly four centuries ago when the human capacity to dominate nature was more of a far-fetched dream than a life-threatening reality, writes that the truth of nature’s secrets must be ripped from her, that “‘neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object’” (quoted in Jackson 19).  This description of truth finding, fraught with imagery of rape, assumes that the secrets our land contains can only be attained by conquest.  Similarly, the Jeffersonian worldview perpetuates the assumption that the land in and of herself has value only as the means to that democratic power that each agrarian individual should be able to acquire. Both of these worldviews disregard the wisdom of the land, the power and processes inherent in the nature of the place. 

By disregarding the limitations of the prairie, all our industrialized agricultural mechanisms have created is a loud noise above which we cannot hear the prairie speaking. This way of life has gone on long enough; it is time to return to a listening, contemplative position toward nature like the Kansa and Quivera tribes embraced, before our situation becomes catastrophic and we cannot pursue our way of life any longer. 

 We have lost sight of the whole picture. As Mary Oliver, poet of nature and place, writes, humans are part of the “family of things” (Oliver 17). If we can accept our “profound ignorance” and acknowledge our creaturehood amidst the natural world, we have a hope of establishing a fresh worldview toward the land while simultaneously gaining a more powerful sense of self, completed in community with humanity and nature (Jackson 24).  

The first step that we must take in restoring the land and our own integrity embraces the act of kenosis, a Christian tradition with parallels in Buddhism and other religious traditions. Through kenosis, derivative of the Greek word kenos meaning “empty,” an individual can attain a sense of purpose and identity in the act of emptying or sacrificing the self for a greater cause. The experience narrated at the beginning of this essay was a small act of kenosis. Through an elementary act of kenosis, Midwestern people can build a new worldview that will benefit both the people and the land. The act of emptying oneself is one of listening, regardless of all our ideas for how the land should work and what it should provide us with. We must listen to the real rhythms of the land and decide how to respond in a way that reinforces our relationship with our place as we cultivate it.  Ultimately, the land works as a closed system and does not need any human interaction to be productive in her own terms; however, since humans need the land to live, we have no choice but to join our work to hers, listening to her sounds so we can seek the right harmony with which to join her song. 

The reality of this listening act, is that it cannot be generalized. There is no way to craft a one-size-fits-all approach toward the land and find positive benefits. The sacrifice we make to listen must be local and specific to the real voice of one place. The grasslands of Kansas have a very different voice from the mountains of Colorado or the marshlands of Louisiana.  There is no “program sent down from Washington” that is going to solve our agricultural issues in a way that attends to the specific identity of each place – that takes closely listening individuals and communities ready to work with the land they live with (Jackson 60). Communities tied to a specific landscape must be the locus for change. This roots-up approach is the only way we have hope to appreciate the spirit of the land again and find ourselves, our place and our purpose. 

The prairie is singing her song. The strong sun shines, the south wind blows, the deep roots reach through the dark earth and drink up the moisture saturating the land. Realizing our place in the presence of the prairie’s life is a meditative act, one that takes time and the willingness to adapt and grow alongside the prairie. The prairie is sovereign in and of herself, and we need to be in relationship with her in order to survive. Accepting our need, emptying our minds of preconceived ideas about what the land owes us, and seeking an understanding of her art of survival, we have a hope of finding a harmonious relationship with the song our land has been singing, and will continue singing long after we are gone.

—Susan Elder, 2017


Works Cited

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Heat-Moon, WIlliam L. PrairyErth. Boston: Houghton, 1991. Print.

Oliver, Mary. “Wild Geese.” Owls and Other Fantasies. Beacon Press, 2003, pp. 1.

Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place.Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1994. Print.

Jackson, Wes. Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture. New York: Counterpoint, 2011. Internet resource.

Manning, Richard. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. New York: Viking, 1995. Print.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891–92. The Walt Whitman Archive. Web 30 July 2016.