I’ve not seen a real prairie. Haven’t stood on a ridge to see grass to the horizon, or been lost up to my shoulder in bluestem or Indian grass. I’ve put as many plants in my small garden as I could—coneflowers, clover, liatris, winecup, side oats grama, milkweed, aster, mountain mint. I have walked the twenty feet to the edge of my parent’s property line in MN to look over 3 acres of seeded prairie, and in a small stand of perhaps a hundred square feet the inverted turkey feet of bluestem seed heads flail against a pale blue sky. I have walked the never-plowed 800 acres of Spring Creek Prairie in Nebraska where my wife and I were married, where wagon ruts of an Oregon Trail cutoff are almost discernible. I have seen edges of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas, the sheltered Wichita Mountains short grass, and the mixed grass of Black Kettle National Grassland in Oklahoma, but not even all of them together could give me a clue.
Maybe the closest I’ve come to prairie is flying over the Plains, a field of clouds beneath, dark blue above, or on the mossy Irish coast looking west toward Iceland. I feel a gunshot hole in my chest, see its shadow on the ground in front of me, feel the air chill my insides, know I’m not just incomplete but desperate—absolutely desperate—to plug the absence. I think about tearing up my small front lawn, seeding with buffalo grass, placing clumps of little bluestem here and there like hiccups.
But I don’t have the guts or the faith. There is something about dining on ashes that comforts me. Is it nostalgia for something I never knew? Is it solipsism or self pity? Is it just easier to romanticize what we don’t know and never experienced and create an image only, an interpretation whose personal experience makes the unknown seem more real? This is what impressionistic painters must feel—caught between an inner and outer world and unable to completely express the place in between where we live in fear and hope.
I remember walking railroad tracks as a boy, balancing on one rail, the sharp rock between timbers, the faint sound of an invisible train coming fast from behind; this is what it’s like walking a corn field where prairie once was, and where it could be again.