They came from the East, a land of trees and streams.
When the early white settlers first moved out of the shadows of the woodlands and forests, into the blinding prairie light and sky…
…they didn’t know how to respond to what they saw.
James Monroe, who later went on to become our fifth president, initially disparaged a land full of grass and flowers.
In 1786, he toured “the west,” which to Easterners, meant places like Illinois. In a letter written to Thomas Jefferson, he said:
“A great part of the territory is miserably poor, especially that near lakes Michigan & Erie & that upon the Mississippi & the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances & will not have a single bush on them, for ages.”
Little did you know, James Monroe.
While some would find the prairie frightening, and return to the East, shaken and homesick…
…and others would stay, but try to recreate the woodlands they’d left behind…
…there would be those who found the prairie perfect: just as it was.
For these settlers, the prairie grasses moved like waves in the sea.
…or, like herds of buffalo, “galloping, galloping,” as Willa Cather once imagined.
There was scope for the imagination in the wide prairie sky and changing tallgrass.
These prairie settlers saw beyond the comfort of the known. Their ideas of the world expanded in new directions as they crossed the tallgrass and grew to appreciate what it had to offer.
They were willing to think outside of conventional understandings of what was beautiful.
They recognized the splendor in the grasses.
All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; SP; horses at Autumn on the Prairie Event, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Tellabs Unit, NG; preying mantis, SP; prairie and two-track at NG; spotted Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; grasshopper, SP; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), SP; prairie, NG; sumac (Rhus glabra) and grasses, NG; bison, NG; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) in autumn, SP; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), SP.
Bison reference is from Willa Cather’s My Antonia.