The Perils of Reading About Prairie

“Education is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what’s there, not what you got told was there.”–William Least Heat-Moon

***

It’s easy to let others tell you what’s “out there.” I know. As a former indie bookseller and lover of any book with the tag “nature essay” on it, I’m addicted to words. Reading books about prairie–and following social media updates or blog essays on the natural world–are only a few of the reasons I enjoy being an armchair nature lover. I can delight in woodlands, wetlands, and prairies without any of the discomfort involved in actually being there.

Through words, I can imagine the winter greens and umbers of mosses carpeting a fallen log, with autumn leaves still lingering.

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Or, through words, I can imagine prairie aromatherapy. A little crushed mountain mint rubbed between your fingers — mmmmm.

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Through words, I can “see” how the wind moves the hyssop in undulating waves.

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Or think about thimbleweed seedheads, in all stages of blow out, and how soft they would feel if I stroked them against my cheek. Like silk.

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The furred white seed heads are in sharp contrast to the geometry of the winter grasses, crisscrossing in golds and soft bronzes. Words can tell me that.

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I love reading about prairie. It enriches what I see there; inspires me to pay attention.

And yet.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to just read  about the natural world in February. The days can be gloomy and cold. I feel a distinct lack of motivation. With reading, there is no mud, drive-time, or layering on sweatshirts, coats, gloves, and hats. The only aches and pains I have after closing a book or reading a social media excerpt are a stiff wrist and tired eyes. Unlike a good, long hike, where I remember it in my muscles for days afterward.

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But I’ve found that the biggest peril of reading about the prairie and the natural world is that I can feel as if I’ve been there and looked. And I haven’t.

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It’s easy for me to turn inwards in winter, to stay inside and let others tell me what’s going on. To read words about the world in isolation.

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But without being there, I miss the connection of the heart to what I see. And of course, what each of us sees is filtered through our own unique lens. No one else’s words can replicate that for us.

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So I go. And I look. And then I return home, calmer, more at peace. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to devour words about the outdoors anywhere I find them. But prairie is my place to be. Words, no matter how inspired, are no substitute for that.

Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll go see what’s happening outdoors. Take a deep breath. Notice the sounds. See what the sky looks like.

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Let me know what you discover.

After all, it’s a beautiful world.

***

William Least Heat-Moon (1939), also known as William Trogden, is a Missouri native and resident whose quote from Blue Highways  opens this essay.  He took the invitation to “go see” literally and explored the back roads of the United States. He is the author of several books, including PrairieEryth (1991), which looks at the history, landscape, and people of Chase County, Kansas. Both books are a commitment of time at more than 400 pages each, but well worth it. Another favorite quote of mine from Blue Highways: “Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.” May we all have strength to wander and wonder.

All photos in this essay taken at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted/copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mosses and oak leaf; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); yellow or purple hyssop (Agastache neptoides or Agastache scrophulariaefolia); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grasses (Sorghastrum nutans); trail through Tellabs prairie;  fall leaves in the Tellabs savanna; farm just outside Ashton, IL; Tellabs prairie;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Special thanks to Susan Kleiman, nature educator at Byron Forest Preserve, for her ID help on this post. Any ID errors are my own.

17 responses to “The Perils of Reading About Prairie

  1. Such a melody of writing. You paint with words as well as oils. I love both as well as you. Love, Aunt Micki

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A cold has kept me in for weeks~how good the cool fresh air felt on my cheek when I could finally go back out to look for myself! You’ve touched on an odd thing I’ve noticed in myself. After years of tramping about in natural areas, I’ve been finding it is easier on my knees to stay in my chair and read about it. Then my mind forgets that I’m only reading about it. Handy trick, in a way, but dangerous!

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  3. I really miss the snow. Thanks for the inspiration around a snowless winter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think this points to the phenomena of ‘Farmville’ like simulations. People know what the deep yearning is but confuse it with silly animated pictures that just don’t get the job done. A longing for mud ‘tween their toes continues but they just don’t meet the experience that is vital way down deep inside. .

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  5. Took advantage of the warm weather and wandered a local forest preserve prairie just after a prescribed burn yesterday. Interesting finds in a surreal ashen landscape! A great way to see what lies beneath the tall grass!

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    • What an awesome experience to hike right after the burn! Glad you got the chance so early in the season. With the lack of snow cover, I’ve noticed several natural areas are getting their prescribed burns done. It’s always amazing what you see following one! Thanks for reading and sharing, Mike.

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  6. Hi Cindy, Jeff sent me a link to your blog. I read Blue Highways, it is one of my favorites. I always tell others, and practice myself, the discipline of being outside – even on some cold days because it awakens the soul.

    Also, I am very grateful for your books. I look forward to your new one! You are a beautiful writer and photographer. You have eyes that see and we too can glimpse God’s beauty through your writing and pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Marlena, for checking out the blog and for the kind comments on my books! “Eyes that see” is one of the nicest compliments you could give me. I’m glad to meet another Blue Highways fan. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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  7. Your quotes from Wm. Least Heat Moon have hit the spot with me and the friends I share your blog with. I highlighted them in bold before forwarding to catch their willing eyes. Thank you for your visual, wise, rich packages every week…they remind and revive me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sandy, thank you for reading and for sharing the blog. I’m grateful for that! So glad Heat-Moon resonated with you. I find his “Blue Highways” something I read every year (I still have my old college copy!). I appreciate you taking time to comment and for your nice words.

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  8. I agree. While it’s wonderful to read, its of vital important to connect with nature on our very own two feet! Another marvelous post~ xoxo

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