” … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”—Willa Cather
As I scanned the “On this date in history” in the newspaper Monday, there she was. Novelist Willa Cather was born Dec.7, 1873. Her writing explored life on the western prairies, and also, the desert Southwest.
For those of us who love any prairie—-tallgrass, mixed grass, or shortgrass—several of her passages are inseparable from the way we see the landscapes we walk through, prairie or otherwise. These sentences stay with us, as the best writer’s words do, surfacing when the winds riffle the tallgrass or the broad sweep of a prairie sky stops us in astonishment.
The original prairie has largely disappeared since the days of Willa Cather. In Oh Pioneers! she wrote, “The shaggy coat of the prairie…has vanished forever.”
I wonder what she would have thought about the tallgrass prairie of Illinois?
In honor of Willa Cather’s birthday this week, let’s hike the prairie together and view it through her writing.
“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.” — Oh Pioneers!
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” — The Song of the Lark
“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.” — My Antonia
“The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —My Antonia
“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.” — My Antonia
“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.” — My Antonia
“Success is never so interesting as struggle.”–The Song of the Lark
The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left…
… and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” — My Antonia
“The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” –Death Comes for the Archbishop
The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”–Oh Pioneers!
“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”–My Antonia
The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.” –Death Comes for the Archbishop
What prairie writers will you think about when you walk the tallgrass trails this week? Leave me a comment below, if you’d like to share your favorites.
The blog quotes today are from various works of Willa Cather (1873-1947), who won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1923). After graduating from University of Nebraska, she lived in Pittsburgh and New York City. Death Comes to the Archbishop was recognized by Time as one of the 100 best novels between 1923-2005. The opening quote is from My Antonia, and is engraved on Cather’s tombstone in Jaffery, New Hampshire.
All photos taken at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) compass plant (Silphium lacinatum); Prairie Parking sign; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); prairie pond; the prairie in December (college in background); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) under ice, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (2/19); trail to the trees; unusual rosette gall (Rabdophaga rosacea); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over the prairie; sky over the prairie; fasciation on common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); December on the prairie (college in the background); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!