Hiking the Prairie with Willa Cather

” … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”—Willa Cather
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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.

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“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

Thanks, Willa.

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.

Happy hiking!

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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.

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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).

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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!

22 responses to “Hiking the Prairie with Willa Cather

  1. Willa Cather may have provided the words today, but the your photographs are pure poetry. Thank you for helping us see the beauty in the prairie in winter.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Willa Cather is my favorite too – but then there is this other writer who I really like. Her name is Cindy Crosby!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This takes me back to when I taught O Pioneers! Those were great days of prairie discovery for my students. Although I don’t have the exact quote, I loved the idea that Cather felt the curvature of the earth and the pull of gravity when she laid down on the ground. She felt a part of all creation. We need to feel that connection, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny has such great memories of your class — you are a wonderful teacher! I love this quote. Thank you for sharing it, and the reminder about our need for connection—especially in a time when we feel so disconnected from everything. Grateful for you, Teri!

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  4. Cathy Montgomery

    I enjoy your connections with literature. It moves me toward new reading experiences. Your lovely photographs really bring meaning to the written word. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This old indie bookseller never stops sharing books! 🙂 Thank you for letting me know — your comment made me so happy today. Grateful that you took time to read the blog — and write a note,, Cathy! Happy reading!

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  5. Thanks, Willa.  But special “Thanks, Cindy”  What a lovely presentation.! Sara

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Cindy. I just picked Willa books at Library so I could visualize your photography as I reread books of the past with new thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rosemarie Harring

    /Cindy, I am such a lover of the forest and the trees; however your photos inspire me to explore and begin a relationship with the prairie…loved how you brought Willa Cather (brings me back to high school English class days) into the blog…so inspired…yes i liked it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cindy, I think about Andrew Wyeth, a “writer” with a brush. The way he “placed” us in a field alone…. as in Christina’s World, Winter Fields, Turkey Pond, or Distant Thunder. His deft appreciation of the prairie and the feelings we get when in one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Mike, and yes — I totally agree—Christina’s World has much the same feeling of standing (or sitting) alone on a prairie. I will check out some of his other works you recommended (Thank you!). Grateful for your insights here, and as always, so grateful that you read and take time to comment. Happy December!

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  9. Beautiful words, great photographs, thanks for making all those connections.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautiful. Have you read Who Has Seen the Wind by E. O. Mitchell? It is a coming-of-age story set on the Canadian prairie. I suppose it is a book for teens, but it is beautifully sensitive both to the land and the people who inhabit it, all of them. I love this book and thank you for reminding me of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I have long enjoyed Paul Gruchow’s “Journal of a Prairie Year”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is one of my favorites. I will always remember Paul writing the foreword to my second book on prairie (now long out of print) and being so kind to a writer he had never met. I mourn his passing, but his words live on in his thoughtful books. I read “Journal” throughout the year — so glad we share this favorite book on prairie. Take care, and happy reading! Thanks for sharing — and thank you for reading the blog today. Grateful.

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  12. Dear Cindy,
    A year ago this past Halloween, Carol & I drove 608 miles from our home in Ogle County to Red Cloud, NE. Our goal was to visit the Willa Cather Prairie, which is a few miles south of Red Cloud near the Kansas border. Back in town, we did the tour of the sites that Will made famous. Among the sites we visited was Willa’s girlhood home. In the flower bed along the house, was a butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) wit some pods. I asked the tour guide if I could have a couple pods. I came home and stratified about 50 seeds. Fantastic germination and I potted about 48 plants. Gave quit a few away, bit I planted about five and they did well. Hopefully they will survive the winter and re emerge in the spring. FYI, there is a wonderful restoration in downtown Red Cloud supported by the Willa Cather Foundation
    They are doing a marvelous job in preserving her work. Check them out on the web.
    A bit of Willa Cather continues up here in Illinois through the wonderful prairie beauties. If they produce seed next year, I can share some with you.

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