‘Tallgrass Conversations’ and seeing prairie as more than flat land

“Path” from the book ‘Tallgrass Conversations.’ — photo by Thomas Dean

We are always embedded in the land we dwell upon. In practical terms, our physical bodies are dependent on a functioning ecosystem, so our inescapable obligation of environmental care is to our own benefit as well as that of the health, well-being and integrity of the living earth. But when we are truly home in the world, the other aspects of our beings — spiritual, aesthetic, emotional — are also inextricably entwined with nature. For those of us in much of the continent’s middle land, our natural home is the tallgrass prairie.

Despite a life lived entirely in the Midwest, my awareness of — and love for — the prairie came only in adulthood. I don’t recall one mention of bluestem or spiderwort in all of my schooling. As an Iowan transplanted from Illinois, I live and have lived in arguably the most altered land in the world. As a child, my understanding of “prairie,” if the word was invoked at all, meant something more abstract, such as “flat Midwest that you plant corn on.”

Obviously, “prairie” doesn’t mean that at all. And while I have learned much as an adult about the native grasses, forbs, animals, waters and soil of the land I live on, I have also come to understand how much prairie is part of who I am — my identity, my spirit, my aesthetic sense, my emotions and much more. Cultivating a land ethic, as Aldo Leopold would call it, to care for that land clearly involves communicating with others. Drawing out our understandings of self and culture does as well. The arts of conversation, then, are essential to building a vibrant relationship not only with other people but the place that is our home. To be in search of the prairie spirit here in this place on Earth means to engage in tallgrass conversations.

The above paragraphs open my introduction to a book of photographs and short writings I co-authored with Cindy Crosby, a writer and naturalist from Illinois. Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit will be published next month from Steve Semken’s Ice Cube Press, which many Little Village readers no doubt know about.

As I also say in the introduction, “If we think of it broadly as an exchange that brings two or more entities together and creates something new, conversation is perhaps our greatest hope not only for healing the rifts in human understanding but also for restoring and reinspiring our relationship with the natural world that is our home.”

“Joy,” from the book ‘Tallgrass Conversations.’ — photo by Thomas Dean

Conversation works on multiple levels within the book: Cindy’s and my words converse with our images, both among our own individual writing and photos as well as with each other’s contributions. We hope that bringing two expressive forms together will create an artistic whole greater than the sum of their parts. As well, an understanding of, respect for and love of prairie must come from multiple perspectives, so we approach the tallgrass from aesthetic, personal, environmental, conservationist and even spiritual pathways. Cindy and I have different backgrounds, different writing voices and different photographic perspectives, yet we both bring them to bear on our love and advocacy for the tallgrass prairie. We thought bringing together these differences, rooted in common ground, could yield yet more new understandings of the prairie and inspire others to enter tallgrass conversations of their own.

We have organized the book around 26 conversations, each focused on a general idea or concept. Let me share a few of those concepts and some niblets of my thoughts on them from the book.

Mystery: Is the prairie a mask or a revelation? Does it wish to shield me from its incomprehensible truth or disclose to me the powers of compass plant and bergamot that push my understanding?

Depth: On the winter prairie, life gathers its force to emerge and then explode in vernal epitasis. As the deep snow smothers the past year’s growth, its moist blanket broods over the next year’s life patiently rejuvenating below in the rich, deep and dark soil.

Remnant: The most authentic prairie experience possible is not in restorations, which by definition have lost their direct lineage to a continuous ecosystem, but in remnants, where native plants are the discarded original elders of the tallgrass. On the prairie, the remnant is original renewal, not inventive replication. It is the remains of the real in a world of artifice.

Home: We are drawn to savanna’s enigma. It is an edge landscape, a transition between horizon of grasses and vertex of canopy. It is shadow and light playing invitations across a threshold to mystery, drawing us into both the boundless unknown and the center of wholeness, just as home does.

Prairie is among the most altered and threatened ecosystems in the world. At the same time, our natural world is our first and most profound home. Care of the world is always essential, and care arises from conversation.

Thomas Dean was engaging in tallgrass conversations before he was even aware of it. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 259.

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