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Tallgrass Prairie & the Poetics of Lost Landscapes

It’s impossible to talk about the prairie without talking about loss. The Tallgrass prairie ecosystem used to stretch from the flint hills in Oklahoma to Manitoba and covered more than 80% of Iowa — now around 1% of it remains. The work of imagining what the Midwest once resembled involves just as much of the historian’s archives and geologist’s strata as it does the field ecologist’s habitat remnants. Even then, it is a given that most of what the Tallgrass prairie was is now lost forever; from the thousands of charging bison to the millions of protozoa, fungi, and bacteria in its soil, any habitat restoration project in the Midwest will have many more ghosts than it does living beings.

What I am interested in, as a poet working to promote habitat conservation and restoration, is how to deploy this language of loss without falling into pessimism. To explore this, I’ve turned to another poet. Loren Eiseley grew up in the prairies of Nebraska, and became well known as both an anthropologist and a nature writer. This poem was written when he was an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska.

Words for Forgetting

Go forward on these simple roads,

Do not turn back.

The stars behind you in the wind will blow,

The coyote’s track

Delicately replace the lifted dust

Of your own heel.

Go forward and the dark will close

About you. You will feel

The fragrant emptiness of prairie miles.

Now you will own

Nothing that is not yours, yourself

Down to the naked bone.

Reprinted from Prairie Schooner Vol VIII No 3 (Summer 1934).

Copyright 1929 by the Wordsmiths of Sigma Upsilon.

If a fixation on the vast swaths of Tallgrass prairie, which have been lost, is a form of nostalgia, then I’d like to suggest that Eiseley is putting forth nostalgia’s corrective. His poem is forward moving — he writes in the second person, instructing his reader, both figuratively and literally, to walk forward. Eiseley’s short sentences make this motion experiential; as we walk, we are struck by small, immediate observations. This poem's you is self-erasing. We trudge into the night, darkness closing around us; each reader's unique identity is irrelevant within Eiseley's starry, windswept moment.

Unlike the Indigenous people that lived in (and took better care of) the Tallgrass prairie long before europeans arrived, western settlers ascribed to a linear notion of time. When time moves in a straight line, it allows us to glance backward. Looking backwards renders nostalgia unavoidable; the past is always the past, always lost to those in the present. Eiseley’s 2nd person might move forward, but it is a journey into darkness; all that remains is a self, a figure in a landscape wrested from time. A footstep in the dust is erased by wind and made again. This perspective is at odds with the long-held view that white settlers in the prairie region held (and still hold), in which the land is a commodity from which to be permanently plowed-over and farmed.

Yet, as stewards of the land, we cannot remake the fragrant darkness of landscapes long-erased. The restoration of degraded habitats must be paradoxically forward thinking. We can replant our landscapes with the species that were once abundant within them, but what we restore can never return to what once was. Instead, we build a new path forward, and this path erases the footsteps of any individual person working on the project.

In building this path, we must acknowledge the failures of prior habitat restoration work, most of which has disproportionately benefited white middle and upper-class neighborhoods. Even as figures like Aldo Leopold have ascended to an almost mythic status within the american environmental movement, habitat restoration at work in this country all too frequently treats land as a commodity, whether it be parks for white neighborhoods or required mitigation for construction projects. Data from a recent analysis done by the Conservation Science Partners (summarized here) shows a consistent trend across the nation in which minority families have less access, on average, to forests, streams, wetlands, and other natural areas than white people. In Iowa, estimates showed that 15% of white Iowans lived in areas defined as “nature-deprived,” while 74% of nonwhite Iowans did. Most of the significant Tallgrass prairie restoration projects in the united states have been piloted by universities, which bear their own specific history of class, race, and sex-based discrimination.




About the Author

Ethan Evans serves as a Land & Water Steward at the University of Northern Iowa's Tallgrass Prairie Center, working predominantly with their Roadside Management program. Ethan is excited about native vegetation (especially in roadside rights-of-way), environmental literature, and noise music.


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