Archive for the ‘Hayden Prairie’ Category

Tallgrass Prairie

June 28, 2011

First edition of a classic.

When I began working at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum, I read all the classic novels that portray the immigrant experience in the upper Midwest. One of the most powerful is Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth.

In the first pages, Per Hansa, his wife Beret, and their family are making their way west through a seemingly-endless prairie.

“Tish-ah!” said the grass….  “Tish-ah, tish-ah!” …Never had it said anything else–never would it say anything else.  It bent resiliently under the trampling feet; it did not break, but it complained aloud every time–for nothing like this had ever happened to it before….  “Tish-ah, tish-ah!” it cried, and rose up in surprise to look at this rough, hard thing that had crushed it to the ground so rudely, and then moved on.

..The caravan seemed a miserably frail and Lilliputian thing as it crept over the boundless prairie toward the sky line.  Of road or trail there lay not a trace ahead; as soon as the grass had straightened up again behind, no one could have told the direction from which it had come or whither it was bound.  The whole train…might just as well have dropped down out of the sky.

Per Hansa had expected to find a landmark several days earlier. Rølvaag’s depiction of the family as they struggle with the sense of isolation and confusion has stayed with me through the years.


I was reminded of Giants in the Earth when I visited Hayden Prairie National Natural Landmark, a remnant of tallgrass prairie in northern Iowa.

Iowa currently has only 1/10th of 1% of its original 23.5 million acres of tallgrass prairie.  Although only 240 acres, this one provides a rare glimpse of the landscape that once dominated the state.

The prairie is named for botanist Ada Hayden, an Iowa farmgirl who earned her PhD in biology in 1918 and devoted herself to protecting this fast-disappearing landscape.  More than 200 plant species have been identified in Hayden Prairie.

Over 20 species of butterflies and 46 species of birds have been spotted also. I was serenaded by a pair of bobolinks.

Their flashy pattern was eye-catching, but many of the prairie dwellers were more subdued. This beautiful landscape invites visitors to slow down and look for inconspicuous residents.

For me, it also instantly conjures up thoughts of the many Euro-American settlers who once walked through these acres in search of a new home.

I studied environmental education in college, and when I read historical narratives or historical fiction, I try hard to get a sense of the place being written about.  We can understand the lives of those who have come and gone without understanding their landscape.

Next time I sink into a middle-country immigrant saga, I’ll think back to my walk in the tallgrass prairie.


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