I grew up in Western Kansas, an area of the United States that has never been heavily populated. Today the area where I grew up is slowly depopulating and reverting.
|Central Iowa at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge|
Living in the Twin Cities is a great deal different from my childhood. Recently, I've become nostalgic and even made a YouTube clip from my last visit to Western Kansas when I attended my paternal grandfather's funeral (about which I wrote a series of posts, which I loosely referred to as home coming - the video is below if you care to watch - the music is Dust in the Wind by Kansas).
We drove down to Central Iowa (Pella - a historic Dutch community - yes, I am of Dutch heritage) to visit my parents for Christmas. I brought three books with me to read. I finished Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott, I read all of O.E. Rolvaag's historical novel Giants in the Earth - I started my third book The Testament by Grisham last night after we returned home.
I am very glad that my friend Penny insisted that we Rolvaag for our literary book club. It tells the story of Norwegian immigrants who settled South Dakota around the same time that the Ingalls family were in Minnesota and South Dakota. It talks about the grasshopper plague and the long winter - it deals with many of the same issues that Laura's books discuss but rather than showing it through the eyes of a child of the prairie, it details the difficulties as seen through the eyes of adult immigrants who were not prepared for the the vast isolation, incredible dangers, and difficulties of pioneer life on the open prairie.
I am a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a child, I read through my maternal grandmother's set of Wilder books until it fell to pieces. I've read many of the books to my girls plus we have all of them on audio (when I get to heaven, I expect Laura's voice to sound just like Cherry Jones) and we have listened to them more times than I can recall.
In addition, I've read all of Laura's Missouri Ruralist articles as well as several books that collected writings from Laura and her family's journals and letters.
Having grown up on the prairie and having read so much prairie history (I had to take Kansas history three times throughout my school years), I have often wondered what it was like to see an untouched prairie and walk through the tall grass.
This past week I got to find out. My parents took us to visit the Neal Smith Natural Wildlife Refuge. While the prairie is a restoration rather than untouched - it gave me a chance to get a small taste of what it was like.
It is 5,000 acres of Iowa farmland that has been undergoing a restoration to tall grass prairie. The story of the restoration process is fascinating. There is much more involved than I ever imagined. I always thought that if we moved off, the prairie would simply return. Not so.
They also have fabulous habitat displays. I had no idea that a bull snake would tunnel over six feet underground to stay cool. I also discovered animals that I had no idea lived on the prairie. They had a display of land crayfish. My mom said they found similar mounds/tunnels in their backyard one year and had no idea what they were. Now we know.
They also had a display about prairie elk. I always thought of elk as forest inhabitants. I had no idea that there were prairie elk that ranged the same area as bison!! I find it interesting that no account of pioneers that I've read (I want to read some journals now to see if personal journals mention them) mentioned elk.
The learning center had a puppet theater that the girls could play in.
There were several hiking trails that you could take through the tall grass. It was practically balmy on Thursday and some of us walked without coats on.
One thing I found interesting is that the tall grasses are actually more red in the winter than what I thought they would be. The pasture lands of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and the Dakota's are a golden tan in the winter - I was fascinated by the red shades in the grass (which don't show up in black and white, I know).
I've always been fascinated by solitary trees on the prairie - if I were alone when I traveled and not with husband and children - I would probably stop constantly to photograph them.
I found these trees to be interesting because they looked like the purpose for the fence - "Let us tame those wild trees, by fencing them in."
Easily the coolest part of the reserve was the auto tour.
We saw the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.
We saw bison.
We saw prairie elk.
I finished Rolvaag's book on Thursday night after our hike. I found the two experiences together brought the past to life in an almost eerie way.