THE JOURNALS OF JOSEPH N. NICOLLET
(forwarded by Jim Stebbings from the Minnesota Historical Society Proceedings, St. Paul, 1976. Bray, M.C. ed)
Under the date October 12, 1836, but probably transcribed from some other occasion:
Today we found the edge of the prairie spreading as far as the river at a height of twenty-five feet above water level. Our bearing was NW. The weather was very warm. The country presented a plain, spreading as far as the eye could see, without any substantial change of level and for the most part without woods or even the slightest cluster of shrubs. It is an endless expanse without a single rise, a sea of greenness without islands of woods. The country we had left behind us had dissolved into the horizon, and all the eye could see was sky and prairie.
At 4 o’clock we noticed an island of woods to the left. At 5:00, we saw another. At first this immense, uninterrupted horizon seemed both astonishing and admirable. But when the eye has probed the depths in every direction and discovers that this immensity does not stretch as does the sky above beyond the eye’s reach, when the admirer sees the biggest of animals fleeing with all their might only as black specks that seem to move no more than flowers or grass swayed by the wind, when he realizes that with each season this stirring greatness brings disastrous perils -- that in spring he may well perish there in the spongy mires of the sunken hollows, that in summer he may well die of thirst or of a fever carried by swarms of insects, that in the fall, fires backed by winds may in a matter of hours transform this magnificent green, flowered and living, into a shroud of mourning strewn with the skeletons of all the creatures that breathed there, that winter may yet cast another shroud, a white mantle two to four feet thick capable of blinding him should the sun shine bright or of burying him under a mountain of snow should the wind blow strong -- then, gloom dissolves the magnificence of this scene and proves once more that in a desert man’s glimpse of delight comes shadowed with the forebodings of fear and sorrow.
We had not been going long when the land betrayed the first signs of an increasing barrenness, so typical of plains. The woods dwindled in number and size, and we were forced to camp a little earlier than usual as as to be able to find enough wood to cook supper and keep us warm for the night. We reached another narrowing of the river. There the current, forced between high banks, acquired such speed that counter currents were formed. Some islands rose in this portion of the river, dividing it into sections through which the water sped as quickly as through the straits.
When one is able to reach the top of some elevation or other in this vast region, he always gets the impression of being in the center of immense, perfectly level plains, and the horizon invariably seems to be limited in all directions by chains of hills, which, taking into account the distance at which one supposed them to be, appear like mountain ranges. if some forests or clusters of trees happen to be there also, the illusion is greater and more misleading yet. However, it is only by comparison that this country deserves to be called a plain, for its surface is greatly diversified by long bands of primitive deposits, by depressions, gullies, small mounds, accumulations of sand and gravel, spaces crisscrossed by lakes, ponds, and swamps. The latter are invariably bordered by trees that fires cannot approach. Although the general outlook and the apparent surface are not spoiled by these irregularities, they do make the country broken and varied for the traveler.
The first flower we pick [in the spring] is coltsfoot. a few days later other species are in full bloom, esp. white anemones which are the most abundant.
Vegetation consists mainly of a few herbaceous plants, moss, and some flowering dwarf-sized shrubs. The fox was the only animal we saw. Hawks, gulls, plover, and phalaropes make up the list of birds encountered in these cold and barren plains. But as we passed along the edge of the island, we disturbed some deer, elk, geese, cranes, gulls, and some swans which were all peacefully near the shore.
This is “tall grass prairie” which ends far east of here. It’s the grass that Conrad Richter wrote about, that was as tall as the back of a horse and that one walked through blindly. Where I am is “short grass prairie” and really not even that: an ecotone where the short grass becomes “prairie parkland” interspersed with aspen stands and cut by deep run-off coulees so big they have become valleys.
It is the tall grass prairie where the tornados sweep across, where the fires “backed by wind” would also sweep across if they could, and where hail and blizzards excoriate the land and all creatures not able to find shelter. The weather created the grass -- the grass was not destroyed by the weather. The land wants to go back to that time before people settled there. And some day it will.
Someday the grass will come back and all else that will be left will be rubbled roads and town squares, the wood burned or rotted away, shards of bright plastic here and there, and glittering piles of glass with the exceptional part of a pane somehow intact.
In other places it will be different -- in the northwest all will be covered by moss and blackberry vines. Back east it will be alder thickets. The SW will let the concrete stand bare.
Might take many thousands of years, but the land wants to go back. All it would take would be an ingenious virus. All that virus needs is a population packed thick, too thick to guard all the sanitation, the vectors, the wind carrying particles, and the geese bringing infection to the hog farms. The grass whispers about it optimistically: ssssssssoooon, sssssssoooon. No sssshhhhhrouds. Cccccccelebration.