Heightened Sense of Distance: Journal of a Prairie Year by Paul Gruchow

Journal of a Prairie Year

Journal of a Prairie Year
BY Paul Gruchow
(Milkweed Editions, 2009)

From the Publisher:

“Standing at the northeastern edge of the million-square-mile expanse, Paul Gruchow looks beyond the vast expression of flatness and fertility to plumb what is less often perceived there: a definitively taciturn landscape that has as much to teach us about our own minds as it does about the natural world.

Both a phenology and a philosophy, Journal of a Prairie Year charts one cycle of seasons, but reveals countless cycles of thought. The silence of winter snow juxtaposes our inability to hear its song; the fecundity of spring uncovers the trouble of naming; the tenacity of a prairie plant in summer’s heat calls to question the definition of a weed; the morality of fall asks why we can’t resist driving the remains of this landscape toward extinction…”

After my first visit to the prairies in 1999, I returned to the west coast enthusiastic about what I had seen. Trouble was, I could find no words to convince friends and family — people who think of the prairies as nothing but miles of wheat — about the transformational experience I had there. Eyes took on a glazed look whenever I tried to paint a picture of the insignificance I felt beneath the hugeness of the prairie sky. Even words like “vast” and “ancient,” or colours like “sage” and “pewter” did nothing for those inexperienced with the land that Paul Gruchow writes about. So when, at one point in Journal of a Prairie Year, he returns to the place of his upbringing after a long absence and brings along a friend, my sympathy rises as they arrive to find “the land clutched in the suffocating embrace of a long drought.” Impossible to persuade others of the inherent beauty of a place when all they can see is the never-ending distance. As Gruchow explains: “What seems flat seems empty,” but only to those who “come unequipped” to the relentless scale of such a landscape.

“To live on the prairie is to daydream,” he says in his prologue, “[i]t is the only conceivable response to such immensity.” And after decades spent pushing to succeed as a parent, a teacher, a writer, I can think of no more rewarding an occupation than daydreaming. How better to allow the mind and soul to settle and listen, to appreciate what is already there?

As much as Journal of a Prairie Year is about the magnificence of the Midwest grasslands, Gruchow’s book is also an invitation to learn about the self and how we, as individuals, fit into a much larger schematic of the world. And if you have lived in a city most of your life, without having yet discovered the prairies, his Journal will introduce you, via minutely detailed descriptions, to a heightened sense of sight and sound.

As befits a lover of nature, Gruchow speaks reverentially about his native lands. The four seasons are the backdrop against which he shares his knowledge of life on the prairie, beginning, interestingly enough, with the harshest season. He says, “When the winter sky puts on that face, the only possible response is to keep silent as before any many-splendored thing.” About spring, he admonishes that “life should be freshly captured by each new generation and not … handed down like the baby’s old clothes,” describing the return of the geese by the adolescent quality of their honking, “the way it starts in a resonant baritone and suddenly tumbles out of control into a high squeak.” …Gruchow’s book is also an invitation to learn about the self and how we, as individuals, fit into a much larger schematic of the world. Gruchow describes the colors of summer by saying that “One could devote one’s life to a study of the distinctions in the color green and not yet have learned all there is to know.” He writes a soliloquy-like passage to the prairie’s natural grasses and plants, considered weeds by most, calling them “unspeakably seedy and wonderful” and expounds on their place in history by telling us how things might have been if only we had left the prairies in their natural state. The autumn change of weather heralds the start of school, football and the harvest, “the landscape … bright with a hundred hues of brown and tan and black.” Even so, now “[i]t seemed more like the beginning of something than the end of it.”

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