“When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.” – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
“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–Per Hansa with his wife and children, the oxen, the wagons, the cow, and all–might just as well have dropped down out of the sky.” – Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag
“It became impossible to find tracks in this country, because the grass straightened up again as soon as it was trodden down. “ – from the Journal of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado y Lujan
Growing up on the Llano Estacado, west of the 100th meridian, I never understood the description of my native country as “the treeless prairie”. Of course there were no trees; trees grow only where they are planted and tended by people, or on the high western mountains. Out west, the sky is the most fascinating; rarely overcast, many days pure blue and uninterrupted, the entertainment is watching the clouds in their endless variety grow and contract and march across the blue and endless sky. No limits there.
It wasn’t until later in my life that I traveled to places where the trees grow . . . naturally. Places where the land is not . . . flat. Places where hills and dales and forests block out the broad expanse of the sky. To this day I get a little . . . nervous . . . hemmed in . . . when I travel through the piney woods forests of the South, or the hardwood forests of the Midwest. Rolling hills don’t enchant me. You can’t see the horizon there. It all seems so . . . constraining. It’s not what I’m used to.
The 100th meridian west marks the a change in the ecosystem of North America where the precipitation no longer supports large forests; or even scattered trees. The geography from there to the Rocky Mountains is dominated by . . . flatness.
The earliest explorers came, saw the plains, were frightened by it, and proclaimed it uninhabitable and left. Later others, hardier souls, came and flourished there. My grandparents came; and so the prairie is my earliest memory.
As I have lived many years on the coastal plains of Texas, I enjoy the flatlands here, but there are just too many trees blocking the sky to be comfortable. In recent months I have been traveling a extensively by car: across central and western Texas; across central and western Oklahoma, across eastern New Mexico, across eastern Colorado; across eastern Wyoming and even across Kansas and Nebraska. They are all alike to me: comfortable; like home. No trees; just flat country where you can rest your eyes and see the full dome of the sky all at one glance. Home.
People joke about the lack of scenery. I don’t get the joke. It is full of scenery to me.
Does that sound crazy? But think about it: where you grow up – what you experienced as a child – that place will always be home to you. If you grew up on the seashore, or in the mountains, or in a great city – that would always be familiar and comforting to you.
The early pioneers thought that they would go crazy living in “the great American desert”. Some of them truly did. Read any of the works of Willa Cather, or of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or any author who grew up on the prairie and you will see how the wide open spaces affected those from the wooded, hilly east. How much more impact was there for the immigrants from Scandinavia who populate O. E. Rolvaag’s masterpiece. The only sound they heard was the grass bending in the wind: “tish-ah”.
A couple of years ago the National Geographic featured North America’s Great Plains and I was struck by how few of us there are: some sections between the 100th meridian and the Rockies have a population density lower than that of Greenland.
But we, the children of the prairie pioneers, think of it as home, and always will. Nothing is strange there for us, just the familiar sky and wind and grassland.
So, will our great grandchildren someday think of Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” as home? Will they be uncomfortable with places that have trees and . . . air?
Is it too much to imagine that somewhere west of another 100th meridian, the great great grandchildren of our grandchildren will look west at the shining peaks in the distance and feel that there is nothing strange with the rusty appearance of Olympus Mons and its neighboring peaks?
Human beings are infinitely adaptable. The most extreme places on this planet have their admirers, those who wish to live there. Just because it is not your home, don’t imagine that your great great grandchildren won’t live there – and love it.