John T. Price’s anthology of prairie writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, goes on sale in June—just the right time to enjoy Iowa’s wild beauty! Editor Holly Carver talked to him about the book.
Holly Carver: I hear that your cold-hearted editor forced you to leave fiction and poetry out of your anthology. Which pieces were hardest to omit?
John T. Price: Terribly cold-hearted (I say with affection), but early on I could see how, if we were to include all our favorite works about tallgrass prairies, across all genres, this project would have filled volumes. Still, it was painful to leave out influential works such as William Cullen Bryant’s 1832 poem “The Prairies” and Carl Sandburg’s 1918 poem, “Prairie,” which was recently quoted in a speech by President Obama. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fiction, which was based on the author’s real-life experiences, includes what I feel are important descriptions of tallgrass prairie wildlife, especially rare, positive, and truly beautiful portrayals of wolves, which are now extinct from these parts. Among contemporary fiction and poetry writers, the list is too long to include here, but I was especially sad to leave out the prairie poetry of Twyla Hansen, the current Nebraska State Poet, who is a real model of literary advocacy on behalf of the tallgrass.
HC: Your reader begins with works of nineteenth-century authors ranging from high adventure to romanticism. Then, after the destruction of the majority of the tallgrass, the writings become nostalgic, even epic and tragic. Next comes an emerging environmental consciousness, followed by a larger ecological perspective informed by hard science. What’s next on the tallgrass literary horizon?
JTP: This is a great question. A lot depends on the success of the ongoing efforts to protect and restore the tallgrass prairies. They are still terribly underprotected and very much in danger of vanishing from the planet—which is unconscionable. When I think about the future of the tallgrass and its literature, I often think of a 1964 quote by farmer and environmentalist Eugene Poirot: “The once great prairies with their fruits and wildlife nourished our nation through its weak infancy. They nourished it again through its reckless and wasteful adolescence. The nation has now reached a maturity which should make it capable of recognizing that the prairie can no longer give that which it does not have and that as man destroys it he destroys himself.”
As Poirot implied, a deeper sense of personal identification with the prairies is essential. The prairie, even in its currently diminished state, still has a lot of inspiration and beauty to offer those who seek to understand and appreciate it, including writers. My hope is that more people will give back to the prairies by dedicating their talents, whatever they are, to helping ensure its survival. But this begins with seeing the tallgrass prairie, no matter where you live, as “home.” As home, it becomes a place worthy not only of our attention but also our love and protection. As home, it becomes a place to return to and find our rightful place in the world, no matter how far we’ve strayed, no matter what mistakes we’ve made in the past.
If that happens, if we begin to see the prairies as our collective home again—“America’s Representative Landscape,” as Walt Whitman put it— we may see a resurgence of tallgrass ecosystems and a tallgrass literature that is once again full of the awe, wonder, respect, and reverence that define our most meaningful experiences of wilderness.