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. Stop by in a few days to read the rest of the interview.
Holly Carver: Your reader begins with a collection of commonplaces, impressions written by early tallgrass explorers. How did you decide to set the stage in this way?
John T. Price: I felt it was essential to offer readers a series of impressions by those who experienced the tallgrass prairie as a wilderness or frontier, so they could “see” what it was like before being largely settled by Euro-Americans. What they’ll find there is not only a startling diversity of plant and animal life but also a diversity of emotional responses to an environment that was, for many of them, beyond anything they had ever seen or imagined. These responses include fear, awe, disgust, and reverence but also more practical responses focused on the tallgrass prairie as a potentially unlimited resource, whether for hunting or agriculture.
Also on display is a wide range of perspectives on indigenous human cultures living on the tallgrass prairies and savannas. Contrary to how prairie is often represented, this was definitely not a “boring” landscape to those who experienced it back then. It provoked very strong responses, which were as extreme as the weather. I think readers will also find in these early quotes the seeds of the ongoing, sometimes heated discussion over the meaning and “value” of tallgrass prairie. This discussion is picked up by later writers in the anthology and remains at the center of contemporary debates over preserving and restoring these ecosystems.
HC: Were there any surprises for you while researching these and the other pieces in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader?
JTP: There were many, many surprises. As I say in the introduction, the story of the tallgrass prairie that emerged from my research complicated many of my preconceptions about that ecosystem and also about nature writing itself. Some of this had to do with the history of the land. I expected, for instance, to find a lot more nineteenth-century encounters with bison on the tallgrass, but although there were large herds in the region as late as 1820, they weren’t as numerous as they were farther west on the short and mixed-grass prairies. Also, the tall grass and the often wet ground didn’t lend itself well to hunting bison at full gallop on horseback, one of the staples of popular western literature at the time.
More prominent in the literature of the tallgrass prairie, at least during the nineteenth century, were elk and deer. Also prominent are encounters with prairie-chickens and other bird species as well as flowers and insects, which often led to writing that is less about adventure and high drama and more about close observation and quiet reflection. The exceptions are the dramatic and sometimes frightening encounters with weather, including blizzards, droughts, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, but those, too, added a surprising aspect to the literature of the tallgrass, where the sky itself is as much part of the prairie experience as what exists on the ground.
I also expected to find more examples of encounters with “pure” tallgrass prairie, but so much of the writing about prairie, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, occurred in the midst of writing about other ecosystems, such as wetlands, oak savannas, and other woodlands. In retrospect that makes complete sense. Not only were the tallgrass prairies intimately entwined with these ecosystems, but early travelers and settlers in the region were forced to stay close to water and trees for sustenance, fuel, building materials, and a sense of protection. Add to that the way trees, thanks to fire repression and other factors, have encroached on land previously dominated by prairie species. Consequently, there are selections in this anthology where the prairies—or individual prairie species—make only a brief but nevertheless important cameo appearance.
Likewise, perhaps because no other ecosystem has been as profoundly altered by humans or is now more dependent on human intervention for its long-term existence, there are a lot of people featured in tallgrass literature. This also works against traditional notions of nature writing as an escape from human interaction and toward uninterrupted encounters with the wild. Here the human and natural communities are inalterably entwined, whether on farms or in cities or on prairie restorations and preserves. The tallgrass prairies do not allow us the luxury of escaping the history of our past on this land or our direct responsibility for its present and future.