The unbroken prairie stretched for miles outside, and the wistful-faced sheep were always near at hand. Often mother used to go out and lie down among them for company, when she was alone for the day!¹
Mad from perpetually open space, wind sounds, the drone of insects, even silence. Transplants from a less open and unpopulated region, they could not fathom such endlessness. Prairie madness — a phenomenon some pioneers, mostly women, experienced. I have known a land of horizon where someone must prove the world is not flat. Corn and soybeans stretch mile after mile. The romance of the pioneer combined with the lure of madness is too rich with associations to ignore.
Like my parents, I was born and have lived my life in Illinois, the Prairie State, where less than 1 percent of original grassland remains. Some has been and is being restored, but once an ocean of grasses spread below the sky. A world without echo. The wildness of grassland needed to be domesticated. We could not live with it. The grasses have long ago been torn from earth, cracking and popping with the rip of blades. Before corn, there were miles of root structures attached to the grasses and flowers of the tallgrass prairie—an ocean of bluegrass, wave upon wave as far as one could see. The sound of God’s whispers.
We made the land habitable. Much of what makes us human is the struggle to understand how we do, or do not, fit in with our environment. Those with prairie madness could not make this space at home in their psyches. Each day they turned over the richest soil on earth with moldboard plows, and, later, John Deere’s. The first fields of the world’s future breadbasket. But the vastness and solitude were too wide for the inner self to manage. In her book Indiana Winter, Susan Neville states:
Out here in the heart of the country we’ve rationalized every inch of earth — all the straight lines of highway and farm and township — but mystery and wildness still lie waiting deep inside every particle of the world, waiting to whirl or crack or ooze into our ordered lives, whether or not we’ve prepared for it.²
Humans need systems: straight lines of highway and farm and township. We name the parts of the world around us. Because we name and list, we survive. Or vice versa?
A world of rows, paths, roads. As a child I heard corn grow and now everything is noise. A force below pushes corn plants upward through earth into air. The saying is that corn should be “knee high by the Fourth of July.” All summer it reaches higher, sometimes drier, sometimes wet, exuding the scent of pollen — the sound of rough, green stalks rustling, the sound of corn growing.
Perhaps our way of thinking was shaped by this horizontal and vertical world, the neural impulses of our brains dictated by it. Can this explain our hesitance to explore other mental-emotional topography as if sphericity does not exist? Richard Manning in Grassland describes the process of dividing up the land:
The Jeffersonian grid or rectilinear cadastral survey took the navigators’ lines of latitude and longitude and subdivided them in squares down to the township level, a square area of six-by-six miles. The thirty-six square miles were divided into sections of land of 640 acres each. These were quartered to 160 acres called a quarter section, then requartered to 40-acre plots.³
The mathematics of place transformed the landscape: the West as a grid. A face transposed on it. The men who created such systems may not have understood how it felt to stand in grass taller than them in a vastness with no point of reference to anchor to, no geometry of space for guidance, no familiar trees — nothing of the eastern United States or of Europe. Acres of windswept grasses and flowers swelling in waves. Held fast by the grasp of roots.
A house is a powerful image and symbol. It is the civilizing drive — what we construct to protect ourselves from the elements, to convince us we have a higher nature, to fulfill a need to put down roots, to lay claim like the early settlers did.
A house speaks to us and we always remember what it says.
The power of a house does not lie in its physical structure. It lies within us — we are the repositories of the sum of its memory and language, dream and nightmare. The house forms our psyche, and we think and speak as if it, the psyche, were a house.
The basement is the subterranean part of consciousness where anything is possible to imagine, any act conjured. Entering our basement’s confines without a light is like walking into the darkest part of ourselves, the most feared, the most irrational, the most dangerous. What is below the surface is what we do not speak of directly, what we are not aware of, but lies deep within us just the same.
The main floors represent the everyday, or conscious, life. Words and images are just what they are. Where living is safe (most of the time), even mundane. And the attic. The symbolism of an attic clearly involves time’s passage, mortality: the part of our consciousness that hopes our time here will count for something besides the physical signs of living — photos and memorabilia — a spiritual hope.
I cannot remember taking leave of the house in which I spent most of my childhood and youth, and as time has passed, it is like not having seen the body at the wake of a loved one, as if being denied the right to grieve. The novelist William Goyen, quoted in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, says, “the childhood home comes to life in us. For before us — Goyen makes us understand this — it was quite anonymous. It was a place that was lost in the world.”4
A place that was lost in the world. What a poetic image of home!
It needs us to fulfill it, to bring it fully to life.
So after we have left it, are we lost in the world for a time, perhaps, in some ways, for all time?
Earlier, houses were made of, excavated from, braced, embraced by earth — prairie sod houses or the dugout homes of the 1800s. Some houses blend into their surroundings as I express in my poem about Wright’s prairie home.
Prairie Home: Frank Lloyd Wright
Nature’s color, symmetry
the long sweep of horizon.
In balanced rooms
into the focused hearth.
A house building itself
out of the earth
and into the light
as a life builds outward
from within, becomes
the space around it.
And what of the idea of space as matter? Wright once said that the real house was the space within it. These spaces are where we live, thus the real home — not the glass, beams, or floors. We use these spaces to fit our moods and intentions. The more we live in symbiosis with these spaces, the more “lived in” the house feels, the more “moored” we are to it.
These and similar images console us with the promise, or illusion, of stability — the yearning to be buried near home, regardless of where we may reside at the time of death, where our true selves still lie in a cauldron of dreams and images.
Finally, we lie below, horizontally, like rows between corn — the same position in which we dreamed, inhabited by the house itself.
/EARTH/ That which is not sky. They meet further down the road. My parents know you can get anywhere on foot — eventually. Tender sprouts of corn, soybean. Night crawlers in morning dew. Farmers work from sunup to sundown, a big meal midday. We care for lawns as if we have cleared land to build our houses from prairie sod. As if wanton Indian grass, pitcher grass, can still strangle us. Grass is a powerful symbol of our want to be of the earth, still. /AIR/ In January’s bitter cold, you filter it through the nose. April winds foretell the coming explosion: the tender first breaths of warming roots. August’s stifling liquid air, heavy smells of fecundity. The wind whipping branches at a storm’s onset — the scent of rain. Smells of cider, burning leaves, mortality. /FIRE/ Sun cannot surprise. Nothing blocks its resurrection or burial. Some days shade is sacred. Long ago, in spring, in fall, the red buffalo galloped across prairie burning acre after acre of grassland. In this way, nature’s balance was maintained. Now, in deep summer, it feels as if everything, our very selves, will ignite. /WATER/ We could use a good, soaking rain. A hope. It smells like rain. A need. Earth and water have a relationship out of which we stay. We have enough to balance. Here where we live the middle way. In this land of earth, water has to be sought out. I never saw a large body of water until I was older. A rare river was the largest body of water to make it this far inland. We would swim in a gravel pit transformed into a “lake” and a “beach.” I remember the sheer joy of running in the rain wearing a swimming suit, currents of water along curbs, the swooshing sound of it running down storm drains.
Wildflowers, as well as their habitats, tend to be fragile. In general, such flowers are seldom suited for bouquets. They are better left growing as nature intended and preserved by memory or photograph.5
Lillium, Lonicera, French willow
Orange root, Oxalis,
Bittersweet, Boneset, Celadine.
Poison ash, Hepatica.
Prairie fire, Puffball, Queen-
Rock lilly, Rosa, Rue
Milkmaids, Moonseed, Shooting star.
Sweet slumber, Sea
sedge, Sweet anise.
Spring orchis, Trillium, Trumpet
ash. Wakerobin, Wapatoo,
will shoe. Wickawee, Bloodroot,
Indian apple. Cloistered heart,
not. Shame face,
Yarrow, Widow’s frill. Venus cup.
Love knot, Angelica, Bleeding
- Joanna Stratton, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (New York, 1982), 58.
- Susan Neville, Indiana Winter (Bloomington, IN, 1994), 102–3.
- Richard Manning, Grassland (New York, 1995), 96.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1994), 58.
- Sylvan T. Runkel and Alvin F Bull, Wildflowers of Illinois Woodlands (Ames, IA, 1994), viii.
Marc Frazier is a Chicago-area, LGBTQ author who has published poetry widely in journals (over one hundred) including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, and Poet Lore. He’s published several memoir pieces. He has had flash fiction published. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Frazier has published three full-length poetry books and will publish another in 2023.