While visiting Walla Walla, Washington, where I had taught for some years at Whitman College, I took a side trip over to northeast Oregon, one of the most beautiful and least known parts of our country. There I visited the Zumwalt Prairie, which has been saved by the Nature Conservancy.
The prairies many of us see these days are a weak echo of the ones that had existed for thousands of years in Western North America. Those grasslands were mixes of perennial bunch grasses with herbs and wild flowers growing between the grasses. These prairies provided both great beauty and abundant forage for many birds and animals. The Zumwalt is one of the richest remaining areas in the United States for hawks.
Captivated by the promise of dollars and the belief that they should dominate these ‘savage’ places, land and people alike, they could not be bothered to take the time to get to know either people or land. America’s treatment of the land was no better than its genocide against the Indians. In most places the great grassy gardens are as forgotten as the Indians and animals that once lived there.
But in out of the way corners, the land survived. As did the Indians.
Gary Snyder once wrote that the spirit of place was the sum total of the energy fields of everything that lived there. Seeing a native prairie in its original richness is a wonderful conformation to me of his observation. It has a qualitatively different ‘feel’ from the beautiful but impoverished landscapes of modern ranching.
I worry that our hurried and mostly urban lives, rich as they are in some ways, are deeply impoverished in terms of our awareness of where we live and the relationships within wich we are immersed. We are rich in things, but so poor in relationships we barely miss them.