Monday, August 15, 2011

Prairie as Home Ground

Greg was born here in prairie country. I adopted it later in my life, after our marriage and after learning about some of the prairie's complexity and subtleties. When Greg retired from Public Health, it seemed natural to come back to this countryside that had been our longest lasting home.

Every once in a while, I read a book that reaffirms our home connection to the prairie lands. I just finished one such book today: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home by Paul Gruchow.

Grass Roots is a series of essays about the prairie, about Gruchow's history growing up within its boundaries, and about the reciprocal relationship between the prairie and the people who inhabit it. Ranging from personal stories of his childhood to descriptions of plants and animals to pointed (sometimes grouchy) commentary, he speaks of the education of our children, the pros and cons of the government's agricultural policies, and what it means to be home somewhere, especially home on the prairie.

Many years ago, I started underlining, starring and commenting in books I owned. To some extent, I judge the value of the book by the amount of personal ink marking its pages. Flipping through Grass Roots, it's obvious that I found a lot to think about as I read it. I'll close this brief review with a few quotes that may help give the flavor of this interesting and thought-provoking book.

"A home, like a garden, exists as much in time as in space. A home is the place in the present where one's past and one's future come together, the crossroads between history and heaven." p.4

"To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have made it the custom and ordinary practice of our lives, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns once wore. The word habit, in its now-dim original form, meant to own. We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives." p. 6 [My highlighting.]

"[The prairie] teaches us that grandeur can be wide as well as tall." p.77

"Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn't always show." p. 77

"After our move we were not lonely because we were poor or because we lived in a house without books. We were lonely because we no longer lived in a community." p. 86

"Can you, I asked those students, imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can't. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are the passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world." p. 130

"Ironically, even the weeds that plague our imported crops have been imported. When we came here, we packed up even our troubles and brought them along." p. 136


Benjamin Vogt said...

I need to know the context of that second to last quote. It sounds like he believes int he power of naming, yet that power is exactly what displaced Native Americans and their oral culture. It seems to me the un-name-able and unsayable or what counts, and what we refuse to allow to be bigger than us.

Gaia Gardener: said...

The context was an essay on the need to develop a relationship with nature - that many, many people now are so completely disconnected from the natural world that they cannot even recognize some of the commonest of plants and animals. The premise of the essay is fairly well contained in this quote from earlier in it, "One way to understand our relationship with nature is to undertake the basic work of naming its constituents." (p. 124)

As I understand it, the Native Americans had names for the plants and animals and knew them well, although the European settlers may not have valued the North American plants and animals enough to have learned those names. The Native Americans were embedded within the natural world; the Europeans were bound and determined to subdue it (and them).