Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Nature writing has been a component of American Great Plains literature ever since Lewis and Clark captured their impressions of the Plains in their journals. Long before, Native peoples had described their existence in stories about nature, passed on from generation to generation. The land's presence indelibly marks itself in language, making nature a part of Plains fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and drama. Frederick Philip Grove's Over Prairie Trails (1922) marks the beginning of a vital body of twentieth-century Great Plains nature writing that has emerged in both the United States and Canada. This literary tradition gazes back upon the irrevocable environmental changes on the Plains, noting the loss of species, the depletion of resources, the economic boom-and-bust cycles that have populated and depopulated areas, and the traumatic displacement of Native peoples. Grove's narrative positions a lone traveler on the Plains both fascinated with and distrustful of the natural forces confronting him. This ambivalence toward such a vast landscape is a signature mood in much Plains nature writing.

The natural landscape today reveals an environment vastly different from that encountered by Lewis and Clark in 1804. The aftermath of settlement haunts contemporary Plains nature writers such as Gretel Ehrlich, Ian Frazier, Don Gayton, Linda Hasselstrom, Wes Jackson, William Least Heat-Moon, John McPhee, and Wallace Stegner. Least Heat- Moon's metaphor of deep mapping that conflates natural and human history through time and space provides an understanding of contemporary nature writing of the Plains. Like geologists, these writers create crosssectional narratives of natural history, illuminating the strata in which natural history makes contact with human cultures, in which deep time and human time collide. John Janovy's textual journeys to Keith County, Nebraska, illustrate the complex histories that Plains nature writers create. Evolutionary history is rich in Keith County (and in Don Gayton's Saskatchewan), yet European Americans have rapidly altered what has taken millions of years to create. Plains human history unravels at an even faster pace. Around the abandoned homesteads, ghost towns, and empty schoolyards, nature reasserts its claim. Species become extinct, but the niches will be filled with new plants and animals. In a "tallgrass dream," Gayton ponders the complexity of reestablishing grasslands that are all but gone.

Nature writing of the Plains is as much about the human response to change as it is about the natural world's adjustment to change. It examines the human need for spiritual connection to the land. Kathleen Norris coined the phrase "spiritual geography" to define her search for meaning in western South Dakota, and other nature writers of the Plains, including Loren Eiseley, Sharon Butala, Don Gayton, Linda Hogan, Least Heat-Moon, Norris, and Dan O'Brien have also expressed with memorable poignancy their spiritual hungers. To counter the sense of fragmentation that often accompanies life in embattled communities, these writers seek wisdom in the land. Some, like Linda Hasselstrom, are acutely aware of how tenuous humans' hold on the land is. An entire way of life is threatened when ranchers and farmers face economic hardships. Native writers in particular turn back to the land to re-create their tribal legacies and to recover suppressed spiritual traditions.

Nature writing of the Plains, therefore, expresses multiple themes: to account for loss, to acknowledge mistakes, to preserve and celebrate what remains, and to retrace centuries of change. To accomplish such layered narratives, nature writers of the Plains cross boundaries of genre and discipline, region and country, gender and culture. In voicings rich and variant, they examine complex issues of science, history, and human desire.

Susan Naramore Maher University of Nebraska at Omaha

Lyon, Thomas J. "The Nature Essay in the West." In A Literary History of the American West, edited by J. Golden Taylor. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987: 221–65.

Quantic, Diane Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

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