Andropogon gerardii, Big Bluestem, is the star of the prairie show. Among the big four grasses her under-stated beauty exudes self confidence. Increasingly reclusive, her appearances are unpredictable, and as anticipated as any of the glitterati stalked by the prairie paparazzi!
When she emerges into the sunlight and blooms perhaps a thousand years of underground roots cheer her on.
Her performance is ancient and yet relevant. Timeless and still modern. She was the face of the grassy wilderness before it was torn in two.
And if you listen you can still hear her voice; you can still hear her singing and sometimes you can even catch the echo of her demise.
I’m sure her carmine-green-ochre stems–kissed with the pink glaucous bloom of youth–can yet remember when the prairie quaked before her with thundering applause from cloven hooves rushing to feast on her sugary leaves and chew them in their cud.
It must have been one of the biggest attractions the prairies had to offer. She emerged from curly green curtains in late summer and into the fall lofting her characteristic turkey foot into the air like liberty lifting her lamp beside the golden door. With swagger. And with sway.
In many ways she should be seen as the icon of the plight of the wild prairie before the steel age when an Englishman –Sir Henry Bessemer–learned how to remove the impurities from molten iron and strengthen it enough to take on her tough grassroots buried in the prairie sod.
But it was an American–John Deere–that sculpted that steel into shape, allowing the American Dream to be carved from her domain–in singular 160 acre squares–turning the Great Plains upside down, remaking it into a massive checker board of hopes and dreams unlike any the world had ever seen.
When I began stalking the wild prairie grass I sought her first among the commoners. She of course could not be found there. Finally I found a few stems along the fence where she sought refuge during the destruction that began with the Industrial Revolution.
I visited her at sunset this evening along the railroad tracks near here to photograph a fine stand on a stretch of forgotten prairie. Suddenly the ground began to quake, and for a moment I imagined bison thundering past.
How ironic that today she occurs along ribbons of steel that saved tiny passages of prairie from passing away.