WHERE THE SKY BEGAN: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson
Kirkus Star

WHERE THE SKY BEGAN: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A midland bounty--eloquent and encyclopedic--for the growing corps of prairie enthusiasts. First comes ""the new country"" that the settlers found: the dense Eastern forest giving way abruptly to brightness, to light and space--or, for some, to ""monotony, gloom, and loneliness."" Then: ""Why grass?"" Why not trees? And Madson explains the contributory geological and climatic factors, and the decisive one: ""exposure to prairie sun and wind""--advantageous to grasses, disadvantageous to trees. (In the ""hard-fought war"" between them, drought cycles and wildfire also checked the advance of trees.) Madson is clearly a grass man: ""Unlike the miserly trees, a grass does not hoard [its] energy by tying it up in woody structure. The grass spends itself freely and annually. . . ."" He describes the variety and distribution of wild grasses, and how to distinguish native prairie (a ""shaggy, fierce look"") from land gone wild and weedy; he has chapters on prairie flowers (which ""come on in waves, each in its own time""), and ""prairyerths"" (lighter and springier than field soils), and prairie fauna--their distinguishing traits (grassland animals often have speed and sharp eyes; ""grassland birds commonly sing from the air""), as well as the distinctive among them (some, like the prairie chicken, all but vanished). In a book to be dipped into and picked over, the animal lore is a high point, along with the grasslands-forest ""war."" But there are those--readers of Ole RÖlvaag, Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder--who will take most to the tales of the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 and other prairie weather ""theatrics."" The best weather, says Madson, is simply a relief from the worst. His second focus, after ""The Place,"" is ""The People."" You will hear about main-chancers, or ""Pikes"" (discontented ""with whatever Pike County he happened to hail from""), about the lineage of prairie plows, how the dirt floors of soddies were kept clean, the ""primitive abundance"" and cultural lag; ultimately, the ""freedom and stability"" nourished by confidence in the soil. A last chapter has to do, fittingly, with prairie preservation and re-creation, a Madson specialty; and there's an appended state-by-state list of prairie preserves--plus a tantalizing bibliography (bulletins, brochures, school texts) which would take a lifetime to assemble. Altogether: a sourcebook, prime reading, easeful learning--and a lure.

Pub Date: June 16th, 1982
ISBN: 0877458618
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin