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The Sublime Beauty of the Great Plains

Coming from Glacier National Park, where he and a friend had just taken the Going-to-the-Sun Highway, coming off that grandeur, you might imagine Ian Frazier, the writer, holding his nose while descending into the nothingness we call the plains. No, ma’am.

Frazier wanted to show his friend the Great Plains: “For some miles, pine trees and foothills are all around; then, suddenly, there is nothing across the road but sky. . .and you come over a little rise, and the horizon jumps a hundred miles away in an instant.”

I love that line. We live on the edge of that world, and I can’t help but think that sometimes it helps to see it from other people’s eyes, the world where, as someone once wrote, there’s more space than place. That’s where we live.

Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth catches the profound effects of the immensity, an effect so powerful that the Per Hansa’s wife, Beret, is emotionally disarmed by the “nameless, blue-green solitude, flat, endless.”

In winter especially—like right now--ours is not a world for dandies.

In A. B. Guthrie’s The Way West, wagonmaster Evans, is shocked. “He thought he knew what he was going to see, but when his horse stood on the summit, he couldn’t believe. . .that flat could be so flat or that distance could be so far or that the sky lifted so dizzy-deep or that the world stood so empty.” He doesn’t know what to say or think: “. . .it was something he couldn’t put a name to that held him. He thought he never had seen the world before. He had never known distance until now.”

It’s winter now; snow flies, temps drop, and it’s hard to be in love with this world of ours when that world just doesn’t care.

But then, this may be the best time to listen to Rolvaag and Ian Frazier and A. B. Guthrie, the time to let them tell us what we may have forgotten.

Listen, maybe, to a 19th century, wild-eyed preacher like James Leander Scott, a Seventh-Day Baptist and bloody arrogant about it. In 1842, Scott felt the call to preach the gospel out west because someone had to save reckless pioneers from long tongues of hell fire.

Somewhere out here, James Leander Scott fell victim to the prairie's stunning beauty. He hit it just right, late spring, when the world was a flowery maze. "The Botanist," he says in his memoir, "might be lost in this natural and almost unbounded garden of flowers." It's just plain too beautiful, even for a preacher. "It is in vain to attempt to describe fully this grandeur-dressed garden of nature,” Scott wrote, “unparalleled in beauty."

He’s talking about our world. He is. The three of them--himself, his wife, and his son--"alike enchanted stand like fixed monuments with the head bent forward, as though the whole soul was thrown at once into the eyes.” That’s the preacher talking.

And then this: “The mind almost fancies itself in an unsullied world of joy.”

The June prairie, he says, is the Garden of Eden. He’s talking about our world. He just couldn't help getting lost in all the beauty.

My phone says it’s -5—I’d don’t want to know about wind-chill. What sits in stillness outside my window is frozen solid, broad and uninviting.

Want to shake the doldrums? Warm up the car and go west to Hwy. 12, north to Butcher Road, and take the gravel up as high as you can go in the Broken Kettle Grassland, then pull over, take a breath, and look west. I swear, “the horizon jumps a hundred miles away in an instant.”

I don’t care how cold it is, sit there for a few moments and feel the grand expanse out there forever before you—frozen maybe, but, as says the preacher-man who couldn’t stop himself from saying, “unparalleled in beauty.”

Might even see a buffalo.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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