Lit. Classes Head for Virgin Prairie

Tanya Marsh

Tanya Marsh

When I began telling peple that my Literature of the American West class was going to go on a field trip to see some never-before-plowed prairie by Miller, So. Dak., I got some negative responses.

“Why do you need to go all the way out there? There’s probably virgin prairie everywhere.”

Not likely. After all, the Homestead Act encouraged people to plow up the land — “improve it.” Very little was left untouched. Even today, the pressure to plow the prairie remains.

Roger and Marsha Gerdes, owners of the virgin prairie we checked out, are worried about their untouched field. Without heirs, they are trying to keep the land safe from the plow once he is gone.

Roger explained that people will try to plow just about every plot of land, because they can smell the money in it. The virgin prairie on Gerdes’ ranch was lucky to escape the plow; it’s mostly flat and even has a small pond that could be used for irrigation.

“You’re driving two hours to look at grass? Have fun!”

I have to admit, I wondered if this might be the case. I mean, I knew we were getting a free lunch out on the ranch so there was more to the trip than just looking at grass, but after all, grass is practically the definition of prairie.

But (fortunately) I was wrong. We did see a lot of grass, but there were many different kinds — kinds people don’t grow for suburban lawns. We also noted wildflowers and saw deer and a hawk of some kind.

In addition, we looked at the land forms, like a buffalo run and the pond. Roger showed us unique rocks and Native American arrowheads he’d found on the ranch.

Perhaps one of the most intesting things we saw was nothing at all. Acres of space. Room to breathe. And hearing nothing but the roaring prairie wind was calming.

So, scoffers: It’s rare. It’s not just grass. It’s special.