Reviewed by A.S. Penne
After my first visit to the prairies in 1999, I returned to the west coast enthusiastic about what I had seen. Trouble was, I could find no words to convince friends and family -- people who think of the prairies as nothing but miles of wheat -- about the transformational experience I had there. Eyes took on a glazed look whenever I tried to paint a picture of the insignificance I felt beneath the hugeness of the prairie sky. Even words like "vast" and "ancient," or colours like "sage" and "pewter" did nothing for those inexperienced with the land that Paul Gruchow writes about. So when, at one point in Journal of a Prairie Year, he returns to the place of his upbringing after a long absence and brings along a friend, my sympathy rises as they arrive to find "the land clutched in the suffocating embrace of a long drought." Impossible to persuade others of the inherent beauty of a place when all they can see is the never-ending distance. As Gruchow explains: "What seems flat seems empty," but only to those who "come unequipped" to the relentless scale of such a landscape.
"To live on the prairie is to daydream," he says in his prologue, "[i]t is the only conceivable response to such immensity." And after decades spent pushing to succeed as a parent, a teacher, a writer, I can think of no more rewarding an occupation than daydreaming. How better to allow the mind and soul to settle and listen, to appreciate what is already there?
As much as Journal of a Prairie Year is about the magnificence of the Midwest grasslands, Gruchow's book is also an invitation to learn about the self and how we, as individuals, fit into a much larger schematic of the world. And if you have lived in a city most of your life, without having yet discovered the prairies, his Journal will introduce you, via minutely detailed descriptions, to a heightened sense of sight and sound.
As befits a lover of nature, Gruchow speaks reverentially about his native lands. The four seasons are the backdrop against which he shares his knowledge of life on the prairie, beginning, interestingly enough, with the harshest season. He says, "When the winter sky puts on that face, the only possible response is to keep silent as before any many-splendored thing." About spring, he admonishes that "life should be freshly captured by each new generation and not ... handed down like the baby's old clothes," describing the return of the geese by the adolescent quality of their honking, "the way it starts in a resonant baritone and suddenly tumbles out of control into a high squeak." Gruchow describes the colors of summer by saying that "One could devote one's life to a study of the distinctions in the color green and not yet have learned all there is to know." He writes a soliloquy-like passage to the prairie's natural grasses and plants, considered weeds by most, calling them "unspeakably seedy and wonderful" and expounds on their place in history by telling us how things might have been if only we had left the prairies in their natural state. The autumn change of weather heralds the start of school, football and the harvest, "the landscape ... bright with a hundred hues of brown and tan and black." Even so, now "[i]t seemed more like the beginning of something than the end of it."
Throughout this journal, Gruchow's voice is one of calm reassurance. Even during the rising tension of a thunderstorm, when "[s]ilence came over the land ... like the taking of a sharp breath," his words reflect an admiration for the laws of nature. The effect, of course, is that we are constantly reminded of our place in the natural world.
Mankind is not, the author likes to point out, any more important to the workings of the planet than the dragonfly, the worm, or the weather systems enveloping the earth. The truth is "the varieties of life [are put] into mutually exclusive but complementary places." Perhaps this is why Gruchow regularly uses passive constructions in his sentences, to remind us of the repetitive cycles of nature. So, for instance, he will give an overview of a season or a description of a particular place by saying: "The sap was running again ... the cattails were sprouting" or "The prairie beans were developing fruits; the ground plums were showing the first tinges of rose..." A contemporary writer, by comparison, would be more likely to use the simple past tense ("The sap ran again ... the cattails sprouted," or "The prairie beans developed fruit, the ground plums showed the first tinge of rose"), wanting to engage readers in the immediate moment. But this particularity of style is one that, again, prods us to recognize the continual processes of nature.
In the end, Gruchow's journal enchanted me as much as the land he writes about. Just as he says "There is never any sharp line between one season and the next," his book carried me through the year in a long dissolve of dreaming about the wide expanse of prairies. When finally he writes that "I felt at ease ... my sense of distance [come] back," I felt my own reluctance to close the book and return to a hurried west coast life.
A.S. Penne is the author of Reckoning (Turnstone Press, 2008), a first collection of short fiction, and Old Stones (Touchwood Editions, 2002), a creative nonfiction work chronicling the lives of three generations with roots in World War II England. Her work has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic, notably the Ian St James Award from the U.K. and the Writers' Digest Award. She was a participant at both the Iowa Writers Workshop (2002) and the Banff Writing Studio (2004). Other than writing, she also freelances as an editor and coordinates a weekly workshop for new writers. Visit her website: www.aspenne.com
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post