A Step-Daughter of the Prairie

FAR away on the almost bare line of the prairie’s horizon, a group of trees used to show. There was a tall one and a short one, and then a tallish crooked one and another short one. To my childish eyes they spelled l-i-f-e, as plainly as any word in my second reader was spelled. They were the point that most fascinated me as I knelt at the upstairs window, with my elbows on the sill and my chin on my folded arms. I don’t know when I first noticed them, for they had been there always, so far as I could remember, a scanty little bit of fringe on a horizon that was generally clear and bare. There were tips of other woods, farther to the south, woods that were slightly known to me; but that group of trees on the very edge seemed to lie beyond the knowledge of any one. Even on the afternoons when I was allowed to go with my father on one of his business errands, and we drove and drove and drove, we never came in sight of it. Yet, when I next went upstairs and looked from the window, there it stood against the sky.

I had no sense of making an allegory of it. At that age, to the fairytale-fed child, the line between allegory and reality is scarcely perceptible anyway, and at least negligible. The word on the horizon was quite a matter of course to me. An older person, had it occurred to me to mention the matter, would perhaps have seen something significant, even worthy of sentimental remark, in the child’s spelling out the life waiting for her on her far horizon. But to me, mystery as it was, it was also a matter of fact; there it stood, and that was all. Yet it was also a romance, a sort of unformulated promise. It was related to the far distant, to the remote in time, to the thing that was some day to be known.

So I rested my chin on my little arms and watched.

I suppose the fact that the trees were evidently big and old — ours were still young and small — and perhaps a part of some woods, was their chief appeal to me. For no one can picture what the woods mean to the prairie child. They are a glimpse of dream-things, an illustration of poems read, a mystery of undefined possibilities. To pass through our scant bits of woods, even, was an excursion into a strange world. From places on the road to town, we could see pieces of timber. On some blessed occasions when a muddy hollow was impassable or when the Howell bridge, the impermanent structure of a prairie country, was out, we went around through the Crossley woods. That was an experience! The depth of greenness — the prairie had nothing like it.

I think my eyes were born tired of the prairie, ungrateful little soul that I was. And the summer shadows in the woods were marvelous. The shadow of the prairie was that of a passing cloud, or the square shade of some building, deepest at noon-day. But the green depths of the woods’ shadows, the softly-moving light and shade, were a wonderful thing. To me these trips put all probability on a new basis. Out on the bare prairie, under the shining sun, stories were stories, the dearest of them inventions. But in these shady depths, where my little eyes were led on from green space through green space to a final dimness, anything might be true. Fiction and tradition took on a reality that the glaring openness would not allow. Things that were different might happen in a wood. I could not help expecting a new experience. But it never came: we passed out of the timber to the prairie again. But at least expectation had been stirred. The possibility that something might happen seemed nearer.

For Romance was always just around the corner, or just a little way ahead. But out on the prairie how could one overtake it? Where could the unknown lurk in that great open? The woods seemed to put me nearer to the world on whose borders I always hovered, the world of stories and poems, the world of books in general. The whole business of my life just then was to discover in the world of actual events enough that was bookish to reconcile me to being a real child and not one in a story. For the most part, aside from play, which was a thing in itself and had a sane importance of its own, the realities of life were those that had their counterparts in books. Whatever I found in books, especially in poetry, I craved for my own experience. Only my childish secretiveness saved me from seeming an inordinate little prig. For there is no bookishness like that of a childish reader; and there is no romanticism like that of a child. For good or ill, I was steeped in both. But the two things, books and the visible world that the sun shone in and the prairie spread out in, were far apart and, according to my lights, incompatible. I always had a suspicion of a distinct line between literature and life, at least life as I knew it, far out in Iowa. Who had ever read of Iowa in a novel or a poem? No essays on Literature and Life had then enlightened me as to their relation; I did n’t know they had any. I wished that life could be translated into terms of literature, but so far as I could see I had to do it myself if it was to be done.

One must admit that it was little less than tragic to read of things that one could not know, and to live among things that had never been thought worth putting into a book. What did it avail to read of forests and crags and waterfalls and castles and blue seas, when I could know only barbed-wire fences and frame buildings and prairiegrass ?

Of course there were some elements of our living in which I discovered resemblances to what I found in my reading, and I was always alert to these things, however small. I admired my pretty young-lady sister, for instance, but I admired her most when she put on the garments of romance; when she wore a filmy white muslin with pale blue ribbons, a costume stamped with the novelist’s approval from the earliest times; or better still, a velvet hat with a long plume sweeping down over her hair. For some reason I cannot now explain— possibly because I knew him better then than I do now — I associated her appearance then with that of some of Scott’s heroines. She rose in my estimation — as did any one else — whenever she managed, however unconsciously, to link herself with romance. When I found after a time, as I grew sophisticated, that she was capable of exciting those feelings in the masculine breast that were depicted with some care in novels, especially in those that were forbidden and that. I was obliged to read by snatches and in inconvenient places, I gave her my unqualified approval for all time.

As I said, there is no bookishness like that of a small bookworm. In my own little self I did try to make a point of contact between what I read and what I saw. I wished I dared to use the language of books. I did occasionally indulge in the joy of borrowing a literary phrase. To the grown-ups that heard it, it was doubtless a bit of precocious pedantry or an effort to showoff. I sometimes saw visitors smile at one another, and with sudden amused interest try to draw me out; and in stammering prosaic embarrassment I shrank away, no literary fluency left. In reality I was not showing off. I could not resist the shy delicious pleasure of making my own a phrase from one of my yellow-leaved books of poetry. It linked reality with romance. In some way it seemed to make me free of the world of folk in books, whose company I craved. The elders never guessed the tremor with which I ventured on my phrase from Tennyson or Lowell, though I might have been rolling it under my tongue for half an hour. But it would not do, I saw, to use the sacred language lightly, before unproved hearers, so I reserved it for my little talkings to myself. I had my little code of phrases for my private purposes, and a list of expletives rich but amazing. They were gleaned all the way from Shakespeare to Scott; recent writers are pitifully meagre in expletives. If I did not know their meaning I said them — silently, with no less animus. Their effect was all that could be desired, in an expletive at any rate; using the word was more interesting than being angry.

But that was after all a thin delight. And to live in one kind of country and feed on the literature of another kind of country is to put one all awry. Why was there no literature of the prairie? Whatever there was did not come to my hands, and I went on trying to translate the phenomena of the Missouri valley into terms of other-land poetry. But even what things we had appeared in unrecognizable guise. We had wild flowers in abundance, but unnamed. And what are botanical names to a child that wants to find foxglove and heather and bluebells and Wordsworth’s daffodils and Burns’s daisy? We — I was not alone in this quest — wanted names that might have come out of a book. So we traced imagined resemblances, and with slight encouragement from our elders — they came from back East where well-established flowers grow — named plants where we could.

There was a ruffly yellow flower with a vague, pretty odor, that we forced the name primrose upon. For the primrose was yellow, in Wordsworth at least, and some agreeable visitor said this might be a primrose. We invented spurious pseudo-poetic names, trying to pretend they were as good as the names we read. There was a pink flower of good intentions but no faithfulness, which retired at the approach of the sun, and which we christened ‘morning beauty.’ We had other attempts at ready-made folk-names, crude and imitative, but I have forgotten them. What a pity the prairie did not last long enough to fix it self and the things that belonged to it in a sort of folk-phrases! At least we ought to have had enough flower-lore at our command to give us the sweet real names that may have belonged to these blossoms or their relatives, in other lands. When we did learn such a name for some halfdespised flower, how the plant leaped to honor and took on a halo of credit! Some elder occasionally went with us to the woods, some teacher, perhaps, hungry for her own far-away trees, and we found really we had a genuine sweetWilliam and dog-tooth violet and Jackin-the-pulpit and May-apple, and even a rare diffident yellow violet. They were no more beautiful than our gay, nameless flowers of the open, but they grew in the woods and they had names with an atmosphere to them. In our eternal quest for names for things, some learned visitor, for we had many a visitor of every kind, would give us crisp scientific names, loaded with consonants. But how could one love a flower by a botanical name?

As days went by, however, even before it was time for me to be taken from the little country school and sent East to learn other things, some conditions had changed. Chance seeds of different flowers and grasses came floating West. In a neighbor’s field were real daisies — we did not know then that they were not Burns’s — brought in the seed with which the field was sown, most unwelcome to the farmer but worshiped by us. Our own groves, planted before we children were born, were growing up and already served for the hundred purposes which children know trees are good for. But the ones most generous in their growth and kindest in their service to us, we regarded with ungrateful contempt. Who had ever heard of a cottonwood in a book? The box-elder was distinctly unliterary. Even the maple was less valuable when we learned that it was not the sugar-maple, and that no matter how long we waited we could never have a sugaring-off, such as our mother had told us of. It was sometimes hard not to have a little grudge against our mother; she had had so many more advantages than we. The trees we were most eager for came on slowly. It seemed as if the oaks would never have acorns. They did come at last, and we were able to satisfy ourselves that they were not edible, either green or ripe, and to fit our pinky fingers into the velvety little thimbles of them, the softest, warmest little cups in the world.

Our grove was an experimental one, as a grove in a new country must be, and held all sorts of things, which we made our own one by one. There were slender white birches, to become beautiful trees in time, from which we stripped bits of young bark. It was quite useless, of course, a flimsy, papery stuff, but we pretended to find use for it. There were handsome young chestnut trees, bravely trying to adapt themselves to their land of exile. The leaves were fine for making dresses and hats, and we spent long July afternoons bedizened like young dryads. There were so many things to do and to investigate in the earlier months, that it was midsummer before we reached this amusement. But we watched year by year for the fruit of the chestnut. It seemed as if we could not stand it not to see a chestnut bur. And at last, when the very first ones came, we did not discover them until we found them among the dry leaves in the autumn, empty and sodden and brown. Nothing could have been more ironical. One spring day, in the dimmest part of the maple grove, we found a tiny fern head, coming up from a scanty bed of moss. We watched it for days, consulting at intervals the pictures of ferns in the encyclopædia, and at last, when hope trembled on the brink of certainty, we solemnly led our mother out to identify it. Was it really a fern, or only a weed that looked like a fern? No sacred oak was ever approached with more careful reverence. Our mother, an exile from her own forest country, talked of bracken shoulder-high and rich moss on old gray stones or broad tree-stumps. We used to draw in our breath at the wanton riches of fallen trees and stumps. Big trees, to cut down! But our little frond was something. It drew as great ecstasy from our devoted little hearts as a bracken-covered hill has since brought out. We saw the bracken in epitome, and dreamed of conventicles and of royal fugitives.

How I hoarded my little borrowings from the actual to enrich the ideal! A neighbor had a stake-and-rider fence. No doubt he was a poor footless sort of farmer or he would never, in that country, have had one — where all good farmers had barbed-wire, or at best rail, fences. My father had some hedges and I was proud of them. They were not hawthorn, but one must be thankful for what gifts fate brings, and I felt some distinction in their smooth genteel lines. But that Virginia rail-fence, — I coveted its irregular convolutions and deep angles, where the plough never went and where almost anything might grow. Whether it was an older place than ours or a worse-cared-for one, I don’t know. But if the cause were bad farming, it had a reward out of proportion, in my estimation, for the deep fence-corners held a tangle wonderful to investigate, of wild grape and pokeberry and elderberry and an ivy whose leaves must be counted to see if it were poison. They either should or should not be the same as the number of my fingers, but I never could remember which it was and had to leave its pink tips of tender new leaves unplucked. There were new little boxelders and maples, where the rails had stopped the flight of the winged seeds from the little grove around the house. There were tiny elms with their exquisite little leaves. No beauty of form I have ever found has given me more complete satisfaction than did the perfect lines and notches of those baby leaves. There were other plants that I never learned to know. How much better it would have been had all fields had a border like this, ornamental and satisfying, instead of the baldness of a wire fence. The possession of it gave the O’Brion children an eminence that, while I knew it was factitious, I could not help recognizing.

On our part we had a stream, such as it was. The muddy little creek — we called it crick — was to me a brook, secretly. Poor little creek! It did to wade in and to get hopelessly muddy in, but that was all. It had no trout, no ripples over stones, no grassy banks. It ran through a cornfield, and a bit of scanty pasture where its banks were trodden with the feet of cattle; and it did not babble as it flowed. Try as I might, I could not connect it with Tennyson or Jean Ingelow. But I could at least call it a brook, to myself. I had some other names of secret application. In the spring the dull little stream used sometimes to overflow its banks. Then the word brought to the house by one of the men would be, ‘The crick’s out.’ But to myself I said freshet; and I suppose I was the only one in the whole section to use the old term.

There was an odd little hollow on the hillside near the brook. It was an unromantic spot enough, treeless, distinguished only by its dimple-like contour. But I called it a dell, or in intenser moments a dingle, or when I was thinking largely, a glen, and used to make a point to cross it. This was partly because sometimes I found bits of pebbles in the cup of the hollow, and any stone indigenous to the country was a treasure trove. I called the little level place below the hollow a glade, and the hillside a brae, and the open hill-top a moor or heath. Had I used the dictionary more freely I might have applied more terms, but I did not know just what a wold or a tarn or a down was, and, lazily, kept them in reserve, fine as they sounded. My private vocabulary, as can be seen, was largely Tennysonian, and I had instinctively his own taste for archaic terms. For whatever excursions I made into other poets, Tennyson was, first and last, my dear delight. My feet were turned ever and oft by the guardians of my reading to the easy paths of American poetry.

I found due pleasure in them, but it was always tempered by a sort of resentment that, though American, their country was not my country. For New England was farther away than Old England; and I always went back to Tennyson. I used to sit in the dingle in bald sunlight and listen to such unpretentious noise as the creek made, and chant to myself, ‘How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream.’

The beauty of the prairie is not of the sort that appeals directly to a child. The bigness of it, for instance, I had been used to all my life, and I can’t remember that it conveyed any sense of expansiveness to me. In our long drives over it — interminably long they were! — my chief recollection is of greenness and tiredness, a long succession of rolling hills and hollows, and a little girl so weary of sitting up on a seat and watching the horses go on and on. There was one interest that did help to modify this ennui, when I was very little. I supposed, not that streams wore down their beds by their action, but that the bed was there first, and that when a nice long ditch was worn, all ready for occupancy, a spring opened up and produced a stream. So, as we drove up hill and down, I eyed expectantly the deeply cut wagontracks that marked the short cuts over the prairies, and in that loose soil were worn down to what I regarded as a depth fit for a beginning stream. I hoped some time to catch one in the very act of self-creation. But I outgrew that notion, and apart from such incidental interests as these, the prairie had little attraction. It was just green grass in summer and dry grass in winter. Children are not usually awake to shadings and modifications of color. The coral-pink at the roots of the dried prairie-grass, the opal tints of the summer mists in the early morning, I did not discover until I had reached a more sophisticated stage. And the prairie was not suggestive to me at this early time.

Looking back now, I guess that it was because it did not hint at the unknown. It should have, of course, but it did not. It did not carry me away and away to new possibilities. I knew that beyond these grass-covered hills there lay others and then others — and that is all there was to it. When I saw it face to face I seemed to know it all, — and who wants to know all about anything? This was not only because I was a book-stuffed little prig, as I suppose I was; I had imagination of a sort, it seems to me, now, as I recall my pleasure in certain things: in the dim hovering suggestiveness of twilight and the unanalyzable reverie it put me into; in the half-heard sounds of midafternoon in the orchard; in the bend of the young trees in a storm at night, when I slipped from bed to watch them in the flashes of lightning. There was a white pine near my window, ‘an exile in a stoneless land,’ that responded to the rush of this western wind with a beautiful bend and swing. But when in the broad daylight I looked out on the green hills, I saw no light and shade, no changing colors, none of the exquisite variety of view that may have been there. I saw only green hills.

But had the prairie had a literature, if I could only have been sure that it was worthy to put in a book! If Lowell and Whittier and Tennyson — most of all Tennyson — had written of slough-grass and ground-squirrels and barbed-wire fences, those despised elements would have taken on new aspects. I was a wistful peri at the gate of a literary paradise. But the Word on the horizon was something. It was far away, but it was real. I did not try to analyze its promise, but it was there.