The Rim of the Prairie by Bess Streeter Aldrich is her second novel. Published in 1925, it preceded her better-known A Lantern in Her Hand. I read that book as a girl and was moved by the romantic picture of the Nebraska pioneers, struggling through hardships to build a farming community on a land which had known only grass. The Rim of the Prairie shows us the same people who inhabit A Lantern in Her Hand, in the mid twenties, looking back at what they accomplished, and mostly they find it is good.
“Nebraska is conquered,” Warner went on…. “Fields are fertile. Orchards are fruitful. Pastures yield their heavy gifts. There are are cattle on a thousand hills. Great consolidated schools, substantial and comfortable, flags without and libraries within, center in many districts. And all in one man’s lifetime!”
Warner and the others look back with pride. They cannot look forward to see a day when the family farms are mostly gone, and the pleasant towns are shrinking. What we have now is commercial agriculture: big fields, big expenses, big crops. The picture above, which I took last year, shows the Nebraska prairie as it is now. Within 150 years, this land has been three different worlds: the tallgrass prairie of the Indians, the homesteads of the pioneers, and the big-field landscape of today.
Aldrich’s novel, written to celebrate the success of the pioneers captures a time when women know that their best cause is home and family, when kind neighbors leave wood by a widow’s back door, and when the snobbish banker’s daughter plays the piano and waits for a husband. Progress is plowing the land and the Indians are recalled only as a menace which is now, thankfully, gone. They sometimes complain about the social changes of a modern world, but they do not fear its technology. They welcome the railroad and the tractor.
Even so, Uncle Jud, who came in a horse and wagon and broke the prairie sod, knows that something has been lost.
“And he’s going to plow up that one piece of pasture of mine that’s real prairie,” he went on. “I got one piece, you know . . . it’s only ten acres . . . but it’s virgin prairie. I been keepin’ that all these years. Every year the teachers bring the children in their classes out ‘n show ’em. I’m the only one in the whole community, maybe country as far as I know that’s kept any.”
Before I went to Nebraska myself, I visualized the prairie as grass, good grass but just grass, like an uncut suburban lawn. The tallgrass prairie, the areas that get enough rain to support modern agriculture, is much more beautiful than anybody’s lawn. It is a community of plants, rich in its diversity. Like Uncle Jud, be sure to save some for the children to see.
Click here for some wonderful pictures of the prairie.