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The Big Bluestem

By September 2, 2022 4 Comments

Right now, our big bluestem are heavy with seeds, the patch closest to my window sky high, seven feet, I’m sure. We planted them years ago; they’re older than most anything in the backyard, but they’re still healthy. Then again, the prairie is their world.

We had some worries about the bluestem patches farther out. When these close ones were already shooting up, the one a ways away looked more than a little forlorn. We wondered if we’d done something that had mistakenly brought about an end. But time was the healer. Soon enough the big patch greened up and sent up shoots that today look just fine, although not so tall as what’s right here.

Big bluestem didn’t really “win the west.” Out here at least, temperature and rainfall and the fine character of the earth itself combined to create a world where bluestem really prospered. Can we call bluestem indigenous? If anything was, once the ocean cleared, bluestem was as native as anything, I’d guess.

We wanted some patches, like a monument out in the back yard, the only living monument we thought we needed to have. Most all of big blue today is gone. We live in the eco-system, tall-grass prairie, most utterly destroyed of any in this country, by what most of us call “progress.”

If this close bunch of big blue could dribble, they’d be D-1 material. They’re tall and rangy as a long-limbed small forward who can play three or four inches above his height and go to the rim easy. They’re willowy, but tough enough to support sparrows that, like Robert Frost, love swinging birches.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like on the prairie when our entire backyard, all the way to the river, was big bluestem. Back then, the world was all tall grass, redolent with fragrance of native flowers and alive with dreamy wonderment.

Had to smile last night when I came on a passage from an sweet old biography of the Roman Catholic giant, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Belgian priest who, as a kid, listened to stories of American Indians and, in 1821, left home and family for the American frontier. Didn’t even tell his father. Just left. He was 20 years old. He was on a mission.

There were others like him, many others actually–European priests and missionaries who looked at Native American mission fields as ripe for abundant harvest. What they’d dreamed of and what they’d found didn’t always match up. Two of them, Father Quickenborne and Father Hoeken, decked out, as always, in long black robes, once upon a time set out for who-knows-where, then wandered into endless tall-grass prairie, a world of forever big bluestem where they got themselves frightfully lost.

For the record, here’s the passage. It’s priceless.

The first excursions. . .they were often lost for days at a time, and would traverse the immense prairies in every direction in a vain endeavor to discover their whereabouts. These plains resembled a vast sea; as far as the eye could reach one beheld nothing but a limitless sketch of green pasture and blue sky: deer, chamois, and roebuck were plentiful; prairie-chicken and other wild game abounded. Wolves and bears creeping from their lairs to eat sheep terrified both man and beast.

As you can imagine, this little narrative from De Smet’s bio has to end well–after all, the book is a testimony to God’s goodness abounding upon his faithful servants.

But even in such straits they were not abandoned by divine Providence. At nightfall the Fathers would often throw the reins on the horse’s neck, letting him take his own direction, and before long would find themselves in sight of some habitation.

Thank goodness–literally. But there’s more. There’s got to be more, right?

Once an immense and strange dog sprang in front of their horses, and making a path through high grass brought them to the home of a Catholic, where they rested and were refreshed and, to their great consolation and that of their host, they celebrated the Divine Mysteries.

It’s quiet this morning, almost windless, but the long stems of the big blues just outside my window are stirring a bit, just enough to make it look as if those turkey feet are whispering to each other their own Divine Mysteries.

I think they know I’m talking about them. I’m guessing they’re remembering the story passed on for generations, the story of those two nutty black robes irretrievably lost among ’em.

And they’re smiling. Just thought I’d let you know.

The tall patch

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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