Prairie in Winter
Perhaps like you, when I travel our state I often look across the landscape and wonder what this place looked like before European settlement. No farmsteads, no fences, no utility poles, and trees mostly limited to along the major rivers. At times you cannot see the forest for the trees, but that doesn’t apply out here on the prairie.
O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth is a classic novel about pioneer life on the prairies of Dakota Territory. The book opens with this description of the prairie:
“Bright clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon….Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.”
The pre-settlement prairie landscape may be most easily visualized during the winter when the leaves are off the trees. I was thinking about that recently while traveling between Bottineau and Minot. Can you imagine what those first settlers felt out here on the vast and treeless plain? For settlers coming from forested regions of Europe or the eastern United States, the plains must have seemed a very foreign and desolate place, particularly during winter. Here is Rolvaag’s description of the plains during winter:
“A grey waste…an empty silence…a boundless cold. Snow fell; snow flew; a universe of nothing but dead whiteness.”
Theodore Roosevelt penned some interesting descriptions of the winter landscape in his book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. Here is a sampling
“When the days have dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seem never ending, then all the great northern plains are changed into an abode of iron desolation. … All the land is like granite; the great rivers stand still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel…In the long nights there is no sound to break the lifeless silence…when the sun is out the glare from the endless white stretches dazzles the eyes…For hour after hour a man may go on and see no sign of life except, perhaps, a big white owl sweeping noiselessly by…”
What an amazing landscape this must have been especially during the winter months. Desolate perhaps, but beautifully evocative.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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