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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Iowa As It Is in 1856

N. Howe Parker

Chicago and Philadelphia, 1856

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 5
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 p25  Chapter IV

General Appearance of the Prairies

The novelty of the prairie country is striking, and never fails to cause an exclamation of surprise from those who have lived amid the forests of Ohio and Kentucky, or along the wooded shores of the Atlantic, or in sight of the rocky barriers of the Allegheny ridge. The extent of the prospect is exhilarating. The outline of the landscape is undulating and graceful. The verdure and the flowers are beautiful; and the absence of shade, and consequent appearance of a profusion of light, produces a gayety which animates every beholder.

These plains, although preserving a general level in respect to the whole country, are yet, in themselves, not flat, but exhibit a gracefully waving surface, swelling and sinking with easy, graceful slopes, and full, rounded outlines,  p26 equally avoiding the unmeaning horizontal surface, and the interruption of abrupt or angular elevations.

The attraction of the prairie consists in its extent, its carpet of verdure and flowers, its undulating surface, its groves, and the fringe of timber by which it is surrounded. Of all of these, the latter is the most expressive feature. It is that which gives character to the landscape, which imparts the shape, and marks the boundary of the plain. If the prairie be small, its greatest beauty consists in the vicinity of the surrounding margin of woodland, which resembles the shore of a lake indented with deep vistas, like bays and inlets, and throwing out long points, like capes and headlands.

In the spring of the year, when the young grass has just covered the ground with a carpet of delicate green, and especially if the sun is rising from behind a distant swell of the plain and glittering upon the dewdrops, no scene can be more lovely to the eyes. The groves, or clusters of timber, are particularly attractive at this season of the year. The rich undergrowth is in full bloom. The rosewood, dogwood, crab-apple, wild plum, the cherry, and the wild rose are all abundant, and in many portions of the State the grape-vine abounds. The variety of wild fruit and flowering shrubs is so great, and such the profusion of the blossoms with which they are bowed down, that the eye is regaled almost to satiety.

The gaiety of the prairie, its embellishments, and the absence of the gloom and savage wildness of the forest, all contribute to dispel the feeling of loneliness which usually  p27 creeps over the mind of the solitary traveller in the wilderness. Though he may not see a house or a human being, and is conscious that he is far from the habitations of men, the traveller upon the prairie can scarcely divest himself of the idea that he is travelling through scenes embellished by the hand of art. The flowers, so fragile, so delicate, and so ornamental, seem to have been tastefully disposed to adorn the scene.

In the summer, the prairie is covered with long, coarse grass, which soon assumes a golden hue, and waves in the wind like a fully ripe harvest. The prairie-grass never attains its highest growth in the richest soil; but in low, wet, or marshy land, where the substratum of clay lies near the surface, the centre or main stem of the grass — that which bears the seed — shoots up to the height of eight and ten feet, throwing out long, coarse leaves or blades. But on the rich, undulating prairies, the grass is finer, with less of stalk and a greater profusion of leaves. The roots spread and interweave, forming a compact, even sod, and the blades expand into a close, thick grass, which is seldom more than eighteen inches high, until late in the season, when the seed-bearing stem shoots up. The first coat is mingled with small flowers — the violet, the bloom of the wild strawberry, and various others, of the most minute and delicate texture. As the grass increases in height, these smaller flowers disappear, and others, taller and more gaudy, display their brilliant colors upon the green surface; and still later, a larger and coarser succession arises with the rising tide of verdure. It is impossible to conceive a  p28 more infinite diversity, or a richer profusion of hues, "from grave to gay," than graces the beautiful carpet of grass throughout the entire season of summer.

When the prairie is bare, it is easy to distinguish the rich from the poorer lands, by the small hillocks which are scattered over them, and which are most abundant when the soil is least productive. They are from a few inches to two or three feet in height, and only exist where the clay lies near the surface; as such mounds composed of rich mould would soon crumble and become level. These, by some, are said to be the work of the gophor — a small quadruped; by others, are thought to be thrown up by craw-fish; which is doubtless true of wet situations; while those in drier portions are attributed to colonies of ants; each class belonging, however, to the clay party, and working only in poor soil.

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Page updated: 3 Sep 11