Old Trucks & Prairie Songs
Dust rises behind the pickup as I drive across the prairie, along the grooves that run deep and permanent across it – originally made by wagon wheels hundreds of years earlier. Scars. Gophers watch from their mounds, whistling piercing notes of warning before upending themselves into their holes, disappearing from sight with the flick of a black-tipped tail. The truck is a 1965 dust-grayed GMC with standard drive and windows you have to crank manually. One window drops with a glassy thud a third of the way down; the other sticks on every turn. Once you get it down, you leave it down.
I am helping friends bring in their hay. I drive slowly along and others heft the bales into the back of the truck. Each load I drive back to the barn, where others lift the bales into the hayloft. I am driving back over the prairie after my last load. I wear an old denim shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, worn jeans, my hair tied up in a messy, grimy ponytail. Occasionally I spit the dust in my mouth out the window. You can’t be a lady on the prairie. The prairie is embodied in me – in the way I dress, the way I move, the way I don’t think twice about spitting out the truck window while I wrestle with its gears and stubbornness.
My two boys love riding in this truck. The vast, slippery vinyl seat invites shoving and horse-play. The window has a wide ledge and they hang their bellies over it, making themselves dizzy staring at the ground moving below. When they pull back into the truck their faces are as dust-grubby as the truck itself. But now they have fallen asleep in the dozy late afternoon sun, piled into the corner of the seat like fagged puppies. Their hair sticks out at sweaty angles; there is a burnished redness to their cheeks, an extra freckle or two on their noses. Their lips are parched.
I stop the truck at the top of a small knoll where there is an ancient medicine wheel. Though the prairie is dry and juiceless, the grasses around the stones are green. I remember that most prairie grass species have exceedingly long root systems. The roots are thin but some go as deep as fifteen feet to find moisture and richer soil. I recite the names of grasses, like a chant, a hymn. The grasses speak of other prairie creatures, of climate and soil:
beak grass, bluestem, bottlebrush, buffalo grass, porcupine grass, brome,
satin grass, panic grass, rattlesnake grass, riverbank wild rye, sand
dropseed, side oats gama, sweet grass (oh ambrosial, worshipped
Sweetgrass!), switch grass
As I sit, eyes closed, dust caked in my nostrils and sweat trickling down my back, I listen to the prairie symphony – the whirr of grasshoppers, the high whining keen of the shortgrass, birdsong low and high, gopher whistles, hawk shrieks . . .
blue-winged teal, killdeer, avocet, red-winged blackbird, great-horned owl,
chestnut-collared longspur, whooping crane, saltmarsh sharp-tailed
sparrow, meadow lark (just seven notes!), magpie, Swainson’s
hawk, three-toed woodpecker, peregrine falcon, marbled
godwit, brown pelican, burrowing owl
The conductor is the thrum, thrum of the prairie wind,
rain shadow wind.
Wind textures, insect medleys, birdsong choir. We are enduringly in ‘place’. We are immersed in places, always at one latitude or another, and intimately caught up in the natural ambience around us.
When I revisit a place that had significance in a past phase of my life, as when I returned to the prairie to bury my father’s ashes, I take a moment to consider my present self with the one that inhabited that place years ago. Sometimes I lament the arc that took me from that place. But, if I were to be honest, this lamentation is steeped in nostalgia and poignancy. The prairie place I knew then no longer exists. That wild prairie of my past is all but gone – plowed under massive fields of grain or grazed to dust by herds of cattle. Barbed wire creates quilts of tamed squares of land. That place has disappeared under hundreds of houses, big box stores, and a prison - existing only in my imagination and memories. Though I will never forget the land, it appears to have forgotten me.
On that trip to bring my father home, I asked my brother to drive me out to the prairie – where he himself often travels, alone, with a thermos of whiskey-laced coffee, old rock-and-roll on the radio. He seeks ancient, slumping barns and abandoned rusting Harvesters to take pictures of. We drove and drove. That prairie in which my sons first began their unfolding to the experience of place, is ebbing and diminishing out from the edges of the town. We did finally find it, but it took a good few miles and time.
We pulled into a field, drove to the edge of a coulee, turned the engine off. As we sat in my brother’s truck, with the sound of the ticking engine and the occasional grasshopper clacking against the grill making a sort of contrapuntal music, I gazed. Falling in love with that place was not something I imagined I’d ever do. But I wanted to take the time to at least accept it - the impact the years I spent on the prairie had on my life.
Scratchings on paper in the middle of the night, scribbles on envelopes left deep in pockets, sketch of a bird in the holly tree, two lines of a poem about the wind. They are all mere twitchings of nature, of my searching for place. I yearn to be feral; I wish to haunt rivers, to run with antelope along the creases of the coulees. I long to sleep un-bedded beneath the star-pocked sky and wake hung with dew. I ache for that place to remember me. Because it’s the wind I miss most, now that it’s gone.