Is the Midwest Beautiful?

Prairie Winds Overlook in Badlands National Park | Photo by  Wing-Chi Poon

Prairie Winds Overlook in Badlands National Park | Photo by Wing-Chi Poon

It is night, but only barely so. With no buildings in sight, and nothing else at all to block the view, the gradient from the last glowing oranges and scarlets of day to the turquoise rim of evening, through darker and more mysterious blues, and finally to the totally gemmed blackness, is entirely visible.

Here’s the wild thing about the prairie landscape: at night, you feel that you are not looking at outer space but in it. The feeling is so shocking, even frightening, that it’s a welcome thing indeed that the ground beneath your feet should feel so gentle and secure. Hills that are warm with life, painted in with the golds and browns of grain stalks; they gird you about like a comfortable blanket. Were these not there to comfort you, the encircling cosmic view might be really overwhelming.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in the prairie country when the harvest has begun, and you sit in a patch of corn stubble, and the scent of some farmer’s burning leaves and hay wafts from a place out of sight, carrying in its fingers all the familiar associations of home, family, and shelter from oncoming winter. The bullfrogs in the creek have quieted down, but the memory of their hum still hangs about a reedy pond down the hill. The brightness of the night sky frames the silhouettes of a small town-meeting of bur oaks on the ridge just behind you, outlining the limbs that bend rhythmically, musically, as they move out from trunk to twig.

This juxtaposition between the vasts of the space and the homely, sturdy earth is the special heritage of the prairie. It is to be found this way nowhere else, and is accessible only to those who will take the time to stop their rushing around in order to see it.

In the arms of the great Middle West are to be found a variety of geographies: the primeval stone outcroppings of the driftless region, towering bluffs that hug the great rivers, stark badlands and wide-open plains. There are massive freshwater seas, rugged coastlines, and mist-laden forests, caves, cascades, and cupped valleys. These are all immediately striking; their beauty is of such a kind that it yanks even the unaware and inattentive into raptness. These places, to be sure, are a chief part of the Midwest’s natural beauty. But in the in-between spaces, too, other kinds of beauty reveal themselves to those who take the time to look, and who are humble enough to learn to see.

Now, it would help if the countryside were not so entirely cultivated, that is, if more of the land could be left to the incredibly diverse flora and fauna native to the savannah –and to farms that blend with, rather than interrupt, the countryside. Were this so, it would be far easier to see the grandeur of the western reaches, where the subdued bunchgrass levels and table mesas outdo the most romantic of westerns, or the green and fruited landscape between the Missouri and the Ohio, where there is a profusion of flowers ( prairie fire, bergamot, Indian blanket) and of birds (bobolink, sandpiper, and meadowlark), and of winding, shady waterways cutting through tallgrass, farm, and forest.

The lesson these places teach is that beauty is not always, or at least not only, big, grand, sweeping, and sensational. It is also, and quite often, to be found in the small, the ordinary, and the plain. If these things are known well and patiently, their grandeur can reveal itself to us. Those who have known the golden light of evening to stream through stalks of corn, or who have seen the way that light transfigures a common ash tree, will know what I mean, and anyone who has beheld a Midwestern hillside painted with a wash of watercolor earth tones on a rainy September day will know it, too. The truth is that, in the words of the poet Hopkins, all of nature’s darling’s share a freshness deep down. They have the potential to shock us with wonder if they catch us when we’re ready to receive them.

Maybe it makes some kind of sense, then, that many of our greatest nature writers, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, have come from places like Iowa and Wisconsin. I wonder if it might have to do with the way this landscape teaches you how to look and see, how to sit attentively long enough to let the poetry of things reveal itself to you. It helps not to be hemmed in by the sort of sprawling conurbations now enveloping our coastal cities. It helps to be so intimately connected with rural life. It helps to have the room to breathe free, to stretch out, to move in the liberty that only the wide-open calm of this stretch of country provides.

Should you ever find yourself motoring down I-80, or any middle American interstate, then, try not to dismiss what is around you as nothing but endless corn and soy; pull off onto one of the country roads, find a little stream or stretch of wildflowers, sit at its feet, and see if can’t teach you something.

Nathan Beacom is a writer living in Des Moines, Iowa.