I accidentally grew up with a few acres of rare Midwestern prairie behind our home. When we moved from Chicago, my parents bought a house not yet built, in a neighborhood with streets not yet paved. At first, we had sticks in mud with street names painted on them. The area was filled with former soldiers using their benefits to buy their first home in that unknown place called the suburbs. The lure was land, open spaces, less crime, better schools, and a chance at the so-called American Dream.
Before we moved, neighbors had nearly burned us out of our apartment with cooking while drunk, had left their used needles in the common ways, and gangs were eyeing my now teen aged elder brother.
My parents were terrified of what would happen to my teen brother at first, then the rest of us.
So they headed west, to a suburb mostly mud and dreams at that time.
And a surprise behind the house? The few acres of prairie remained, with a small swamp at one end. We didn’t know it at the time, but two towns were suing for the right to build on this land. Each town felt these precious acres were part of their town, and the lawsuit went on for a dozen years.
But during those years, we had this piece of prairie heaven to ourselves; it was a place for children to safely play and explore. We grew to believe that butterflies lived everywhere and were plentiful, that wildflowers would forever grow, that the summer days would never end as we played, made up stories (okay, that was me), and explored.
But to me, I was a bit afraid of the swamp up close, for the stories were becoming our childhood myths: witches lived there. Children–and even airplanes!–disappeared in the swamp.
So I spent a lot of time watching the prairie sunsets from my own backyard, often standing on a rickety picnic table to catch the very last rays of sun. I was drawn to this beauty, drawn to the sky, the sun, the miracle of the ending of daylight.
I had no camera back then to capture a sunset, as I was just a child myself and cameras were something professionals had at weddings or older family members had for special days.
As to the swamp? I’ll write more about my love/ hate relationship with that magical place another time.
When I drive through the flat lands of the Midwest now, I often think of how boring all this flatness is–no variety. But then I remember the magic of sunsets on a prairie.
These are not my photographs, (these are photos in the public domain) but they do capture something of what I remember: the beauty of wide open land that led to the miracle of a sunset. Every day.
Sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.