Morning, on the Prairie"
some beautiful early fall days out here on the emerald cusp of the
Great Plains, it's not hard to believe that we are not where we
are. Warm southern breezes swing up from Texas, the sun smiles with
a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over
everything in azure glory.
on exactly that kind of fall morning, I like to bring my writing
classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, ten miles west
and two south, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a
town that was, but is no more. Likely as not, Highland fell victim
to a century-old phenomenon in the Upper Midwest, the simple fact
that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre
chunks than do so today, when the portions are ten times bigger.
left of Highland is a stand of pines circled up around no more than
twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures
detailing what was home for some peoplea couple of Protestant
churches, a couple of horse barns, and a blacksmith shop, little
else. The town of Highland once sat gloriously atop a swell of land
at the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still
float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over undulating
prairie. But mostly, today, it's gone.
to bring my students to Highland because what's not there never
fails to silence them. Maybe it's the emaciated cemetery; maybe
it's the south wind's low moan through that stand of pines, a sound
you don't hear often on the Plains; maybe it's some variant of culture
shockthey stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms
and wake up suddenly in a place with no walls.
lying. I know why they fall into psychic shock. It's the sheer immensity
of the land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly
there where earth weaves effortlessly into sky; it's the vastness
of rolling landscape William Cullen Bryant once claimed looked like
an ocean stopped in time. It seems as if there's nothing here, and
everything, and that's what stuns them into silence. That morning,
on those gravel roads, no cars passed. We were alone20 of
us, all alone and vulnerable on a high ground swatch of prairie
once called Highland, surrounded by nothing but startling openness.
where I wasand that's where they wereon September 11.
We left for Highland at just about the moment Mohamed Atta and his
friends were commandeering American Airlines flight 11 into the
north tower of the World Trade Center, so we knew absolutely nothing
about what had happened until we returned. While the rest of the
world stood and watched in horror, my students, notebooks and pens
in hand, looked over a landscape so immense only God could live
thereand were silent.
found it hard to leave, but then no one can stay on retreat forever,
of course, so when we returned we heard the horrible news. All over
campus and all over town, TVs blared.
to think that maybe on our campus that morning my students were
best prepared for the horror everyone feltprepared, not by
having been warned, but by having been awed.
year it's a joy to sit out there with them and try to define and
describe the beauty of what seems characterless prairie, but this
year our being there on the morning of September 11, I'm convinced,
was a kind of blessing.
copyright 2001 James Calvin Schaap
All Rights Reserved