In summer, Nebraska skies splinter, lightning wrecking the blue dome, splintering it to shards. Storms come on sudden, though the birds know and take to skies in a cackle, wings beating warning. At first, storms seep in yellow at the horizon’s edge before blackening the afternoon, barometrics pressing down, and a funnel forms, twisting like a child’s cartoon tangle angling towards town. Sirens wail, hail dents car hoods, a tree goes through the ceiling, nature overtaking the living room, dripping wet and verdant. And visible through the branches and open ceiling?—a fearsome sky wracked with fire.
When I moved to the Great Plains from California’s central coast, where the shoreline dips like the dimple of a lover’s flesh, the estuary foggy and safe, the weather moderate, I was fascinated and terrified. On the coast, summers were temperate, peaking in the 80s, night lows sinking to the 60s, and rain ruined the beach for picnickers, who soaked up sun on Sunday, their deepening tans the only indicator the earth was turning, that the sandy moment was not the center of the universe. Kelp washed in with the waves, great undersea forests easily uprooted to line the beach with their briny smell, and ice plants dotted the sand with their succulent flesh and bright flowers, though why they were named for a cold that never came, we did not know. Winters, too, were mild, reaching lows of 40, highs in the 60s, sometimes the 70s, and picnickers still lined the beaches, wrapped in blankets as they fed gulls bits of bread, surfers still paddling out on the waves still rushing in. Always, the weather was constant, controlled, in part, by the tides lapping easily at the shore.
It was easy to love this place, a benign landscape designed for leisure, a charming backdrop for the seasons of your life, captured in photos shared with the caption #blessed. To love something that serves your pleasure is not difficult—doing so is to love ease, comfort, perhaps control. California, as far as we were concerned, existed solely to be beautiful.
But the Plains were contradictory and cruel. Accustomed to the marine layer fog of the coast, which made the landscape appear like an Impressionist painting, some Monet or Cassat, all soft light and diffuse, I assumed the weather benevolent. But winters in Nebraska were bitter cold and dark, and venturing outside reminded me of my small, animal body, whose advanced opposable thumbs were simply no match for nature that reached thirty below, turning red, then blue in a mere matter of moments, as if they might snap like the ice-coated plants.
When the snow came—my first snow—I assumed all snowfall would follow a similar pattern, moving along a scale from tolerable to worse until the most awful storm of all, which would bring the reward of a snow day and allow me to stay indoors in front of a fire, looking out the window at a landscape like Breughal’s quaint scenes of snowy villages. But the weather was not so simple, and snowfall, I found, came in more ways than I could have imagined. There was soft snow that fell as I was walking about in town, glistening on my coat or hair for a moment, looking lovely until it left me damp, a small price to pay for the glittering moment. There was snow that came in large clumps, dotting my living and soaking me through in an instant. There was snow that fell fast and iced the road, left me sliding across sidewalks like a figure skater without sequins. There was snow that fell lightly as though dancing down to join us; snow that fell in flurries, whipping and spinning in time to some unheard music; snow that fell at blunt angles, hard and harsh; snowstorms that blocked out what little sun the winter months permitted, sweeping over the land like a heavy blanket, making it hard to move and breathe, leaving the world clouded and surreal, lines of wet white rushing by at all angles, a Jackson Pollack, multilayered, intense, chaotic.
Weather on the Plains was a force on its own, controlling the people, determining how we would spend our days, how, in essence we would live. If Nebraska was one of Brueghal’s landscapes, surely it was The Fall of Icarus, our hubris dashed by the indifference of nature. There was no control here; this place was not easy to love.
The Plains are a place of extremes—tornados and blizzards, heat waves and deep freezes, thunder without rain. Weather on the Plains is mercurial—unstable, unpredictable, and fascinating in this. The Plains have some of the hottest summers and coldest winters, some of the largest temperature swings anywhere, some of the fiercest droughts and blizzards, the shortest growing season, plus fierce hail storms and fires, plagues of locusts. The Plains resist empathy or understanding, demands instead we stand in awe of its consequence. Storms rip towns open at the vein with little mercy, the history of early settlers—Belle Starr, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Bloody Benders of Kansas, Calamity Jane, Jesse James, the violence committed against Native populations—showing that to live, grow, thrive here is not easy.
Each season I waited for what the weather would do. Spring came and went in a matter of weeks, along with my coastal assumption that spring, like summer, was a mass of picnics and ocean kayaks, barbeques and bike rides, beach days and bonfire nights. One moment the Plains were frozen, great heaps of snow steeped at the side of the road, slick black from exhaust, and the next they were molten, the humidity a wet heat I’d never known, suffocating and exhausting. No one, it seemed, went out much in the summer, at least not the way I remembered from home, and the season was marked by the never-ending sound of cicadas—monstrous, screeching creatures I assumed tiny violinists with delicate legs and antennae, until I saw one dead on the sidewalk, its brown, brittle body like that of a cockroach, the length of my thumb and twice as thick, bulbous eyes and sharp legs, wings alien and frightening, as though it had grown strange and hard with the harshness of this place.
The summer storms returned, thunder and lightning arriving in a swirling instant, the air smelling like metal, copper pennies or blood, animals cowering at the change in electrostatic tension, howling and hissing at the sky, lightening ripping through the clouds, the cicadas briefly silent, for they, too, were afraid. The storms shook the house, glass panes shuddering, the chimney rattling on its weight. I spent my time at the window, inspecting the capricious sky looming beyond my tiny reflection in the glass.
After a storm, trees littered the ground, snapped from sturdy trunks, splintered and sharp. Yet despite the destruction, the leaves were fresh with promise, and grasses twinkled with dew, mushrooms already thinking themselves into existence before branches had even begun to rot. Children leapt from front doors, laughing in the aftermath and stomping in puddles, some climbing the fallen trees, shaking water droplets from the boughs.
Herein lies the contradiction of the Plains—they are at once a place of destruction and renewal, violence and calm. Often portrayed as simple and idyllic, a flat, empty place in need to filling, their complexity is one that resists definition, even the above binaries. No, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind—they are indifferent.
When they arrived on the Plains, early homesteaders saw the desolation of the promise they’d traveled across the country to collect—a vast expanse of prairie stretching as far as they could see, no trees let alone houses or humans, even the horizon pulling endlessly away, stretching further from comprehension until it seemed to waver in the distance, sky echoing the isolation.
It is no wonder early settlers on the Plains went mad, found too much horizon and too much sky pressing down unmooring. Some saw waves in the prairie grass, imagining sea in the midst of a dry summer or during the aridity of the Dust Bowl, when even the land could not stand the seclusion and threw itself into the air to be carried away on the wind. More than once a man dove from his tractor to the waves he imagined below, the machine cresting over his body as if a wave, carrying on unconcerned. More than once a man fell into his silo, suffocated in sorghum, drowned by the crop he worried would not find water enough to flourish to harvest.
The predilection to see waves in wheat is not unfounded. The Plains were once home to a Cretaceous Sea, oysters, fish, crocodile, sharks, and large diving birds alive and swimming through the fossil record. More than one farmer, too, dug the bones of sea creatures up from his land, scooped them from the very earth that grew potatoes to feed families that could not imagine the disappeared sea on which they were standing.
Like the weather, the geological history of the Plains is one of contradiction, four glaciation periods leaving the land warm then cool, warm again and then cooler still, draught leading to heavy rainfall and back. Before the ice, when the Laramie Revolution began some 65 million years ago, the Rockies, the Sierra Madres, and the Sierra Nevadas formed, creating immense rain shadows that led to the emergence of grasslands on the central Plains. By the time air masses traveling from the Pacific reach the Plains, three different mountain ranges have disrupted their travel, extracting moisture along the way, making the Plains inhospitable to trees and shrubs, anything but grasses with deep roots. The dry foehn, or chinook winds, that reach the Plains cure the grasses, leaving them dry and brittle, for the bison. The winds that reach the Plains are so strong they shape the physical landscape, much like the heavy bison that left marks on stones they encountered during migration, their lifelines carved onto the land.
The Plains as we know them formed when the last Pleistocene glaciers retreated, dried in part by the Chinooks, the forests killed by drought. The disappearance of the glaciers must have seemed strange, for the Plains are the result of the great ice plow up—glaciers breaking the land before the plow, rushing across the surface, smoothing and flattening it to its present state, walls of ice hundreds of feet tall pushing massive boulders thousands of miles, grinding the rocks to fine powder along the way, leaving rich soil tens of feet deep. The glaciers must have swept like waves across the space, the land bracing itself against the inevitable crash.
A Nebraska history museum is full of echoes as people walk down corridors lined with the dead bones of history—a giant tortoise shell big as a sledding disc dug up in Kansas, a fierce horned rhino, a long nailed sloth found in Garden County hunched and big as any man, the monstrous flippers of an ancient Plesiosaur with crocodile head and teeth, its serpent body curling ten feet, discovered just off the highway. Animals of the sea, the forest, and the savannah cohabitate in the exhibits, though they never did in this place—contradiction is the organizing principle of this curation.
I turn down the hall of natural selection, the most complete record of elephant fossils dug up from each Nebraska county, walking through Epochs, as Stegodon becomes Mastodon then the great Mammoth. The smallest bones are as big as my body, tusks shaped like the forklifts construction workers use to remove branches and snow after a storm, our best attempt at survival here modeled after those long extinct.
It was an unusually warm January day—up to 28 degrees from the -6 degrees days before when snow powdered the prairie like sugar on cakes. Folks ventured outside to milk cows, pull warm eggs from beneath the hens, hitch the horses to head to town for more molasses. Children say at their desks; lined into precision inside sod or wood schoolhouses, chalk dusting their fingertips powdery white.
The cold front came quick—fine snow leaving visibility at zero, the temperature dropping to -20 degrees, -40 in some places. Winds whipped snow heavily across the Plains before folks realized. The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 left thousands caught unaware and killed hundreds, including many schoolchildren trying to find their ways home.
In The Blizzard Voices, Ted Kooser writes from the voices of those who survived, deferring to the weather in an attempt to process the human toll, explaining, “When the Alberta Clipper, roaring out of the North, rips apart a straw stack, only the frozen center remains, and each one of these memories is like that center, stripped of digression, picked clean of equivocation. What is left are the core narratives, spare and cold.”
It is no coincidence he refers to the center, or core. The Midwest is, after all, called the heartland, occupying the core of the country, pulsing out, like the heart, fire and ice, thrill and rush. This region of the country is called the heartland not only because it rests at the center of the continent, but because like the heart it draws blood to center before feeding it out to the tributaries through tradition, crops, and the last remaining visions of the idyllic American West.
No matter how much time has passed since sharecroppers were drawn west by promises of land, we remain drawn to the Midwest through agriculture, business, nostalgia. The Plains call us home. Buffalo were drawn to the same spots on the Plains time and again, returning with the seasons as though there were something in their blood memory to tie them to this place, compel and propel them back. Sandhill cranes are drawn to and from the Plains as well, returning to the same place for over nine million years, the bones of their dead preserved, the birth of their young ensuring the cycle continues. Pioneers were drawn to the Plains despite the harshness of the weather, despite the way they had to leave their prairie schooners, abandoned hulls like the ribs of great beasts on the prairie. Still, they remained and built towns around what they managed to grow so that now a nation is fed from what comes from this dip in the continent.
Though I had never been to the Midwest, moved there by accident to pursue a degree, it quickly became home. Living in Nebraska required I listen in order to live well, and in listening to the Plains’ moods and mannerisms like I would to an old friend, I grew to know Nebraska in a way I never knew California, though I’d been raised there among the many generations of my family who’d been raised there. Over the years, Nebraska sustained me—the fall lead to harvest and I gathered my food from farmers I knew rather than a grocery store shelf, taking my lead from animals storing up for the winter and plants settling into stasis to survive the cold. I came to see the winter not as a season of tolerance, but one of imposed reflection. And its snow and ice made the spring lush, trees budding then bursting to bloom, fields swelling to feed us once more. Even summer, with its storms, soon seemed a kind of nourishment, providing the water we needed to thrive—meanwhile, California sank into drought, and time I returned to the place I’d once called home, it seemed drained of vitality, colorless and thirsty and then on fire when dry brush caught and left the state in flames that licked the land right up until the shore.
The inhospitable nature of the Plains with its endless contradiction can draw people in and sometimes spit them back out, bruised and bloodied. Kathleen Norris admits in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that “The Plains are not forgiving. Anything that is shallow—the easy optimism of a homesteader; the false hope that denies geography, climate, history; the tree whose roots don’t reach ground water—will dry up and blow away.” The Plains require grip, requires one cling to this place despite hail and strong wind, despite blizzard and drought, requires one dig deep into history, put down roots. But despite the harsh weather, the way this place does not satisfy the convenient or momentary traveler, there is something here that compels us, demands our awe in the face of its power. There is something about the way this place requires our patience to know it, our forgiveness of its seeming flaws, even our appreciation of its indifference. There is something about the way this place does not boast with lavish landscape, something in the expanse of vision and living, the false sense of emptiness that makes us turn inward to examine the ways we live, the ways land shapes our living.
Friends from California still laugh at my love of this place, though I have lived on the Plains for seven years. I try to explain that the flight of barn swallows reveals when winter is coming, or that the Plains makes astronomers of us all, for how else would we find our ways home, the stars here never obscured by city lights or sea. Still, they inquire, “Don’t you miss the beach? Don’t you hate the cold?” The California chorus echoes how much easier it is to live somewhere that exists as a backdrop.
I have found a way to love what is not easy. I like the intimacy required of me here, what I am required to know and learn to make my home here. I like that I am humbled, that the Plains remind me land does not exist for my pleasure. That if anything, land exists to remind us of our impermanence.
The mythos of the Plains is one of emptiness. Defined by flatness, the Plains are often viewed as lacking depth, but while many wonder where the mountains, or the ocean, or even the trees are when we look at the Plains, there is much negating the image of vacancy below the surface. More than 75% of prairie grass grows beneath the surface, roots stretching up to twelve feet underground, in a tangle of root and bulb. A square meter of sod—big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass—can contain twenty-five miles of roots, slender, gnarled, dancing.
Also buried beneath the surface are our human contributions to the Plains—nuclear-missile silos sunk like gopher holes across the prairie. Of the 2,750 land-based nuclear warheads in the United States, approximately 1,850 rest underground on the Plains. It seems as though we’ve been conditioned to think of the Plains as a harsh place of violent extremes, that we’ve misinterpreted making a home here with attempting to replicate its power, danger, its showy displays of the potential for destruction.
But our buried weapons are the antithesis of indifference. An attempt at political and global control, they are angry forms of retribution, fire without renewal. Our weapons are modeled after storms: fire cracking the sky into pieces, the air yellow and thick with sulfur, creatures fleeing from the fury.
When I first moved to Nebraska I was afraid of storms, grew sick when tornado sirens wailed and trees shuddered, buildings groaning on their foundations in the wind, electricity gone black as a funnel threatened to wind its way closer. It took a time to trust this place, to understand that the storm was not an act of aggression, but one of indifference. Sometimes the funnel came, winding its way, thankfully, around the basin that nestled my city. Other times it did not—a friend spoke of her Joplin home ripped to confetti, the mementos of her childhood scattered as much as a mile away. Many times the funnel did not arrive at all.
Over time, however, the storms made me humble. There was nothing I, nothing we could do about them. To try at all seemed foolish. I laughed at California friends so afraid or judgmental of storms they would never imagine moving beyond the golden coast. Many lived in glass and chrome buildings high in the sky—they could not imagine a place where the sky was not theirs.
Though our weapons are modeled after storms, we have forgotten that storms bring with them renewal. After the winds have ceased, birds return to the trees and green seeps from the sky until it is blue once more. Just before a storm the sky smells sulfurous, but after, the air is as pure as you can find. And while lightning finds its way to the low places, sparking, catching quick and spreading the burn and blaze, the grassland is sustained this way, born and reborn by fire.
Fires kill trees and shrubs, returning their nutrients to the soil. The grasses, whose growth occurs below the surface, are spared. The Plains seem to be meant to withstand flame, for though prairie fires can create temperatures of up to 400 or 500 degrees, these temperatures drop at ground level. Immediately after a prairie fire you can place your palms firmly on sod, for the temperature rarely raises above 65 degrees, protecting seeds and roots and burrowing animals.
We have much to learn about human nature from the Plains—about the ways we are unpredictable, the ways we are beautiful and destructive, restorative and deadly. If nature invites us to be what we are, the Plains invite us to explore our complexities, to live with vigor and fire, with give and take. It seems the Plains ask us to remember that while we live with power and force, we must also remember to be regenerative, restorative. The beach does not exist for our pleasure much as the sky does not exist for our fury.
A life on the prairie is a life unseen, a life underground, something we, with our need for show and appearance, cannot often fathom. While the prairie looks empty to an unaware eye, underground move badgers and ground squirrels, pocket gophers, mice, and moles, each knitting intricate tunnels. Spiraling earthworms and insects stir up nutrients, their lives working with the soil rather than against it, something early settlers could not understand as they fought to contain and maintain unfamiliar crops.
When farmers came to the Plains they couldn’t plant because of the roots, didn’t know to look underground, to learn the temperament and history of this place. Prairie is fertile and dense, roots spiraling underground, just out of our sight and therefore our understanding. Prairie grass roots cling to the soil, firmly entrenched despite soil erosion, able to find water even in the most extreme drought. Hardy, unrelenting, their descent below should teach us something about survival and resistance, about working within a system rather than opposed to it, about looking to the past for succor and strength, that what thrives is not simply what is easy.
If we could turn the membrane of the prairie upside-down so what is below rests on top for us to see, the underside of the prairie might look like the cities we build, roads and wires tangling together, our buildings like roots reaching higher and higher towards the sky. While we don’t see ourselves in the prairie—historically have positioned ourselves against it—our very architecture models itself after the Plains.
Settlers eventually learned to build their homes out of sod, some even burrowing like the wiser creatures, building homes into the sides of hills or partly underground, protected from the place by learning to live within it, to become a part of the place. Years later we still seek shelter underground, moving to basements and cellars during tornados. When the howling wind comes and the skies splinter, I no longer cower, protected as I am deep in the heart of the land.