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December 1991

The View from Blue Mounds

by Matt Bergstrom

Several weeks ago I travelled to Blue Mounds State Park, near Luverne, Minnesota, just 30 miles from South Dakota. I had been to the same place exactly one year before, with a copy of Bill Holm’s The Music of Failure in my hand. In this park, a forty foot quartzite cliff rises unexpectedly from the miles of flat land, a sort of precursor of the Black Hills still over a day’s journey away on I-90. I sat in the prairie grass at the top of the cliff and looked out over the farms that were once prairie too, as I read the book.

"The prairie is endless!" Holm writes, "After the South Dakota border, it goes west for over a thousand miles, flat, dry, empty, lit by brilliant sunsets and geometric beauty. Prairies, like mountains, stagger the imagination most not in detail, but size. As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; horizontal grandeur, not vertical." Instead of writing off the flat plains as boring and unworthy of any interest, I started to see the magnificence of their expanse. The sublime presence of those fields stretched to the horizon till I could almost sense the curvature of the earth and my tiny figure on it as if seen from space.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like in the early 1700’s when Nicollet came this way, using these hills as a landmark. The buffalo herds must have been incredible, standing for miles in the tall grass. It is said that the Dakota used to stampede the animals over this cliff to their deaths. Now there are no bones, and the sod has been turned over to provide food for the human herds spread out for miles over the countryside. There is still a small herd at the other end of the park, the descendants of those proud millions now sadly grazing their small prairie. These tokens of the past can only give a dim vision of what the prairie must have been like before our society fenced it off, tore it up, and paved it over for quick profit.

It seems American society degrades these open lands in thought and in action. The pace of modern life cannot fathom the expanse. "Like a long symphony by Bruckner or Mahler, prairie unfolds gradually, reveals itself a mile a time, and only when you finish crossing it do you have any idea of what you’ve seen. Americans don’t like prairies as scenery or for national parks and preserves because they require patience and effort. We want instant gratification in scenic splendor as in most things, and simply will not look at them seriously."

It is a good thing that these buffalo and their small grassland have survived. As I watched their wizened eyes I hoped that in the rush to save rivers and trees from pollution and development, the prairies would not be overlooked. There is more beauty and worth on earth than what we have been told to see and value.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Matt Bergstrom