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When society thinks of the wonders of nature, it probably focuses on the oceans or mountains. True, the masses of shimmering blue waves rolling in from beyond the horizon that beach themselves on the pristine sandy shores of the coast, create a magnificent scene. And the enormous western mountain ranges, slopes cloaked in vibrant forests, conceal innumerable mysteries within their deep crevices. Beyond the surface of these locales, even the minutiae maintain a certain level of reverence. The ecosystems, flora and fauna alike, draw to it, the attention of society. Regardless of social class or occupation, every citizen seems to have knowledge of these scenes and holds them in high regard. And rightfully so. Their ecological and economic importance are not lost on me. I do find it strange, however, that fascination with the natural world dissipates as we move away from such places.
Far from the sea spray and the shadows of the mountains lie sparsely decorated landscapes. The stark grasslands span across the central United States, seemingly unnoticed by many. Extending across such a broad swath of the country, it’s amazing so many have glazed over this natural treasure. Centuries ago, waves, not of aqua, but of charismatic ungulates, deer, elk, pronghorn, and bison, once flooded across the grasslands. The ancient system now appears empty to the untrained eye. A drive down the highway simply does not do this landscape justice. Looking across the prairie, the monotony may be anything but exciting. One must dive off the beaten path, deep into the folds of the undulating hills, to truly appreciate its innate beauty.
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It requires keen eyes and attention to detail to find value in the plains of flowing grasses. Once engulfed by the rolling prairie, its dull appearance fades and all its intricacies become magnified. Unspoiled grasses reach out for miles upon miles, interrupted only by the occasional windmill. The whispy grasses, rich in the summer sun, and bent by short gusty winds, are the fuel for many wildlife species and a major portion of the nation’s beef industry. Interspersed between the clumps of grasses are brilliantly colored, sweet-smelling forbs whose potent fragrances attract vivacious bees.
Numerous grassland-obligated birds flutter about the landscape, each with their own unique calls to add the melody of the prairie. The bell-like “cluk” of the meadowlark, the chirping of dickcissels, and the complex song of the horned lark sound off in every direction, hidden by the blanket of mixed grasses that stretch as far as the eye can see. The calls are only hushed by birds of prey. A northern harrier, with sharp eyes, levitates over the open expanses, meandering in search of a feathery meal. Snorting in disapproval, pronghorn stand like watchful sentinels, frozen on hilltops, carefully watching their surroundings, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.
Continuing forward into the golden landscape, small unnoticed clumps of fruit-bearing shrubs appear. Upon approach, feathery brown masses emerge from the cover, emitting a frenzy of cackles as they launch themselves, first skyward and then off towards the horizon. As their shrinking silhouettes crest the distant knoll, the immensity of the grasslands finally takes hold. Now in perspective, the forgotten vastness seems surreal. As the landscape slowly comes to life, the once insipid surroundings become as colorful as the mountains or oceans. Anyone who has taken a walk through the native prairie can attest to these experiences and know them to be true. The prairie can fill a void in your soul. One you didn’t know existed. The memories of such an inspiring scene evoke something primitive within. It brings about a yearning for peace and simplicity that only the subtleties of the natural world can offer.