This piece first appeared in Minnesota Prairie Landowner Network summer 2023 newsletter.

It was a gray afternoon in April when I fell through the looking glass. I was in the midst of a cross country run along a ridge on the north side of Fergus Falls. I stooped for a moment just to fiddle with my shoe, but would stand into a whole new world. Nestled in the tan matted grass at my feet was a small lavender flower. It glistened with moisture which clung to delicate fuzzy hairs that covered its entire surface. Nothing about this made sense.

There were still patches of snow on the ground. The land all around me was dormant. None of the plants had so much as growing leaves, let alone flowers! Yet here before me was this stunning little flower pushing its way out of the rocky hillside. This small mystery was the doorway through which I would walk into a new understanding of the land upon which I was born.

Pasque flower covered in dew

Another world
among us

One of hundreds of pasque flowers I have planted on the hillsides of our own prairie reconstruction. This was among the first to bloom three years after being planted as a seedling.

I spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood trying to get away from Otter Tail County. I longed for the the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior or the alpine regions of the Rocky Mountains. By contrast, home meant land throughly cultivated by human activity. I loved wild places because they were largely free of all the things that make our lives easy and safe. They could be harsh, but within those dramatic landscapes hid entire communities of life that were suffused with a diversity and beauty that happened spontaneously, unbound by boxes and grids.

By training, I am an artist and theologian. I spend a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be human. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’ve come to see an essential part of being human involves getting in touch with the reality that lies beyond our “thinking.” All too easily our thinking becomes like the cage we build around a wild animal. We take something that is unpredictable, beautiful, free and place it within the safe confines of our thoughts. Almost every aspect of human culture is an outward manifestation of this, from our language to the way we build our cities, even at times to the practices we use in our restoration work. Understandably, we’re trying to get a handle on things. The trouble is when our thinking becomes like a pair of reading glasses that we staple to our heads. We may solve a problem, but not all of life happens within two feet of our noses.

These places and moments that break open our settled understandings and stimulate a sense of wonder are—to use a theological term—holy. I do not wish to conjure an image of holiness as a well known religious building or ceremony. I am pointing to holiness as surprise! The surprising connotation in the word holy is often missed, but it runs deep in the history of use and shows itself in a somewhat amusing way every time we exclaim “Holy [smokes, mackerel, moly, etc…]” The experience of surprise as holiness is the unexpected discovery of our connection to a reality that is greater than we had thought.

People fall in love with the prairie for many reasons. Some people love it because it is habitat for animals that they enjoy hunting. Others love prairie because of the role it plays in a healthy ecology. I love prairie because it surprised me. At the most fundamental level my discovery of the prairie has been a reconnection with wonder. It does the same thing for me as a clear view of the Milky Way, or perhaps being enveloped within the umbra of a solar eclipse. It throws me out of the tyranny of my to-do list and into the unexpected joy of being alive.

This experience has made a sort of addict of me. Like my love for the mountains or Lake Superior, I wanted more, and the discovery of my little flower showed me that these places of wonder existed within my everyday reach! I sought them out with vigor, an experience that brought much happiness, but also sadness. For in the process of seeking out these fragments of native prairie I came to see just how rare and threatened they really were, mostly tucked away on forgotten bits of land, or on relatively small nature preserves. It has become my observance to spend a silly amount of time finding and abiding in these places.

There is a ditch west of town that I cheekily refer to as “my favorite ditch.” People driving past likely have no concept of the transfiguration that is often taking place just yards away from the discarded beer cans that line the road’s edge. Over the years I’ve watched smooth brome encroach upon the lady’s tresses and small white lady slippers that grow unnoticed here. The door is closing on these forgotten places which were the contexts of my own awakening. They are treasures of our shared natural heritage, but they seldom receive so much as a glance. Despair is easy to come by. I must remind myself that as important as my own ecological work is, the power of life that gave rise to these places persists regardless of the success or failure of my own ideas and efforts. It’s in the air, the ground, and the water. It is, as Paul Wallace says, in the “stars beneath us.” And it’s in the smile you’ll see on my face as I continue the happy futility of planting flowers and wasting time on lonely, windy hillsides.

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