“There was nothing but land,” Willa Cather writes, describing the prairie in the opening chapter of My Ántonia; “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” The description—or non-description—is echoed by one of Northfield’s early settlers, who described the prairie landscape as “unfinished.” Nothing relieved the monotony of the rolling grassland. It needed a humanizing touch—houses, barns, cultivated fields, hedges, a windbreak of pines—which the settlers went to work to provide.
Northfield occupies an interesting geographical position. When the first settlers arrived, the land east of the Cannon River was covered with prairie. West of the river, between the firebreaks of the Cannon and the Minnesota River, stood the Big Woods. Northfield occupied the border between the prairie and woods. The slopes and small bluffs above the Cannon River were studded with park-like oak savanna. The situation was perfect: the forest provided timber for fuel and building materials, the savanna provided a shelter for homes and livestock, the prairie provided fields for crops, the river provided water power for mills to grind the wheat into flour. When John North, Northfield’s first real estate developer and entrepreneur, arrived in early 1850s, his first thought was not of founding a town, it was of setting up a mill.
Monarch butterfly and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), McKnight Prairie
Most of the prairie was gone within a decade or two of settlement in the 1850s, turned under to create fields for wheat and, later, corn and soybeans. The tallgrass prairie was an astonishingly diverse ecosystem, and astonishingly beautiful. Hamlin Garland, looking back on his prairie youth, writes with regret of tearing through the ancient grassland with his father’s eighteen-inch plow: “At last the wide quarter section lay upturned, black to the sun, and the garden that had bloomed and fruited for millions of years, waiting for man, lay torn and ravaged. The tender plants, the sweet flowers, the fragrant fruits, the busy insects, all the swarming lives which had been native here for untold centuries were utterly destroyed.”
Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa), McKnight Prairie
Fortunately, a small remnant of largely undisturbed prairie still exists about five miles east of Northfield. McKnight Prairie, owned by Carleton College, is surrounded by cornfields and a Christmas tree farm, but offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the prairie must have been like in its pristine grandeur. On an afternoon in late August, the hills were just taking on their early autumnal tint of purple and gold—the gold of goldenrod, the purple of blazing star (liatris) and asters. Mixed with this was the white of flowering spurge, the yellow of partridge pea, and the surprising green of prickly pear cactus. The cactus, here at the northern limit of its range, flourishes in the patches of white sand that are reminders that, at the end of the Ordovician (400 million years ago), this land was at the edge of a tropical sea.
Although McKnight Prairie survived the period of settlement and continues to survive intact as virgin prairie, it now faces another severe threat to its existence: climate change. The partridge pea, which is currently blooming in the prairie, is among a number of native plants that are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to keep up with changing climate conditions.
Literary link: William Cullen Bryant, "The Prairies"
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