Tuesday, June 23, 2009


One of the nice things about living in Central Missouri is that we are located on physiographic and ecological borders. Here in Jeff City and in Columbia, we’re technically in the Ozark Border Natural Division, but we’re at the edges of so much more.

To our north are the rolling Glaciated Plains and their rich loess soils (think “Iowa”); to the south are the hilly and forested Ozarks, ancient eroded mountains dripping with charming natural springs, creeks, and rivers; to the west are the Osage Plains, including numerous places there native tallgrass prairie persist, given loving protection, in much the same state as when wagon trains and drovers faced it over a hundred years ago. And then we also happen to be situated on the Missouri River, whose “big river” riparian habitat, floodplain, and natural terraces create its own unique character.

Able to plant my feet upon cropfield plains and Ozark forest leaf litter, prairie grasses and the banks of a muddy, half-a-continent-draining river, I can claim it all as my home turf. Growing up here, I have always found myself unable to succinctly characterize or picture Missouri’s landscape, because I developed an organic and inclusive notion of the diversity. You can’t sum it up easily the way people tend to do, say, Kansas.

(Perhaps this is why I found the lands of Arizona so appealing; there, as here, you can drive for a couple of hours and suddenly find yourself in a whole new landscape. It’s much more subtle, here, and more mind-blowing there, but it’s the same basic thing.)

So although I’ve been talking a lot about the Ozarks so far, I also want to talk about the prairie. And this is a good time to think about it, too, because we’re getting our hottest temperatures so far this year. All this week and into next, with no relief in sight, it is getting into the nineties, with the heat index going well above a hundred.

I usually think of prairies as hot places—in part because some of the best times to see the wildflowers are right when it’s starting to heat up, and also in part because there are no trees on the prairie, thus little relief from that battering sunshine.

For fun, and to give you an idea of how prairie folks think about the summertime heat, here’s a few passages from John Madson’s Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995), 181-83. This classic book (originally published in 1982), by the way, is highly recommended reading.

If you’re from the Midwest, chances are there’s someone in your family tree, back before air conditioning, who suffered “heatstroke” or “sunstroke” and died. Here’s a picture for you.

The continental weather that sweeps the tallgrass prairie region is a raw, unrefined climate, untempered by any large bodies of water that might serve as reservoirs of warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Frostbite one month, sunstroke the next. There are places in North America that are colder than the prairie Midwest, and some that are hotter. But I’ll stack our prairie country against any as the hottest cold place, or the coldest hot place, on the continent.

In a switch on Sam McGee’s famous cremation, a story is told of the old Nebraska farmer who had died in retirement in San Diego. The mortal remains were trundled into a crematorium and subjected to an hour of white-hot flame. When the furnace was opened the old man stepped out, a healthy flush suffusing his weathered cheeks. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the edge of a calloused thumb, looked up at the sky, and said:

“Shore good to be home again. But by God, another couple weeks of this and we ain’t gonna get a corn crop this year!”

It has always seemed incredible that only a few sheets of the calendar separate the prairie winter from summer. Some prairie years have a temperature range of nearly 150 degrees, beginning with the land lying numb and silent under its iron sky, melting into weeks when that land is stunned by the full weight of summer, parboiling in transpired vapor that rises in shimmering waves from fields where corn leaves droop and curl.

Given a choice of being parboiled or baked, I favor the latter. I have hoboed through midsummer in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts where the afternoons were a white blaze and nothing geared to desert life would be abroad. . . . And yet, that heat was not exactly uncomfortable—it was simply untenable in the full sun. It had an odd purifying effect, seeming to shrink tissues and burn away unneeded juices until a man was fired into the igneous conformity that the desert world requires. To one accustomed to the sweltering prairies, it wasn’t half bad.

Summer deserts notwithstanding, I can think of no purer form of hell than threshing oats in the old way, and stacking straw under the blower of a steam-driven threshing machine on a July afternoon in central Iowa or Nebraska. The stacker worked directly under the blower, tramping the center of the growing stack to give the proper rounded shape that would not only shed water readily, but which was also the mark of a good farmer. He labored in a midday twilight of dust and blown straw, his face a mask of grime and sweat, consuming vast quantities of water or “stichel”—the ginger-and-water mixture that some old-time threshers preferred. Almost as bad was the job of spreading straw through the barn lofts or “haymows,” working under airless, dust-choked eaves in a torment of itching chaff and smothering heat. It was a labor often complete with the afflictions of Job—I can recall the “thrashers” who did such work while tortured with carbuncles on their necks and wrists, fierce occupational boils that were aggravated by dirt and sweat. . . .

The sun blazes, weighing unbearably on the enduring men. The air is thick and heavy and they are drenched with sweat that cannot cool them.

Madson reflects on the hellish scene he’s just painted: “No, the working definition of heat is not to be found in the Mojave but in prairie fields with the afternoon standing at 102° and a relative humidity of 80.”

. . . It’s still only June, and my weatherman says, “No relief in sight.”

ADDENDUM, July 2015: The "stichel" Madson refers to is also called switchel, or haymaker's punch. And it's making a comeback! Read here for more details.

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