Natty Bumppo Meets the Prairies of Long Ago
The Prairie is one of the five novels that make up the Leatherstocking Tales written by James Fenimore Cooper from 1823 to 1841. It was the third book in this series published in 1827, but is the last book in chronological order depicting the life of the main character Natty Bumppo. Natty, or Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder as he is variously called through the novels is named Trapper or simply Old Man in The Prairie. Still robust in his mid 80’s, Trapper lives alone on the prairie sometime around 1806, somewhere in the middle part of Nebraska, about 500 miles west of the Mississippi River, having moved away from the east in an effort to escape the ever growing number of people and the incessant sounds of “civilization” including the chopping down of trees. This would put him in the “mixed grass prairie” between the tallgrass prairie to the east and shortgrass prairie to the west. This “ecotone” is said to be richer in biodiversity than either the tallgrass or shortgrass prairies and runs north and south from northern Texas, into parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota and even further north into Canada. After many years living here, he meets a group of settlers or “squatters” traveling west led by Ishmael Bush who are also escaping into the open prairie for different reasons. The story revolves around Trapper’s interaction with this group and the indigenous people living in the area.
Cooper was a popular American writer in the United States and throughout the world in the early 19th century, but his reputation has waxed and waned since that time. D. H. Lawrence called The Deerslayer, the last published but the first book chronologically in the Leatherstocking Tales, “one of the most beautiful and perfect books in the world.” Victor Hugo called Cooper “one of the greatest novelists of the century.” But Mark Twain was a harsh critic calling Cooper’s works “overly wordy” with unrealistic romantic plots. Cooper’s most lasting and famous work is the Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the best known and considered by many to be his masterpiece. In this novel, Natty is called Hawkeye. This nickname has been used by many since then including in the popular television series M*A*S*H in which the main character is known as “Hawkeye” Pierce, a name he grew up with because it was said on the show that The Last of the Mohicans was the only book his father ever read! Even “Trapper John” another character in M*A*S*H gets his name from this series, this time from The Prairie.The University of Iowa “Hawkeye” nickname is also thought by some to have also come from this series.
The Prairie is worth reading for those of us who love prairies, in part, because of its description and perspective of this part of the country in the very early 1800’s. Despite what is now known as a rich ecosystem, in the initial chapters of this book this area is described as one where “nature had placed a barrier of desert to the extension of our population in the west.” It goes on to say, “In their front were stretched those broad plains which extend with so little character” and “that bleak and solitary place”, “The meager herbage of the prairie”, “From the summits of the hills the eye became fatigued with the sameness and chilling dreariness of the landscape…Not unlike the ocean…the same waving and regular surface, the same absence of foreign objects, the same boundless extent to the view”, “Here and there a tall tree rose out of the bottoms, stretching its naked branches abroad like a solitary vessel.” And further, “may you journey in these open fields, in which there is neither dwelling nor habitation for man or beast.” Last, “It is likely that you will continue west until you have come to land more suitable for a settlement” from “the endless waste of the prairies.” This perspective gave rise to the term “Great American Desert” that is still sometimes used today to refer to that part of the Great Plains just to the east of the Rocky Mountains.
What harsh words for a place that many of us have come to treasure! But, this was a common perspective for those first settlers traveling west from a land full of trees in forests that stretched widely across the landscape. Trees at that time were felt to be a necessity on the frontier, as much as water and fertile soil. Land without trees was shunned, felt to be foreign and useless, a waste land. Not until later when wood products from elsewhere became plentiful and when the John Deere “self-scouring plow” was invented in 1837, which could slice through the tenacious roots of the prairie plants while shedding the soil that stuck to older versions of plows, did the area become attractive and the rich soils of the prairies open up and eventually become known as “America’s Breadbasket”.
Today, of course, only a sliver of those original prairies remain and are appreciated by many for their beauty, amazing diversity, and the rich habitat they provide for many plants and animals. That includes the remnant prairies that Friends of the Blufflands is restoring. Let’s dream of the day that this type of work is described in the history books and credited for bringing back those wide open spaces so that “the same waving and regular surface, the same absence of foreign objects, the same boundless extent to the view” is said with exultation and triumph!
Please consider supporting the work of Friends of the Blufflands by making a donation which will be used in its entirety to support its restoration efforts.