Willa Cather Prairie

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share — black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

Years and years ago, when I read Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, “My Antonia,” the above passage came at me like a bomb of lyrical beauty, setting off an explosion of melancholy and awe.

The awe was for Cather’s evocative writing, her ability to convey the lonesomeness and beauty of the prairie, which she described as “nothing but land, not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

Railroads, in need of people to populate the Great Plains, billed the treeless prairies as a land of hope and dreams to unwitting European immigrants, who had little to no farming experience. The harsh landscape quickly crushed their dreams.

“My Antonia” documents these struggles through the eyes of Jim Burden, the book’s narrator, who becomes friends with Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from Bohemia.

To me, the book has always read like a poem, an ode to the grasslands that were at once beautiful, cruel, isolating and life-affirming. I also grew up in a rural area, central Indiana, that can look the same for miles and miles, just endless fields of corn and soybeans and straight roads. It can be a challenge to love the monotonous landscape.

But I’ve seen that sunset, that red disk resting on the fields and slowly slipping into the horizon, many times. It’s a powerful sight that can leave me a little breathless.

For decades now, I have wanted to see the “material” of Nebraska, and the shaggy grass that Cather came to love.

Earlier this month, I got the chance to visit Omaha, Neb., for work. It was a great opportunity to visit a place I had never been, but it was really just a layover until I could get to Red Cloud, the setting for “My Antonia.”

It’s a town of 1,000, three hours southwest of Omaha, about five miles north of the Kansas state line. The heart of the town is set up as a tribute to Cather, who lived here for about 10 years, but made this area the setting for her most popular books, including “O Pioneers!,” “My Antonia” and “The Song of the Lark,” books known as Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy.”

In 2017, former first lady Laura Bush opened the National Willa Cather Center, a block of late 19th century buildings that includes the old Red Cloud Opera House where Cather came to love the arts. The center includes a museum, archives and book store.

This is heritage tourism at its finest, with lovingly restored buildings on a wide, brick road that evokes images of horse-drawn wagons and 19th century homesteaders. Some bonuses for my husband and me included sipping Nebraska beers at On the Brix and eating kolaches (a Czech pastry) at the Moonstone Book Store and Emporium with proprietor Peter Osborne, who regaled us with tales about the area, its history and the incredible hardships the immigrants faced.

The highlight for me was the nearby 600-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, grassland that has never been cultivated. The hills roll gently westward here, with just a smattering of trees in the distance, a desolate landscape that left a lasting imprint on Cather.

”I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them...” Cather wrote in “My Antonia.”

My husband I did our best to float off, not quite making it. But we did circle the preserve, and we stayed for the sunset. Clouds obscured the sun, so we did not see the fiery disk disappear into the horizon as I had hoped.

As we got into the car to drive off, I untangled a few blades of prairie grass that had gotten enmeshed in my shoelaces and tucked them into my worn copy of “My Antonia.”

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lodonnell@wsjournal.com 336-727-7420 @lisaodonnellWSJ

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