Before the chaos of Christmas day with the family, my gift to myself is a dawn walk at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. As the sun crests the horizon, filling the cloudless sky with a welcome spark of warmth, I emerge from the remnant hedgerows of pioneer farmers past to feast my eyes upon the recovering prairie lands of the future.
A number of years ago, while backpacking through the badlands of South Dakota, I met a young German who was on his own backpacking adventure through the prairie lands of the continental interior. Because so much of his native country, he explained, was heavily forested, what so fascinated him about the American prairie landscape was that “there was no place to hide from the face of God.”
On a cold Christmas morning, without a lick of snow on the sere grasses and spent wildflower stalks, the recovering prairie lands of Midewin feel even more exposed and exposing than usual. Certainly that’s the case for a prairie vole, for whom the face of God this day is covered with the feathers of a northern harrier. Not that the velvet-cloaked critter ever saw that dread face before a pair of talons fell from the sky and crushed its neck.
If I were a religious man, I might be tempted to think of the harrier as an Old Testament God – fickle and unforgiving. So, too, as I walk through the treeless prairie, might I be tempted to keep a wary eye on the heavens for what fate the good Lord had in store for me. But if there is a God to be encountered in the open spaces of Midewin, I believe it is more of a New Testament God – one more inclined to compassion and forgiveness. And healing.
In this sense, for me the face of God is reflected in the very landscape of Midewin; named for a healing society of the Pottawatomie. Here, after generations of destruction – first in the form of farmers plowing up the prairie, followed by a public-private venture to manufacture record-setting amounts of war materials – a new generation is engaged in a kind of re-Genesis.
In lieu of monocultures of corn, there now thrive at Midewin recovering prairies boasting upwards of 125 different species of grasses and flowers. Instead of bombs, there are recovering populations of rare and wonderful grassland birds. Where creeks once ran red with the runoff of TNT waste, their cleared waters once again teem with all kinds of native fish, amphibians, muskrats, beavers and wading birds.
What a gift this Christmas morning, with the promise of even greater gifts in the years, in the generations, to come.