For lack of comparable landscape experiences, early travelers relied on analogies to the open ocean to convey what it was like to traverse the presettlement prairies of Illinois. Such accounts often celebrated the magnificence of the scenery, but they were also often tinged with a sense of isolation, smallness, and insignificance on the part of the viewer. Reading such descriptions motivated me to try to envision what that environment was like. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand in the middle of a vast grassland, completely exposed to the elements, with only the unbroken horizon as a focus for one’s attention. I wanted to fill in, or rather, reset the picture of the Grand Prairie region I had formed from my own Illinois travels. It is still today a big place, but there is no longer a way to feel completely disoriented and isolated among its corn and soybean fields punctuated by farms, towns, and trees. Looking back from that cultivated landscape it’s interesting to consider that the wild, historic prairie was also a cultural phenomenon, dependent on centuries of intentionally lit wildfires that kept the eastern forest from invading (see: The Grand Prairie of Illinois, Night Fire).
The atmospheric tone and composition of this piece are based on photos and field studies done late one afternoon at Springbrook Prairie in Dupage county and early one morning by a soybean field in Kankakee County. The foreground elements are based on photos and field studies from three high quality, black-soil prairie remnants: Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Prospect Cemetery Prairie, and Loda Cemetery Prairie. The topography of the scene is inspired by the flatter prairie sections I observed just north of Champaign on I-57. The empty horizon, which I am still amazed existed east of the Mississippi, is confirmed by observations at sea where ships, or in this case trees, can be seen at a maximum distance of 12 miles—less if the object is shorter. Many treeless views in the Grand Prairie region would have been longer were it not for the curvature of the earth.
Here are a few of the many historical descriptions of Illinois prairies that inspired the 36x60 canvas.
Sometime he [the traveler] traveled in solitude a tract where he could not see timber at all, like the sailor out of sight of land; the landscape in every direction was bounded by a horizon wherein nothing appeared but the green below and the blue above. The surface was generally level, broken only by slight undulations, and had the monotony of an ocean view with the same pleasing variety—whenever the wind blew, the tall grass rippled, fell and rose again in marvelous similitude to the sea. When the sun was not to be seen, and the weather was so hazy that the groves were not visible, the stranger had better retrace his steps; to be lost on the prairie was by no means a pleasant experience. (David Turpie, Sketches of My Own Times, 1903)
As we mounted one of these heights the country opened before us, and swept away to the eastern horizon, a distance of many miles – a smooth, open plain, undotted by a tree or other familiar object. I can never forget the thrill which this first unbounded view of a prairie gave me. (Elizabeth Wood Farnham, Travels in Prairie Land, 1847)
Sometimes I traveled, during four or five hours, either by day or by night, across some prairie, without seeing even a bush, or a tree—above me, were the wide spread and lofty heavens, while the prairie, with its grasses and flowers, extended in all directions around me, far beyond the reach of my vision. In such a situation, man feels his own littleness, in the immensity of space, he feels alone too, in this loneliness, universal silence and repose. (Caleb Atwater, Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie Du Chien, 1831)
As the sun reached the meridian the winds went down, and then the stillness of death hung over the prairie. The utter desolateness of such a scene is indescribable. Not a solitary tree to intercept the vision or to break the monotony; not a sound to cheer the ear or relieve the desolation; not a living thing in all that vast wild plain to tell the traveler that he was not ‘Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wild, wild sea!’ (Edmund Flagg, The Far West, 1838)
And to sum it up, looking back from the turn of the 21th century, Robert Betz writes in The Prairie of the Illinois Country:
From these quotes of French Explorers and early prairie farmers we can picture in our mind’s eye the gently rolling virgin Illinois Prairie below a blue sky vault strewn with flowers of all colors, shapes, and sizes stretching from horizon to horizon. (Betz, 2011)