In this imagined view from before European settlement, prairies and oak savannas sweep across a section of Tennessee’s Eastern Highland Rim. For centuries before the Cherokees ceded these lands to the United States in 1807, the ecology of this landscape would have been heavily influenced by Indigenous people using fire to shape the grasslands and woodlands to their advantage. The resulting prospect of plentiful game and easily tilled meadows must have looked inviting to the first westward bound European settlers gazing down from the heights of the Cumberland Plateau. But with settlement and fire exclusion the grasslands soon vanished. They are now remembered only in scattered place names and rare remnant plant populations.
I became fascinated with seeing this historic landscape after I too looked down on it from the Cumberland Plateau around Sewanee, Tennessee. Here was an opportunity to explore an intriguing aesthetic combination of southeastern mountains and historic grasslands. Having decided the better composition would be from below looking back up toward toward Sewanee’s Domain, I began by photographing views along the compellingly named Prairie Plains Road in Coffee County. Unfortunately, the mountains from there were a bit too distant, and while the place name was intriguing, I couldn’t pin down its origin. Nor could I establish that the soils there were associated specifically with grasslands. I did, however, use the summer sky I captured in those photographs.
For location, I instead looked to an equally suggestive place name closer to Sewanee: Prairie Chapel Road in Franklin County. I was again unable to ascertain the historical origin of the name (although a partial picture began to emerge of an historic African American community there), but this time, an examination of USDA soil maps offered a grassland clue. Prairie Chapel (historic) and its cemetery lie within a swath of Guthrie silt loam, the same restrictive, grassland favoring soil type found at May Prairie State Natural Area, a tallgrass prairie remnant 15 miles to the northeast. In the painting, the late summer blooms of rosinweed, cut leaf prairie dock, dense blazing star, and boneset are based on those found at May Prairie, though they represent only a fraction of the grassland species there. As I picture them here, dispersed across a Highland Rim landscape by hundreds of years of natural processes (including anthropogenic fire), names like Prairie Chapel and Prairie Plains start to make a lot of sense.
Note: Additional reference imagery came from Google Street View, iNaturlist and the Southeastern Grasslands Institute.
January 18 - March 30, 2024
University Art Gallery
University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee