A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

By Donald Worster | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Rising on the Prairie

Astraight-line distance to the southern edge of Wisconsin, where the Powells were headed, is about four hundred miles, but their route over the land was longer: north toward Columbus, Ohio, then angling across Indiana and Illinois, skirting marshes and fording streams, swinging around low glacial moraines to save their animals' strength. They traveled a dusty, rutted road for a full month or more. Each meal they cooked over an open fire, each night they slept inside or under their wagons. They had each other for company, and no one else much of the time.

September is typically a dry month in this country, with cool, crisp nights and broad, clear skies spangled with glittering stars. Migrating birds fill the air with their wing beats and cries. As the family creaked along the beaten trails, the wide horizon stretched before them, the land flattening out into a mosaic of grasses turning sere and brown, bronze, gold, crimson, yellow. They had crossed into the “prairie archipelago, ” a patchy region of prairie islands interspersed among the woods. Some of the openings were twenty miles across, some were even larger, like an ocean surrounding the groves of trees. By October the country could turn black, as fires broke out and ran with the wind. No one could agree on the origins of this Midwestern environment, so different from the great forest to the east. Some argued that Indians had created it by frequent burning while others explained it by lightning or by deficient soil moisture. Scientists one day would say that it may have been the work of glaciers leaving a poorly drained landscape of bogs and marshlands in their wake or the outcome of a complicated history of climate change and pollen relicts that we cannot fully explain.

-37-

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A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Prologue - Green River Station, 1869 ix
  • Part One - Northern Days 1
  • Chapter 1 - A Mission to America 3
  • Chapter 2 - Rising on the Prairie 37
  • Chapter 3 - The Hornets' Nest of War 85
  • Part Two - Canyons of the Colorado 107
  • Chapter 4 - Westward the Naturalist 109
  • Chapter 5 - Down the Great Unknown 155
  • Chapter 6 - Surveying the High Plateaus 203
  • Chapter 7 - Kapurats 261
  • Chapter 8 - The Sublimest Thing on Earth 297
  • Chapter 9 - Democracy Encounters the Desert 337
  • Part Three - Washington, D.C. 381
  • Chapter 10 - Myths and Maps 383
  • Chapter 11 - Redeeming the Earth 437
  • Chapter 12 - The Problem of the West 467
  • Chapter 13 - Journey's End 533
  • Notes 575
  • Bibliography 611
  • Acknowledgments 645
  • Index 647
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