THIS STUNNING COLLECTION of photographs uncovers the mystery and beauty of a part of the country that for most people is hidden in plain view.
These are unexpected images of a Midwest that has borne cultivation and yet retains the marks of its primeval origins. Presenting a counterpoint of vast expanse and luminous detail, Places of Grace reveals both the physical beauty and the natural history of a ten-state region encompassing Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Gary Irving's extraordinary photographs and Michal Strutin's elegant prose combine to create a penetrating and vivid sense of place.
From the sculpted sandstone of Ohio's Hocking Hills to the prairie grasses of western Nebraska to the boreal forests of Michigan's upper peninsula, Places of Grace celebrates the rich visual texture and fascinating past of the heartland.
Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest
won the Great Lakes Booksellers Association General Award. It also won an award of excellence at the Chicago Book Clinic book show. Excerpts from Places of Grace
were featured in America West
University of Illinois Press, 1999, hardcover, 160 pages, large-format four-color photographs. ISBN 0-252-02323-4.
"Gary Irving's extraordinary photographs and Michal Strutin's elegant prose combine to create a penetrating and vivid sense of place in Places of Grace. This collection of photographs covering a ten-state region that makes up America's heartland reveals the mystery and beauty of a part of the country that is 'hidden in plain view.' Presenting a counterpoint of vast expanse and luminous detail, this sumptous volume makes you want to venture out into the land and return to the book."
—Great Lakes Booksellers Association
"The remarkable photographic skills of Gary Irving are strikingly displayed in Places of Grace....The book's opening is a thoughtful natural history of the region by Michal Strutin."
—Delta Sky Magazine
"Reveals, page by page, the beauty and wonder of the Midwest, from its flat and haunting prairies to cool and shaded glades. If you're a Midwesterner, you will be grateful for the book's understanding of the beauty of your home; if not, your eyes will be opened."
—Where St. Louis magazine
"It is difficult to say which is more stirring—Strutin's elegant prose or Irving's inspiring photographs. In the end it doesn't matter. For what they leave me is a landscape of long-swirling grasses, leaf-tangled streams, imposing bluffs, and darkly reflective lakes, a sublime solitude in which even Wordsworth would have felt at home."
—Virginia Quarterly Review
THE MIDWEST IS A PLACE hidden in plain view. People fly over, drive through, and never really see this land in the middle. Yet, for those who know the Midwest, its landscapes shape the way we see the world. It is a land of broad, open prairies, opulent forests, and lakes without number. The nature of the heartland is profound in its artlessness...and wonderfully diverse.
Above a hidden, twisted sandstone gorge, golden autumn leaves drift thickly over the floor of an Indiana hardwood forest, their crunch underfoot releasing crisp, earthy odors. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the setting sun hovers—red as a blood orange—just above Lake Superior's cool blue horizon as the laughing cry of a loon rises from behind a screen of balsams.
A boulder, left behind by glaciers more then ten thousand years ago, serves as a seat on a Kansas prairie to listen to the whispered songs of a sea of grasses. Undulating under fickle winds, the big bluestem and dancing switchgrass part to reveal flashes of purple coneflowers and orange butterflyweed.
Roiling over the broad plains of Nebraska, clouds sketch the earthen canvas with shadow shapes, and a narrow ribbon of blacktop road stretches across a rolling, seemingly infinite green and tan land. It is a view that promises possibility.
Midwestern landscapes are rich with such natural grace. This land may not shout for attention, but it does seep into the soul.
Cottonwoods on Nebraska's prairie.
I knew nothing of the land's subtle influence when I was eight and moved with my family from Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains to Illinois. We arrived at Midway, the only airport serving the Chicago area then, and my immediate reaction was agoraphobia. The sky was too big, the horizon too far. Gravity seemed to have a tenuous hold on the flat crust of the earth that extended in all directions. There were no mountains to anchor us, and I felt sure the gusting wind would suck us up into the overwhelming sky.
Gary Irving, whose photographs fill Places of Graces
, says of this need to see the sky pierced by mountains, "We've been trained to see images that obliterate the horizon line." Over the years my vision has improved. I became comfortable with the breadth of my new home, and the space itself became an anchor, part of my world view. I have learned the land and, in turn, carry a reassuring sense of these Shaker-plain, bone-known places within.
For me, the Midwest provides internal as well as external geography. It allows a vision of life as expansive as the prairies themselves. But, focusing for a moment on the purely practical, where do we draw the lines? What exactly are the physical boundaries of the Midwest? Lying at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, Ohio is a good place to set the eastern border.
Perhaps a logical western demarcation would be at the foot of the Rockies and the finale of the shortgrass prairies. But somewhere toward the western edge of the Great Plains there is a sense that the West has begun. Though somewhat arbitrary, let us say the Midwest includes these states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.
Geologic facts back up an intuitive sense that here lies the stable center of the nation. All around, colliding tectonic plates have thrust up mountains: the Appalachians on one side and, much later, the Rockies on the other. Certainly the Midwest landscape has seen its share of mountain building as evidenced by the ancient, eroded domes of Michigan's Porcupine Mountains on the northern border and Missouri's Ozark Mountains bracketing the south. But, for the most part, the rock layers that tell this region's geological story lie in calm order—how midwestern—just as they were laid down, with little visible faulting or folding.
Over hundreds of millions of years shallow seas ebbed and flowed over the heartland. Rivers running from the Appalachians and other eroding mountains carried mud and sand to the inland seas, and the deposits became shale and sandstone under the pressure of their own weight. The sea itself contributed rock layers as countless generations of marine life left shells and skeletons that became limestone.
Dinosaurs roamed the shores of this sea. Later, prehistoric horses, rhinoceroses, and other long-extinct mammals filled the plains that emerged as the ancient seas drained away. Today researchers from around the world come to the banks of the Ohio River to study benches of Devonian limestone etched with thousands of crinoid fossils, or delve the fossil beds full of extinct beavers and boars in Nebraska. The Midwest serves as a showcase for Earth's long record of life.
The region's most recent geologic events were the Ice Ages. Four times over the past two million years, massive sheets of ice covered Canada and advanced south across the Midwest. The names of these glacial ages reflect the areas most affected: Nebraskan, Kansan, Illinoisan, and—ending about 10,000 years ago—the Wisconsin glaciation. Moving little more than inches a day, the ponderous glacial sheets scoured rock and earth from Canada and the upper Midwest, crushed it with the weight of mile-high ice, then tilled it evenly over large parts of the region's midsection.
As the Earth warmed, glaciers and the cold, coniferous swamp forests at their feet retreated. Forests of astounding diversity moved up from the southern Appalachians to colonize the eastern third of the Midwest, exploding in a riot of life as the crushed rock of midwestern till-plains released its rich mineral energy. Rising toward the Rockies, the higher, drier western realm grew a thick pelt of grasses, which teemed with wildlife no less than the most fecund savannas of Africa.
As glaciers withdrew, their meltwaters filled enormous northern basins that the weight of the ice helped create: the Great Lakes. The five lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—hold one-fifth of all fresh water on Earth. Another of the world's great waters rises in the upper Midwest: the inexorable Mississippi River.
The peopling of North America occurred comparatively late, toward the end of the Ice Ages. By the time Europeans landed, maybe twenty million people inhabited the continent. Although the numerous native groups that lived across the Midwest used fire to clear land or hunt bison, the region remained in a relatively natural state until Europeans entered the land.
The first to arrive were French voyageurs
of the 1600s, traveling through the northern Great Lakes. As they moved west, they entered the myriad rivers and lakes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota to trap a wealth of beaver, mink, and other fur-bearing wildlife of the northern forests. For the most part, they did not come to settle the land, but they opened the way for others. Two centuries later, miners were excavating the ancient ranges of Upper Michigan and Minnesota for iron and copper. Logging magnates, whose workers felled whole forests of white pine and hardwoods, made millions from the North Woods.
Farther south and east, settlers breached the Appalachians in the late 1700s. Looking for land to farm, they found the till-plains of Ohio and Indiana covered with deciduous forests so broad and lofty that leafy canopies blotted out the summer sky. But the soils were rich and the land looked untouched and available. Tree by towering tree, they cleared the land and tamed the wild. The Ohio River and tributaries such as the Scioto and the Wabash became their highways to the Mississippi and, from there, as far south as the French port of New Orleans.
Settlers understood forests, but when they reached Illinois in the early 1800s, they paused before the great ocean of grass that lay before them. Nothing in Europe had prepared them for such a scene. They did not even know what to call the land. The French called it prairie
—"meadow"—because meadows were the only European landscapes that even remotely resembled the Midwest's vast grasslands. The Midwest had "meadows" that stretched a thousand miles.
If felling and clearing a hundred-foot-high tree was hard, busting an equal mass of prairie sod was that much harder. To complicate matters, grasslands provide little wood for fuel or for building houses. But we humans are inventive, and new types of plows dug up much of the deep, interlocking prairie roots of Iowa and Illinois. The black soils that lay beneath ten-foot-high tallgrass prairies were the most fertile on Earth and, in time, bluestem and Indiangrass were replaced by more cultivated grasses—corn and wheat.
At Independence, Missouri, where tallgrass prairies begin yielding to shorter, more drought-resistant mixed grasses, settlers gathered themselves for the great push west along the newly grooved Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. The opening of the West marked the end of the wild.
Sod busting and grain planting continued across the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, giving way to cattle grazing in the shortgrass prairies, where water is scarce. In less than a century, the natural landscapes of the Midwest were found—and lost.
But not all was lost. Although people will try anything, some things just take too much trying. Settlers attempted to farm the gnarled hills of southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Untouched by glaciers, these thin-soiled uplands were often too rocky and wrinkled for plow or ax. People gave up and moved on, and abandoned farms devolved to the U.S. Forest Service. Much the same happened throughout the Ozarks of Missouri.
The cold, dank swamp forests of the far north were deemed too hard to drain. Nebraska's Sand Hills proved too arid and irregular for intensive agriculture. Even a plow couldn't crack the Flint Hills of Kansas. Iowa's Loess Hills were not as easy to plant as nearby floodplain fields or the low roll of land to the east. Marshes and other midwestern wetlands not conquered by drainage schemes were called pestilential and left to wildlife. Many of the natural landscapes that remained were not worth the effort of putting them to good use.
The Midwest is full of useful, productive land, but the lands that were left are equally valuable, in terms not calculated by units produced or metric tons shipped. It is hard to measure the pleasure and serenity that comes from walking among the sculpted sandstones of Ohio's Hocking Hills, being lulled by the smooth sheet of Illinois River that passes beneath Starved Rock, or viewing the vastness of the Great Plains from Scotts Bluff, that ship of stone sailing on the western reaches of Nebraska's sea of grass. Our spirits as well as our bodies need occasional recharge on the sun-warmed beaches of the Great Lakes, in boats on the Boundary Waters, among the careless beauty of wildflowers crowding an Iowa "meadow."
Connections with the wild enrich us no less than more tangible acquisitions. Although the Midwest has long been valued as the world's breadbasket, its natural landscapes have been undervalued for too long. By any measure, they are places of incomparable grace.