Prairie Fires

Sep 16, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Remember the Phoenix, that Arabian bird that lived for five hundred years, then consumed itself on a funeral pyre, and was reborn from its own ashes?

Old stuff for the American tallgrass prairie. Like the Phoenix, the prairie was mythic. English settlers used familiar English names for the landscape they encountered until they came to edge of the Great Woods in Indiana. Here they met an undulating sea of grass that disappeared over the horizon. No English word came close. They turned, instead, to the French word “prairie.” It turned out to be a land of immensities, of unchecked winds and blizzards—and fires unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Prairie fires fanned across the tall grass in a forty-foot wall of flame miles wide as fast as the wind—a fire storm that took everything in its path: nests and the terrified animals themselves, mice, rabbits, snakes, and even birds who could not outfly the flames. Where a dense ocean of prairie grasses and flowers had been lay a smoldering black landscape, unmoving and silent. Early settlers described the prairie fire in terms usually reserved for the apocalypse.

Although sometimes started by lightning, many fires were lit by the plains Indians who knew the prairie's secret: the destroying fire was also the preserver. Winter snow blanketed the dead land, and when the snow melted in spring, new green life appeared; the buds of prairies grasses and flowers pushed from roots alive beneath ground. The blanket of black ashes from the fire absorbed the sun's rays to warm the soil and sprout the seeds. Nutrients released by the fire fed the seeds. With old stalks gone, the sun and the gentle spring rains were able to reach the new growth. Seedling trees and other intruders who had invaded the prairie the previous summer had been destroyed by the fire. From its own ashes, the prairie arose in new glory.

Old prairie land still greens each spring with corn and beans and hay; prairie grasses still grow in the wastes around old cemeteries, but the return of the elemental force of fire will have to await some future twilight of the gods.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.