Literary Hook: Prose contest winner announced

The Rock River Times is pleased to present the prose winner of this year’s contest, “Blue-Eyed Grass,” by George Keithley. We are proud to publish this accomplished writer, who says of his work:

“Other work of mine includes the award-winning epic The Donner Party, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection that has been adapted as a stage play and an opera, eight collections of poetry, and an award-winning play about Aaron Burr.

“Essays, poems and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, TriQuarterly, Agni, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, New Letters and other publications. Awards include the Pushcart Prize, the Allen Tate Prize for Poetry, a Raymond Carver Short Story Award and others.”

We found “Blue-Eyed Grass” to be tightly knit, scholarly as well as personal, literary as well as personal, literary as well as “grassroots.” We learned much about the blue-eyed grass itself as well as what it means to the writer. Here, then, is the prose piece. Learn and enjoy!

Blue-Eyed Grass

With the enthusiasm a convert brings to his cause, I’m a late-arriving admirer of a plant which has brought pleasure to countless people. In more than 100 varieties, blue-eyed grass is, after all, native to the broad middle regions of North and South America. Moreover, it’s found in fields in Ireland, and it’s known to thrive in several moderate zones on the European continent.

In North America, the plant appears in prairies and in open woodlands from Wisconsin and western Minnesota down through Illinois, across Iowa and into eastern Nebraska, in Missouri and Kansas, throughout Oklahoma, and extending into the Texas panhandle.

A flower of the genus Sisyrinchium, it derives its descriptive name from the blossom’s most common color, in combination with tall, narrow grass-like leaves, which, at full growth, will stand 14 to 17 inches tall.

The feature that I find most attractive about this plant is its small, star-shaped flowers. These consist of half a dozen petals surrounding the yellow center. The petals are commonly sky-blue, but some will be pale blue and white, and these latter petals may be further distinguished by slim, striated lines of a very fine marine blue. Curiously, when its petals haven’t fully opened, the partially folded blossom can look like a butterfly perched on a tall blade of grass.

In time, these lovely little flowers produce small, round, tawny husks which cluster beneath the petals, and cling to the plant long enough to be a familiar attribute of its maturity.

I should have recognized blue-eyed grass long before I did. I grew up in a small town in Illinois surrounded by farmland, prairie, and thin groves of trees—elm, oak, sycamore—and spent part of every summer in a still more rural region in Wisconsin; yet I never saw this native flower, common to both sites, until I was 15. More accurately, I should say I never noticed it. I don’t know how I could have been blind to it for years, but once acquainted, I learned to value this cheery and deceptively hardy plant, which endures the legendary winds of the prairie, frost, hail, torrential rains, drought and baking heat, year after year.

I left home when I was 18 and never saw the flower again until, at age 30, I was hiking through a prairie in northeastern Kansas. (Because the blossom is so strikingly visible in this particular setting, the upstanding plant is sometimes called prairie blue-eyed grass.) I was walking across lush, rolling grassland, which, thanks to an abundance of spring rain—the sweeping, wind-driven rain of the region—was shining its freshest, deepest green in the final week of May. It was a landscape much like this one which prompted the historian Stephen E. Ambrose, writing in Crazy Horse and Custer, to remark, “… there are few places in the world more delightful than Kansas in May.”

Not far from these sunny swales, along the banks of the full-flowing Missouri River, north of the Kansas but below the mouth of the broad and shallow Platte, the crew of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, early in July 1804, had stopped for a few days of well-earned rest. Captain William Clark, like Meriwether Lewis, a Virginian, was formerly in command of a company of sharpshooters, and he’d served with Mad Anthony Wayne in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in Ohio. Now he and Lewis and their party had a restful view of the beginning of the Great Plains. They were astonished by the quietly abundant beauty of the land, so fruitful, fragrant and ample, that it moved William Clark, a man capable of terse observations, to describe it in his journal in prose that’s nearly poetic.

Lewis and Clark and other travelers recognized the area as being remarkably peaceful. At the time, this was neither Indian country nor a buffalo range. The Kansa, primarily an agrarian people, had indeed crossed the Missouri River but settled themselves to the south of the region. The Pawnee, who would sometimes make an appearance here, dwelled mainly along the banks of the Platte, in a culture that combined farming and hunting. At this time, their homeland just reached the eastern end of the range which nourished the buffalo. The great herds still roamed far to the north and west, across the high plains.

Most noteworthy to Clark—as an important source of food—were the deer so numerous that they might “be seen in every direction,” in addition to waterfowl and ripe, purple raspberries. Subsequently, he describes the plain itself as “one of the most beautiful I ever saw.” With uncommon enthusiasm, he praises the “sweet and nourishing grass… Pools and brooks of fine water… the most delicious fruit…” Finally, and especially, this usually tacit observer rejoices in “the variety of flowers delicately raised above the grass, which strikes and perfumes the sensation, and amuses the mind.”

Seventy years later, another military officer, General George Armstrong Custer, was posted on the plains, in command of the Seventh Cavalry. Custer, who loved the freedom of vast spaces—they thrilled him almost as much as his dreams of glory—often rode out to gather clusters of blue-eyed grass and other wildflowers. He then wove them into garlands to decorate his horses, or presented them in a bouquet to his wife, Libbie.

I enjoyed the mild breeze which seemed to undulate like the land itself, as though the current of air took its shape and design from the earth beneath it. And I was delighted to be reacquainted with the gentle beauty of blue-eyed grass, for the flower was found in profusion among these green rills. Surely, it was prominent, too, among those wildflowers which William Clark described as being “raised among the grass,” for that is how the plant has always shown itself.

I walked across open meadows while the wind stirred the grass, and the blue blossoms nodded on their long, spindly stems, and though I was alone, I felt a companionability with the life that surrounded me, and presented itself in more purpose and variety than I could understand.

In Inherit the Wind, Henry Drummond, the famous defense attorney who resembles Clarence Darrow, asserts his belief that each time we learn a truth about the natural world, that world loses a portion of its mystery. And with the passing of its mystery, nature loses its power to charm us, and our capacity for wonder is diminished.

This would be an effective formula for developing a secure cynicism but for one factor: It isn’t true. The more we discover about the natural world, the more fascinating it is. In its functioning, and in its amazing detail and intricacy, it continues to engage us. Among its most common features are the numerous grasses and flowers which persist, and prevail, around the planet, and yet they mystify us and surprise us. And this small but quite pretty flower, blue-eyed grass, with the odd but apt name we’ve given it, still has the power to delight us, at any age, and wherever we happen to find it.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Write

r’s Garret” for this newspaper.

From the July 12-18, 2006, issue

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