The first time I visited Prophetstown State Park, the tall green grasses, the vibrant prairie wildflowers, the sleepy farm animals, and the important history caught my eye. My nephew and I drove up to the gate on a warm July afternoon not knowing what to expect, but we had fun waddling around with the chickens, ducks, and turkeys at the farm, exploring the various buildings that comprise the Native American Village, and eventually walking through the prairie, marveling at the butterflies and the dragonflies zipping around the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). As we headed back to the car, a gentle breeze moved the thick vegetation all around us, the Canadian wild rye (Elymus canadensis) bobbing to the wind like an aging rocker at a Rolling Stones concert.
Later, when I was scrolling through the photos I’d snapped with my iPhone, I saw something in the background of each one that I’d missed during the actual visit. The sky, baby blue and filled with white puffy clouds floating lazily above. In one sense, it was just the sky—ever-present in the minutes and days of everyday life, following along when I’m not even aware it’s there. But something was different, special even, about this sky, a witness to the storied past of this land, a collaborator in its unknown future, and mostly a sentry over today, both that day when my nephew and I explored the park, and this day, as I looked back and remembered—the sky, always standing watch over the land and her inhabitants.
Months later, when I visited Prophetstown on a frigid day in January, the park looked like a completely different place. The grasses had long turned a muted flax, and the snow and wind had flattened much of the vegetation, stems brittle and weakened from the late autumn sun. The trees that formed small savannas throughout the park and lined the ridges, creeks, and rivers had all lost their leaves in their annual, autumnal undressing. But something else had changed, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on it. But soon I realized what the difference was. In the lost luster of vegetation, I could see so much more of the sky.
The expanse over the park that day wasn’t the baby blue of summer or even the sapphire blue of Autumn, when the shorter blue waves of the sun’s light are scattered more than other colors. Instead, the pewter sky etched with the shadow of thin, smoky clouds created a deep ache inside me. This was a sky of longing. Where naked trees lined the horizon, their black silhouettes created dark lines of division. In the absence of trees, the space between the snowy ground and the pale sky looked more like a blur.
Each time I visited Prophetstown after that, I noticed the constant change of the landscape. I watched as snow melted, water thawed, and green began to appear on the tips of every branch. But I paid just as much attention to the sky, cloudless and bright some days, dark and moody on others. In the cooler air, when the heavens were filled with the cloudy haze of moisture, I noted various shades of gray, with an occasional patch of cornflower. As the temperatures warmed, the skies alternated between azure and cobalt and Persian blue and royal. And when fall comes again, I’ll be there watching, waiting for sunset’s blood red streaks across a violet palette.
The sky that covers the savannas and prairies of Prophetstown is the same sky that rests aloft nearby Lafayette and Delphi. It’s the same sky that stretches north and south along the I-65 corridor and floats lazily above the Wabash River that runs from the northeast to southwest corners of the park and then continues southward toward the Ohio River. It’s even the same sky that rests above my home in Frankfort, Indiana, and above yours now.
But even though it’s the same sky, somehow it feels different when I’m at Prophetstown. Maybe it’s the way the light reflects off the landscape before scattering in the moisture-filled sky. Or maybe it’s just the way the prairie invites me to slow down and observe, to really see what’s around me. Whatever the reason, every time I visit, I not only look around, taking note of the flora and the fauna, but I also always look up. There’s magic in the skies, too.
Excerpted from Poetry and Prose on the Prairie: A Nature Journal of Prophetstown State Park
AVAILABLE: Currently available from Amazon in paperback.
PUBLISHER: Glendale Press
SYNOPSIS: “What about this land made it so enticing for so many willing to fight for it?”
At the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, Prophetstown certainly offered access to waterways. But it also boasted a diverse landscape of edible and medicinal plants, as well as the birds and animals that found their habitat there. The rich soil also proved fertile for planting crops, and when the prairie plants dried up, creating a thick, tangled mat, fire (either from lightning or from controlled burns) released nutrients into the soil and controlled the landscape for hunting.
The land and its ecosystem are different now, after decades of mechanical farming, tile draining, and receding rivers. But the land is also the same, with a more complicated story now. The land has been ravaged and cared for; it’s seen flooding and drought. It’s known the sharp cutting of plow and disk, as well as the gentle nurturing of hand-planted grasses and wildflowers. Fire still serves the land, primarily with controlled burns, and mostly, the land continues to produce good things for the world, good things you can see for yourself when you come. Let Poetry and Prose on the Prairie be your guide.