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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004 02:29 pm

prairie notes 11-25-04

In November, the last autumn colors vanish into piles of dry leaves and the prairie hardens itself for the coming winter. Here at Prairierth Farm, the crops are at last all gathered and the cattle will soon be coaxed in from the summer pasture. The once-magnificent summer prairie has become a dismal brown and gray, soon to be draped in white.

In November 1821, Joel Hodgson, a Quaker from Ohio, came into the Sangamon River valley in search of a site for a new colony. "The land is desolate and cold," he wrote, "trees too few, soil too wet . . . scarcely more than one tenth of the whole country could ever be used for anything."

Charles Dickens visited the prairie in winter and came to the same conclusion, writing, "Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent left nothing to the imagination."

But Eliza Farnham, a gifted and well-educated young lady who moved to Illinois in the spring of 1836, saw a very different canvas laid out before her: "I wish I could find language to convey to the mind of the reader the deep joy which the soul drinks in from every feature of this wonderful scene!"

The great mystique of the prairie has always been in the bold contrasts of its seasons, changes so dramatic and definable that they almost force the prairie's inhabitants to reflect on the seasons of their own lives. Each year on the farm we celebrate a complete cycle of life, from the spring seeding to the growth and maturity of summer to the harvest -- and the winter sleep.

But for now the crops are brought in, the firewood is cut, and there is time for rest and renewal, time to ponder the successes and failures of the past months. With any luck, each year we make a little progress, growing a little better crop a little more sustainably. And, we hope, we gain a little better understanding of the coming spring.

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