Living On and In the Prairie
by Roy Beckemeyer
This land has no trees,
so we will take our house from the earth.
We are skinning the prairie we hayed last week,
removing the sod in slabs two feet long,
a foot wide, forty pounds a slab,
one slab at a time
These blocks of soil are bound
by the tough, knitted roots of bluestem grass.
We carry each one by hand to our home site
and place it carefully along a string-line.
Forty-eight blocks to a tier, twenty tiers high,
almost a thousand sod bricks,
twenty tons of prairie,
will make the walls of our home.
Samuel’s back is bent by the weight of all that sod,
and he can barely stretch, snapping and creaking
as he pulls back his shoulders.
We will use our precious few boards and beams
to support the roof, another two hundred blocks of sod,
another half ton of earth.
We carry each heavy slab across the prairie,
lug it up the ladder, heave it into place.
Sleeping in the open or under canvas
has been by turns peaceful or frightening
as the prairie presented us with its many faces,
as it tested our resolve to live here,
and this new house of earth is strong,
comforting in its stolid mass.
We do not mind that it is a bit dark inside,
nor do we mind the faint scratching
of the grubs that live in our walls,
or the fair but constant songs of the crickets,
their simple harmonies accompanying
the ever present whisking of the wind
as it blows bits of leaves and dried grass,
dust and sand across the prairie.
We have finally unloaded our belongings,
and the placement of our stove
is now announced by the stove pipe
jutting from the roof.
We sit around our table,
Samuel and I in our chairs,
Benjamin and Emma on their bench,
saying grace as the wind whips
the canvas shutters that not so long ago
served as our tent, our vagabonds’ home.
The mound of dried buffalo dung the children collected
is piled under the lean-to just outside the door,
and its earthy scent is now familiar, not at all offensive.
It keeps us warm and dry, lets us cook our food
and boil our water. God bless the bison.
The snow has drifted into place
and is now as high as the south wall.
The mules and cow stand, their rumps to the wind,
blindly chawing at the mound of hay
we pitched to them in the brief lull in the blizzard.
The thick walls of sod are frozen on the outside,
but warm to the touch in here.
Our earth home is blessing us and keeping us
as if its walls were God’s own hands.
It is spring and the roof has sprouted up
in flowers and forbs. Sprigs of airy grass
blowing in the wind make the house
appear lighter, adding a sort of grace to its mass.
The prairie wind has blown over us all year,
as if this place was just another hummock on the prairie,
and now the whole prairie is newly, grandly green,
as is our home, sprouting and proud to have sheltered us
through the long and cold winter.
An itinerant photographer arrived last night,
announced by the jingles and jangles and tinkles,
clanks and clinks of his mule-drawn wagon,
and by his hoarse “Hallo the house.”
After dinner he showed us tintypes he had made
of other prairie families, standing or sitting
in front of their earthen homes.
We recognized our neighbors,
the stern and sturdy Swensons,
and, from up in Russell County, the Chrisman sisters.
Samuel, ever the careful observer,
noted the wistful longing I tried so hard
to keep from showing; but something in my eyes
or in the set of my mouth must have given me away.
So this morning we posed here in our prairie yard,
carried our table and chairs out into the sun,
dressed in our Sunday best, warned the children
not to sit in the dirt or roll in the grass.
We tethered the mules and our milk cow
to one side, and I pinned up my hair
to keep it from blowing in the wind.
Samuel generously spent a second dime,
so that I could send this picture to you, dear sister.
Here we all are. Here is our sod home.
It may not look like much to you.
You are accustomed, after all,
to the frame houses and stone cottages
of St. Louis. But we have lived, safe
and protected for a year, now, in this,
our home on and in the earth,
where we live as one with God’s prairie.
Your devoted sister,
In looking through old photos of sod houses on the prairie, I got to wondering what it would have been like to pull up stakes from a comfortable home in an eastern city and travel by wagon to the flatlands of Nebraska, Kansas, or Oklahoma to live in a house built of earth. This is the result: an imagined letter from a young woman to her sister, telling of her first year on the plains. The illustrations were based on old photographs posted on the web; I used various Photoshop filters and other digital tools to convert them into impressions rather than hard images.
© 2013 by Roy Beckemeyer