Chances are, you’ve run across the painting of a woman and her children picking flowers on the prairie, her long apron furling in the incessant wind, echoing the curve of the creek bank. The scene is a fixture of fine-art calendars or collections of blank notecards. Artist Harvey Dunn, who grew up on such grasslands, captured in a yellow coneflower the woman’s discovery that the prairie could be a garden.
I hadn’t thought about that painting in years, but there it was last fall as I topped a rise in Glacial Lakes State Park, hiking a ridge that rose like a gargantuan spine from the rolling prairie near Starbuck, Minn., about 140 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. The grassy slope to my right fluttered with the fading burgundy of spent sumac. Two weeks earlier? That broad swipe must have been a blinding scarlet. Two months earlier? Freckled with smooth blue aster.
Looking west, I swore I could see into South Dakota. And that’s when I remembered the woman’s gaze — an arresting mix of stoicism and gratitude as she pondered her garden’s strange and fleeting beauty within an endless burlap expanse.
The prairies no longer seem so endless. A Morse code of windbreaks and barns breaks up the flat line of a horizon. Today, 90 percent of Minnesota’s prairies have been converted to farmland, which makes the several state parks that preserve the ancient landscape so intriguing, and essential.
Glacial Lakes State Park
It requires a bit of squinting to capture a sense of what life must have been like for Dunn’s prairie mother. But it can happen, and perhaps most readily in this stunning park.
Geologically, these 1,880 acres are like none other in Minnesota, a swath of steep hills and broad kettles formed by the dregs of ancient glaciers. The park also harbors the transition between the oak savanna forests of the east and the rolling grasslands of the west. One hiking trail literally perches on that line, placing a forest on your left, a prairie on your right as you tramp to the park’s highest elevation, 1,352 feet.
Once there, you can look down on the several small lakes filling some of the kettles. Signalness Lake, the largest, is fed by springs that lie entirely within the park. The result is water so clear that, while sitting on one of the docks, I could watch a half-dozen fish swim in and out of the weeds, nosing around for their lunch as I slowly, silently ate mine.
With oak groves and grasslands lying cheek-by-jowl, the contrasts of the two landscapes is dramatic; no wonder so many pioneer accounts refer to a sense of vulnerability as they encountered the prairie’s immensity.
I began to understand the adjustments my prairie woman must have made as her family left the big woods of Wisconsin and worked their way west across the Minnesota River: Her old woodland sky started somewhere above her eyebrows, while a prairie sky begins at your waist.
Camden State Park
Had my prairie woman settled near Lynd, I can only think how she would have loved the land that now is Camden State Park, about 10 miles southwest of Marshall. The landscape deceives. It appears featureless, but is part of the Coteau des Prairie, a plateau so high that the road winding 150 feet down to the banks of the Redwood River is like following a deep wrinkle into the earth.
What a respite this place must have been! Basswood, ash, cottonwood and maples would provide blessed shade, while the river bottom never would have felt the infernal wind. The river offered fresh fish, but also simply the sight of water pooling, running, meandering, reflecting. As with everything else, the Indians had to share this oasis, too. Archaeological research has shown traces of Indian use reaching back 8,000 years.
The park encompasses more than 2,200 acres, with one edge lying along Hwy. 23. Semitrailer trucks rumble by where bison once wallowed. An easy hike across the high prairie last fall showcased its subtle nature. This is not the North Shore’s brilliant bowl of Trix, but more of an animal pelt with shades of wheat, buff, apricot and ocher.
Sitting on a rough bench, looking west toward, well, the west, there’s nothing in the landscape to snag your attention, yet the almost unconscious impulse to keep scanning the scene for … something … feels more restful than restless.
Glendalough State Park
One of the newer state parks, established in 1991, Glendalough offers a pocket-sized tour of the prairie near Battle Lake, along with more water than we generally grant to such terrain: 1,000 acres of water to 1,931 acres of land. Annie Battle Lake is a home base for connecting creeks that take canoiests or kayakers into some of the five lakes that touch the park.
Some campsites are cart-in or canoe-in, which takes you farther away from vehicle traffic. Yet Glendalough has a lived-in feeling, mostly from the presence of a historic lodge, now restored, that was a private retreat and game farm. The park offers opportunities for “birding, boating, biking and weddings,” which tells the tale.
Still, my prairie woman would have caught the unmistakable scent of the tallgrass landscape outside her sod house. She would have seen the milkweed plants appear in drifts, their snowy seeds erupting from their pods like tiny Einsteins. In late August, she might have watched as hundreds of monarch butterflies paused on their migration, a ritual that remains today.
This is prairie, too, although perhaps with less angst. A pensive woman in a long apron would still have felt the sun and wind as she watched her children scramble at her feet. Could she have imagined that her wild garden would eventually need a state’s protection, a Park Service’s boundaries?