Home PageArchivesVolume no. 2Issue 3Nonfiction: Olstad

How to Draw the Prairie

Tyra Olstad

Face the page.

Space. Nothing but space. Blank white space. That is all you have.

Begin with a line.

It’s definitely horizontal but not necessarily straight. Give it a bit of flow, sweep, lilt; let it unfurl across the page with a slight scratch of the pencil or pen or paintbrush.

That done, add another. There’s dimension here.

If you typically travel by road, go ahead and add a road. If you hike trails, add a trail. If you prefer to wander freely, dancing alongside coyote or rabbit or raven, orienting your journey according to whatever catches your interest and beckons here! Come here! You can’t imagine what you’ll find here!, well, then, either add a thousand dashes depicting possible paths—label them “PREDATOR,” “PREY,” “UNIDENTIFIED BUT INTRIGUING BLOTCH ON THE HORIZON”—or:

Let them remain undrawn, blank, as yet unknown. Nothing but lines, dreams.

Don’t worry—you can give form to your lines. (Actually, according to expert guidelines, this ought to have been done first, but how can you have masses, shapes, objects without ground for them to sit upon?) You have to decide, though: do you prefer smooth or rough, simple or complex, solid or transparent? Are you envisioning subtle expanses or pronounced edges? Foggy inversions or sharp shadows? Squares, pyramids, are there whorls in your world?

Texture, now—patterns of density, regularity, arrangement. This, too, requires site-specific decisions: if you want soft, fine, feathery, add fields of grama and big bluestem; for the opposite, there’s nothing scragglier than a stretch of sagebrush and greasewood. Try to ignore any herds of pronghorn; and do the best you can with those clouds skittering through: movement just makes things complicated.

Speaking of complications, be sure to maintain a proper distance—landscape-scale, aperture open, windows closed. If you bother to pause and focus more closely, well, then you’ll have to note astounding diversity in the tallgrass and elegant patterns in the semi-desert shrub-steppe. Diversity and pattern, regular irregularity, a beautifully incomprehensible disarray of details. That just wouldn’t do.

Line, form, texture—all that’s left is color. More choices. Many more. Is it spring? Greens—lots of greens, every possible glow of bud-, leaf-, and grass-green, along with some blues and grays in case of rain.

Summer? A brilliant turquoise, underlain by that carpet of green as well as splashes of purple and white, pinkredyellow, definitely yellow, explosions of yellow. (Flowers.)

Autumn? Brown. Definitely brown, maybe tan or gold or auburn variations. Don’t bother trying to find a tone as achingly blue as the October sky.

Then there’s winter. Are you one of those rare winter people? An aficionado of white—white and gray, gray and white, gray-white, blue-white, pink-white, a thousand shades of white-white? You can try to add subtle accents, hidden hints, glints of interest, devastating beauty; but it’s futile. Most people won’t notice, and those that do won’t bother to sit inside contemplating color. They’ll spend every moment out there in that fresh clean world sparkling with light.

Light. That’s going to depend on the time of day: dawn glows with pastels, possibilities, unlike noon’s honest glare and the rich, plaintive hues of dusk. Even night has its own shades of black—deep blacks, an infinity of blacks, pin-pricked with stars. In trying to capture a particular detail—especially those liminal, luminal seconds—however, you may begin to realize how difficult if not impossible it is to choose just one moment, one memory. You can’t disregard, discard the others, divide dawn from day, day from dusk, dusk from night, summer from fall, time from place; is it December again already? A 14-billion-year-wide universe shimmers overhead.

Sun and stars, hills and grass—these are the things out of which a place is made. You need simply add space—an appreciation for “the three-dimensional arrangement of objects and voids,” as defined by the Bureau of Land Management’s Manual 8400—and there you’ll have it—a vision of the prairie, the grasslands, the plain old plains.1


Objects and voids, objects and voids, what if a place lacks objects and abounds in voids? What do you do with a scene that defies all aesthetic conventions, refuses to fit neatly into flat, static images and abstract words? How can you conceive emptiness, nothingness, space?


“Aesthetics,” as derived from a Greek word meaning “perception by means of the senses,” entails thorough engagement of ears and nose, tongue and toes. Mind, too. As a ‘sentient part’ of the natural environment, an individual actively establishes, evaluates, and re-conceptualizes physical, intellectual, and emotional relationships with external stimuli.

Beauty, according to philosopher John Dewey, rests neither in objects nor in ‘the eye of the beholder,’ but in the relationship between an individual and the environment—the experience of the aesthetic.2 By spending time in a place, extending our sensual response through intellectual engagement, we enhance our capacity to understand and appreciate classic forms as well as fresh, new ways of looking at the world.


In truth, we ask to be awed and entertained, or at least sheltered if not nurtured by the natural environment. In terms of landscape aesthetics, conventional ‘beauty’ consists of lush, picturesque gardens or soaring, sublime wildernesses. Writing of Americans’ long love affair with an uncommon country, environmental historian Dan Flores posits we “have not so much had our aesthetic sense filled by the Great Plains as we have come to deny that the Great Plains are aesthetic or much worthy of preservation.”3

Visitors to prairies and plains look desperately around themselves in search of forests or coasts or mountains and see only light and grass:4 when asked, “‘But what is there to see [in the Dakotas]?’” Kathleen Norris responds, “The answer, of course, is nothing. Land, sky, and the ever-changing light.”5 Confronted by a “vast, featureless, horizontal land, with no beginning, middle, or end, and no prospects from which to view it or with which to enhance it,”6 painters and photographers, essayists and novelists “despair of portraying the [prairie] landscape without something—anything—to provide depth, a sense of scale, variety, and meaning.”7 “It is difficult to paint the prairie,” artist Linda Lillegraven admits with a touch of resignation and, much more, with admiration; “[t]he air is thin, the light is hard, and the transitions of color and tone are so subtle as to be almost invisible…. I can never capture the elemental, intolerable beauty of such places.”8

Likewise, landscape architects and land managers have trouble wrangling grand stretches of absence into their rubrics of visual resources: “[n]othing is there,” landscape management specialist Neil Evernden half-laughs, half-laments, “no things to measure or enjoy…nothing to possess.”9 Behavioral psychologists and social scientists, meanwhile, strive to summarize physical and cognitive reactions to environmental stimuli, but are befuddled when subjects report they are “alternately confused, dismayed, overwhelmed, depressed, and inspired” by slides of featureless fields:10 “[w]hat sort of reaction can one have,” Tom Scanlan ponders, “to a land that both dwarfs one with its scale and at the same time concentrates the psyche on the only point of reference, the self?”11 Ecophilosophers and environmental ethicists face perhaps the most serious existential crisis as they debate not just what one can and does do with “tedious,”12 “deficien[t],”13 “flat and boring,”14 “barren” and “monotonous,”15 “unappealing”16 landscapes, but what one should do with those “scenically challenged”17 plains.

Well. What should you do?

First of all, forego the “should.” No prolegomena here, only possibilities.

That done, consider the coulds: you could figure out particular tricks to organize, emphasize, and control components of a grassland scene.1819 “Locate a plant in the foreground,” Barbara Novak suggests, “the open space in the middle ground; and the horizon with sky, clouds, and, perhaps, some distant prominence in the background.”20

You could, instead of defining the landscape in negative terms such as ‘treeless’ and ‘semiarid,’ find “new articulations” to stress “the glories of low humidity, clear-blue skies, and lush grasslands.”21

You could slap labels like “prospect” (definitely not “refuge”) on plains.22 You could shrug and dismiss them as “Class C” visual landscapes.23

Or you could ignore them altogether: speed on through or fly on over the Big Empty; no time for such space.

But if you are willing to rethink psychological and sociocultural norms that dictate what makes a place picturesque or even sublime,24 well, then, put down your paper and pencil; put on your hiking boots (or sandals)(or skis); go.


Go listen to grass rustling in the breeze, wild geese honking overhead. Smell the rich, dark mud, the dirt, the rock, the fire-charred earth. Catch the cool tang of snowflakes, raindrops. Close your eyes, take off your hat, feel summer’s warmth, winter’s chill, wind, wind, always wind.

Lao Tzu’s wisdom, recorded in the Tao Te Ching:

Look for it, it cannot be seen
It is called the distant.
Listen for it, it cannot be heard.
It is called the rare.
Reach for it, it cannot be gotten.
It is called the subtle…
…Existing continuously, it cannot be named and it returns to no-thingness…
…The image of no-thing.25

No thing. Nothing but space. Blank white space.

Begin with a line.


1 U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “BLM Manual Handbook H–8400” (Washington, D.C.: Visual Resource Management, 1984).

2 Jay Appleton, “The Experience of Landscape” (London: John Wiley & Sons, 1975), 48. Author’s note: Dewey, quoted in Appleton.

3 Dan Flores, “A Long Love Affair with an Uncommon Country: Environmental History and the Future of the Great Plains” in “The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains” (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 171.

4 Candace Savage, “Prairie: A Natural History” (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2004), 3-4. Author’s note: Paraphrased from Savage.

5 Kathleen Norris, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993), 155.

6 J. Kinsey, R. Roberts, and R. Sayr, “Prairie Prospects : The Aesthetics of Plainness,” Prospects 21 (1996), 274.

7 Joni L Kinsey, “Not so plain – Art of the American Prairies,” Great Plains Quarterly 15.3 (1995), 186.

8 Linda Lillegraven, “Artist statement.” Kneeland Gallery, accessed 10 Oct 2010, http://www.kneelandgallery.com/Artist/Lillegraven%20-%20Linda/bio.htm.

9 Neil Evernden, “Beauty and Nothingness: Prairie as Failed Resource,” Landscape 23.3 (1983), 1-9.

10 Kinsey, “Not so plain – Art of the American Prairies,” 185.

11 Tom Scanlan, “The Pairie as Perennial Symbol” in “Proceedings of the Twelfth North American Prairie Conference,” eds. Daryl D. Smith and Carol A Jacobs (Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa, 1990), 201.

12 Yuriko Saito, “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56.2 (1998), 101-11. Author’s note: Leopold, quoted in Saito.

13 Flores, “A Long Love Affair with an Uncommon Country,” 171.

14 Kinsey, Roberts, and Sayr, “Prairie Prospects,” 274.

15 Jerry G. Shepard, “Singing out of Tune: Cultural Perceptions and National Park History on the American Great Plains,” (Unpublished diss. Texas Tech University, 1995), 363.

16 Robert Fudge, “Imagination and the Science-based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic Nature,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59 (2001), 276.

17 Saito, “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature,” 101.

18 Denis Cosgrove, “Perspective and Evolution of the Landscape Idea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 10.1 (1985), 54. Author’s note: Urry 1997.

19 John Urry, “The Tourist Gaze ‘Revisited’,” The American Behavioral Scientist 36.2 (1992).

20 Tom Scanlan, “The Prairie Eye” in “Proceedings of the Fourteenth North American Prairie Conference,” ed. David C. Hartnett (Manhattan, Kansas: Kansas State University, 1995), 248. Author’s note: Novak, quoted in Scanlan.

21 James R. Shortridge, “Regional Image and Sense of Place in Kansas,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 28 (2005), 202-19. Author’s Note: Paraphrased and quoted from Shortridge.

22 Appleton, “The Experience of Landscape,” 73.

23 U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “BLM Manual Handbook H–8400.”

24 Edmunds V. Bunkse, “Beyond Images: The Phenomenology of Travel Versus Tourism and Implications for Rural Landscapes,” in “European Landscapes and Lifestyles: The Mediterranean and Beyond” (Lisbon: Edições Universitárias Lusófonas, 2007), 9.

25 Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching,” trans. Charles Muller (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 1991), 14.
Having spent several years wandering around windswept plains and prairies as a park ranger and paleontology technician, Tyra A. Olstad is currently a doctoral candidate in geography at Kanas State University. Her research explores landscape perception, sense of place, and intersections of science and art.


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