I first heard the simile of the prairie as a sea of flowers used by Stan Rogers, the great Canadian singer and songwriter in his song, “Northwest Passage”. A few years ago, when I was involved in an Internet mailing list devoted to Canadian folk music, I tried to find out when it entered our literature. It seems to have been in the early 19th century when American settlers started to push west onto the plains of western Illinois. Like Stan Rogers, we need to reach into our imagination to see that scene today.
The tall grass prairie used to cover parts of the eastern Great Plains, including the fertile valley of the Red River as it runs into Lake Winnipeg. For centuries before the settlement of the prairies for agriculture, travellers arriving through the forests of the Canadian Shield and the sandy eskers at the edge of the Shield would have had a vista of miles of tall flowers and flowering grasses rippling in the wind like waves on the sea. The prairie in its natural state was intimidating. The tall grasses could rise over a person’s head, and the grasses were hardy, coarse, prickly, cutting, stinging and infested with biting insects. The prairies might be swept, on a given day, by wind, rain, fire or snow, or flooded, or baked in the glare of the sun in a cloudless sky.
I lived in Winnipeg, a large small city in the Red River Valley in Manitoba. My parents left Holland and crossed the ocean and half a continent to try to raise a family in a windy city built along three rivers, a land that was once a sea of flowers. When I was a child, our family home was at the edge of near the airport, in the northwest corner of the City. There were patches of prairie a short distance north of our house, and there were vacant lots full of grass and brush tall enough to make hiding places and imaginary battlefields.
The sea of flowers has long since been plowed over but it survives in small patches and in my imagination.