When I started this blog, I called it A Sea of Flowers. I lived in Winnipeg, in the Red River Valley in Manitoba. Winnipeg was 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 the city 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 – not true native tall grass, but tall enough to be interesting.
The tall grass prairie used to cover parts of the eastern Great Plains, including the Red River Valley south of 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 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.
Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer and songwriter used the simile of the prairie as a sea of flowers in his song, “Northwest Passage”. The reference to Brave Kelso is obscure; Rogers may have assumed that Kelso was an early Scots explorer with the same name as the town in Scottish borders. He associated it with Henry Kelsey who reached the northern plains in 1690 on a trip for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
While I was involved in an Internet mailing list devoted to Canadian folk music, I tried to find out when the image entered literature. The image of a sea of grass seems to have been used in American literature since in the early 19th century when American settlers pushed onto the plains of western Illinois. It became part of the story of the settlement of the American West. Settlers used animal drawn covered wagons to transport goods. Some were called Prairie Schooners. The idea could also have occurred on sight of the plains of Asia or Africa. A journalist for the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about Palliser expedition, found a journal entry from a member of the expedition, looking at the Red River Valley from the Sandilands, the escarpment between the Red River Valley and the edge of the Canadian Shield, that used the simile, with a reference to the flowers and the colours of the tall grass prairie as seen from an elevation.