Production Blog

Poetry on the Prairie

Lone Tree Schoolhouse is all that is left of Lone Tree Corners, also known as Lone Tree, a former community east of Bradford, Illinois, in Bureau County. The town was established in 1840 and demolished in 1920s -- with the exception of the school. It was closed in 1942, but continues to stand and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

LONE TREE, Illinois (DTN) -- Last week I took the back roads of Illinois. My favorite part of this job is the occasional excuse to wander and explore.

The skies were blue, clouds fluffy and winds were twisting corn residue into mini cyclones. Enough of the crop had been harvested to provide the long view. Machines moved across the remaining patchwork of golden fields like worker ants gathering with purpose.

This beehive of agricultural activity is my kind of poetry. So perhaps it wasn't happenchance that my farm visits were in the vicinity of what is generally considered Carl Sandburg country or that the world was preparing to celebrate National Poetry Day.

As social media channels were busy asking for favorite first lines, I was experiencing mine:

"I WAS born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan."

With that powerful line, Sandburg began his poem "Prairie" in a 103-poem collection entitled "Cornhuskers" that earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1919. "Prairie" speaks to me when my own words seem to stutter and falter.

"Here the water went down, the icebergs slid with gravel, the gaps and the valleys hissed, and the black loam came, and the yellow sandy loam."

I have long wondered why to me the sight of corn, soybean or wheat harvest, is more beautiful than any other vista? Or why a weathered barn with its tilting walls and ragged roofline can bring a waft of bittersweet sentiments? Why is it so hard to balance the admiration for the scarred beauty with the sadness of discarding something after decades of service?

Many in my farming family roll their eyes at such platitudes. I was fed and fortified on the ideal that there is no room for nostalgia in modern agriculture -- much like the edict that "there's no crying in baseball."

Sandburg himself seems conflicted as his writing weaves between tasks on the prairie and rough reality of city life. He foraged for words from the land -- as do I. Is it too easy to see the prairie as a safe haven when one feeds from it, but does not directly depend on it to sustain?

"The prairie sings to me in the forenoon and I know in the night I rest easy in the prairie arms, on the prairie heart."

Scholars more learned than I can argue this point and what other meanings Sandburg might have held. These days, it seems struggle enough to take enough time to let surroundings feed the soul -- to feel something other than the churning need to work or constantly check notifications.

In his book "Good Morning, America" written in 1916, Sandburg published 38 definitions of poetry. My favorite is this: "Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment."

The Lone Tree, Illinois, dateline accompanying this blog was chosen because of such a moment. I happened upon the schoolhouse (circa 1876-1942) as part of my journey through Bureau County, Illinois, last week.

Bureau County once had 236 one-room schoolhouses. Lone Tree is one of the few that has been preserved and still at its original location. In fact, it is the only remaining building of an entire community that once existed at this spot on the Illinois prairie.

I found a written agenda of a township meeting posted near the entrance of the schoolhouse. I took that as evidence these wooden bones still have purpose. Framed through the windows was harvest bustling in every direction. How would Sandburg have describe the modern, beeping, metal monsters gobbling grain while grain wagons lumber alongside?

"Have you seen a red sunset drip over one of my cornfields, the shore of night stars, the wave lines of dawn up a wheat valley? / Have you heard my threshing crews yelling in the chaff of a strawpile and the running wheat of the wagonboards, my cornhuskers, my harvest hands hauling crops, singing dreams of women, worlds, horizons?"

Standing on the threshold of that old school, the fall wind howled so many questions. What comes next for these cornhuskers? And what of this prairie girl? Are there words to make her song timeless?

Pamela Smith can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN



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