Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year is not exactly a page-turner, but once you accept that you’re not going to be sitting on the edge of your seat reading it, you get seduced by its lulling, meditative contemplation on the minutiae and expanse of North America’s underappreciated landscape: the Great Plains.
Gruchow wrote the book in 1985 when it was published by the University of Minnesota Press. He went on to win acclaim for his later works such as Travels in Canoe Country, Grass Roots, and Boundary Waters, and frequently contributed to the Utne Reader, the New York Times, and the Hungry Mind Review, among other publications. He died in 2004, and this fall Milkweed Editions is re-publishing his early work.
It’s a pretty boring book. In fact it’s probably one of the most boring books in the history of the planet—behind maybe Walden, which I suffered through in high school. There’s no plot, no characters, no conflict. It’s pretty much 138 pages of descriptions of different colors of grass, the movements of dragonflies, and the ecosystem of a log, among other things that Gruchow observes on the prairie.
I’m not saying it’s bad. In fact, once you accept that the book is boring, it kind of grows on you. You have to just relax into it. I decided to think of reading this book as an act of meditation: Just breathe, and let myself fall into the ponderous rhythm of describing the wind blowing all around and the endless sky overhead.
The awareness that Gruchow has is really astounding. He has the ability to focus on the smallest sound of a nearby crow, or the humming of the saccades, or the color of soybean plants growing out of the ground. He has a way of describing these natural phenomena that is really quite beautiful, and he weaves in bits of science and philosophy to liven things up as well, although for the most part the bulk of the book is pure description.
This might be a good book to read if you suffer from anxiety in your life and need something to help you chill out, take a step back, and realize that sometimes when you go too fast life passes you by. It’s a good reminder, too, to remember to listen carefully to sounds that surround us every day, to really see the different colors and movements of every little thing, and to live life consciously, deliberately, and in full use of the senses.