This piece is the keynote speech given by Paul Johnsgard at the University of Nebraska at Kearney on March 1, 2017, to celebrate Nebraska’s sesquicentennial.
As the winter of 2017 winds down, I look forward to celebrating my 86th birthday, which will take place a few months after today’s celebration of Nebraska’s 150th birthday. That fact makes me realize that I am now more than half as old as my adopted state, where I have chosen to spend almost two-thirds of my own life. In retrospect, I would not have traded this state, or those years, for any other place or time.
My memories of life in Nebraska are so rich and varied that I could never begin to pick out my favorite. However, when I am traveling and trying to describe to new acquaintances what I love most about Nebraska, I always begin with the Platte River in spring.
A Prairie River
There is a river in the heart of North America
That annually gathers together the watery largess of melting Rocky Mountain snowfields and glaciers
And spills wildly down the eastern slopes of Colorado and Wyoming.
Reaching the plains, it quickly loses its momentum and begins to spread out and flow slowly across Nebraska from west to east.
As it does so, it cuts a sinuous tracery through the native prairies
That has been followed for millennia by both men and animals.
The river is the Platte.
There is a season in the heart of North America,
That is an unpredictable battle between bitter winds, carrying dense curtains of snow out of Canada and the High Plains,
Turning the prairies into ice sculptures; and contrasting southern breezes that equally rapidly thaw out the native tall grasses
and caress them gently.
The season is sweetened each dawn by the compelling music of western meadowlarks, northern cardinals and prairie-chickens,
And the sky is neatly punctuated with skeins of migrating waterfowl.
The season is spring.
The now-narrow, sadly water-depleted Platte, still carrying with it each spring the sand-laden waters generated by snowmelt on unseen western mountains, once sheltered tens of thousands of immigrants who followed its course and camped along its broad, sandy shorelines nearly two centuries ago.
The Platte, which historically also sustained life for the countless generations of bison, waterfowl, and cranes that depended upon it every year, is still the very essence of Nebraska. Each March, the great flocks of sandhill cranes arrive from wintering grounds up to a thousand miles away in Mexico, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. They still drink from, and roost nightly, in this same river, exactly as they have done over uncountable millennia.
There are still many Nebraskans who have never experienced the sounds of our authentic Nebraska—not the partisan screams, shouts, and yells that echo off Memorial Stadium almost every autumn weekend—but rather the wild, exuberant cries of 10,000 or more sandhill cranes, circling above the river in a collective, joyous dance of life every spring.
For those unfortunate people, or anyone else who has not experienced this glorious event, I can only offer my sincere condolences. The cranes’ angelic voices portray the very essence and spirit of our state; they herald an innate confidence that, year after year, the Platte will be there every spring to protect and sustain them. They all too soon embark on their perilous 3,000 mile journeys to and from the still-frozen tundras of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, where they have a rendezvous with fate that yearly controls their species’ future.
In my own worldview, the cranes are my personal spiritual guide, the Platte is the hallmark of Nebraska, and our capitol perfectly defines and circumscribes its soul. Every time I return to Lincoln from outstate Nebraska, I can scarcely wait to see our majestic capitol outlined on the horizon. I think of our capitol as a “Temple of the Intellect,” protecting our most cherished values, defining our freedoms, and establishing our laws. Whenever I am driving past that glorious building, my auto insurance rate should automatically rise, as I can never resist admiring its elegant, stark lines and its sheer architectural beauty.
I also think of all the people who put their lives and hearts into our capitol’s elegant design and masterly construction during the terrible early years of the Great Depression. To have had the foresight of placing a sower of seeds (and of human dreams) at its very apex, and to give Abraham Lincoln his own special place of quiet honor at its base, was the essence of genius.
Just below our capitol’s golden dome, and looking out toward Nebraska’s most historic Native American tribal homelands, the Poncas, the Pawnees, the Otoes, and the Omahas, are eight giant thunderbird images. They symbolically assure that the land below, east to the first pink shafts of dawn, west to the setting sun, north to the River that Rushes, and south to the Flint Hills, receives enough winter snow and spring rains to nourish our fields and native grasslands. They also hold promise of a fertile land on which to grow our individual lives, achieve our personal visions, and realize our fondest dreams of sharing in Nebraska’s “Good Life.”
Adding to our capitol’s recent history, for nearly 20 years Lincoln has been honored to host a pair of rare peregrine falcons that nest at the base of the capitol’s golden dome. The ultimate spirit of grace, speed, and endurance, our peregrines provide spectacular aerial shows as they keep the capitol grounds free of nuisance starlings and pigeons.
Only two months ago, our vigilant peregrines circled in annoyed protest above the capitol as 3,000 men, women, and children gathered peacefully at its base, protesting injustice and proclaiming the rights of women, and of all minorities, toward tolerance and equal justice before the law. Like our extremely rare and highly persecuted cougars, Nebraska’s peregrines and human minorities offer us lessons in courage and fortitude in their struggles to survive, and thrive, in a country where some people would rather eliminate or expel them than to recognize their rightful places and roles in our wonderfully diverse natural and human societies.
The only other structure in Lincoln that can hold an aesthetic candle to our capitol is the Sheldon Museum of Art, especially when it is illuminated by a full moon. Then, it floats like some ghostly visitor from another, perhaps more perfect, world and carries with it the implicit promise that some small part of the beauty of this time and place must always be saved, and held in trust for the future.
The American counterculture author Tom Robbins once wrote, “The purpose of art is to provide what life cannot.” If that is true, then the overriding purpose of such glorious places and spaces as the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, the Josyln Art Museum in Omaha, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, and the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island is to provide convincing proof of art’s role in uplifting the spirit of humankind.
In addition to these traditional landmark cultural centers, we now have Lincoln’s three-decade-old Lied Center, Omaha’s recently finished Holland Center, the historic and recently renovated Orpheum Theatre, and Kearney’s newly restored Merryman Theater. During my nearly six decades as a Nebraskan, our state has also developed a magnificent public radio and television network, so it is possible to travel from one of our borders to another without ever falling out of touch with the contemporary world.
For outdoors lovers, hundreds of miles of hiking-biking trails have been completed in and around Lincoln, Omaha, and Kearney. Many other trails now penetrate much of Nebraska’s hinterlands. As a result, it is now possible to spend endless hours out of the confusion of the city and listen to the natural music of such ethereal singers as orioles, grosbeaks, and wrens, or to simply enjoy the gentle breath of wind, mutating cottonwood leaves into music.
Every spring, free-access nature reserves such as Lincoln’s Wilderness Park and Bellevue’s Fontenelle Forest reliably offer any Nebraskan with the ability to visit, and the ears to hear, a varied symphony of woodland bird voices. By late summer, these melodies are gradually replaced by a seemingly endless cicada concert. Finally, during October, the remains of the past summer’s forest growth are metamorphosed into leafy golden and crimson souvenirs, which soon fall to earth and are recycled into fertile soil, completing the earth’s natural cycle of life and death.
Similarly, only nine miles west of central Lincoln is the historic 230-acre Nine-Mile prairie. Like Nebraska’s other remnant tallgrass prairies, it is now only a fraction of its original size, but during the drought of the 1930s, it was the site of some of the most important prairie research ever done in America, proving the resilience of the prairie ecosystem in the pressures of climatic stress. It still shelters most of the plant and animal species that were found there almost a century ago, proving the conservation values of these biological sanctuaries.
Nearly 30 other preserved tallgrass prairies in southeastern Nebraska are now either owned by Lincoln’s Wachiska chapter of the Audubon Society or are protected by conservation easements. Such rare relicts help to maintain the gene pools of nearly 400 species of tallgrass prairie plants and their myriad of associated animals.
For example, Audubon’s Spring Creek Prairie is an 850-acre virgin tallgrass prairie located less than 20 miles south of Lincoln. Its staff has educated several thousand grade-school children about our prairie heritage, and thousands of other visitors have hiked over its gentle, glacial-shaped hills to enjoy the seasonal wildflowers and stunning vistas. In the fall, the coppery and Indian-red colors of the bluestem grasses are as memorable a sight as are the changing leaves of cottonwoods, oaks, and maples. And, unlike the trees’ evanescent leaf colors, the prairies’ reluctantly fading hues persist long into winter.
The tallgrass prairie is one of the most romantic concepts of the American West.
The imagined view of endless bison herds plodding through grasses so tall
That they half obscured the bison from sight, is a powerful image,
And one that today must remain more in the realm of imagination than of fact.
One vision that can still be realized is the sight of remnant tallgrass prairies in full bloom from June through September,
When countless scented flowers vie for the attention of bees, butterflies and moths, all eager to share in the prairie’s sweet floral bounty…
Dreams do not die easily, nor did the tallgrass prairie.
The roots of its typical plants drew deep into the glacial soil, and repeatedly returned in the face of climatic adversity.
But they could not fight the steel-bottom plow and the bulldozer.
More remote than the tallgrass prairies, the Sandhills of Nebraska are so immense that all of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts would fit within its borders, with enough room left over to throw in the District of Columbia (assuming we would want it).
Whenever one travels in the near wilderness of the hypnotically beautiful, almost endless Sandhills, it seems as if the roads there had been planned by someone with poetry, rather than speed, on his mind. When driving in the Sandhills, one can feel comfortable, knowing that, in the event of trouble, the driver of the first vehicle to come along will invariably stop and offer help. Granted, it may be an hour or two before a vehicle finally appears on the sandy tracks that are sometimes optimistically identified as roads on the Nebraska Highway Department’s county maps.
While waiting for assistance, you might enjoy watching the shadows of summer clouds passing over the gently undulating sand dunes, listen for a meadowlark’s song, or even hear a distant curlew’s haunting calls. Or, let a handful of the Sandhills’ honey-colored sand slowly sift through your fingers, perhaps while reminding yourself that these sands were washed into Nebraska from distant western mountains perhaps less than 40,000 years ago, in an eye-blink of geological time. The sands of time are also inevitably sifting through and defining all of our lives, and we must count ourselves lucky to be here today, celebrating our beautiful country, our wonderful state, and our all-too-brief time together.
Sandhills Roads & Sandhills Shadows
Most roads in the Sandhills lead nowhere.
And that is one of their primary attractions.
They tend to become more and more indecisive the farther one goes,
And finally disappear in sandy confusion, often at a fence or rancher’s gate.
Thus, traveling on unfamiliar Sandhills roads is always a kind of adventure
That frequently has an unknowable ending…
Probably the best treat of all in the Sandhills comes shortly before sundown.
Then the shadows of the dunes play carelessly over their still-lighted slopes,
Creating endless yin-yang patterns to remind the viewer
That light without darkness is incomplete,
Just as life and death are inextricably locked companions
In the weft and warp of nature’s rich tapestry.
Twenty-five years ago I wrote a newspaper editorial in honor of Nebraska’s 125th birthday, from which I have stolen a few parts for tonight’s talk. Over that quarter century, our larger cities have steadily grown, but our smallest towns and villages have withered, leaving mostly older residents and abandoned buildings behind. I, too, have grown older and am less able to see and hear all the natural sights and sounds of Nebraska that I have loved for so long. I can’t promise to be around for our state’s 175th birthday, but I hope that you will all joyfully celebrate it, and that our state will be as beautiful and vibrant, with as much diverse human life and nature’s life, as we cherish today.
There are still places in Nebraska where one can lie back on a fragrant bed of last-year’s bluestem in March,
With the half-intoxicating odor of freshly germinating grass invading one’s nose,
And the shrill but majestic music of cranes almost constantly overhead,
With occasional harmonies added by arctic-bound, if nearly invisible, geese.
There is then a true sense of belonging to, and being a part of, the land,
And one can only offer an unspoken prayer that such treasures will still be there
For those of the next generation to savor and love.
At such times one will realize that,
Although there may be places with higher mountains than Nebraska,
With magnificent rock-bound coastlines, or with misty cloud forests, it really doesn’t matter.
This is our spiritual home, our own self-chosen Nirvana, our prairie-born paradise,
The natural surviving legacy of long-forgotten winds, immense amounts of water,
Now-vanished glacial ice, and unfathomable eons of time.
It has been freely bestowed upon us, either to keep or to destroy.
May we choose to keep it.
Happy birthday, Nebraska, and thanks for the memories!
* * *
“A Prairie River” from Crane Music (1991).
“Tallgrass Prairie” adapted from The Nature of Nebraska (2001).
“Sandhills Roads & Sandhills Shadows” from This Fragile Land (1994).
“Our Nebraska” adapted from The Nature of Nebraska (2001).
Johnsgard, P. A. Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.
Johnsgard, P.A. 1993. “Happy Birthday, Nebraska.” Nebraska Voices: Telling the Stories of Our State (Nebraska Humanities Council): 160–61. Reprinted from a 1992 essay that appeared in the Lincoln Journal-Star on the occasion of Nebraska’s 125th birthday.
Johnsgard, P. A. This Fragile Land: A Natural History of the Nebraska Sandhills. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Johnsgard, P. A. “A Temple of the Intellect.” Nebraska Life 5(2) (2001):39–43.
Johnsgard, P. A. The Nature of Nebraska: Ecology and Biodiversity. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Johnsgard, P. A. Migrations of the Imagination. Lincoln, NE: Center for Great
Plains Studies, 2002. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/biosciornithology/48/.
Johnsgard, P. A. “The Peregrines of Nebraska.” Prairie Fire, August 2010: 12–14.