GardenSMART :: Book Excerpt - The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Book Excerpt – The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books
By Marta McDowell
Images courtesy of Timber Press
From the Preface: Born in 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a bumper crop of books for young readers. Farming, gardening, and nature were backdrops and key plot elements for every volume in the series. Originally published between 1932 and 1943, the eight novels chronicle growing up in the Wisconsin woods and on the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota over a twenty-year period starting in the late 1860s. It was a coming of age story for a girl and reflected the coming of age of a nation, as homesteaders spread west from the Mississippi.
Beyond history, her books were about natural history. Laura discussed weather and land forms. She observed plants and the animals that depended on them. She foraged wild berries and picked wildflowers. And long before she was a writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a gardener and farmer, growing food for the table and raising crops for sale. She lived the farmer's covenant with the wider natural world, tending soil, plants, and animals to sustain herself and her family.
Chapter 3: Harrowing: The Prairie of Kansas, Indian Territory
Rutland Township, Indian Territory, in present-day Kansas
The land that you couldn't see to the end of.
—Little House on the Prairie
Some things in life cast long shadows: trees, late afternoons, autumn days, parents. Some settings in history cast long shadows too. In America the West is one. In the nineteenth century western fever was an epidemic, and Charles Ingalls had a serious case. The grass would be greener, the skies would be bigger on the other side of the Mississippi. In Wisconsin the sound of other people's axes was an annoyance. The little road that ran by his farm was getting downright well-traveled. And in terms of hunting—a key part of the family's finances—it was becoming a case of where the wild things were. It was time to head west.
I wonder if Caroline agreed. After finishing Little House in the Big Woods with her second-grade daughter, my niece Jenny posed a reasonable question. "Why did Pa drag them from their cozy Wisconsin farm?" she asked, a little put out. With its comfortable house and full larder, it seems a strange decision. But Charles Ingalls was not much on long-term planning. "Pa was no businessman," Wilder wrote in later life. "He was a hunter and trapper; a musician and poet." We don't know how willingly Ma accompanied her poetic frontiersman of a spouse, but in late winter of 1869, it was westward ho for the Ingalls family.
To get to their new home, they first had to cross the Mississippi River, an almost mythic border between "back east" and the prairies and plains of the West. Pa fitted out their buckboard wagon with bows made of hickory—soaked, bent to shape, covered with canvas. With wagon loaded and hitched he drove them across the frozen river. In the novel, two snowy ruts show where other wagons had gone before them. What was the pull?
Politically, the timing seemed solid. The years between 1854, when the federal government officially "opened" the Kansas Territory to settlement, and 1861, when the state of Kansas came into the Union, had been violent. Vigilantes—the "Free Staters" and the Missouri-based "Border Ruffians"—warred over slavery. In the wake of the Civil War all that was settled, and the bleeding in Kansas was stanched. There were rumors of land, free for the taking. Treeless, flat, and fertile, the land whispered to Charles Ingalls.
The railroads had started to build at a great pace across Kansas in the late 1860s and were putting a new spin on the prairies. Forty years earlier, Major Stephen Long, after a two-year expedition to the area between the Mississippi and Rockies, pronounced the broad midsection of the continent "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and, of course, uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture." A map in his published account labeled it the "Great Desert." But by mid-century, in a significant public relations turnabout, the word "desert" was dropped, or at least shifted further south and west. As the rail network expanded, railroad companies distributed literature far and wide extolling the farming potential of the Great Plains.
Other commercial and political boosters touted the region. It was the second Eden. An agriculture writer of the day summed it up as the "Garden of America" ready for the taking:
[H]er prairies, her limestone hills and broad levels; her sandy
alluvial bottoms, located in almost as many different climates as
positions, abound with all of nature's food, stored for years in the production of tree, fruit, and flower, to such extent that she may yet be said to be in her infancy. And no one who has not visited and traversed her wide borders . . . can have, but by traveling over it, any conception of the wealth stored up in the soil of the West.
Author Bio: Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. McDowell also consults for public gardens and private clients. Her particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel.
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books is available in hardcover, $27.95 from timberpress.com or online booksellers.
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