Massive dust storms swept the Great Plains in April 1935. The wind carried topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., where the dust darkened a U.S. Senate hearing room. That silent but convincing testimony led Congress to establish the Soil Conservation Service.
But legislation doesn’t stop storms. On April 14th, the worst ones yet shrieked out of the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. The wind forced dust into homes and other buildings through even the tiniest cracks. Driving was impossible. Cattle, horses, pigs, and other domestic and wild animals suffocated and died. The nation called that day Black Sunday. In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans confronted the fact that they were wasting the topsoil that made possible the nation’s reputation as a land of plenty.
Sigurd and the storms
On April 15th, a reporter in Denver coined the term Dust Bowl. That was the day 36-year-old Sigurd Olson, thinking about the storms, typed a one-page essay about the prairie. He wrote about a trip he had made the year before to Blomkest, Minnesota, a country town 80 miles west of Minneapolis. His father was there, finishing his last year of active ministry as a Baptist pastor. It was Easter, and Sigurd, coming down from the cold and snow of northeastern Minnesota to the vibrant colors and sounds of spring emerging on the prairie outside his father’s church, couldn’t help but see similarities between the lessons of nature and those of Christianity. Lessons of connectedness, healing, hope and resiliency. Despite the devastating economy, the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl, and his own significant personal struggles, Sigurd Olson’s “Easter on the Prairie” was joyous, with a theme of renewal.
The message is worth revisiting, as we face the struggles of our own times. It is the message of Easter: destruction, devastation, and even death itself do not have the last word. And it is possible, even when all around seems to be collapsing, to find signs of hope and renewal.
Sigurd developed that first draft and sent it out for publication. Rejected. He sent it out again. Rejected. Over the next twenty years Sigurd Olson’s “Easter on the Prairie” went to more agents and magazines, and got more rejections. No market for that sort of thing, they said.
The Easter lesson of a beloved essay
But then publisher Alfred A. Knopf took a chance. Sixty-three years ago this week The Singing Wilderness made its debut, and it included this long-rejected essay. You might say the history of Sigurd Olson’s “Easter on the Prairie” is itself a testament to death and resurrection. For many readers, it has been a favorite. Here’s its conclusion:
As we crossed the threshold, I stepped into the cleanest, most scrubbed little church I had ever seen. The floor, the benches, the windows shone, and flowers were everywhere, around the pulpit and on every windowsill; this interior was as lovely as the pool with the gulls, the mallards, and the sandpipers, the lushness of the fields. Here was no musty unused building, open once a week or a month. This was part of the out-of-doors.
The little groups were quiet now—no whispering or frivolity in the house of God. Then through the open windows I heard again the chorus of the larks and from somewhere near by the deep, liquid undertones of the mourning doves. There was a breeze and the smell of a thousand miles of prairie came through the windows, fused with the sweetness of the lilies, the sharp pungence of the geraniums.
The organist was playing the somber melody of an ancient hymn, a strange contrast to the lightness without. I could hear them both, and then gradually the sounds seemed to blend one with the other and I was conscious of the melody of the larks and the undertones of the doves as a background to the majestic measures of the old song.
The pastor rose, extended his hands. Heads bowed and he began to pray.
“Our Lord and Heavenly Father, we are gathered in Thy Name to praise Thee, to ask Thy blessing this Easter morning.”
The words rolled on and on, and then I heard the larks once more and knew that what he said reflected somehow the beauty and the peace of Easter on the prairie.
“May Thy goodness descend upon us; may we know Thy bounty; may we be humble in Thy presence.”
Heads were still bowed, heads that had known the hopelessness of drought and powder-dry fields, the drifts of black silt along the fences, roots dead and dry in the pitiless heat and wind, wells full of dust, trees withered around their homes. Those stooping, toil-worn shoulders had known all that. They had fought and prayed and plowed their lake bottoms, and in the wet years they had drained their marshes and hurried their precious waters to the sea. They had broken the ancient sod the buffalo had known, exposed the black humus of uncounted centuries to the sun and wind. They had pioneered and tamed the west.
“May God have mercy. May His blessing descend upon us.”
A gnarled brown hand gripped the top of the pew beside me. The knuckles became white, then relaxed.
“For Thou art the resurrection and the life. Amen.”
Backs straightened, hands reached for the hymnals. A pretty girl tossed her blond hair and looked out the window. She caught the eye of a boy across the aisle and smiled. It was spring and Easter, not a country of dust storms, dying cattle, prelude to the desert. This morning it was the real prairie as it had been a hundred, a thousand years ago, the prairie of the wagon trains, virgin, lush, and beautiful. This morning it was Easter with the promise of resurrection and hope.
Photo: Sigurd Olson in his writing shack, 1960s. Courtesy of the Olson family.
This post, so connected to the hope and joy of Sigurd’s essay, fits in the blue section of the singing wilderness spiritual map.