Listen: 19771114_the_prairie_was_quiet

Minnesota Public Radio presents reporter/producer Greg Barron’s “The Prairie Was Quiet,” a sound portrait of the American Prairie. MPR’s Dan Olson narrates the documentary as it recounts million year history of the prairie.

Article on the making of “The Prairie Was Quiet”:

[Gestation of a Documentary by Barb Hunter / Minnesota Monthly, November 1977]

“The work table in the KSJN newsroom is covered with tapes and pieces of paper. A dark haired bearded man picks up a tape, carries it over to the tape editing machine and scratches his head while he listens to it. He runs around the table, reading several scraps of paper, listens to several more tapes, and does a great deal more head scratching. The dance is repeated for hours, even days. Gradually the piles of tapes are rearranged and more words appear on more pieces of paper. Greg Barron's latest documentary is taking shape.

The production, a sound portrait of prairies in Minnesota, will be aired on MPR stations November 14 at 7 pm. The broadcast is the culmination of months of research, interviewing, taping and editing.

A documentary begins with what Barron calls "a gem of an idea that has to grow in my mind." He uses the term "gestation" to describe the growth period: ''Every time I've produced a documentary it's been like I imagine it is for a woman carrying a child."

Earlier this year he happened to stop by the Nature Conservancy where he talked with people who were interested in prairies in Minnesota. While the idea of trying to capture the essence of the prairie in sound was growing, Barron met Peter Lehenhard Braun, a producer and writer with the German National Radio who uses a synthesis of traditional documentary style and sound as an art medium.

In explaining how his conversations with Braun led to the conception of the documentary, Barron compared traditional radio with a truck used to carry "words and ideas, assertions and facts." This documentary is different. "The idea in this case is something like a sports car," he says, " capable of carrying some things, but built for beauty. It has esthetic qualities a truck cannot.''

To capture the sounds - birds, mammals, insects, and farming - Barron and Engineer David Felland made numerous trips to the prairie, getting up early in the morning and sometimes spending 16 hours in the field. It often took several hours of tape to get a minute or two of the exact sound they wanted.

"It's hard to find a large track of prairie that isn't near man-made sounds,'' Barron explained. His recordings were frequently interrupted by sounds of jets overhead or tractors in the next field.

To get five minutes of cricket sounds, Barron and Felland spent an entire evening crawling around a marsh until they could place microphones near two individual crickets. Prairie inhabitants were not always cooperative. Another time they found a marsh alive with the sound of birds. By the time they were able to set up the equipment, it was dark and the birds had stopped singing.

The MPR crew took microphones to places most of their audience will never visit, such as the middle of a buffalo herd. Because they could not get out of their car in the buffalo reserve in Blue Mound State Park, they had to use a 12-foot telescoping pole with a mike on the end. The curious buffalo were intrigued by the strange object.

Because the aural quality is especially important in this production, special stereo equipment was used to capture the truest sound possible. "Sound has emotional content," says Barron. "Pure sound without vision forces the ears to focus on every intimation.''

Even with the most modern, sophisticated equipment, Barron and Felland had to improvise. Actual wind, for example, does not sound like wind on tape. It produces a rattling sound that can ruin a tape of the intended subject. This became a serious problem until one day Barron was seen in the newsroom carrying two huge canvas stretchers and asking colleagues for old sheets. His handmade wind baffles solved the interference problem. Ironically, when he wanted wind sounds, he had to simulate them.

Once the taping is complete, the task of putting the documentary together begins. Although he usually has some idea of the final form from the beginning, Barron also lets the piece "grow organically" as he goes along. Unexpected sounds may trigger more ideas for more sounds. While the general structure suggests certain sounds and information, material gleaned in the field may change the final structure.

So it is with the narration. Words will trigger a search of the tapes for just the right sound. A sound will turn the mind inward seeking the right words to blend it together with the whole piece.

Explaining this state of production, Barron returns to the metaphor of childbirth. "You wonder if the child will be deformed, or good looking but not too bright."

After the material is selected and edited and the narration written, Barron and felland again Learn up for a half dozen or more final mixing sessions. There may be 20 or more takes of a 60 second segment. Cues must be exact; pace, volume, timing and sound texture must be precise. "The technical director is extremely important at this point," Barron says.

How does it feel when the work is finished and the broadcast is over? "Wonderful and painful," he sighs. "The child has grown up and gone. You're exhausted, but there is a need to go find another subject and tell another story.'' END


1977 George Foster Peabody Award

1978 NBNA Award

1979 Ohio State Award

1978 The Major Armstrong Award Certificate of Merit

1978 AWC Clarion Award


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[WIND HOWLING] DAN OLSON: It is 1 million years before Christ. And the wind is cold. It has come from the North along 3,000 miles of ice. 2 miles high, the shimmering walls of crystal and water will come. Slowly, immutably, they will till the earth, level mountains, and withdraw.

Beneath this frozen anvil, a prairie is born, a vast, unbroken expanse. In the quiet millennia ahead, it will grow fertile-- a sea of grass and flowers, meadows, and earth. Cradled by mountains, it will cover a third of the continent. And in time, the land will change again. It will change at the hand of man.


About 11,000 years ago, man began his life on the prairie. Nomads, these first Americans, wandered the grasslands. They were few. They caused little harm. They were hunters. And life was rich.

Out of the tumult of evolution, the prairie would become home to myriad birds and mammals, among them the great herbivores-- elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, and, greatest of all, the bison-- lord of the prairie.


The old bulls stood 6 feet high at the shoulder and weighed close to a ton. The cows weighed half as much. And together, they grazed in herds darkening the horizon, a single herd covering as much as 50 square miles, 10 miles long, 5 across. When the grass was gone, they moved on. And in time, the grass would grow tall again.



The bison's tattered coats were their only shelter-- their speed, strength, and numbers their only defense. For a time, that was enough. Fire, drought, wolves, and Indians all were their predators. But they were 60 million and, in their numbers, invulnerable. The end would come later.



The morning of October 11th, 1492, the prairie was quiet. This day was to be the beginning of one of the greatest changes in history. 1,000 miles away, three ships coming from the East encountered migrating birds and, accordingly, set their course for a new land.

In the centuries to follow, European immigrants would slowly migrate westward. Early records of the great grasslands were poor. 16th century reports by de Soto and Coronado and, later in the early 19th century, by Lewis and Clark yielded little knowledge of the prairie. The sciences were young. And life in the new land was often alien.

As late as the mid 1800s, reports by travelers did little more than describe the astonishing vastness of the prairie, the abundance of wildlife, and the profusion of color brought by the flowers-- the changing seasons. Yet, for all its beauty, the prairie was hostile. Except for the river bottoms, there were no trees-- little shelter against the searing sun and the numbing cold of winter.

Even the sod was defiant. It was hard, matted with the roots of countless centuries of grass. The prairie was something to be conquered.


By the mid 1800s, man's remaking of the prairie had begun. The white buffalo hunters had come. The buffalo, like the Indian, lived in the path of progress. The hunting party would often consist of a hunter and six or more others, the strippers.

The hunt would begin in the morning. The buffalo had been grazing. They had gone to water and moved on to higher ground. Resting now, they would lie in the grass. Then in the distance, the crack of a rifle.

Mortally wounded, an old bull would slowly bleed to death. The others smelling the blood would come near, paw the ground, and watch. Then another shot and another. And more would fall.

One hunter could kill as many as 100 buffalo in one day. And to each dead animal, the strippers would come taking the hide. Each hide would bring $2.50.

Before they left, the strippers would poison the buffalo carcass so that in the night, 20 or more wolves would die too-- the victims of strychnine. By the end of the century, the wolf packs and the great buffalo herds they preyed on would be nearly extinct. But room had been made, room for the drovers and their longhorn and room for the farmers and their plows.


The first settlers emerged from the protection of the eastern woodlands suspicious, wary. There was little there. And they were afraid.

The treeless horizon was unending. There was only the grass everywhere bowing in the westerly wind. The grass was 8 feet high. And to be lost was to be lost forever. Even the Indians kept close to the rivers and trails. But slowly, the settlers came to endure bitter winters and frequent drought. Slowly, they came, hungry for land.


SPEAKER 1: Yeah, that hold on the road he'll make. Giddup, giddup Ho, ho, ho. Giddup. Hip. Hip. They got it. They got it. That one first. Ho, ho. Giddup, giddup, giddup. Ho, ho! Back. Back. Ho! Ho!

DAN OLSON: The wooden plows were no match for the prairie. The wiry sod of countless centuries resisted the plow board. Metal, only metal would do.

In 1837, the first steel plows were hitched to their teams, and the breaking of the prairie began. The tangled roots of the native grasses rang out like the breaking strings of a harp as each step of the team pulled the sharp blade through the matted soil borne ages before.


The plow turned a thick black ribbon of earth to the sun. Birds noisily followed, gorging on worms and insects. Frightened animals ran for their lives. But the prairie would not be subdued easily.


In a grassy clearing in the spring, a group of prairie chickens gather. They are here for the mating ritual. 50 males grouped together inflate air sacs in their necks. And expelling the air, they call for a mate. The booming can be heard for over a mile.

The males run forward, stop, scratch the ground, fan their tail feathers, and boom. The females watch the display from the grass at the edge of the clearing. Each will watch for the most appealing male. And finally, they'll signify their choice.

The prairie chicken once numbered in the millions, and that was their fall. Firing once across his corn crib, a farmer in 1870 could kill enough to provide a meal for a family of eight. In North Dakota, they were shot from the back of wagons. They were shot by the thousands and shipped to St. Louis for hog feed.

By 1920, hundreds of thousands of square miles of the Midland Meadow had vanished. The plow was doing its work, and farmers' fields had been sown. Corn, corn bends in the wind now, and the sinews of the horses are made of steel.


SPEAKER 2: Oh, I see at that time when I came here in 1925 then, it was very little prairies then in Nebraska, more-- oh, Western Norfolk, Nebraska, that was quite a bit of prairies. And it was mostly cattle there then, see. But now, they broke up so much of it, and the farming had more and more.

It isn't like it should be because some of that land is too hilly, and then they don't get very much moisture, see. There's short of rain most of the time. Still, they are breaking up more and more same as here.


DAN OLSON: Today, another lord roams the prairie. It is 12-feet high, 16-feet wide, and 24 long. It dwarfs men, grazes on the soil itself, and bellows with the sound of fire.

The grass is gone and the animals. The earth is black now, black to the horizon. Only the instruments of man move now, lumbering. And clouds of dust spiral to the heavens above.


It's morning on Jack Lake Marsh. There is a glimmer of light in the east. It is spring, and the birds are taking their fill.

The bulrushes, cattails, pampas grass, and phragmites crowd into the water. It's an oasis. Two Canadian geese are nesting here, also wood ducks, teal, coots, and mallards.

On the far shore, a fawn and two deer move quietly in the waning dark. And beneath the grass, weasel, mink, possum, and coon. And then the machines, the machines are always near.

SPEAKER 3: I guess that if I were to put my perception of the beauty of Jack Lake into words, it would be hard because it's an abstract feeling, I guess. That's really deep rooted, and it's something that's kind of hard to express. But I feel close to it. It's funny that you can get a warm close feeling for a spot.

The things about this spot and about Jack Lake and this farm that have produced that feeling in my heart would have to do both with its appearance and its past history. It's fun to walk around the lake, for instance, or the slough and to appreciate the fact that the people here 1,000 years ago, 2 or 3,000 years ago, as evidenced by arrow points that I find.

And of course, they were here because they liked it too. The setting is beautiful, and it does attracted them as evidenced by the remnants. And it attracted me. That beauty has to do, I guess, with the growth that you find in your body of water, the cattails and the bulrushes, the banks of the lake, the contrasts that the lake produces amongst the prairie.

Quite flat, rolling prairie broken by a body of waters is beautiful, especially when it's so teeming with life and being utilized by so many different animals and by people. Sunsets are beautiful. The sky seems to be redder. It's reflected in the water. The rich greens of the cattails and bulrushes in the lake itself against a purple azure sky is beautiful.

Breezes, it's always windy here it seems. And the wind, when it is accented by swaying bulrushes, becomes visible. And only something that you feel but something that you see. And in my imagination, that conjures up an image, possibly of what the rest of this prairie looked like in this area before it was plowed up and put into production.

That must have really been a beautiful sight. The wind rolling through giant bluestem and buffalo grass and stuff. But the lake is beautiful, and the sights and the sounds and the smells of it even are just really incomparable. It's a beautiful spot. In an area of primarily flat prairie land, it's really a pretty spot.

DAN OLSON: By the late 1800s, clay drainage tile had been introduced, and the wetlands, the marshes, and sloughs felt the bite of steel. They would be drained, planted, and plowed. Ditches would be dug, and the water would run to the rivers and down to the sea. It was hard work then and slow. Now, it is quick.

As the stainless steel cylinder of the control mechanism spins, the small, brilliant red beam of the laser darts out faster and faster. The ditches must be straight, the slope precise. The narrow red line reaches across the field issuing silent orders. The powerful machines obey.

SPEAKER 4: You guys ready?

SPEAKER 5: As far head away.


SPEAKER 6: With two-row horse equipment, you probably could farm land that tended to be a little wet or go around a pothole. But that became impractical as we went from 4 to 8 and eventually, to 12-row equipment and large tractors. It's considerably more efficient to open up larger fields.

Those of us that are, I guess, in what we call the very good prairie soil areas feel that most of those soils are a large portion of them should be drained. But there is no question that a lot of us have mixed emotions about this situation. But the economics has been so overwhelmingly in favor of drainage.

And I think I kind of go back to comment, people like Norman Borlaug made, that if you must take a choice between the environment and man and being able to produce food for man, I'm going to choose man.

DAN OLSON: As the trencher inches forward, the cylindrical concrete tiles fall to the bottom of the trench. They will form a pipe 6 feet below the surface. The inclined pipe will drain the water away. As each tile falls, another marsh is one foot closer to extinction. Last year, these machines laid 140,000 feet of tile, 26 miles.

26 miles of tile will drain a dozen small sloughs, 200 acres in all, home for 1,000 ducks, 1,000 coots, 600 blackbirds, and all the rest. In the state of Minnesota, much of the prairie was once wetland. Today, the machines are draining the last. The oasis will be planted with corn and grain and beans.

As the sun reaches the rim of the western horizon, soft, bright columns of light break through the clouds. And the farmers and their families watch the sky. To the southwest, the distant fields are bathed in amber. To the northwest, the clouds are black, the land is dark. The fields are planted now with corn and grain.

The roads are straight, but the crops need water. It has been a week since the last rain. And that was too little. The native grass had grown in the arid land long before memory. But a garden, a garden drinks heavily.

The fields are parched, but now, the clouds are coming, moving slowly in the hot, humid evening air. They've been coming for an hour. And as darkness embraces the fields, distant lightning etches brilliant lines in the sky. Some rain will fall surely, but will it be enough?


Good luck at last, the wilting corn will drink its fill. Thank the lord, and please, please let it rain again tomorrow.

What was once a quiet, undisturbed prairie is now an economic engine. What was once the native land is now 150 million acres of cultivated fields and pasture. Each year, farmers produce nearly 6 billion bushels of corn, over 2 billion bushels of wheat, 1.5 billion bushels of beans. The crops are valued in dollars, $50 billion. And there's not always time to wait for the rain, little time for prayers to the lord.

Tens of millions of acres are now under irrigation. The brass nozzles are mounted atop a silver pipe, 6 inches in diameter, 20 feet high, a quarter mile long. It moves on wheels, slowly, automatically. There are no people here, no skyward glances. Mechanical timers and electrical motors move the glistening tube over the corn. The water arrives on schedule.

At the heart of it, a pump pulls the water from the bowels of the earth. As it rises, it sings.

1,000 gallons per minute. How much water is there? When will the well run dry? No one knows for sure.

SPEAKER 7: We've changed the-- I think we've changed the prairie irrevocably in a sense. And they are just isolated little pockets. But I don't know, I think there's-- I think there's a place where man can really almost improve on nature. Well, I don't think if "improve" is the right word but where man and the landscape can blend in a sense, and make even more-- maybe a more beautiful thing than what was here.

It won't be the same, of course, because it's gone in a sense, forever. You'll never see the incredible vastness of the prairie as it once was, with Buffalo, et cetera. But I think there-- I think there are ways that man could do better with the prairie. I think we could give a little wildlife a chance rather than having fence row to fence row plantings. And there are a lot of ecological considerations that I think would support this.

I think in terms of energy, the way we're farming right here in terms of energy in the Midwest, it's a very, very energy intensive system of farming. And I think there are better ways to do it. And I think there would be ways that would make the prairie a more beautiful place or today's prairie area more beautiful place.

I mean, I guess to me, there's not a lot of beauty in a whole section full of corn, you know. I mean, if it's continuous corn for a mile after mile. I mean I don't-- I think there's beauty in diversity. And I think one of the things about the original prairie was its incredible diversity. It was a very, very productive and diverse ecosystem, probably more productive than the forest ecosystems of the country.

I think a landscape-- to enjoy living in a landscape, it has to be beautiful. And it's a matter of aesthetics, I guess. If you think endless corn and beans is beautiful, then that's your right to think so. But I happen to think that I'd like to see a few birds and a few mammals, a few small mammals and whatever in and among agriculture.

And I think it'll-- I think in a long term view, it's going to pay. It's going to be an aesthetic environment. People are going to live in it rather than feel alienated from it. And I think that's a lot of our society's trouble is that we have a great deal of alienation from the environment. We don't really understand the limits of our environment or the limits of our globe. And we're going on as if there were no limits.

DAN OLSON: The old windmill is near collapse. The iron braces are weak with age and neglect. Only the foundations are sturdy. Nearby, the rough planks of what was once a barn slowly rot in a tangle of weeds. This decrepit iron sentinel stands alone, marking a time when it harnessed the wind. It marks the day of its abandonment. It marks a prairie now powered by electricity.


At the farmers elevator, workmen begin their daily routine two 40-horsepower electric motors pull down the corn and oats. They grind and blend the grain. It will be feed for the livestock, cattle and hogs.

The milling room lies beneath two concrete and steel silos. They store 550,000 bushels of grain, towering above the flatland. They can be seen for miles, skyscrapers of the prairie. Standing alone, they signal the center of trade, and the motors are the heart of it.

SPEAKER 8: July 9, 28.

DAN OLSON: In the office, the farmers wait for the great machine to do its work. They are buying now. But when the crop is ready for harvest, it will be time to sell. And the balance is delicate. Today, life on the prairie is not only a struggle with nature, it is also a matter of balancing the books.

SPEAKER 8: November 7, 15, January 7, 19. Soybean meal, May, 257.

DAN OLSON: When the crops are in and the price is settled, the food begins to flow.

Soybeans, golden soybeans.

When the last of the grain has been loaded, the machines haul it to market. The sound of hooves are nothing more than a distant memory now. Man has triumphed. Steel rails crisscrossed the endless expanse. They are silver threads harnessing the land and life of the prairie. And when the deep black earth yields up its fruit, the treasure is sent away.

Carload after carload, the grain will go to the cities for flour and for bread. It will go to Chicago, to Minneapolis, to Saint Louis, to Kansas City, to Lincoln, and Springfield. And to whom will it go? It goes to you.

Near the tracks, a 20-acre slough has been forgotten. It is too small and too wet to be of any value. Next to it, 60 acres of native grass still cling to life, not for long.

SPEAKER 8: My grandfather homesteaded a few miles from here. When he came, he walked into this prairie all the way from when his father homesteaded down near Delano. It was an impressive, endless thing to those early settlers. It was almost an enemy. It was a tough thing with fire, with tough sod.

Now, it's become so endangered that we're the enemy of the prairie. Man himself is what's destroyed this thing and left so very little of it.

This land, this prairie land was contested grounds for the Indian. The Sioux and the Chippewa battle over this ever since man recorded that they were in the area. The reason for it was that it was such a rich living area. It was a beautiful area. It had animals that are totally forgotten now, grizzly bear, elk, the hordes, of buffalo, of course.

It was so rich that both tribes contended for it. And it was a very short while after the white men came that they were run out. And the reason was again, this ground was so good and so rich that it was dug up, and it took the plow into the heart of it. And it disappeared perhaps in 20 or 30 years.

It was first planted to wheat then went to alfalfa and hay. They still cut the prairie grass into the 1920s or 1930. And finally, land became so expensive that it doesn't exist anymore. And so this tragic remnant 80 acres out of maybe surrounded by 8 million acres, it Is all we left.

We have some responsibility to take care of the land, to keep a little of this heritage that represents where we came from because we don't know what we're destroying when we destroy it all. And that's what we've done in the case of the tallgrass prairie.

Lots of advantages of it, this feeds America. And this is a home for all these sons and grandsons and granddaughters of the people that first broke the land. But still, we almost have a tragedy of seeing this rich, diverse, natural system totally destroyed. And to me, that's a land morality issue, an issue where we've not kept our responsibility to the land.

We don't even know what we've destroyed. The local farmers don't even know what it is anymore. And that applies to all these 200 or 300 or 400 species of plants that are on the prairie but still wander across these small treasured remnants. And look at this rich, diverse thing. There's nothing more interesting than the prairie grassland.

I've been through mountains and the oceans. There is nothing as rich and more satisfying as a natural system than these prairie grasslands that existed in Minnesota and North Dakota and Iowa. And now, they're gone, all gone.

DAN OLSON: In Nobles County, Minnesota, near the Iowa border, lie 4 acres of untouched prairie. The grass and the flowers form a yellow, green, and crimson carpet sweeping over the side of a softly rolling hill. It is quiet in the midday sun. There was only the sound of the birds, the cicadas, and grass rustling in the slow, warm breeze. This place is as it has been, always.

At the crest of the hill lies a tiny cemetery. Visitors are few now. There are no grieving relatives. The last pioneer was buried here before the turn of the century. It is the final resting place for those who knew the prairie when life was hard, and the land was new.

Only two crumbling gravestones still survive. One marks the remains of a nine-year-old boy, died 1876 the other commemorates the life of a young woman. The weathered inscription is the only remaining record of her life, Mrs. Densmore, wife of Effie Densmore, died November 4, 1878, aged 26 years, 1 month, 27 days.

Sweet be thy sleep, dear mother, for thou art at rest, and nothing can disturb thy slumber for thou art blessed.


Sunday, June 26, 1977, the congregation gathers. No one remembers when the church was built, and few remember where.

SPEAKER 8: Heavenly Father, the works of your hands are everywhere to be seen. The beauty of the prairie surrounds us, the loose leaves waving in the breeze, the delicate flowers of a spring hillside, the green grass making a colorful carpet the white clouds like a curtain covering a mystery.

Lord, we hear the sounds of nature which you made, the sounds of birds singing their morning song, the sounds of majestic thunder, the wind, the sound of silence on a still moonlit evening. Lord, we feel on our skin the freshness of a new day, the warmth of the sun, signs and symbols are abundant, the wonders of nature speak powerfully if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We are here, lord, not to ignore these signs but to give you thanks for what you have made us to see, to touch, to hear in your creation. You have placed us in a classroom where we can learn lessons from the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, the running waters, the green meadows, the seed and the sower, the silence of the stars.

Let these teachers in your creation instruct us until we begin to understand how wonderfully we are made, why we are here, and who we are to become. Amen.


NARRATOR: The Prairie Was Quiet was written and produced by Greg Barron. Principle field recording and audio mixing were by David Carlton Felland. Additional field recordings were provided by the Library of Natural Sounds at the Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University.

Research assistants was provided by the Minnesota Nature Conservancy. The program was narrated by Dan Olson and was made possible in part with funds provided by the Grain Terminal Association and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This has been a presentation of Minnesota Public Radio.



Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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