Nebraska Prairie: Then and Now

Report By: Leslie Braun

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Ántonia's Prairie

In the book My Ántonia by Willa Cather, the prairie is described in vivid detail. Ántonia's prairie was not a specific section, but rather a vast expanse of land, covering almost all of Nebraska. Life on the prairie was not living in the country, but living in the Midwest. There were few fields, few cities, and there were no highways. The agricultural industry had not yet deprived the Nebraska earth of much of it's natural cover.

The land was also a major challenge for Ántonia and her family. It played a large factor in Mr. Shimerda's decision to end his own life. When the Shimerdas moved to the prairie they didn't have much going for them. Their lives and success in Bohemia meant nothing to the Nebraska land. They had to turn the land into fields to plant crops to eat and to sell, and to make their lives successful again. Nature's cold winters and hot summers did not make this easy. The Shimerdas had to constantly battle the land to survive. Eventually they were successful, and Ántonia developed skills which she later used in adulthood to support her large family.

My Prairie

The prairie today is very different from the prairie of the pioneers. Endless seas of green have been replaced by "amber waves of grain." Welcome to the modern age of agriculture. Trails left by wagons have long since been converted into highways, interstates, and gravel roads. Welcome to the modern age of transportation.

The truth is, in my opinion, the prairie does not exist today. There are prairie preserves (like the one we visited) but that's not the prairie. That's an exhibit of what one small part of the prairie looked like. People claim that they see the "prairie" everyday, but I think that they're definition of the prairie isn't all that accurate. At one time the words "prairie" and "Midwest" were almost perfect synonyms, today they are not. The prairie wasn't one section of grass, it was an entire region, interrupted by only the occasional field or homestead. Where it once stood prominently, we now look at fields of corn and soybeans. Where wagons once traveled now we see roads. The prairie has vanished, and it is not likely to come back.

Then and Now

Things have changed since Jim and Ántonia's childhood on the prairie. Some of these changes are described in the book. When Jim visits Ántonia after college he realizes that dramatic changes have occurred. The seemingly never ending prairie is broken up by sections of converted farming land. Jim comes back and finds that the prairie has vanished and a new age of agriculture has begun. And that was only the start. If Jim could come to Nebraska today he would undoubtedly be shocked. He would probably be saddened by the fact that the land has continued to be changed to fit the needs of the agricultural industry.

While visiting the prairie I got to catch a glimpse of what it might have been like for pioneers like Jim and Ántonia. Walking through the tall grass, trying to avoid the especially itchy plants. Noticing the openness of the area, without buildings or houses, or cars. Hearing the wind blowing gently through the various plants. Going back in time to a different Nebraska, imagining what it would have been like to have to plow up the ground without modern technology, using a plow and a team of horses. Realizing that even today with our fancy tractors and equipment, farming still isn't problem free. My family is fortunate enough to be finished with harvest. Some other families are not. Rain and even some snow has set farmers back. This is just another example that nature didn't care about pioneers, and even with our improvements in agriculture, nature could still care less about our lives and agendas.


"Marie Ratzlaff Prairie Preserve." Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Prairie Plains Resource Institute, 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. <>.

Bates, Katharine L. "America, The Beautiful Lyrics." USA Flag Site. USA Flag Site, 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <>.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1954. Print.