An Unadorned Place

Emily Lund: How a Pacific Northwesterner found home in the flat Midwest.

“I love the prairie!”
John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Here in Wheaton, Illinois, we have a pathway of crushed gravel that runs parallel to the railroad tracks. It’s known as the Prairie Path: a popular thoroughfare for cyclists, dog walkers, and runners. This path—with its simplicity, its unassumingness—reminds me of just how far I am from my Pacific Northwest home.

Stuck in the bushes and batches of weeds is the occasional sign that reads “PRAIRIE PLANTS: DO NOT DISTURB.” I’ve always smiled as I passed this sign. I may simply be a romantic, but “prairie plants” conjures up such a different image than the droopy grasses I run alongside. I think of corn high as an elephant’s eye, amber waves of grain. I don’t think of the Chicago suburbs.

This path—with its simplicity, its unassuming route across the “prairie”—reminds me of just how far from home I am.

“Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”

When folks back home asked what Chicagoland was like, I always had the same response: “Very cold, and very flat.” I made sure a laugh always accompanied it, too, a laugh that I hoped would convey a suitably agreeable level of ambiguity toward my new home: my, it’s so different here!

I moved here in January, after spending the previous two decades among the greenery and greyness of the Pacific Northwest. I tried my best to steel myself against the cold—stocking my suitcases with puffy parkas, with gloves, boots, and hats.

But the flatness.

I wasn’t used to horizon lines, to streets and strip malls that stretched out long and unbroken by the earth’s slopes and curves, to big skies with edges unpeppered by trees and peaks.

I didn’t like it.

“To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.”

I know the heavens declare the glory of God, but I was more accustomed to the mountains and oceans doing so. Here, beauty of the natural variety has to be sought.

Or does it?

Here, it’s in the hydrangea bushes that bloom just outside my front porch. It’s at dusk, when fireflies flicker amongst the trees that line the sidewalk. It’s in prairie plants that are not to be disturbed.

When one is so acquainted with a certain kind of wonder, one may neglect to wonder at the young plants, the roots out of dry ground, that have no form or majesty that one should look at them—no beauty that we should desire them.[1]

In the words of Mary Oliver, “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”[2]

May I learn to stand on this prairie.


[1] Isaiah 53:2, ESV
[2] “It Was Early,” Evidence (2009)


Emily Lund currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago, where she is the editorial resident for Christianity Today. Her writing has appeared on various sections of CT, including Her.meneutics, The Local Church, and Leadership Journal. She muses on faith, nature, the written word, and more at Boats Against the Current. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she (unsurprisingly) counts coffee as a close companion. 

Image: Evening on the Prairie, 1870. By Albert Bierstadt. Wikimedia Commons.

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