I’ve never been to the prairies of north America, but my childhood was dominated by stories of them – the Wild West as a genre of films, TV, books and stories has died away, and I’m sure children these days don’t have the same vision of it as we had.

I was reading a poem by my current favourite poet, William Cullen Bryant about the prairie and a flower which grows there, the painted cup. I know when  the rains come at the right time the desert blossoms, I saw the old Disney film the Vanishing Prairie so many times! The actual name of this flower is castilleja, and its other names are the Indian paintbrush and prairie-fire – I guess because the scarlet blooms look like fire across the grasslands! Apparently there are about two hundred different plants native to a vast area stretching from Alaska  to the Andes, across to northern Asia, and in fact one species is found in the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia.

Here is Bryant’s poem:

The Painted Cup

The fresh savannas of the Sangamon
Here rise in gentle swells, and the long grass
Is mixed with rustling hazels. Scarlet tufts
Are glowing in the green, like flakes of fire;
The wanderers of the prairie know them well,
And call that brilliant flower the Painted Cup.

Now, if thou art a poet, tell me not
That these bright chalices were tinted thus
To hold the dew for fairies, when they meet
On moonlight evenings in the hazel bowers,
And dance till they are thirsty. Call not up,
Amid this fresh and virgin solitude,
The faded fancies of an elder world;
But leave these scarlet cups to spotted moths
Of June, and glistening flies, and humming-birds,
To drink from, when on all these boundless lawns
The morning sun looks hot. Or let the wind
O’erturn in sport their ruddy brims, and pour
A sudden shower upon the strawberry plant,
To swell the reddening fruit that even now
Breathes a slight fragrance from the sunny slope.

But thou art of a gayer fancy. Well–
Let then the gentle Manitou of flowers,
Lingering amid the bloomy waste he loves,
Though all his swarthy worshippers are gone–
Slender and small, his rounded cheek all brown
And ruddy with the sunshine; let him come
On summer mornings, when the blossoms wake,
And part with little hands the spiky grass;
And touching, with his cherry lips, the edge
Of these bright beakers, drain the gathered dew.

William Cullen Bryant
1794 – 1878

14 thoughts on “The Painted Cup

  1. The only visible landmark on a lot of the prairies were the grain elevators where the farmers trucked and stored there grain There they met there neighbors over coffee and caught up on news. It is important to get along with your closest neighbors because help for whatever reason can be an awful long way off so no one is truly independent. Great people out west,salt of the earth.

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    • Although it is a totally different type of farming, the hill farmers of the north of England had to be the same – miles and miles from anywhere but you had to get on with your neighbours! They could be your life-line, literally!

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  2. When my wife and I went out west to Regina we went into a small bar and found the owner cleaning up a pile of debris. It seems a young farmers wife had come into town to buy groceries but instead had spent the money in the slot machines in the bar. Her husband came in the next day with a shotgun and destroyed all the machines but left the people live. Haven’t gambled since. Phew!

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