The din of 21st century South Dakota drifts his way from the blacktop in the distance. But the old man, hobbled by his eight-plus decades, doesn’t hear it.
He’s fixed on something else, something only his mind can see across this rolling landscape west of Sioux Falls that has belonged to his family for maybe 137, 138 years.
Out here, Monsees watches the ghosts of buffalo grazing in the valleys. He hears the ancient echoes of cavalry riders from the nearby Sioux Falls encampment, fueled with whiskey brought up by riverboats through Yankton and racing their horses on a makeshift track.
Mostly, he remembers the pasqueflowers.
“I learned about them from my mother when I was a little boy,” he says as he leans forward in the seat of a friend’s truck. “She could remember when the hillside was visible from our house a quarter mile away, showing up in a lavender color.”
Today, the creeping urbanization pushing toward towns such as Ellis and Tea and Harrisburg has conspired with the evolution of modern farm practices to sweep much of the color from the prairie around Sioux Falls. Plant scientists say you still can find the pasque in some state parks or other spots in South Dakota not affected by sprawl or the demands of row crops. But those places are increasingly rare, particularly in the southeastern corner of the state.
It bothers Monsees then that nobody seems to know what pasqueflowers are anymore, or “remembers that they are our state flower.” You have to wonder, he says, if schoolchildren today are even taught that in 1903, state legislators across this land of harsh, often brutal winters decreed that the pasqueflower become the first official symbol of South Dakota.
Legend has it they were entranced by this little wildflower, a member of the buttercup family, pushing its way up through the soil before all other wildflowers - “out of cold turf at the edge of the snows,” poet laureate Badger Clark wrote - and announcing with its presence the arrival of spring.
They even gave it a motto: “I lead.”
An arctic relic left behind when the glaciers receded millennia ago, the pasqueflower adapted well to cold conditions, thriving on rocky, gravelly hillsides, says Dave Graper, professor of horticulture at South Dakota State University and director of the university’s McCrory Gardens.
“They’re definitely a northern plant,” agrees wildlife botanist Dave Ode of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department in Pierre.
“They do extend down into Nebraska, but not much farther south than that.”
The Lakota called this prairie flower that grows no taller than an inch or two “hoki cekpa,” or “child’s navel.”
Later, Northern European immigrants dubbed it “pasque” - a French word and Hebrew variant on “passover” - because of its annual arrival each Easter.