The Flint Hills of Kansas are sort of a conundrum. To many, mostly travelers, but also some residents, it’s just a vast, seemingly empty, boring piece of geography. The travelers tell you they love to get through the Flint Hills. To many of the residents, they admit to “liking” to live in the Flint Hills.
But, to the real devotees of the Flint Hills, like me, it’s a geographic love affair. We love the Flint Hills as more than scenery or a place to live. We love it becuz of it uniqueness, becuz of its rarity, becuz of its complexity, becuz of its profoundness, becuz it “speaks” to us if we listen while we commune with it.
That’s why I was pretty impressed with an essay entitled “Tallgrass,” authored by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American of the Potawatomi people. Her essay was supported by the Centre of Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. She’s a professor of plant ecology at the State University of New York in Syracuse, N.Y.
Her essay is way too long to include much of it in this column. But, suffice it to say that she “gets” the Flint Hills — their history, their ecology, their humanity, their endangeredness, and their fragile hope for the future.
Here’s one passage that struck home for me. “I remember the swish of big bluestem rolling above my head, the shushbrush if Indiangrass soft against my arms, the rattle of wild indigo in a dry September wind … If you stand among the Tallgrass prairie, you can discern different sounds of the collective swoosh. Stems clack together at the base. The waist-high leaves rub with grasshopper buzz and the seed heads are a soft hiss dissipating above my head. Goldfinches bounce their wavy flight patterns above the waves … The sound of the prairie is like the inhale and exhale of the land itself … Every grass species has a different move; the whole stem of Little Bluestem shimmies in the wind, Indiangrass arches and falls, while Big Bluestem waggles at the tip and vibrates at the bottom. Switchgrass pirouettes in the air. Prairie dropseed leaps like a fountain. It a ballet of wind and grass — a dance that you may never see.”
That passage brought to the forefront the fond recollection of me taking my young grandchildren (or young children of friends) into the Tallgrass in the winter and insisting that we lay down in the tallest grasses we could find. They learned laying snuggly there why and how the deer and the coyote and the cow find refuge from the biting wind by simply lying down in the protective prairie.
Here’s another meaningful passage in her essay. “The moment I slid into the headhigh flow (during the growing season), and inhaled that grass perfume, all my senses recalibrated. I could see, hear and feel what I could never have imagined: grass hung with tiny pink stamens and feathery stigmas clothed in dew, the thrum of a thousand bees, the brush of butterflies, the rising of flowers.
“The Tallgrass Prairis ranks among the top ten most biodiverse ecoregions and the most endangered … it’s home to at least 300 species of plants, 1,500 kinds of insects, 250 birds and myriad citizens of the soil, all of whom are inextricably tangled together by the unbreakable knots of prairie sod … eye-to-eye with the grass you see they are not only green in color. There are nodes of purple, amber striped leaves, joints of cherry red. And flowers. One of the marvels of the prairie is that the grasses, which grow as high as 6-8 feet, only represents one-third of the plant. Most of the plant is underground, with a fibrous network binding the soild to a depth of up to 10 feet … grass roots live and die in rapid succession. their bodies adding compost, building a sponge for water and nutrients … in the dormant season, in the thick thatch of dead brown grass … it’s time for the firebird. Prairies are ecosystems desighed to burn. Evolution has produced extrordinary adaptations for fire resistance and resilience in the aftermath.”
To me that’s heavy prose that speaks lightly to my heart. It’s why I chose to live and connect to the Flint Hills. They are wonderous.
Here’s how Kimmerer summed up the innerconnectedness of the Tallgrass:
“The sun made the grasses, the grasses made the buffalo, the buffalo made the wallows, the wallows made flowers and the flowers made butterflies. The buffalo made people and people made fire. Fire made prairie and prairie made fire. The wind made the soil and the soil made the grass, the grass made the grasshoppers and the hoppers made the larks. The larks brought the seeds and the seed made the voles. The voles made the hawk and the hawk called the warning. And we — we have (nearly) unmade it all.
“After having tried to obliterate them, now we find we want the prairies back. Storers of carbon, builders of soil, refuge of pollinators. It’s not enough to just remember. We have to re-member, reclaim the lost members of the family of prairie life. Acre by acre the prairies were broke and acre by acre we will mend them”
If there’s a lesson to be learned in Kimmerer’s essay, it’s this: The Tallgrass Prairie is to be appreciated, not overlooked. It’s to be nurtured and protected and from invasive species like cedar, hedge, and serecia lespedeza. It’s to be reclaimed whenever possible.
This whole column is composed of words of wisdom in my opinion. I just wanted to share them with you. Get your Christmas shopping done and have a good ‘un.