Wide Open Spaces

I used to live in the prairie, in Central Kansas and later eastern Kansas. Central Kansas is largely flat prairie, like western Kansas, a shortgrass prairie, I believe. But eastern Kansas encompasses the tallgrass prairie, including the Flint Hills. It may seem a little stark for some folks, because there aren’t that many trees. There were none, until homesteaders brought them in and planted them–a requirement for homesteading.

Visitors can stop at the National Prairie Reserve off I-70 near Manhattan and stand among the tall grasses, or even hike in the area, but the grasslands are wild and insect repellant is highly recommended–in quantity!

The tallgrass is aptly named, as the grasses can grow to six, or even nine, feet tall and their roots may go as deep underground. Big bluestem grass (sometimes called turkey-foot), little bluestem, switch grass, gama grass, side-oats grama,  Indian grass, and other grasses provide some of the richest grazing lands in the world–probably why the buffalo used to hang out there.

I used to drive through eastern Kansas, seeing mile after mile of blackened prairie, where carefully controlled fires are set every spring. Once I even watched a man on a four-wheeler racing alongside the highway with his flame thrower held to one side, setting the grass alight. This doesn’t kill the grasses; they’re protected by the depth of their roots, and soon green shoots of new grass will reappear among the blackness, and then take over. This process prevents out-of-control prairie fires and returns rich nitrogen to the soil. In the olden days, lightning did this work, but we humans prefer more control over fires on the prairie.

The tallgrass sky is huge! The hills may be rounded or flat topped because of limestone shelves just beneath the surface. Stone may litter their sides or support them from underneath. The limestone/chert/flint provides support to the often dry creeks that twist sinuously among the hills, and muddy cowpaths meander everywhere. A wide variety of wildflowers live there, too, in a wild assortment of colors. The Native Americans have used many of these for medicines or foods.

Besides cattle, the tallgrass supports hawks, coyotes, and the occasional antelope, as well as much smaller life that I don’t see as I drive past. I used to stop at a cattle pen at the highest point of the Flint Hills, just to enjoy the scenery and take pictures. These are the true wild places, largely untouched by humans. And they’re a major setting for my novel, The Slipaway Trail, that should become available in 2013.

I had a lot of fun imagining the experience of two fierce warriors from the high mountain country–how cramped the world would feel, how enormous and even intimidating the sky, one warrior thinking he’d lost his horse when it bends its head to crop the grass, because it wouldn’t be visible in such tall vegetation until it raises its head again.

It’s a great setting for a novel! But the area means more to me than that.

If the tallgrass represents wide open places, it also suggests keeping a wide open mind, one that seeks possibilities as much as actualities. To me, that’s an important part of their appeal. Endurance, eternal new growth and resurrection, and permanence are all part of the tallgrass experience, and these are all qualities I have or aspire to: the ability to reinvent who I am, to be flexible and, like a good quarter horse, “turn on a dime” when needed, and to be open to new growth as I learn and experience life.

The tallgrass prairies put me back in touch with life and its possibilities, and it puts me back in touch with myself.


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