This past winter, as I sat in an empty house adjusting to our return to the prairie from the longleaf pine forest of the deep south, it became important to me to reacquaint myself with my new surroundings.
I researched our new community, learning the outline of its history.
I read Dying and Living on the Kansas Prairie, by Carol Brunner Rutledge - a diary of the last 3 months of Rutledge's mother's life and how the Kansas landscape supported and comforted her as she drove back and forth from her home to her mother's side.
I visited the local arboretums. Prairiewolf and I took trips through the surrounding counties.
And I read PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon, a pointillistic word picture of Chase County, the heart of the tall grass prairie of the Flint Hills. PrairyErth is a long book . Reading it from cover to cover stretched out over weeks, given the short, before-sleep time slot I generally allot to reading books these days. It might not have been the most gripping book I've ever read, but it was sure fascinating and thought-provoking and full of images that transported me mentally through both time and space.
"...a wind blowing steadily as if out of the lungs of the universe." (p. 12)
"What I cherish I've come to slowly, usually blindly, not seeing it for some time...." (p. 81)
"On a rare day of near windlessness, I am sitting on a ridge.... Unlike a forest, a grassland lets sound carry, and I can count distant prairie voices: a harrier, a meadowlark, an upland plover. Each calls in plaintive phrases as if it admitted the prairie solitude into its notes. When the air does move, it pulls from the bending grass around me a soft outrush like a deep breath slowly vented, the wind giving voice to the grass, and it lending a face to the wind." (p. 201)
"The American disease...is forgetfulness. A person or people who cannot recollect their past have little point beyond mere animal existence: it is memory that makes things matter." (p. 266)
"A couple of days ago a man in Cottonwood said to me, Nothing happens anymore in Cedar Pointless. For years I've made a practice of seeing 'nothing' because I believe the American idea of 'something' usually ends up harming our perceptions and use of the land." (p.485)
"It wasn't really so much of a windy day as a day of a hundred winds: puffs, huffs, wafts, drafts, soughs, and murmurs." (p. 593)
Those are just a few of the many lines and quotes that I highlighted as I read. (Did you notice the importance of the wind?! This IS a prairie we're talking about, after all!)
The hardest chapter to get through was a series of excerpts from various historical documents and letters chronicling, in the settlers' own words, the treatment of the Kansa (Kaw) Indians by the white European settlers from 1802 to 1872, when the Kansa were forcibly required to give up what was left of their land and moved to Oklahoma. (Kansas gets its name from this same tribe of Native Americans, an extremely ironic fact given how this tribe was treated.)
Historical vignettes, biographies, wonderful collections of quotes, geography, natural history of the plants and animals, recollections of current countians, inventory lists, and old scandals. There is something for everyone here, and in the process a unique portrait of a unique county in a unique landscape emerges.