Daniel Kessel

Before coming to Matfield Green I had been to Kansas only once, during a childhood visit to my Oklahoma family – and, on further reflection, this early trip may have been limited to the Missouri side of Kansas City, where my mother and my grandmother and my aunt Tequila and I had gone to see a Royals game. Still, spending time in the Flint Hills now as an adult, walking out alone into the quiet rolling green stark prairie, did somehow feel like a homecoming.

My residency took place at the end of September. The daytimes were very warm and the nights were very cool, and for a few days straight it rained and greyed and I barely left the bunkhouse – this was a privilege, one that allowed me time and space to be still, to listen, to find new rhythms in my fiction and nonfiction projects.

The prairie is dizzyingly vast. I was visiting Kansas from New Jersey, and the immensity of the landscape overwhelmed me. Its reputation precedes it; the prairie of our collective imagination clouds your ability to actually experience what is here.

One day in the bunkhouse I read Denise Low’s “Touching the Sky,” a blue-covered volume of essays whose oblong rectangular shape called out to me from the bookshelves. I read, in thrall, her account of this region’s glacial formation over thousands of years, and I thought about the endless evolutions of the landscape, the changes in the people, in the shifting unstable self.

I am a writer who learns by walking, by the feeling of movement in a particular place. Heading out into the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, sharing Windmill Pasture with actual herds of wild bison, I spent a lot of time thinking about my Indigenous ancestors – and how could I not? My writing grapples with their stories, the pull of history and colonial shapings up to the present moment. Although my ancestors are not from Kansas – they are from the Great Lakes region and the Midwest – my connections to Kansas ran deeper than I had known. En route to Oklahoma my tribal ancestors walked through Kansas; some remained. My grandmother – though born and raised in Oklahoma – had a Kansan interlude of her own, during which she met my grandfather. Homecoming.

Elsewhere Denise Low writes of “Prairie Alchemy,” a curiously enchanting phrase. I like to think I touched a little of that prairie alchemy during my residency. The swaying dappled tallgrass of a prairie sunset. The wind! The sky, unlike any other I have seen – touchably close and full of mutable blues, with morphing hues from day into night. The mysterious and deep root system of seeds planted, nourished, and sustained by this ecosystem. In a prairie kind of way I’m trusting in how I was nurtured during my stay in Matfield Green, and in the seeds that were planted for my work. I don’t believe anywhere in America is without its complicated histories, that any terrain is without its secrets and its spirits – this is what I came to feel viscerally during my time in the prairie. I hope to come back soon.

About halfway through my residency, I’m convinced I have connected with some spirits. Not a specific one, not even a specific energy, simply the sense of not being alone, though I am walking in the prairie and have not encountered a single person. I’m inside the bunkhouse and I hear coyotes howling, as if surrounding. I go outside and see Jupiter, set inside the same sky my ancestors, and not long ago, would have seen while living in Kansas before another forced relocation to Oklahoma. To share this meadow with bison is a gift. To see grasshoppers and snakes and several types of tall grass. Someone asked me lately where I’m growing roots. If you think the prairie is flat, you have never been here. If you think the prairie is empty, you have not been paying attention.

Daniel Kessel is a fiction writer and essayist who grew up in New Jersey and New York. A graduate of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden, he was the recipient of an Interdisciplinary Fellowship for his research on the contemporary queer novel. His writing has appeared in PRISM International, Bending Genres, The Huffington Post, and other publications.