After driving across the Cornbelt for two days, the Flint Hills spell relief, geographical and otherwise. I‚Äôve come with rare, declining grassland birds on my mind, curious to see how the Flint Hills can support the Henslow‚Äôs sparrows and prairie chickens as well as a grazing economy. That aside, rural, sparsely populated places hold an undeniable mystique. I‚Äôm no city girl, but this wild prairie dark, this place where freight trains crop out the sun, the stars, drips with romance.
My first night, at a panel discussion, I hear of an ancient prairie chicken lek, subsumed by a golf course. I hear Shelly Wiggam of The Nature Conservancy talk about fire‚ÄĒhow this land needs fire, but not just any fire; a system of patch burning can restore diversity.
It is humbling to spend time in a landscape that is mostly gone, all but this four percent. I do a lot of walking, wandering through the Tallgrass Preserve. My first day out, I spend an hour waiting for a sedge wren to show itself. Later, I‚Äôll trudge right by their chattering, as if I were an old hand at the prairie. Meadowlarks become unremarkable, common as robins, though I know better.
Twice I hike the six miles to the far end and seek refuge from the heat by Palmer Creek, apparently alarming the rangers who worry about the owner of the car with Massachusetts plates who is gone all day. One day, though in late summer the birds are subdued, I flush a prairie chicken. I‚Äôm climbing a rise near the western lip of the Tallgrass, and it bursts up from where it had been hunkered down, golden in the morning sun.
I read poetry, sensing that here, all I want to do is feel; this land doesn‚Äôt want my stories, it is the story. In fact, I discover I can read it as I walk through the prairie, unencumbered by the roots and rocks I am used to. I look up to see a Mississippi kite dip down and pluck a creature from the earth; I watch as, without breaking its glide, it brings its head to its feet and eats the catch mid-air. Days like this, the prairie spins out poetry.
Afterwards, as I followed the maps this fall‚ÄĒthe Covid map and then the election map, I‚Äôd always hover over Chase County. 75% voted to give the president another four years, suggesting that this is not a place I would want to live in, but I know it‚Äôs not that simple.
I think more than ever about how the rural areas I am most drawn to are ideologically the most alien to me. And then I am forced to confront whether this is in part why I am drawn to them, apart from their wild, wide landscapes. Romance, ‚Äúotherness,‚ÄĚ only goes so far.
Like the Paul Simon song, everyone loves a train in the distance. But fifty feet away, it is also like the lunge of a beast, impossibly heavy, reverberating in my body. Despite its frequency, the coming of the train often still startles me.
A David Brooks column attempting to explain why almost half the country voted how they did speaks of the distrust sowed among rural voters without college degrees, as cultural power concentrated in the cities; the empowerment offered by alternative realities. Restoring trust begins with contact, ‚Äúreducing the social chasm.‚ÄĚ
Near the end of my stay, Shelly Wiggam takes me to interview Jane Koger, a rancher who does everything right, who was using patch burning long before anyone else. We talk about cowboys and prairie chicken hunting and what it takes to run her ranch, then we zip through her patchy fields on a gator, scattering birds, as she points out plants and when everything last burned. But she‚Äôs in the minority. I don‚Äôt know if artists-in-residence can bridge the social chasm, but I know I‚Äôll return to Chase County, to see the prairie chickens booming, to interview other ranchers and mingle with locals as I couldn‚Äôt in 2020, to listen to what they care about, what they don‚Äôt; to humbly make contact.
The Carrying, Ada Limon
Superior, Nebraska: The Common-Sense Values of America‚Äôs Heartland, Denis Boyles
Field Journals, Symphony in the Flint Hills
Twist, The Wiyos
Solo Piano; Field Studies, Ben Cosgrove
World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz
Kateri Kosek‚Äôs poetry and essays have appeared in such places as Orion, Terrain.org, Catamaran, Northern Woodlands Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction, where, most recently, she was awarded for best essay. Her poetry recently won a contest at Briar Cliff Review. She teaches college English and mentors in the MFA program at Western CT State University, where she earned an MFA. Kateri writes for a local magazine, and for the past few summers, has worked surveying bird populations in northwest Connecticut. She has been a resident at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska, and lives in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts.
Selected Works and Interviews: