After my father died, I set out to write a book about the decline of the North American monarch butterfly migration. I traveled thousands of miles, tracing the path of the butterflies he taught me to love as a child. I flew to remote forests in Mexico where the monarch overwinters. I drove up and down the California coast to interview scientists studying population collapse. I wandered through border towns in New Mexico where I chased butterflies down dusty roads.

But after two years of working on that book, something was still missing. I spent another year revising the manuscript, scrapping draft after draft. I tossed a lot of paper into the recycling bin. I learned how to make new paper out of those old drafts. Still, I didn’t have a book.

The Tallgrass Artist Residency showed me something my travels hadn’t: I’d missed the prairie for the monarch. In my quest to figure out what it meant for the monarchs to lose their cross country migration, I’d lost sight of the bigger picture. The prairie was missing from my story, just as it was missing from the landscape around me.

I traveled to Kansas with a different sort of project in mind. Instead of focusing singularly on the monarch, I’d try to learn as much as I could about the prairie as a functioning ecosystem. 

And rather than continue to write about my own grief, I wanted to create a space for other people to share theirs.

The idea behind my project was fairly simple: I left an open slot box at the Tallgrass Preserve for a month, along with instructions asking visitors to submit a short written memory about someone or something they lost. Later, I’d soak their submissions in water, blend them to pulp, mix in some prairie seeds, and create plantable paper. 

As with any idea, this was only simple in theory. I arrived at Tallgrass feeling like a writer trying on a pair of artist’s shoes. The success of this project was testament to the many wonderful people who helped bring it to life. Iralee Barnard—a local botanist, field guide author, and expert papermaker—spent hours teaching me about plants in the Flint Hills and experimenting with different methods of pulling paper pulp. Michele Kessler and The Nature Conservancy helped organize an afternoon of seed collecting on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Several National Park Service interns helped me collect, clean and sort thousands of seeds on a 90 degree day in August. 

But this project would have never happened without the many people who graciously shared their stories of loss. I was humbled to read each memory before turning them into recycled paper seed cards. The project will be buried at The School for Rural Culture and Creativity this fall. These stories belong to the prairie now. 

After returning from Kansas, I’ve been working to reimagine my own story. I now see the disappearance of the monarch migration as a part of a much larger narrative about the loss of the North American prairie. And I see my father’s death through a wider lens, having read so many stories of grief.

While standing next to the tallest grasses in the world, it’s easy to forget that half their growth is underground. The Tallgrass Artist Residency helped me recognize the roots growing beneath my story. I will never see the prairie—or my writing—in the same way again. 

Sally Leaf is a writer and designer from Rockford, IL. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Wyoming. Drawing on the sudden death of her father and the sharp decline in the migratory monarch butterfly population, her current book project explores loss on a personal and ecological scale. Previously, her work has appeared in Western Confluence, Prodigal Magazine, A Midwestern Review, and Grub Street Literary Magazine, where her 2019 essay was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.