I returned to Kansas after seven years. It was a little bit like entering a dream. Traversing rolling hills of grass in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, I was enveloped by wind without a single person in sight. The thought to sit occasionally entered my mind and an overwhelming restlessness would eventually nudge me along the gravel trail again.

The act of going for a walk in the Flint Hills is extraordinary. The land in this region is almost entirely privately owned. Most of the remnant tallgrass prairie is in fact rangeland that most only see from the road at highway speeds. Keeping with that, my first two visits to the area this year were check-list trips to see highway-adjacent spots I had to document for my graduate capstone project. But during the Tallgrass Artist Residency I wasn’t working toward specific end goals.

I wandered by car and by foot, stopping at times to dwell on the side of the road. In much of the Flint Hills, the road between a set of fences is all the space there is to find in this seemingly wide-open place. I carried many writings in my head about the often-muddied distinction between pasture and “untouched” grassland, the dreamtime of William Least Heat-Moon’s Prairyerth, and even aesthetics in Zen gardens. To sort all these things stirring around in my head, the only thing I could think to do was get out of my car and walk.

For me, the Residency was an act of unlearning in order to initiate a new process of understanding the Flint Hills. How you investigate and represent a place matters. In fact, crafting a question is a creative act. In design, a question will inform perceptions and priorities, ultimately guiding what is ultimately projected into and onto a landscape. Questioning “requires engagement and experience.” In this case, the resulting understanding is an act of projection rather than acquisition.

It can be said that the act of walking is a simple, open-ended question. As a form of research, a walk and its documentation ideally have no set destination. But my free-flowing investigation always ran up against barbed wire. The act of walking here surrendered me to the physicality of the fence and spontaneously renewed my interest in engaging further with fencing as a subject of landscape research and art. But what my time in residence here made me realize what made my capstone work as a design student so challenging and frustrating. 

The Flint Hills is a place that, like many unique landscapes, cannot be singularly solved or fixed. The vision for the future Flint Hills is collective and varied. It is being collectively built from thousands of fragments as the people here offer up ideas through the medium of their small prairie remnants. I am happy to be a part of that conversation, and I feel myself dreaming again. 

Will Metcalf is a landscape designer and geographer based in St. Paul, MN. Though a native Kansan, he has lived between Minnesota and Kansas for the last 9 years. His work combines field sketches, notes, historical imagery, and digital mappings to produce small- and medium-scale drawings. Reflecting on environmental history and relational ecologies, his landscape practice investigates the ways we perceive nature and produce space. 

He now works as a researcher and designer with Travis van Liere Studio in Minneapolis and is affiliated with DRAW Architecture in Kansas City. His academic work has taken him through the Midwest, British Columbia, Spain, and the Netherlands. He holds a BA in Geography from Gustavus Adolphus College and a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Minnesota.