"The American disease—and I'm quoting someone I can't remember—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."
—William Least-Heat Moon in PrairyErth a deep map
Book published in 1991
Saturday I attended an event in my county celebrating memory and "things that matter." Heat-Moon was here. And he was paying tribute to his memories of Chase County, Kansas, with the premier showing of a PBS documentary "Return to PrairyErth."
William Least-Heat Moon signing PrairyErth for me
When PrairyErth first hit the bookstands (it was a best-seller) in 1991, I was already a fan of the author, having read Blue Highways. I still lived in Illinois, and Kansas was not even on my radar. Little did I know that only a short while later circumstances would bring me to the very heart of the country featured. I began to read the book again, and in those very passages that had fascinated me upon my first reading, I recognized my now-neighbors, people and places I now knew and had come to love.
I had come home, somehow recognizing my own roots in the prairie put down by my ancestors who drove covered wagons across the country to settle on what was then named Prairie's Edge in Illinois.
Ironically, it was Heat-Moon's book with its chapter-opening grids of Chase County that guided me here in the first place, though. I was working in Topeka and was beginning to hear about the Flint Hills, a reportedly magical area. I didn't yet equate it with the portion of my occasional drive from Topeka to Wichita on the Kansas Turnpike that cast a spell over me, an area of open space and rolling green hills.
Chapter opening for Matfield Green
I thought to myself, "I wish I knew someone who lived around here so I would have an excuse to exit the highway." I can remember the exact spot this thought occurred: the Bazaar cattle pens, about midway between the Emporia and Cassoday exits. It reminded me of a similar area I had driven through once in Wyoming. I got the same feeling of attraction, something drawing me there, a longing.
Those grass-covered rolling hills represent the largest expanse of what's left of the native tallgrass prairie. With only three percent of this endangered ecosystem left in the world, two percent is right here. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass and Indian grass.
My drive to town
The town name Matfield Green also kept cropping up, though I couldn't tell you how. I was intrigued. One day I attended a meeting about 100 miles southwest of Topeka and decided to try to find Matfield and Chase County. I did not want to follow the paved road. I did have my book along (I grabbed every opportunity of down-time in my then-busy work life to read).
Chase County town names are written in rocks on the hill above. This view is from the old cattle loading stockyards on the railroad siding. These may have been the last in the state to survive, but have since been burned.
I followed the map and grid in the chapter about Matfield Green and I found myself on a stretch of "open range," where cattle moseyed across the road. The hills were now tawny with fall's influence, the waving grass reminiscent of the sea which once covered the area. Meadowlarks sang, killdeer flitted about, trying to draw me away from their nests. The sky was endless October blue with only an occasional patch of fluffy white. I did not see another vehicle the whole time. Finally, I stopped on a rise of the hills that overlooked what appeared to be a tiny village and guessed it might be Matfield Green. It was.
The story gets complicated from there, but two weeks later I was back in Chase County, and after a long weekend, I knew I was "home." I had to return. No matter what. It was seven more months before I finally relocated on the ranch of Jane Koger, to whom Heat-Moon had devoted a chapter. A lifetime resident and ranch owner, Jane founded Prairie Women Adventures and Retreat. I was becoming a Prairie Woman and on my very own Adventure as I became director.
"Return to PrairyErth" resonates for me on so many levels.
"You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you. That alone will do as qualification for biographer of the prairie…He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart."
—William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea (1905)
It is a mystery, and I know I have the prairie in my heart. It has called me, soothed me, excited me, taught me. Yet, I can never really explain or describe it. I have taken thousands of photographs and written even more words about it. Its "mystery" and magic are elusive. I once wrote that it seeped into my soul. Upon much reflection, I believe that my soul was always here, the prairie was always within it. I just had to "return" to it.
Others have recognized this lure. One couple—from Chicago—also relocated here not long after I did. They are realizing their dream of establishing an education center on the site of a ranch and farm settled by one of Chase County's pioneers. The Rogler Ranch—now referred to as Pioneer Bluffs—is just north of Matfield Green. Pioneer Bluffs http://www.pioneerbluffs.org/ hosted Saturday's event.
Wichita, KS Eagle coverage: http://www.kansas.com/2010/07/24/1417753/pioneer-bluffs-celebration-draws.html
People often say that Heat-Moon "put Chase County on the map." If that was the case, then Bill and Julia McBride along with a host of others are doing their best to uncover and tell the (hi)story of the county, the land, the culture, its pioneers, and those who have lived here most or all of their lives.
They pay tribute to them through a photographic exhibit in the restored Rogler Homestead. They farm a cooperative garden in much the same way it was done over a hundred years ago. School children are charmed by the log cabin, the barn, the animals. Pioneer Bluffs hosts monthly seminars and workshops about the land and community. Neighbors and even those who don't live close volunteer their time and hands to help tell the story.
Saturday was a big day, for Pioneer Bluffs, for William Least-Heat Moon, for Chase County, and for me.