Prairie Song

In 2016, the Missouri Prairie Foundation established National Prairie Day: an effort to educate people about the vast grasslands which once stretched across North America, and to encourage commitment to the conservation and restoration of native prairies. This year, a new alliance of organizations dedicated to the voluntary restoration of native grasses on working lands in the U.S. will launch in conjunction with the celebration, held annually on the first Saturday in June.

Of course, learning about prairies is one thing: coming to love them quite another. I walked my first prairie in 2012. Since then, I’ve spent as much time as possible exploring their wonderful variety, from Texas’s coastal prairies to the tallgrass prairies of the midwest. One day — soon, I hope! — restrictions will be lifted, and I’ll be able to revisit some of my favorites. For now, I’ll celebrate the day devoted to their splendors with some photos from past visits, and my favorite prairie song.

Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky ~ The Tallgrass Express
(If the song won’t play and you’re using Chrome, try another browser)
Chase County, Kansas
As we hop on our ponies to climb up the hill
while the morning breeze sleeps and the air is so still,
we see up ahead in the early half-light
That clean curve of hill against sky.
West of the Bazaar, Kansas cattle pens
Then we’re out in the pasture as far as we’ll go,
It rises around us, a giant green bowl,
While the sunrise is filling the day up with light
On that clean curve of hill against sky.
Diamond Grove Prairie ~ Missouri
The pioneers saw it as they crossed the wide plains
til they built up their cities for fortune and fame;
Open range near Wonsevu, Kansas
So there’s few places left now to pleasure the eyes
with that clean curve of hill against sky.
Prescribed burn on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve ~ Strong City, Kansas
Out here we’re still blessed with true darkness at night,
our skies are a-glimmer with the Milky Way’s light;
if you’re lucky, you might see a star shootin’ by
that clean curve of hill against sky.
Konza Prairie ~ Manhattan, Kansas
But there’s more people and buildings and towers all the time
’cause there’s always a reason to put nature aside.
Just a few places left now to pleasure the eyes
with that clean curve of hill against sky.
Nash Prairie ~ Brazoria County, Texas
Now the hot sun is high and we’re riding on home,
Our horses are spent, with their heads hanging low;
I turn back my head now for one last goodbye
to that clean curve of hill against sky.
Near Alma, Kansas
Sunset ~ Matfield Green, Kansas

 

Comments always are welcome.

75 thoughts on “Prairie Song

  1. You are speaking to me. I spent the better part of a year in Manhattan, Kansas upon the completion of my veterinary degree, and my love for the prairie started there, in the Flint Hills and the stark scapes surrounding the Tuttle Creek Reservoir, and it has remained with me, further nourished by many a memorable experience in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. One must really experience the prairie first-hand to be able to even begin to comprehend its unique magic.

    1. First-hand experience is crucial, I think. Prairies are subtle, not spectacular in the same way that fields of bluebonnets or Indian paintbrush can be. They reward walking at a slower pace, and looking, and they reward all our senses. I was lucky enough to be given a lengthy tour of Konza — and its bison — by a docent there, and it was quite an experience. It’s fun to know that you know the area, too.

    1. I do love the flowers, but when I think prairies, I think grasses, horizon, and darkness. It’s hard not to be happy on a prairie, whatever the conditions.

  2. Years ago I had friends in Kansas and on a visit once explored the Flint Hills. It was really quite amazing, and like no other landscape I have seen before or since.

    1. It’s a beautiful place, made so both by the grassy hills and by the flint that underlies it all. I have a file of ‘flinty’ photos still waiting for me to do something with them. If you got into the area of Alma, Volland, and Alta Vista, you would have seen the rock walls, stone barns, and stone schoolhouses that still endure. Were it not for all that rock, a good bit more of the Flint Hills would have been farmed, and perhaps lost forever.

  3. It is finally realized, I think, that Nature needs more people to try to put things back the way they were. Either humans decide to cooperate with Nature or we won’t have a home here either.

    1. So true. Of course, we seem to find it difficult to cooperate with the people who surround us, so it makes some sense that nature would have a hard time getting our attention.

      Even though more people have been heading outdoors during the recent unpleasantness, I’ll be glad when the obsessive concern for ‘safety’ begins to ease. Masked, you can’t smell the delicate scents of prairie or woods; made to follow a one-way path, the delight of discovery becomes far more rare. I’ve read too many articles that speak of nature-as-antidote: take two hours for stress, and repeat as needed. The value of being in nature’s undeniable, but being free to roam is just as important.

  4. Call the first picture bold and beautiful, a real attention-grabber at the beginning of the post. I wasn’t familiar with the Tallgrass Express String Band; that’s an apt and excellent song of theirs you included.

    1. That song was on a CD I picked up in Cottonwood Falls the last time I left the Flint Hills. When it played, I started to cry and cried halfway to McPherson: not because I was sad, to be leaving, precisely, but just because the song was so perfect and beautiful.

      Speaking of which: so’s that first photo, at least in my eyes. It was taken at an overlook south of Council Grove, and it certainly justified getting on the road early that day.

    1. That makes me happy. It’s hard enough to know how to communicate an experience, but it’s even harder to give people a taste of a place and time — and you so well know! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  5. A gorgeous set of photos, a wonderful glimpse of prairie beauty! That first shot definitely brings the reader/viewer into this world!

    1. One of the things that’s surprised me is how different each of the prairies I’ve visited is from the others. If someone asks, “What’s a prairie like,” the first question should be, “Which prairie?” And of course any given prairie differs from day to day and season to season, as well. That’s one reason returning to the same prairie repeatedly can be so satisfying. It also explains my restiveness with the current closures; I know just how much I’m missing in particular spots; it’s homesickness of a special sort.

    1. I think so, too, Laurie. After a little experience with them, I started to think of prairies as our ‘shy’ landscapes. They don’t always put themselves forward, but they have a lot to offer.

  6. I don’t recall ever being in Kansas, so thank you, Linda, for showing me what I’ve been missing. There’s something wonderful about all those wide-open spaces, isn’t there? And somehow, the sky seems so BIG when it’s over flat land, rather than over skyscrapers.

    1. My most vivid memory of driving to Houston after a year of living in Salt Lake City, surrounded by the Wasatch mountains, was the sense of vertigo that set in when I reached the stretch of I-10 between El Paso and Stockton. That sky was big, the land truly flat, and the horizon impossibly far away. Now, I love the empty, flat spaces of our country, but it was a bit of a shock on that trip.

      I hope you get to experience Kansas some day. Granted, there’s no ocean there — not now, anyway! — but there’s a lot of great landscape, and lots of nice people.

  7. These are beautiful in a way that we don’t see here in Michigan. I loved the song. So glad you shared that too. The photos, as always, are beautiful and a wonderful visual accompaniment for the song.

    1. Every place has its own beauties, its own features. Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of yours that I’d love to see, but that will have to wait for a while, as will the Leelanau Peninsula and Petoskey stones. Of course, there’s the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, too. I read a little history of that spot and found this:

      “David Moon was appointed as the station’s first keeper, and with his name appearing on district payroll records for the first time on September 7, it is likely that he exhibited the new light for the first time soon thereafter. However, it would appear that Moon was ill-suited for the rigors of lighthouse keeping, as he resigned from lighthouse service before his second season at the light.”

      I suspect there might be a story there, too.

  8. Fantastic pictures, Linda, and such a great text! Thanks for sharing.
    Let’s hope we’ll be able to travel again some day. Just now, Mary and I are earnestly thinking of renting an RV for travelling instead of staying at motels or B&Bs. We haven’t decided yet, but maybe – if the situation improves – to go to Port A. in one for our anniversary in August. Should we (be able to) do that, we might take it as a trial run and possibly later in the year go a longer roadtrip to the southwest.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Pit. It was great fun looking through the archives to see which photos might be suitable. I found a few I’d forgotten about, like the one at the end that shows the Belt of Venus.

      If there’s a B&B you’ve enjoyed in the past, you might check with them to see how they’re adjusting to current circumstances. Some are being quite creative. For example, one that I know of has stopped communal meals, and now delivers them to individual cottages. And, if a cottage is rented on one weekend, the next weekend it isn’t rented, to allow for deep cleaning and a good space of time between patrons. There are three B&Bs, in Arkansas and Texas, that I’d be comfortable staying in now — but I tend not to travel in hurricane season, fall provides much nicer weather, and I need to build up the travel kitty!

      1. I’m sure (most of) te B&Bs and moteos will do everything they can to sanitize the rooms. We are wondering, though, how the motels will do breakfast. But as to RVs, it looks like that with age our adventurous spirit started to emerge. :D

  9. Many, many years ago while riding across the prairie of North Dakota, we stopped at a wayside rest.

    “What do you see?” my father asked.
    “Nothing,” we said.
    “Look down,” he told us.
    And there was a thick and complex world of grasses, flowers, insects, snakes and varmit.

    Years later, my sister who lived in Brazil, was flying over the flat plains of the Amazon.

    “What do you see?” her seat-mate asked.
    “Lots,” she said, “but from up here, it looks a whole lot like North Dakota.”

    1. Now, that’s funny — not to mention true, and just a little poignant. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen walking down trails, snapping photos of this or that with their phones without ever pausing. As distant as they are from the world around them, they might as well be at 35,000 feet. They’re akin to people who cross Kansas at 75 mph on I-70 and smugly report that it’s just as bad as they’d heard: that there’s nothing to see in Kansas.

    1. I’m glad you see it that way, Pete. There are people (like my late mother, bless her heart) who would call these places flat, boring, and interminable. To each his or her own, I suppose.

  10. Love the song…love the pics.
    People think that the Big Bend of Texas is all desert, but it was not always so. It was once tallgrass prairie. Overgrazing, invasive plants and climate shifts changed all that.
    Grass is still the most abundant plant on planet earth. Let’s try to keep it that way.
    Love the colors in those prairie pics. Very nice, Linda.

    1. I’m one of those who’s always had the Big Bend tucked over in that category named ‘desert.’ Thanks for mentioning those changes; I’m going to pull out my copy of Chapman and Bolen’s The Natural History of Texas and read the chapter on the Trans-Pecos this week when it’s time for a mid-day break during the heat.

      The Tallgrass Express is a great group, with roots in the land and a love for it that probably couldn’t be surpassed. It shines in their music. My other favorite from the Clean Curve CD is “Workin’ Flint Hills Cowboy. Every time I hear it I grin, and think it could be titled, “Workin’ Gulf Coast Boatman”. There are a lot of commonalities, and I know people (myself included) who resonate to these lines:

      “There ain’t no paid vacation, he’ll be the first to say
      But a million folks would prob’ly like to live their lives his way…
      There ain’t no money in it, but he has all that he needs
      As long as he can ride out in these hills that keep him free.”

  11. Your photos are beautiful. I have never lived near or spent much time on prairies. I lived in forested mountains and managed to find a woods here to live in. I have had visitors from the prairies that found wooded areas very disorienting, as you can’t see forever.

    1. There is quite a difference between prairies and woods, as I discovered when I began visiting the piney woods in east Texas. Just learning how to take photographs in deep woods in an on-going project, to say the least.

      As for getting lost, I’ve read that when the tallgrass prairies were in their prime, it was pretty darned easy to get lost there, too. With grasses well over a man’s head and no trees or buildings to serve as landmarks, it could be tricky. I met one man whose grandfather told stories of riding across the prairie amid grasses so high only the rider was visible; the horse was completely hidden.

  12. So thankful that I live in Kansas, the beauty in nature is something I never take for granted and it never ceases to take my breath away!!
    Gorgeous photos and a perfect song!!
    Hurry back!!

    1. Next time I get there, we’ll figure out how to meet for lunch — it shouldn’t be hard, since we like to prowl the same territory. Besides, I want to meet Wylie and see if he approves of me. I’ll bring treats!
      I see that Keller Wine & Feed Company replaced the Emma Chase, and that they intended to continue the Friday night jams. I hope that’s true — and I’m glad it’s locals that undertook the renovation/expansion.

  13. My late sister-in-law was from Manhattan, Kansas. We have hardly any clean curves of hill against sky. Too flat out here on the flatlands.

    1. True enough. As the TSHAOnline notes with a delicious bit of understatement, the town of Levelland, in 1922, “was renamed for its local topography.” At least they didn’t name it ‘Flat, Hot, and Dusty.”

      On the other hand, you do have playa lakes, migrating birds, and prairie dogs. That’s not all bad. And of course there are the Flatlanders. Crank up their version of “White Freightliner Blues and you’ll cut your trip time up the Panhandle considerably.

  14. There’s nothing quite like a prairie bloom. It’s every bit as stunning as the superbloom out west and it happens every year. It’s lovely and amazing. Thanks for the pictures–they’re farther west than I’ve been on the prairie, where I generally think of plain starting.

    1. Last year, our prairies were gorgeous in spring. It seems they were equally splendid this year, but I wasn’t able to experience the bloom in many places, since I was limiting myself to day trips. No matter: the spring flowers may be leaving, but summer’s coming on, and after summer comes the fall, when the grasses are beautiful in a way I never would have expected — until I saw them.

  15. I totally enjoyed this post as I viewed your photos of Kansas prairies. I have no idea why I love prairies so much. I always have since I was a child. I suppose it might be because I grew up on a blackland farm with an eight acre prairie on my paternal grandfather’s farm.

    I remember taking coffee and lunch to my dad as he took a break from hay baling. And I can still smell the wonderfully delicious scent of prairie grass hay stored in the old barn where I often played. The floor was as slick as an ice rink and I spent hours climbing among the hay bales where the barn cats lived. Thanks for the gorgeous photos. I do hope that by next year you can return to Kansas or maybe, if we are all lucky, things will have improved by Fall and you will travel again.

    1. Your memories of the hay barn reminded me of my mother talking about her fun in her grandfather’s barn: the cats, the unbaled (!) hay in the mow, the slick floors. And you’re right about the smell of that new-mown hay. There’s nothing sweeter. One of the things that makes Nash prairie so special is that it was kept as a hay meadow; no plow ever turned the earth.

      My favorite little hay meadow, just over the line in Brazoria County, was mowed at just the wrong time this year. It’s been put up for sale, so I suppose they wanted to ‘tidy’ it for potential buyers. I’m hoping it will languish, and some of the native plants will have a chance to grow again.

  16. Beautiful photos, and I love that sky in the first one. I once moved from Lubbock to North Carolina, eventually ending up in the mountains in Asheville. I can’t say I missed the spring dust of Lubbock, but I definitely missed the sky and the long view to the horizon. There is just something about a summer sunset with views to forever while the wind is lying down that can’t be matched.

    1. At least one Texas resident agrees with you about those sunsets: Georgia O’Keeffe. In her White Album, Joan Didion included an essay about the artist that has this, worth quoting in its entirety:

      “At twenty-four [O’Keeffe] went for the first time to live in Texas, where there were no trees to paint and no one to tell her how not to paint them. In Texas there was only the horizon she craved.

      “In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.'”

    1. Thanks, Becky. I suspect I could do better with a few of them now; I’ll be eager to go back and test my photographic skills on those clean curves again.

  17. Bravo!! How do find such poetic gems? And your photos … it’s as if the words were chosen for them rather than the other way around.

    Happy Prairie Day, Linda. All the best to you. I’m really enjoying my backyard prairie more than I ever could have hoped to.

    1. I think what you say about the words seeming to have been chosen for the images is a result of the songwriter spending her entire life in Chase County, Kansas. My photos are images of ‘her’ land, and she knows it as well as anyone could.

      I’m going to post about ‘my’ prairie over on The Task at Hand later tonight. It’s the tale of how I found Nash Prairie — the first I ever visited. It’s humorous, to say the least. “Look for the goat” had nothing to do with ‘the greatest of all time.’ I had to find an actual goat before I could find the prairie! I’m glad to hear that yours is giving you such pleasure. Maybe someday you’ll even offer us an update!

  18. All nice images. I join you in spirit, poetry and song. May America conserve this beauty and protect it from residential and commercial land development. Your images are witness to the beauty!

    1. I find something restful in the prairie. The sense of space, the sound of wind in the grasses, the fragrance of the rising heat — all are pure pleasure. Prairies feel like home. Many of these places are protected and, absent circumstances I can’t imagine, will continue to endure.

  19. I can see the beauty of these places, even if I’ve spent most of my life around farm fields, where everything is a patchwork, with lines of fences, roads, hedgerows, windbreaks, tree-lined creeks, etc. The sense of roominess and not being hemmed, sure has an appeal. I really like these photos.

    1. There’s a reason “Don’t Fence Me In” has been such a popular song in the west. As a matter of fact, it was in the area of the Tallgrass Prairie that I found a marker noting the closing of the range. “Range wars” were real, and even though no one much thinks about it today, barbed wire shaped a lot of our country’s history.

      The first time I flew over the eastern part of the U.S., I was astonished by the farmland. Iowa’s all sections, ruled off in perfect squares. Seeing those eastern fields scattered hither and yon, their boundaries determined by geography rather than mathematically, was really interesting.

      1. Yes the whole eastern part of the country can be a very confusing tangle from the air. Flying over it can be a great way to see how waterways shaped our early history in this country.
        I’ve seen those precise grids of roads and farms, west of the Mississippi, and then an amazing number of enormous circles, when you get into the irrigated farming areas.

  20. It’s been a long time since I’ve really seen prairie. It’s so big I’ve been treating it as flyover country. But yet, there are some nice ones in eastern Oregon and Washington…

    1. From the photos I’ve seen, you have beautiful areas, particularly the Palouse. I’ll probably never get there, but it’s still on my to-visit list — preferably with a wide-angle lens in tow!

    1. On the prairies, there’s always lots to enjoy once the spring flowers are gone. I think the autumn grasses are one of the best features. I don’t have any desire to travel to Europe or other far-flung destinations again, but I’m so eager to go back to the prairies.

    1. Isn’t Konza beautiful? The red is sumac; I was lucky enough to be there when its color was at its height. You’re right about those skies, too. I can’t get enough of them.

  21. All of these are stellar landscape scenes. I particularly like Konza Prairie and West of Bazaar looks so perfect that the sky with its popping clouds might be a composite combined with the curve of the land. But, God or Mother Nature, combines such beauty all on their own. Lovely collection!!!

    1. It was such fun to roam around my archives, looking for nice views. Of course it wasn’t quite as nice as roaming the prairies themselves, but I do think that being able to go back, take another look, and remember the experience can be almost as pleasing. Photos of places like this let us explore them in a different way, and sometimes even see them more clearly than we did at the time, since that original vision always is ephemeral.

  22. I am a bit late getting here and I see that your post has resonated with many. I would love to experience the prairie and maybe I will get to some day. But for now I appreciate getting to enjoy it through your pictures. Unfortunately, the song won’t play for me. Maybe it’s a Google Chrome issue.

      1. That is nice. Thanks. It does seem to fit what I would expect to feel were I in Kansas. I was surprised to see only one “like” in 4+ years. I added mine. Were you the other?

        1. No — I have their CDs, and have their music saved to iTunes and etc. I’d never looked for them on YouTube, but I’m glad they’re available there now, and I’m glad you liked the song.

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