Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Some old compass in the blood": On PrairyErth and place

Skyline of Cottonwood Falls, the county seat of Chase County, Kansas. Click on image to enlarge. The courthouse is the oldest government building in continuous use in Kansas. Image found here.

The origin myths of ancient cultures, including our own Judeo-Christian one, are as much about the land as they are about anything else. This is also true of that new-ish, caterwauling, still-naïve culture we call "American," a culture still groping for its own myth (not a history--we already have that), what Emerson called an original relationship with the universe. Thoreau says somewhere in Walden that, though nodding with Emerson when he says that no one can own the landscape, wherever he (Thoreau) might sit down the landscape would radiate from him accordingly. William Least-Heat Moon finds himself on a hill in Chase County, Kansas, and realizes he's not too far away from the geographical center of the 48 contiguous states; he looks around at the prairies and realizes that it was in just such a place, among the tall grasses on another continent, that some hominids learned to walk upright in order to survive and, in so doing, took the far more significant figurative steps toward becoming human beings.

I've just begun reading Moon's PrairyErth, his "deep map" study of Chase County, Kansas, which is located about 40 miles northeast of Wichita in the heart of the Flint Hills. It is a much longer version of what John Graves is doing for the upper reaches of the Brazos in his book Goodbye to a River (which I posted on here), and it is another in a long line of American books about specific places whose beginning is Walden but, really, could just as justifiably start with Cabeza de Vaca's Castaways, the extraordinary narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and four companions as they wandered for eight years (1528-1536) through southern Texas and northern Mexico before being rescued by fellow Spaniards. It's a line, moreover, that could easily include numerous works of fiction as well as non-fiction--Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels and short stories are as much about place ("my little postage-stamp of native soil," he famously called his fiction's subject) as they are about people. Maybe more so. Least-Heat Moon, meanwhile, notes that Chase County's north-to-south-oriented rectangle is shaped like any given page of the very book the reader holds, its major rivers and creeks running through it like the splayed fingers of the reader's hand, palm placed on the right-hand side of the page. There's something distinctly American--and, well, human--in that image of the hand on the page forming a map of the place, the (con)fusion of the artificial and the topographical, the complication of the familiar meaning of the term "man-made."

As I said earlier, I'm not too far into PrairyErth; in some ways, it's a little foolish to post on it at this stage. Already, though, I wonder if the book could use a little updating: Least-Heat Moon writes of the locals' resistance to a national park that would preserve one of the last sizable stands of tallgrass; that park is now open and developing, a cooperative venture between the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. Cottonwood Falls seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance in its downtown; the same Emma Chase Cafe is now open daily; every Friday night, locals gather there for an informal sing-along (the Mrs. and I were fortunate enough to have participated in this a few years back). But in another sense, these sorts of things--the way things are/were, nostalgia--aren't the book's real subject. THAT subject is impressing upon the reader that in this place, once one realizes that all that is there are the four ancient elements, then one can truly begin to see it as it is, rather than what it lacks.

As this blog's long-time friend Randall Sherman of the (for now) suspended Musings from the Hinterland once eloquently put it somewhere in one of his numerous comments at my place, "Place matters, dammit!" Yessir. The roots of the prairie grasses grow as deep as 8 feet. They would not long survive if this were not so. Too many of us these days lack that deep understanding of the idea of rootedness, or even of feeling called back to the place of our own origins, what Least-Heat Moon so eloquently calls "some old compass in the blood." Maybe, just maybe, we would do well to get those bearings.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the mention.

I've been eying the Prairie Reserve as a destination for some time now, as a hiking destination. I've always enjoyed the Flint Hills when I've driven through. As much as it pains my inherent "Missouri-ness," having a small place on the prairie is appealing to me. Maybe I'll find a spot in Nebraska when we drive through there in a couple of months.


P.S. Find the PBS documentary on Least-Heat Moon's book. It's an enjoyable hour of television.

John B. said...

Thanks for the reminder about the documentary; I'd like to see it.

I've not been to the park in a few years, but the Mrs. and I enjoyed walking on the self-guided trails (which, as I recall, was about all that was there in the way of development at the time). The utter starkness of the land there--just grass-covered limestone hills and sky--is worth seeing, all on its own, but there are plans to introduce a buffalo herd there . . .

Like you, I'd like to own a bit of land. My excuse that it's just about encoded in the DNA of Texans that we Texans MUST own a few acres in order to keep calling ourselves Texans with a straight face. Some prairie land would be nice, but my heart really lies in the Texas Hill Country. Well. We'll see what comes of all that.

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