The Middle of Everywhere

In the Flint Hills of Kansas there are cattle ranches and art galleries, old barns and modern architecture, ghost towns and growing cities. Most of all there is the last stand of tallgrass prairie in America.

The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, Highway K-177, between Matfield Green and Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, Highway K-177, between Matfield Green and Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. [Elise Kirk]

What is love? One name for it is knowledge.
— Robert Penn Warren, Audubon: A Vision

The prairies are nothing but grass as the sea is nothing but water.
— William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

Of all the odd jobs my brother and I were conscripted into growing up — cutting tree sprouts, stacking hay bales, digging up adult-sized stalks of noxious pokeberry — there was one I never minded: pasture burning. It happened once a year, in the spring. My father watched the weather forecast religiously, waiting for that rare Kansas day when the wind was out of the south and gusting between five and fifteen miles per hour. Then we’d hike out to the fenced-in five acres behind our house that we called the “native grass.”

The native grass was distinct from the “pasture,” which was planted in cool-season brome and lay on the other side of a long hedgerow. The native grass had once been tilled. But back in the mid-1980s, shortly after my parents bought the farmstead south of Marion, they seeded it in Kaw big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman) and Osage Indiangrass (Sorghustrum nutans L. Nash). Along with the baled hay we stacked in the wood barn, the grasses provided forage for our family’s horse, as well as habitat for ground-nesting birds like the bobwhite quail or the western meadowlark.

At one time, the property had been a working farm, but by the time I was young, the rusted metal corrals served mainly as the setting for an elaborate version of tag dreamed up by my brother and me. My parents had grown up poor, helping their families farm and run cattle in a dusty town called Ness City, in western Kansas. After college, neither wanted to return. My father got a job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA, while my mother worked part-time as a landscape designer. And so the grassy fields around our house were grazed only by our horse, a gray gelding named Easter’s Lad.

A prescribed burn on a pasture in Manhattan, Kansas.
A prescribed burn on a pasture in Manhattan, Kansas. [Elise Kirk]

Like all tallgrass prairie, our native grass was sustained, counter-intuitively to my young mind, by fire. On burn days, we wore jeans and boots and long-sleeved shirts, as well as bandanas, which we drew up over our noses and mouths like outlaws to keep from inhaling the smoke. The scent of burning prairie is sharp and sweet, acrid enough to make your eyes water but not putrid or polluted, like the smell of a car fire. It’s clean, complex. The aroma is preserved in my memory, as is the soft puff that the burned grass, little more than stiffened carbon, made as it disintegrated underfoot.

We lit firebreaks along the edges of the property, while a draw served as a natural break to the west. Dad did the lighting. He raked a clump of dried grass, set it alight with a match, and then dragged the rake along the southern edge. The fire raced north, like a red-orange ribbon stretched across the landscape. You could feel the heat 50 feet away. Sometimes my brother and I were joined by classmates who, like us, loved the adrenaline rush of watching 20-foot-high flames race across the grass. We patrolled the edges of the grass, ensuring that the fire didn’t escape the fence line or burn back into the brome pasture. Shovels and spades were our fire extinguishers. If the fire leapt the draw, or ate past the barbed wire, we sprinted over and used our shovels to smother it. We’d been taught to be gentle: violent whacking just fanned the flames. Instead, we started at the edge of the fire and, with our shovel blades flush with the ground, pressed down and made a back-and-forth motion, as if frosting a cake. By the end of the day, the blades of our shovels were black. Exhausted and euphoric, we tromped back to the house, leaving footprints in the charred landscape, as if through a dusting of dirty snow.

As exciting as burn days were — and as a kid, they beat any fireworks show — their purpose was a mystery to me. I understood fire was somehow necessary, a type of routine maintenance, like changing oil or cleaning out gutters. But I didn’t know why, or what it did. It seemed illogical that killing something could be life-sustaining. And yet it never failed that, less than a week after the burn, tiny green shoots would appear, turning the ashen landscape a pale green.

Just four percent of the historic range of the tallgrass prairie remains, scattered across the continent in slivers and fragments.

Tallgrass prairie once covered almost all of eastern Kansas, as well as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, 170 million acres in total. Today, the ecosystem has been dramatically reduced; just four percent of the historic range remains, scattered across the continent in slivers and fragments. The largest of those fragments is here, in the Kansas Flint Hills, a landscape of gentle grassy hills that seem to roll, like ocean waves, to the horizon, and whose uplands are almost entirely given over to cattle grazing. 1 The region comprises roughly 10,000 square miles, stretching north to south, from Nebraska into Oklahoma, in a 50- to 100-mile-wide swath that bisects the state between the 96th and 97th meridians. Our home, a modest ranch house with a leaky basement, sat just within the western edge. My parents still live there. I left the state in 2008, after getting my journalism degree, bound for Chicago, a place that had once been prairie. Shortly afterward, my brother moved to Los Angeles. It didn’t feel like we were fleeing, but we were. In fact, we were typical. As the historian Leo E. Oliva once noted, “A major export of Kansas has been its talented youth.” 2

In the broadest of outlines, the Flint Hills has followed the economic contours of much of rural America. Jobs have largely migrated to a handful of nearby cities — Manhattan and Topeka to the north, Emporia to the east, El Dorado and Wichita to the south and west — leaving behind a smattering of shrinking towns with gap-toothed Main Streets and abandoned farm machines rusting in fallow fields. Most are located near rivers or railroads or oil fields, and in terms of population, most peaked around 1900.

Elmdale, in Chase County, now has a population of 55, down from a peak, in 1910, of 253. The store, Bummies, is now closed, but recently it was set up to look open when it was used for a film location.
Elmdale, in Chase County, now has a population of 55, down from a peak, in 1910, of 253. The store, Bummies, is closed, but recently it was set up to look open for use as a film location. [Elise Kirk]

Yet in recent years the Flint Hills has become a tourist destination, as well as an unlikely cultural and intellectual hub, home to a growing number of organizations dedicated to art and the preservation of the region’s heritage. Driven by an awareness of the uniqueness of the tallgrass landscape and the economic potential of tourism, the state created the Flint Hills Tourism Coalition in 2005; a year later, city leaders in Manhattan, home of Kansas State University, received $41 million in state funds to develop the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a science and cultural hub that opened in 2012. Millions of dollars are being spent to preserve and restore the region’s iconic 19th-century limestone buildings; a local stone mason told me he was running out of homesteads to restore, such was the frenzy for rehabilitation of historic structures.

Lately the Flint Hills has become a tourist destination, as well as an unlikely cultural and intellectual hub.

The economic impact has been measurable. Between 2000 and 2010, even as farm employment, including ranching, fell by fifteen percent, employment in the arts, culture, and entertainment grew by twenty percent. 3 The Flint Hills boasts several distinct artist residency programs, which, notably, are based not in the university cities of Manhattan or Emporia but in Matfield Green and Volland, two former railroad towns that have a combined population of about 60. One of the biggest cultural attractions takes place each June, when the Symphony in the Flint Hills attracts up to 7,000 people from Kansas and nearby states to a rotating site within the region for a concert and a series of art exhibitions.

Shaft House, the oldest extant limestone building in Chase County, Kansas.
Shaft House, the oldest extant limestone building in Chase County. [Elise Kirk]

Flint Hills limestone at U.S. Stone Industies, Herington, Kansas.
A chunk of Flint Hills limestone at U.S. Stone Industries in Herington, Kansas. [Elise Kirk]

How had the Flint Hills gone from a forsaken hinterland to the subject of fawning travelogues? What might this mean for the last stand of the tallgrass prairie?

I got my first glimpse of this cultural renaissance several years ago, when I visited the Konza Prairie Biological Station, at Kansas State University, on a magazine assignment. A part of Kansas that had once seemed static — a stagnant oxbow cut off from the stream of American life — now felt vital. It was hard to comprehend. How had the Flint Hills gone from a (seemingly) forsaken hinterland to the subject of fawning travelogues in the Chicago Tribune and Smithsonian Magazine? And, still more important, what did it mean for the last stand of the tallgrass prairie? Was it enough to counteract larger forces such as rural outmigration? Or was this a blip on an otherwise downward arc? These questions are complex and far from resolved. What we do know is this: Of the tiny fraction of North America’s tallgrass prairie that the Flint Hills represents, just one and a half percent is protected in any way. Only 100,000 acres of roughly 6.6 million are set aside in some sort of nature preserve or conservation easement. The rest of the Flint Hills is privately owned. 4 And every year thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie are sold and converted into housing subdivisions or industrial parks to support the growing populations of cities like Manhattan. 5 In other words, the last expanse of tallgrass prairie — one of the iconic landscapes of the American continent — is slowly disappearing.

Perhaps no ecosystem on Earth has been as misunderstood and mischaracterized as the prairie. Today, the tallgrass ecosystem is known to be one of the most biodiverse on the planet, rivaling even the Amazon. A healthy stand of tallgrass supports as many as 600 plant species, 1,500 different insects, and, in the words of plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “myriad citizens of the soil.” 6 Grasslands are also one of the world’s most reliable carbon sinks, capturing and burying carbon in an intricate matrix of roots and mycorrhizae that can reach as deep as twenty feet below ground. 7 But these are recent discoveries, at least for Western scientists. For much of the past two centuries, if they were considered at all, the prairies were dismissed as barren wastelands, alien and inhospitable.

Tallgrass prairie, the Flint Hills, Kansas.
A gateway in the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. [Elise Kirk]

For much of the past two centuries, if they were considered at all, the prairies were dismissed as barren wastelands, alien and inhospitable.

In “Tallgrass,” Kimmerer, who is a SUNY professor and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, tells the story of her first visit to the Flint Hills. She travels from Upstate New York to Kansas because it is one of the last places in the country where a person can see “unbroken native prairie swooping and swishing and blooming from horizon to horizon like its life depended on it.” In the essay, she describes the journey as a pilgrimage of sorts. She mourns the near-extinction of both the tallgrass prairie and her people’s culture. Following the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, in which the Potawatomi ceded the last of their lands in Wisconsin and Illinois to the U.S. government, Kimmerer’s ancestors were forcibly removed from their homeland and expelled to what is now Kansas.

Toward the end, Kimmerer recounts a conversation with a clerk at the Holiday Inn in Emporia. The woman asks Kimmerer what brings her to Kansas:

‘I came to see the prairie,’ I said.
‘The what?’ she asked with raised eyebrows.
‘The prairie,’ I repeated.
A pause.
‘Well, what do they have there?’
I smiled, perplexed. ‘Well, grass and bison and more butterflies than you can imagine.’ ‘What?’ she said, ‘Grass? I thought you said you been to a parade.’
Laughing, I enunciated more clearly, ‘No — a prairie, I came to see the prairie.’
She laughed too and said, ‘Well I’ve never heard of that and I’ve lived here my whole life.’ 8

Devoid of trees, the land was assumed to be infertile, when in fact the prairie soils were among the country’s richest.

The oblivious clerk is a descendant of any number of early Euro-Americans who had trouble seeing the prairie. “The children of the American Revolution hesitated forty years at the western edges of the forest because they didn’t trust the grasslands,” the agronomist Clarence E. Bunch once wrote. 9 The early pioneers viewed the treeless expanse of the vast prairie as a “huge ocean separating east from west, itself no place at all.” 10 To the surveyor and railroad engineer Stephen Long, Kansas bore a “manifest resemblance to the deserts of Siberia.” 11 Devoid of trees, the land was assumed to be infertile, when in fact the prairie soils were among the country’s richest. Wagon trains traveled quickly across this stretch of Kansas, drawn westward by the promise of timber and gold. When farmers did begin to populate the Plains, they set about planting trees not only for shelter and timber but also to recreate the woodlands they’d known back east. In the Flint Hills, the writer William Least Heat-Moon found a cultural preference for forests and woods embedded in the very fabric of its small towns. He wrote that, of the fifteen north-south streets in Cottonwood Falls, a town not far from my childhood home, “ten have the names of trees and none of a prairie grass or native forb or legume.” 12

An old section house in Matfield Green on the edge of the prairie; section houses were built by railroad companies to house workers or store equipment.
An old section house in Matfield Green on the edge of the prairie; section houses were once built by railroad companies to house workers or store equipment. [Elise Kirk]

Walt Whitman was among the few white Americans who grasped the beauty of the tallgrass prairie. He visited Kansas in 1879, at the age of 60, traveling by train from Philadelphia to Lawrence to attend the quarter-centennial celebration of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had established the two territories and opened them to settlement. Whitman spent several days in Lawrence and Topeka, before continuing west through the Flint Hills and on to Colorado. Later he would write of the journey:

While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.

Indeed through the whole of this journey, with all its shows and varieties, what most impress’d me, and will longest remain with me, are these same prairies. Day after day, and night after night, to my eyes, to all my senses — the esthetic one most of all — they silently and broadly unfolded. Even their simplest statistics are sublime. 13

Despite a childhood spent roaming the fractured edge of those prairies and plains, I did not, as a boy, share Whitman’s sentiments. When my teammates and I took the bus from Marion to Cottonwood Falls or Council Grove for football games or forensic meets, I paid little attention to the variegated landscape. It was as if the prairie wasn’t there at all, my young eye seeing no distinction between fields planted in soybeans and pastures brimming with golden switchgrass. Partly this was the myopia of youth. But inscrutability seems to be a hallmark of the prairie. In PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon describes the necessity of recalibrating his senses when amid these grass-covered hills, of “thinking open and lean, seeing without set points of obvious focus, noticing first the horizon and then drawing my vision back toward the middle distance where so little seemed to exist.” More than anywhere else I have been, the tallgrass prairie requires special ways of seeing.

There are two reasons the tallgrass prairie survived in the Flint Hills and almost nowhere else, and Whitmanesque aesthetics is not one of them. The first reason is geological. By the time Kansas was “opened for settlement” in the mid-19th century, significant portions of the North American tallgrass prairie were already gone. A large-scale landscape transformation was underway, precipitated by the U.S. government, which had been giving away land for farms and missions since the early days of the nation, and by the steel plow, invented by the blacksmith John Deere in 1837 and designed specifically to cut through the prairie’s dense, tangled soils. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, wherever it could be, the prairie was cut down, its native grasses and wildflowers churned into fields of corn and wheat. But the Flint Hills refused to be subdued. The broad, flat-topped hills of east-central Kansas were formed from limestone laid up from sediments of the Permian seas and laced with long, irregular beds of impenetrable chert. The upland soil, while rich in nutrients, was shallow, with long bands of limestone outcroppings, which poked through the earth like so many incoming incisors. As the explorer Zebulon Pike wrote in his journal in 1806 (misidentifying the rock within the limestone): “Passed very ruff flint hills. My feet blistered and very sore.” 14 No plow was strong enough to bust this sod. 15

Cattle grazing in the Flint Hills.
Cattle grazing in the Flint Hills. [Elise Kirk]

The other reason the tallgrass survived is cattle. In the Flint Hills today, more land is devoted to grazing than anything else. The region’s roughly 8,000 ranching operations make up a multimillion-dollar industry. Not long ago, I followed a narrow, unmarked lane to a gray house surrounded by nothing but prairie. The house belongs to Jane Koger, a fourth-generation Kansan and owner of Homestead Ranch, a short drive east from Marion. Parked off the driveway was a red Polaris Ranger. On the south side of the house were T-shaped clothesline poles, while a row of large, round hay bales formed a windbreak to the north. Around everything was a barbed-wire fence that functioned essentially as an exclosure, allowing Koger’s cattle to graze anywhere but the grass surrounding the house and garage. (With characteristic Kansan privateness, Koger asked me not to publish the size of her ranch. Let’s just say it’s not the smallest in the Flint Hills, nor the largest.)

The tallgrass had evolved with grazers — bison, elk, antelope — as well as the flames of periodic wildfires, ignited first by lightning and then by indigenous peoples.

Ranching got its start in the Flint Hills in the 1860s, partly because Kansas was a central node in the nation’s spiderwebbing railways, which transported cattle to slaughterhouses back East, and partly because the upland pastures were thought to have little other value. When early ranchers found that the Flint Hills were prime grazing lands, cattlemen came in droves. 16 As it happened, the ranchers would perpetuate the prairie-sustaining custom of the pasture burn. The tallgrass ecosystem had evolved with grazers — bison, elk, antelope — as well as the flames of periodic wildfires, ignited first by lightning and then by indigenous peoples. As William Least Heat-Moon put it, in the Flint Hills, “the rain-shadow of the Rockies meets in commensurate strength the Gulf fronts so that this land can grow ten-foot grasses and ninety-foot sycamores, and which one prevails depends mostly on one thing: fire.” 17 Flames kept the forest at bay and created a rich mosaic that allowed a wondrous array of species to flourish. The Kanza (now officially the Kaw Nation) lit fires while on horseback, dragging clumps of dead grass behind them as they rode across the prairie — a more dramatic and sophisticated version of what my father did with a rake — in order to manipulate the migration patterns of bison and other game, which relished the tender grass shoots that grew up in the fire’s wake. Far from being a pristine, natural “wilderness,” by the time white settlers arrived, the Flint Hills had long been under active management. 18

Ranchers in the Flint Hills quickly adopted the indigenous practice of prescribed burns to maintain their prairie pastures. They observed that annual or semi-annual burns were effective at preventing trees from encroaching and that the fire also fueled the growth of the native grasses, which were so full of calcium and other nutrients that a steer could gain three pounds a day. 19 As a boy, I didn’t understand these mechanisms. Now, I’ve learned that in an unburned pasture, the soil is eventually shaded by a thick brown mop of leaf litter, which decreases the soil temperature and limits the amount of sunlight that can reach the young grass shoots come spring. A controlled burn benefits grasses like big bluestem by removing that leaf litter and increasing the soil’s exposure to sunlight, which translates to increased growth.

Prescribed burns in the Flint Hills, between Manhattan and Topeka.
Prescribed burns in the Flint Hills, between Manhattan and Topeka. [Elise Kirk]

Thirty years ago, the writer Frederick W. Turner speculated that perhaps one day “prairie burning will be one of the great ritual and performative occasions of the midwest, a sort of festival of Dionysus, the inexhaustible god of life, an occasion for music, drama, storytelling, poetry.” 20 I don’t know about Dionysus, but some ranchers have turned their spring burns into cultural events, complete with steak dinners and live music and ceremonial, communal lightings — great parties on the Plains, built around this distinctive relationship between people and place. For a few weeks each spring, the sky in the Flint Hills fills with smoke, as fire snakes across the prairie, renewing the landscape as it goes, as it has for centuries.

Jane Koger unspooled strands of this history over steaming cups of coffee. We were sitting at a large wood table in the dining room of Koger’s house, which was built out of old barn timbers and baled prairie grasses that had been entombed in stucco. A fire crackled in a small wood stove, and an Amazon Alexa played an endless stream of classical music. Through round windows I was treated to an equally endless expanse of prairie, wearing a thin layer of snow like white plumage. Koger bought what is now Homestead Ranch in the mid-1970s, only to find out that her great-grandfather had homesteaded this exact acreage a century earlier. Besides a backup diesel generator, Koger’s house is entirely wind- and solar-powered, though she doesn’t like to be seen as a treehugger. “In this county, I’d rather admit I’m a feminist than an environmentalist,” she said once. 21 And yet Koger has been at the forefront of ecological land management in the region. She was among the first to put her ranch in a conservation easement, which was paid for and is held by the Nature Conservancy. The easement, which exists in perpetuity, prohibits any activity that would cause surface impacts: mining, for instance, or constructing new roads or buildings. Koger also helped pilot a land management system called patch-burn grazing, in which only one-third of a particular pasture is annually burned on a rotational basis, while additional late-summer burns are used to prevent the encroachment of woody species — a method that better sustains the species diversity of the prairie. 22

Jane Koger at her house at Homestead Ranch, in Chase County, where she has been running cattle since the mid-1970s
Jane Koger at Homestead Ranch, in Chase County, where she has been running cattle since the mid-1970s. [Elise Kirk]

Cattle on Homestead Ranch being run from one pasture to another.
Cattle on Homestead Ranch being run from one pasture to another. [Elise Kirk]

Not every ranch owner is as ecologically sensitive as Koger. In fact, most Flint Hills ranchers are not ranch owners at all. A majority of the men and women running cattle in the Flint Hills do so on land they either rent or lease. It is unknown exactly how much pastureland is absentee-owned. One study estimated more than half, and estimated further that one out of every five large parcels is owned by a corporation. 23 More relevant, perhaps, was the revelation in the same study that the largest properties changed hands regularly, a fact that ran counter to the public image of the ranching industry, which peddles a narrative of multi-generational ownership. A person can only speculate as to how absentee ownership has affected the health of the tallgrass ecosystem. But at the least, it is likely that the patchwork of land ownership will complicate landscape-scale conservation efforts. Indeed, current economic and land-use trends threaten to fundamentally alter the tallgrass prairie landscape in Kansas.

Current economic and land-use trends threaten to fundamentally alter the tallgrass prairie landscape.

From a biological perspective, the primary threat is fragmentation. A few years ago, researchers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station found that more than half the region’s grasslands were being burned less than once every three years, and thus likely to transition to scrubby forests of eastern red cedar and other woody species. 24 An influx of forest plants may seem relatively benign, but it causes habitat fragmentation, which restricts the movement of native wildlife and introduces new, potentially harmful species; and it imperils diversity. The tallgrass prairie may be one of the most biodiverse biomes on the planet, but the encroachment of trees like the red cedar causes plant and wildlife diversity to plummet by as much as 45 percent. All of which is to say that when a prairie is not burned, the life it supports diminishes.

A pasture just after a prescribed burn, with the sprawl of Manhattan, Kansas, in the distance.
A pasture just after a prescribed burn, with the sprawl of Manhattan, Kansas, in the distance. [Elise Kirk]

Each new suburban subdivision, landscaped with ornamental trees and shrubs, drives yet another wedge into the prairie ecosystem.

Land use patterns have exacerbated fragmentation. As jobs have migrated to cities like Manhattan and Wichita, their geographic footprints have steadily expanded. Every year, thousands of acres of pasture are sold to housing developers, and each new suburban subdivision, landscaped with ornamental trees and shrubs, drives yet another wedge into the prairie ecosystem. Today, when I drive the hour from my childhood home to Manhattan, my arrival is marked not by panoramas of prairie but instead by hills thick with cedars and honey locust, newly sprouted woodlands that have become selling points for realtors. Driving through these subdivisions, I feel like William Least Heat-Moon in Cottonwood Falls, passing Hemlock Avenue, Persimmon Circle, Oaktree Place, Birch Court. It’s as if nothing has changed in a century and a half. As if we still unthinkingly assume that the prairie holds no inherent value. If these one-time pastures aren’t grazed by cattle, they are free to be bulldozed, paved, seeded to lawn. As long as the prairie is seen as alien and unforgiving, we will continue to seek shelter among the trees.

Scientists have known for some time that the Flint Hills ecosystem is endangered. As early as the 1930s, biologists had become alarmed by the disappearance of the tallgrass prairie and begun to advocate for some sort of Great Plains national park. 25 Following a series of studies by the National Park Service and university researchers in the late 1950s, the ideal site for such a park gradually narrowed to the Kansas Flint Hills. 26 A national park, it was thought, would not only preserve a portion of a vanishing ecosystem but also provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and public access in a region that offered virtually none, and in a state with less public land (as a percentage of area) than any other.

This lack of access was one reason why so few Kansans besides ranchers had much knowledge of the prairie, and why for a long time, despite growing up amidst the native grass, I couldn’t have told you what or where the Flint Hills were. In the 1980s and early ’90s, you could drive through the Flint Hills on any number of winding gravel roads, but for the most part, you couldn’t stop. There were no interpretive signs, no overlooks, no hiking trails, and with few exceptions, no public campgrounds. Proponents argued that a national park would preserve the landscape and ecology of the prairie while educating the public about its importance.

Strong City, one of the towns along highway 177.
Strong City, one of the towns along Highway 177; the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is just to the north. [Elise Kirk]

Local ranchers and farmers opposed the idea of a prairie national park managed by the federal government.

Not surprisingly, many local ranchers and farmers opposed the idea. Partly this was due to longstanding local tensions with the federal government and its agencies 27; and also to the conviction that ranchers could better steward the Flint Hills than could the National Park Service. As Kansas Senator Pat Roberts put it at a Congressional hearing, the Flint Hills was a prime site for a prairie park “because of the stewardship that had been provided by the previous and current owners … Why should the government come in and threaten this delicate balance?” 28 For more than three decades, from the 1960s to the ’90s, the cattle industry, represented by the Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Farm Bureau, squared off against the National Park Service and environmental groups such as the Audubon Society. Numerous bills establishing a several-hundred-thousand-acre park somewhere in the Flint Hills were introduced in Congress, only to be quashed by the ranchers, who organized as a group called the Kansas Grassroots Association. At issue was a perceived right to the land and a way of life. Many feared that a federally owned public park would be expanded through the use of eminent domain and would also, in the words of state representative Robert Whittaker, turn the Flint Hills into a “tourist trap complete with curio shops and hot dog stands.” 29

The ranchers’ reflexive anti-federalism was heedless of history. Few seemed to want to recall that it was the federal government, through the Homestead Act of 1862, that had opened the Flint Hills to white settlement in the first place. And that had granted huge swaths of the Plains to the railroad industry, subsidizing the networks that allowed the cattle industry to flourish; and that had paid the early settlers to build the fences that divided the vast landscape into habitable plots and workable pastures. The vision of the self-made frontiersman was, it seemed, a heritable myth.

Numerous alternatives were volleyed back and forth over the years. A rancher named Clif Baron proposed a “prairie parkway,” a scenic driving loop through the Flint Hills with pullouts and observation points, which actually was a scaled-down version of the National Park Service’s 1965 proposal to create a 1,400-mile “Prairie-Great Plains Tourway” between Oklahoma and North Dakota. In 1975, the Park Service floated the idea of a Flint Hills Agricultural Reserve, borrowed from a British model, in which the management of an extensive, privately owned reserve would be in the hands of state and county agencies.

Horse barns near Elmdale, Kansas.
Horse barns near Elmdale. [Elise Kirk]

Jane Koger was among the ranchers who, for a while, opposed the park. 30 But she was also keenly aware of the need for education about the fragility of the tallgrass ecosystem. If the public wasn’t given access, she thought, they would have little reason to care what came of it, which ultimately threatened the long-term health of the Flint Hills and, by extension, the ranchers’ livelihoods. So in 1986, Koger created Prairie Women Adventures and Retreat, a program in which women from as far away as Boston and New York City spent anywhere from a weekend to several weeks on Koger’s ranch and learned how to run cattle. Some women even stayed on as hired hands. They worked alongside the ranchers, and fed, herded, castrated, and vaccinated Koger’s cows. In the spring, they burned pasture. The women shared meals and spent evenings reading in a bunkhouse or relaxing in a hot tub.

To Koger, the program filled a very real gap in the ranching world. Koger had helped run cattle on other ranches and had worked with male hands on her own ranch, and she’d observed the differences. “The guys would step forward and we would step back,” she said. “It happened with me, and I owned the ranch! If the neighbor stepped in and decided he could sort the cattle better than I could, it just happened.” Koger eventually hired a director, an administrative assistant, and other support staff to help run the program. All were women.

A prairie requires something that more dramatic places don’t: time. To appreciate its beauty takes patience.

Koger’s retreat gave women a rare opportunity: the chance to spend sustained time amidst the tallgrass landscape. I have asked a lot of people — artists, designers, ecologists, ranchers — what makes the tallgrass prairie so elusive, why it fails to capture the imagination as readily as other American landscapes, and all suggested that a prairie requires something that more dramatic places don’t: time. The beauty of a prairie is appreciated slowly. It takes patience, repeated visits. Robin Wall Kimmerer put it this way: “You can appreciate the Tallgrass as a snapshot on an August day when the grass is tall and the sunflowers even taller. But to really see it takes time, its fullness revealed in its unfolding, not as a still-life painting but as an exquisite film.” 31 The women who came to Koger’s ranch were immersed in this rich, seasonal unfolding. Koger understands the experience in aural as well as visual terms. “Many of our ground-nesting birds migrate,” she explained, “so August first or so, you start getting that feeling: the killdeers are gone, then the barn swallows are gone, and then everybody goes. The last to go are the cattle. And that is a great experience — to have everything leave and feel lonely out here, when all summer long it’s been so active. But it won’t be long, and we’ll hear a killdeer. And then you start getting all this activity, and it reaches a crescendo in July and August. And then all of a sudden, it starts getting quieter and quieter and quieter.”

The Tallgrass National Preserve is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. [Elise Kirk]

What seemed, at the time, to be a victory for the common good is more accurately described as the moment when a truly public vision for the Flint Hills died.

In 1988, the effort to establish a national park gained real traction. The proposed site was the newly for-sale 10,894-acre Z Bar Ranch just north of Strong City, and about 30 miles north of Koger’s ranch. The property contained several historically significant buildings, including a 19th-century limestone house, barn, and one-room schoolhouse, and several miles of limestone fencing. But it was smaller than park proponents had envisioned; previous proposals had ranged from 34,000 to 374,000 acres. More importantly, the opposition won meaningful concessions: the federal government could own no more than 180 park acres; eminent domain could not be used to acquire additional lands; the park was to be officially designated a preserve (to allow for grazing); and management would be guided by a 20-person advisory committee of local interests. 32 With the help of a pre-paid $2-million grazing lease, purchased by the Texas billionaire Ed Bass (who in those years was also financing Biosphere 2), the National Park Trust purchased the Z Bar Ranch in 1994. Two years later, nearly 40 years after the initial studies, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was established. Today, much of the preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy and jointly managed with the National Park Service.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of conservation in the Flint Hills. On paper, park supporters had won. A portion of Flint Hills was now protected in perpetuity and would be managed in the public interest. On the ground, however, the process had revealed — and possibly exacerbated — an entrenched distrust of the federal government among ranch owners. The industry emerged as an even more powerful political bloc whose arguments found a sympathetic audience both locally and nationally. 33 What seemed, at the time, to be a victory for the common good might more accurately be described as the moment when a truly public vision for the Flint Hills died.

If the long struggle to create the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve represented a failure to articulate a broadly persuasive, big-scale, collective vision for the Flint Hills, it did succeed in raising awareness of the plight of the prairie. In 1976, the merits of a national park in Kansas were debated on public television on the Robert MacNeil Report, a precursor to PBS NewsHour, and the Smithsonian commissioned environmental photographer Patricia DuBose Duncan to curate an exhibition on the natural and cultural history of the Kansas prairie. “The Tallgrass Prairie: An American Landscape” consisted of 40 large-format panels that told the story of the Flint Hills through documentary photography, artworks, maps, archival images, and text. It opened in Kansas City in August, before traveling to 300 venues in all 50 states. 34

Starting in the ’90s, rising awareness of the plight of the prairie attracted artists, writers, and environmental thinkers to the Flint Hills.

The publicity attracted artists, writers, and leading environmental thinkers to the Flint Hills, in particular to scenic Chase County, where the preserve was to be located and where nearly 85 percent of the land was unbroken upland prairie. In 1991, the same year that Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum organized the commission that would ultimately prevail in creating the preserve, the writer William Trogdon, the back roads-wandering, bestselling author of Blue Highways who was better known as William Least Heat-Moon, published PrairyErth, a “deep map” of Chase County, which too became a bestseller and introduced another segment of the American population to the Kansas Flint Hills. In his review in the New York Times, Paul Theroux categorized the book as a work of “history, travel, anthropology, geography, journalism, confession, memoir, natural history and autobiography” and wrote that “Mr. Heat-Moon has succeeded in recapturing a sense of the American grain that will give the book a permanent place in the literature of our country.” 35

The Bank Art Space, in Matfield Green, was founded ten years ago by two Dutch expats who were lured to the region by PrairyErth.
The Bank Art Space, in Matfield Green, was founded in 2009 by two Dutch expats who were lured to the Flint Hills by PrairyErth. [Elise Kirk]

A year after PrairyErth’s publication, Wes Jackson, the agronomist and founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, used funds from his recent MacArthur Fellowship to buy and fix up several buildings in Matfield Green. Matfield Green is a tiny town tucked into the valley of the South Fork of the Cottonwood River. Like a lot of small towns in the Flint Hills, it came close to vanishing in the 20th century. Founded in the 1850s by an English immigrant named David Mercer, the town grew large enough over the next half century to support a bank, grocery store, lumberyard, and hotel, serving local farmers and ranchers and also the men and women who worked on the railroad or in the nearby oil fields. The next half century, however, saw the oil fields dry up and highways replace the railroads as the most cost-effective way to ship cattle. Jobs migrated to Emporia and Wichita. By the 1960s, the area schools had been consolidated and Matfield Green was a third the size it had been at the turn of the century.

Today, Matfield Green has exactly five east-west streets, six north-south, and about 60 people. There are no gas stations, no restaurants, no banks, no commercial businesses of any kind if you don’t count the vacation rentals that have popped up in recent years. The closest place to buy groceries or a cup of coffee is Cottonwood Falls, 15 miles north, and there your options are limited to a Dollar General and a Casey’s gas station. To Jackson, Matfield had all the right characteristics for an experiment he called “ecological community accounting.” The idea, based on a smaller-scale effort undertaken at the Land Institute’s experimental farm in Salina, was to track the environmental footprint of an entire town. Jackson wanted to account for every input and output that made a contemporary community function. As he explained to my friend Derek, who lives with his wife, Katherine, in one of the houses that Jackson renovated, “We tried to put a boundary around Matfield and be watchful as to what came through the boundary.”

A 1994 photograph by Terry Evans, showing U.S. 35 cutting through the Flint Hills, made during her residency at Matfield Green.
A 1994 photograph by Terry Evans, showing U.S. 35 cutting through the Flint Hills, made during her residency at Matfield Green.

In the mid 1990s photographer Terry Evans was in residence at Matfield Green; some of the portraits she made then are still exhibited at the Bank Art Space.
In the mid 1990s photographer Terry Evans was in residence at Matfield Green; some of the portraits she made then are still exhibited at the Bank Art Space. [The Bank Art Space]

For about five years, in the early ’90s, a team of Land Institute employees and graduate students compiled data. But the project fizzled. Not everyone in Matfield had bought into the idea, limiting the amount of data that could be gathered, and there were some on the Land Institute’s board who felt the project was distracting from the organization’s work in Salina. 36 Still, there were ripple effects. Among the people Jackson invited to Matfield in the 1990s was the photographer Terry Evans, who spent several years documenting life there and making portraits of the town’s 60-odd part-time and full-time residents.

One other event in the 1990s helped set the stage for the current cultural renaissance. In 1994, Jane Koger threw herself a 40th birthday party. She and a friend organized an all-female symphony orchestra that played a free outdoor concert in one of Koger’s pastures. All of Chase County was invited. There was catered food and local beer and a bandshell borrowed from Emporia State University. The orchestra played “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” by Joan Tower, and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The night was such a hit that two years later, Koger did it again. Each time, the evening ended with a singalong of the Kansas state song, “Home on the Range,” a tradition the Symphony in the Flint Hills continued when it became an annual event in 2006. 37 “It’s so hokey,” Koger said of the singalong. “But it made a lot of sense out here.”

Artist Bill McBride at his site work, "Timber Arches," just outside Matfield Green.
Artist Bill McBride at his site work, “Timber Arches,” just outside Matfield Green. [Elise Kirk]

Matfield Green may not have a grocery store, but it does have an art gallery, two artist residencies, and an outdoor sculpture walk.

Throughout the early 2000s, the Land Institute continued to subtly steer Matfield’s trajectory by selling the properties it had acquired to artists whose work was simpatico with its mission. Among them was the architect and sculptor Bill McBride, who moved from Chicago to Matfield Green after reading PrairyErth. McBride has helped restore several historic properties, including Pioneer Bluffs, formerly known as the Rogler Ranch, and Matfield Station, one of Kansas’s last remaining section houses, built by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company in 1922 to house its largely Hispanic workforce. Matfield Green may not have a grocery store, but it does have a contemporary art gallery known as the Bank Art Space, two artist residencies, and an evolving outdoor sculpture walk featuring the work of McBride and others that has been dubbed the PrairyArt Path. Slowly, the town’s population has begun to reverse course. As Derek told me, with genuine surprise, “There’s maybe only one vacant house — actually, I don’t think there’s any right now.”

Derek and Katherine are relative newcomers in Matfield. Both graphic designers and Kansas natives, they co-manage the Bank, founded in 2009 by two Dutch expats who, like McBride, were lured to the Flint Hills by PrairyErth. The gallery occupies a squat, brick building, a former bank that’s the last remaining commercial structure along Highway 177. The trim is painted dark green, the door yellow. In front is a bright red bench. On weekends, besides its rotating exhibitions, the Bank offers free coffee. On the back wall of the gallery are a selection of the photographs Terry Evans made 30 years ago. The rest hang in the old high school, which just this year was purchased by a local artist and his wife with the intention of converting it into art studios and community spaces.

Exhibition opening at the Bank Art Space, Matfield Green.
On weekends, the Bank Art Space offers free coffee and hosts exhibition openings. [Derek Hamm]

Bank Art Space, Matfield Green.
Bank Art Space, Matfield Green. [Derek Hamm]

The former high school at Matfield Green is being converted into studios by local artists.
The former high school at Matfield Green is being converted into studios and community gathering spaces by a couple of local artists. [Elise Kirk]

An informal cultural spine runs through the center of the Flint Hills along Highway 177; what links all the institutions is the land itself.

One town can’t change the economic fortunes of a 10,000-square-mile region, but Matfield Green is just one node in an emerging cultural spine linking loosely affiliated galleries like the Bank with the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, and the Symphony in the Flint Hills, which besides its annual concert runs a storefront bookstore and gallery space in Cottonwood Falls. This informal spine runs more or less through the center of the Flint Hills along Highway 177 — not incidentally a leg of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway — from Matfield Green all the way to Manhattan, 75 miles north. Notably, what links these institutions is the land itself. The mission of the Discovery Center, which in 2018 had more than 80,000 visitors, is to “celebrate, explore, and care for the Flint Hills.” The Symphony in the Flint Hills was created to “heighten appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie.” Likewise, the Bank is dedicated to “supporting local artists and exhibiting contemporary art that engages the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem and rural community and culture.”

Besides its own exhibitions, the Bank serves as the site of the Tallgrass Artist Residency, created in 2016 by Kelly Yarbrough, then a graduate student at Kansas State, and now partially funded by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. Dedicated to drawing attention to the Flint Hills ecosystem, the residency counts the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve as an official partner, providing artists with special access to the property and research staff; it prioritizes applicants from the center of the country by requiring that they be based in an area of the United States or Canada that is part of the prairie’s ecological range.

The Volland Store was recently rehabilitated and converted into a gallery and event space.
The Volland Store, in the ghost town of Volland, was recently rehabilitated and converted into a gallery and event space. [Brian Yates]

One of the more prominent — and perhaps unexpected — nodes in the Flint Hills’ growing cultural network is a ghost town called Volland, about an hour’s drive north of Matfield Green and a few miles off Highway 177. I first visited Volland in 2017, during a drive through the Flint Hills with the architect David Dowell. It was a few days before Christmas, and winter had muted the prairie’s colors. Along the horizon, a thick layer of clouds swirled up and down like the undulating topography. Dowell is among the cadre of artists and designers who have helped make the Flint Hills as well known for contemporary art and architecture as for cattle drives. He splits his time between Kansas City and the Flint Hills, where he designed an addition to an 1893 limestone homestead for his wife and himself. Dowell is a partner in the firm El Dorado and also a part-time instructor at Kansas State, where for several years he’s led a design-build studio focusing on the region.

We called the prairie ‘nowhere’ to make it easier to destroy.

It was from Dowell that I first heard the phrase middle of everywhere, though others later proffered it too. “People say it’s the middle of nowhere, it’s flyover, whatever,” he said. “I call it the middle of everywhere.” It stuck with me because in terms of U.S. continental geography, it’s more true than not. But it also neatly upends the claim of the original phrase, in which “nowhere” is a construct used to insinuate unfamiliarity and foreignness — much like “frontier,” or “Great American Desert,” or “Indian Territory.” “Nowhere” is, a lot of the time, a death sentence. We called the prairie “nowhere” to make it easier to destroy.

We drove from Dowell’s house to Volland, a short ride along curving roads of crushed limestone. Where Matfield Green managed to escape oblivion, Volland succumbed. It was once a mid-sized cattle town, born nearly overnight in 1880 when the Rock Island Railroad decided to add a stop midway between the towns of Alma and Alta Vista. As nearby ranchers began to drive their cattle to the corrals at Volland, the town grew, and in 1913, two brothers, Otto and Bill Kratzer, built a two-story brick store to serve the town and the surrounding area, which by then had a population of several hundred. With two phone lines and postal service, the Kratzers’ general store became the town’s go-to gathering place. Picnics were held on the lawn, and on Thursdays the store stayed open late so that townspeople could visit and socialize. The store’s popularity was due largely to the gregarious Otto, the youngest of 13 siblings and a technology enthusiast — he loved motorcycles — who documented life in Volland with a Kodak camera. As a reporter for the Kansas City Star put it in a recent article, “Kratzer was Volland’s Gatsby: daring, flamboyant, self-made and generous.” 38

"The Middle of Everywhere," with photographs by Elise Kirk, was exhibited at the Volland Store in spring 2019.
“The Middle of Everywhere,” with photographs by Elise Kirk, was exhibited at the Volland Store in spring 2019. [Brian Yates]

By the 1950s, however, Volland had become a victim of the 20th century — the Depression, industrialization, changing modes of transportation — and most of the population had gone. Still, the store remained open until Otto Kratzer’s death in 1971. By the turn of the millennium, the building was one of the few structures left standing in Volland, which officially no longer existed. “Standing” was a stretch. The building’s roof had caved in and taken both floors with it. The debris formed a small mountain in the center of the basement. Thus it was all the more remarkable when, in 2012, a Kansas City couple, Patty and Jerry Reece, bought the building and converted it into an art gallery and loft space. The Flint Hills are a two-hour drive from Kansas City, but the Reeces had purchased an old ranch house not far from Volland to use as a second home. Friends convinced Patty, an arts patron, that the derelict general store would make a spectacular gallery. Today, the Volland Store, as it’s known, is run by a handful of employees and volunteers as both an art space and event venue, with funding from the Kansas Rural Communities Foundation and other cultural organizations. Since it opened in 2015, events have included holiday pop-ups, poetry readings, lectures by ranchers and scholars, vintage motorcycle shows, and exhibition openings. Among the more popular attractions are seasonal tours of the region’s stone-arch storm cellars, which have been documented in recent years by the photographer Tom Parish.

The gallery was filled not just with artists, designers, and academics, but also with ranchers and nearby townsfolk.

The first time I attended an opening at the Volland Store, I was surprised by the attendees (perhaps more than I should have been). The gallery was filled with artists, designers, and academics, but also ranchers and nearby townsfolk. People came from Manhattan, Topeka, and Kansas City, but also Alma, Cottonwood Falls, and Council Grove. At one point, I met an elderly gentleman, who pointed out the window to a limestone foundation and said he used to hang out on the front porch of that house. He had with him a folder of photographs and newspaper clippings, and he told stories about Otto Kratzer and his own experiences working for the railroad. He had shown up to the event an hour early.

At the opening of the exhibition "The Middle of Everywhere," at the Volland Store, spring 2019.
The exhibition “The Middle of Everywhere,” curated by Derek Hamm and the author of this article, opened at the Volland Store in spring 2019. [Brian Yates]

When we talk about the arts and rural communities, the discussion is usually framed in terms of economic revitalization. More than anything, a dying town needs living bodies; meanwhile, a starving artist needs cheap rent. And so it makes a sort of sense, particularly in an era of geographic mobility enabled by digital communication, for small towns to try to attract creative professionals. But treating culture workers as interchangeable units in a tax base is reductive. Artists and cultural institutions provide more than economic benefits; they help communities see themselves in new ways. Venues like the Volland Store serve as a bridge between disparate segments of a scattered population. They preserve a region’s identity through its history and art, its material culture and built environment. And they remind us that the arts were a part of rural communities long before they were deployed as a revitalization tactic. When the Volland Store first opened, Patty Reece had her choice of numerous possibilities for the inaugural exhibition. But on opening day, the art that was displayed on the brick walls of the renovated general store was the work of Otto Kratzer: 34 painstakingly restored, black-and-white photographs taken between 1905 and 1970, selected from more than 2,500 negatives, a record of a life in a town that was nearly forgotten.

This past spring, I stood at my parents’ dining room window. The view hadn’t much changed over the years. The big hackberry was gone, replaced by a blue spruce, and a split-log fence ran the length of the yard; but mostly it was as I remembered it. The brick planter full of geraniums. The irises blooming lavender. And beyond the catalpa tree, across the road, prairie. A remnant of that once vast and vital ecosystem. It stretched up to meet the sky, forming a horizon line that felt as familiar as my childhood bedroom. Not just familiar, but inevitable.

If the tallgrass prairie is to survive, it will require collective action, public investment, farsighted planning.

Of course, it is anything but. Despite the growing appreciation for the Flint Hills, each year there is less left to appreciate. Looking out the window, I thought about how the urban and rural regions of the U.S. are not as dissimilar as we sometimes think. Both have been shaped by many of the same forces, leading to tensions that feel familiar: the ascendancy of market economics as the chief rationale for land use, the dwindling power of public institutions, a reliance on specious narratives to reinforce the status quo. Speculative real estate investment by corporations and out-of-town buyers has shaped the story of the Flint Hills no less than it’s shaped the story of New York. It’s just that in Kansas prime real estate is huge expanses of billowing grass. It’s clear, though, that the story of the Flint Hills needs new actors. If the tallgrass prairie is to survive, it will require collective action, public investment, farsighted planning. It will require that ranchers and landowners develop new trust in the motives and mandates of government entities and civic institutions. 39 And it will require that those institutions prove themselves capable of bold and wise leadership.

The author's family home, near Marion Kansas, where his parents still live.
The author’s family home, near Marion Kansas, where his parents still live on a few acres of tallgrass prairie. [Elise Kirk]

Today, conservation efforts in the Flint Hills are limited in scope and impact.

At the moment, conservation efforts in the Flint Hills are limited in both scope and impact. Mostly they take the form of conservation easements purchased by environmental groups or federal agencies on properties with significant intact prairie. These programs are being led by the Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Ranchlands Trust, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which in 2016 announced a goal of protecting up to 1.1 million acres of tallgrass prairie in its Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area. If successful, the program would increase the amount of protected lands in the region to 20 percent. But success may not come quickly enough. To date the federal agency has acquired easements on just 9,053 acres. Even assuming some growth, at that rate, it could take a century to meet the goal of 1.1 million acres. Still more problematic is the fact that even with an easement, ranchers have significant leeway to determine how the land is managed. 40 Kelly Kindscher, a scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, who helped pass the state legislation that allowed for conservation easements in the Flint Hills, told me that because they are voluntary, and because enforcement is often impractical, easements alone are unlikely to guarantee the preservation of the tallgrass prairie. 41

A more fundamental problem is that the very logic of the conservation easement accepts and even sanctions the primacy of private land ownership, and reinforces the image of ranchers as ecological stewards. Some, like Koger, are responsible. But others are not. A truly public vision for the Flint Hills, then, will encompass more than the particulars of easements. It will include support for the arts, entrepreneurship, and the expansion of public access. It will expand the definition of the region’s heritage to include indigenous histories and epistemologies; it will build coalitions with area tribes and those who trace their lineage to the Flint Hills. And it will make the case that the tallgrass prairie is more than an economic engine, or an ecosystem service provider; that the landscape has inherent value and that the ecosystem in all its fullness must be protected.

A truly public vision for the Flint Hills will insist that the landscape has inherent value and that the ecosystem must be protected.

There is some precedent for state-mandated environmental protections in the Flint Hills. In 2005, as part of a renewable energy plan, Governor Kathleen Sebelius drew a line around three million acres of the Flint Hills and declared that part off limits to commercial wind farms. In 2011, Governor Sam Brownback more than doubled the restricted area. Kansas’s new governor, Laura Kelly, should consider using a similar tactic — and similarly expansive boundaries — to restrict other land uses in the Flint Hills, including residential development, while incentivizing others, like patch-burn grazing or other modes of agricultural production, such as bison grazing.

Elmdale, Kansas.
The sign in the window of an uninhabited building in Elmdale reads “The Elmdale Museum.” [Elise Kirk]

If large-scale action is not taken, government agencies might end up responding anyway. In the late 1930s, as a result of the ecological and economic disasters of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the federal government bailed out thousands of failed farms throughout the Western Plains. 42 These lands, assembled into parcels and restored to native grasslands, became the basis for the national grasslands program of the U.S Forest Service. It’s conceivable that similar government initiatives might be necessitated by future disasters caused by global warming. One 2017 study published in Global Change Biology found that climate change could reduce the overall mass of one of the prairie’s dominant grasses, big bluestem, by up to 60 percent over the next 75 years. 43 Such a drastic reduction in forage could open the door to non-native plant species and further woody encroachment and ultimately make ranching a more tenuous prospect. Margins would get slimmer. Ranchers might sell portions of their acreage to pay for new equipment. Others might over-graze their pastures. The prairie would suffer.

The Flint Hills demands a vision as big-scale and audacious as the famous proposal for a ‘Buffalo Commons’ that would transform the plains into a national park.

The possibility of government buyouts inevitably calls to mind the famous 1987 proposal, by the planners Frank and Deborah Popper, for a “Buffalo Commons” — a bold call to restore much of the Great Plains to its pre-settlement condition by creating “the world’s largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park.” In the Poppers’ vision, the Buffalo Commons would restore a region that was depleted and depopulated, an exploited landscape that had been over-plowed and over-grazed; or, in the Poppers’ words, a part of the country that had been “unsuccessfully privatized.” 44 In recent years, the plan has come to seem prescient. In 2009, an editorial in the Kansas City Star recommended that the state take the Poppers’ proposal seriously and create a million-acre national park beginning with two of western Kansas’ least populous counties. 45 That the Buffalo Commons persists in the cultural memory suggests that such visions are useful in expanding our collective imagination. The Flint Hills demands a vision of comparable scale and audacity. The region needs new ways of relating to the land, new categories that go beyond old dichotomies. Perhaps cultural institutions should draw on the brief period when the Flint Hills was open range to lead a movement to pass the country’s first right-to-roam laws, permitting public access across huge swaths of the region. Such a move would undoubtedly further boost tourism and could also help fund conservation efforts. Lands would be private, but also public, able to be grazed and burned but also wandered. In exchange for such access, land owners could receive public assistance in the form of subsidies, or perhaps labor in the form of a contemporary Civilian Conservation Corps armed with drip torches or firesticks. 46

The need for a powerful public vision for the Flint Hills only strengthens the argument for further investment in the arts. Patricia DuBose Duncan, Terry Evans, and William Least Heat-Moon have had a profound effect on the public’s perception of the Flint Hills and helped build a constituency for continued preservation. The region’s growing crop of cultural institutions is furthering that work while also creating opportunities for education and the exchange of ideas and values. They need support not only to continue but also to resist the pressure to indulge nostalgia-fueled narratives. Rural communities are where our relationship with the land is most immediate, intense, and vital. That relationship often extends to other human beings. David Dowell put it this way: “We’re in this place where if you hold an extreme position, you won’t get anywhere. For survival’s sake, you have to find a third way of talking about things.” Local institutions like the Bank and the Volland Store provide much-needed venues for this productive dialogue. They operate as a kind of common ground, places over which many individuals feel some ownership.

Today, near the Volland Store, as a part of Dowell’s design-build studio at the university, an abandoned Sears kit house is being renovated for use as an artist’s residence. In Matfield Green, the Center for Living Education, the nonprofit that runs the Bank, recently raised the money to purchase the bank building and is undertaking a much-needed renovation. These are positive signs, as is the easing tension between ranchers and environmental groups, which Jane Koger told me has lessened partly because of the Nature Conservancy’s vocal support for prescribed burns. “To have a science-based environmental group on our side gave us a voice we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Koger said, “because you’re not going to get that through the Kansas Livestock Association or the Farm Bureau.”

At the Bank Art Space, Matfield Green.
At the Bank Art Space, Matfield Green. [Dave Leiker]

After the reception at the Volland Store, where I had met the elderly gentleman with his folder of photographs, my wife and I and a group of friends drove along Highway 177 south to Matfield Green. It was dark by the time we arrived. We sat on the porch of Derek and Katherine’s house, talking and drinking beer and wine and whiskey. Like everything else in the old town, the building had lived numerous lives, used variously as a lumberyard, a creamery, a dormitory. Now, a house for two designers. It made me think about time and the way it seemed not linear but cyclical, and the way those cycles were necessary to understanding the Flint Hills. I thought about how, in a community like Matfield Green, the distinction between public and private seemed to dissolve. Porches become shared territory. A sculpture walk becomes the town jogging path.

As the evening stretched on, townspeople stopped by, including Derek and Katherine’s next-door neighbor, Kelly, a champion finger-picker. For an hour, Kelly played his guitar and sang, joined at various times by others who had instruments at hand. He sang “Home on the Range,” and I thought of Jane Koger sitting in her house, surrounded by nothing but tallgrass, and how a birthday party could snowball into one of the most anticipated events in an entire state. The night deepened into a purplish-black that erased everything outside the warm yellow circle of the porch light. I couldn’t see the town or the hundreds of miles of tallgrass prairie that unfurled in every direction from it. But I knew it was there. I could see it even in its absence. I imagined it, newly burned and verdant, stretching south to Texas and north to Saskatchewan, the way it once did. And in that moment, this place really did feel like the middle of everywhere.

Author's Note

I’d like to thank Humanities Kansas and the Center for Living Education for their support and guidance on this project, as well as the many individuals who spoke with me in the course of its writing. I’m particularly indebted to Derek and Katherine Hamm, Elise Kirk, Christy Davis, David Dowell, Jim Hoy, and Jane Koger. Special thanks to Rod Harms and Stephanie Rolley for the invitation to be part of their annual prairie burn, to Geoff Martin for being an early reader of this essay and Bruce Kunkel for first giving me a copy of PrairyErth. And to Allison Schuler and Gary and Mary Schuler, who taught me that knowledge is another name for love. Lastly, thank you to Nancy Levinson and the editors at Places Journal for helping shape this essay into what it is.

Editors' Note

For more information, see Middle of Everywhere: Architectures of the Kansas Flint Hills, which focuses on an exhibition curated by Timothy A. Schuler and Derek Hamm, held at the Volland Store in Volland, Kansas, in May 2019.

  1. See Flint Hills Frontiers, Flint Hills Regional Council, 2015.
  2. Leo E. Oliva, “Kansas: A Hard Land in the Heartland,” in James H. Madison, editor, Heartland: Comparative Histories of the Midwestern States (University of Indiana Press, 1988), 252. Oliva’s chapter is a useful primer on the history and culture of Kansas.
  3. See Flint Hills Frontiers, Flint Hills Regional Council, 2015.
  4. Walt Fick, K-State Extension and Research, Agronomy eUpdate, Issue 696, June 1, 2018. Interestingly, even Kansas’s waterways are, to a large degree, private property. For some wonderful writing on the subject, see George Frazier’s essay “Bardo on the Kaw” in The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys Into Hidden Landscapes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017).
  5. Environmental Assessment, Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, July 2010. See also Chelsea Harvey, “North America’s grasslands are slowly disappearing — and no one’s paying attention,” Washington Post, November 29, 2016.
  6. Jill Haukos, “The Tallgrass Prairie” factsheet, published by the Konza Environmental Education Program, Kansas State University. Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Tallgrass,” Little Toller Books, November 26, 2018.
  7. See Pawlok Dass, et al, “Grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in California,” Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13. No. 7, July 10, 2018,; and Environmental Assessment, Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area. Even more relevant, perhaps, is a functioning prairie’s ability to capture and store methane. Clenton Owensby, a professor of rangeland management at Kansas State, is currently measuring methane fluxes within the Flint Hills and is finding that tallgrass prairie is a sink for methane. “There is more methane taken in and converted into CO2 and water than goes into the atmosphere,” he told me. This information is missing from the data often cited in reports that cattle contribute significantly to climate change, he said, in part because researchers take their measurements within feedlot environments.
  8. Kimmerer, “Tallgrass.” Kimmerer describes her own misconceptions of the prairie and Kansas more generally: “When I was a young plant ecologist, a girl from the forest on the way to the American Midwest, I confess that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about prairies. I imagined a big field of unmown grass, one-dimensional and as dull as mid-western people. I was wrong on both counts.”
  9. Sellers Gambrell Archer and Clarence E. Bunch, The American Grass Book: A Manual of Pasture and Range Practices, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, quoted by William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth (1991) which is an invaluable resource for its “Commonplace Books” alone.
  10. Wayne Fields, “Lost Horizon,” American Heritage, April 1988.
  11. This quote by Stephen Harriman Long comes from Edwin James’s compilation, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Vol. 2, (H.C. Carey & I. Lea, 1823).
  12. William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth: A Deep Map (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1991), 55.
  13. Walt Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882). The spelling and punctuation of the quote are original.
  14. Quoted in Leo A. Oliva, “Sent Out By Our Great Father: Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s Journal and Route Across Kansas, 1806,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains (Spring 2006).
  15. Drive through the Flint Hills today, and you won’t get five miles without coming across a limestone house, cellar, bridge, or barn. As the architectural historian Dennis Domer has pointed out, among the reasons that limestone was used so extensively was its ability to withstand the “ferocity and destructiveness of prairie fires.” Builders soon discovered, however, that Flint Hills stone was superlative, and by the late 1870s, limestone was as big an export as cattle. In 1876, the Chase County Leader reported that in the month of August, 90 train cars full of native stone left the station at Strong City, more than three times the number of cattle cars. Today, limestone remains a major export. Luke Koch, a Flint Hills stonemason, told me that in the past ten years, at least three new limestone quarries have opened in Chase County alone, the stone shipped to regional urban centers such as St. Louis and Omaha, but also as far away as San Francisco.
  16. Unlike in other parts of the U.S., much of the cattle ranching done in the Flint Hills, then as now, is what is known as transient grazing. Cattle are trucked in from southern states to graze the tallgrass pastures only for the summer months, generally April to October, before being shipped to a feedlot for finishing.
  17. William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth, 48
  18. The Kanza and other related tribes came west to Kansas between the 16th and 18th centuries, fleeing the wars in the East and eventually settling near what is now Manhattan. For generations, they ranged across roughly half of present-day Kansas. Beginning in 1825, as part of a coordinated effort to subjugate or otherwise eradicate the nation’s indigenous peoples, the U.S. government coerced the Kanza into ceding much of this territory through a series of treaties that reduced their lands from roughly 20 million acres to 2 million, then to 200,000, and finally 80,000 acres southeast of Council Grove. In 1873, the tribe was forced to sell even this land and expelled to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. Jim Hoy, a rancher and director emeritus of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, told me it is almost certain that settlers witnessed the Kanza lighting prairie fires. As evidence, he points to the fact that the earliest account of a prescribed burn by a rancher comes from 1863, almost a decade before the Kanza were marched south. A respect for the regenerative power of fire was one of the few things they left behind. For more on Kanza history, see Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, and Ron Parks, The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland, 1846–1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
  19. Jim Hoy, “Cattle in the Flint Hills,” Symphony in the Flint Hills Field Journal (New Prairie Press, 2009).
  20. Frederick W. Turner, “A Field Guide to the Synthetic Landscape,” Harper’s Magazine, April 1988.
  21. She said this to William Least Heat-Moon, whose portrait of Koger is among the best chapters in PrairyErth.
  22. Koger’s interest in these alternative methods has been driven by recent studies that show that the ecological effects of grazing and burning are not uniform. Some common practices, such as double stocking, where roughly twice the number of cattle are grazed on a pasture for half the usual time, often right after a burn, can reduce habitat. “It’s a great way to make money,” Koger said of double-stocking, but it can prevent the prairie grasses from growing tall enough to support native wildlife such as lesser prairie chickens, a federally-designated threatened species. Patch-burn grazing, in contrast, is designed to “mimic as closely as possible the pre-European-settlement pattern of random burning and grazing … creating an ever-changing combination of burned and unburned, grazed and ungrazed areas, often referred to as ‘a shifting mosaic.’” This was the phrase used in a report on Koger’s pilot program, which was instigated by Koger with the Nature Conservancy, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2003.
  23. The study in question was published in Natural Areas Journal in 1997. Led by Kelly Kindscher, a scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and a professor at University of Kansas, the study examined land ownership and tenure for the largest parcels of pastureland in the Flint Hills and found that, on average, 57.6 percent were absentee-owned. Chase County had the largest number of large parcels (three square miles or more), totaling 134,360 acres. In at least one county, every large pasture was absentee-owned. To Kindscher’s knowledge, no one has followed up on his study, but he expects the share of absentee ownership has only increased. Jane Koger estimates that Chase County is at least 75 percent absentee owned, which aligns with 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture data, which show that in the Flint Hills, the percent of agricultural land that is either rented or leased ranges from 40 percent to 60 percent.
  24. See Zakary Ratajczak, Jesse B. Nippert, and Scott L. Collins, “Woody encroachment decreases diversity across North American grasslands and savannas,” Ecology, April 1, 2012, Chris Zhou also has published research on the subject, showing that the conversion of the south-central Plains to woodlands would have a significant impact on groundwater resources, reducing streamflow by as much as 20 to 40 percent. See Chris B. Zou, et al., “Impact of Eastern Red Cedar Proliferation on Water Resources in the Great Plains USA—Current State of Knowledge,” Water, December 1, 2018,
  25. The first person to advocate for the protection of the prairie by means of a national park was the artist George Catlin, who as early as 1832 recommended that the U.S. government establish somewhere in the Plains a “nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.” See George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of North American Indians (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1842).
  26. See Rebecca Conard’s highly detailed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: Legislative History, 1920-1996, published by the National Park Service in 1998.
  27. These tensions were especially acute following the condemnation of farm and pastureland for an Army Corps of Engineers flood mitigation and reservoir project in 1959, which resulted in the construction of the Tuttle Creek Lake.
  28. Quoted in Conard, Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve: Legislative History, 1920–1996.
  29. Quoted in Conard, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: Legislative History, 1920-1996.
  30. Koger told William Least Heat-Moon that she thought privately owned retreats and other forms of hospitality and tourism were preferable to a large, federally owned national park.
  31. Kimmerer, “Tallgrass.”
  32. The advisory committees includes adjacent landowners, federal officials, experts in range management from state universities, and at least one representative each from the nearby municipalities, the governor’s office, the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department, the Kansas State Historical Society, the Kansas Audubon Council or the Kansas Wildlife Federation, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Kansas Livestock Association. The Kansas Farm Bureau had remained opposed to the park, but the political climate had shifted with the election of Bill Clinton, which provided leverage and support at the national level.
  33. In some ways, the ranchers’ position was understandable. As Rebecca Conard argued in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: Legislative History, 1920-1996: “Reducing the controversy to ‘agriculture v. environment,’ as many people had done, masked complex values and attitudes that park proponents outside Chase County often did not understand, appreciate, or acknowledge.” Still, some of the anti-government rhetoric used by the cattle industry was based neither in ecological concerns nor in an accurate picture of ranching. As Kelly Kindscher pointed out in his 1997 study on land ownership (cited in footnote 23), regarding the battle to establish a national park or preserve, “testimony in recent years has emphasized the sanctity of private property and the potential loss of county tax revenues … The assumption has been, as Mr. Bill House testified in 1973, that ‘the land is primarily owned by people who have had it for three, four, and five generations.’” Kindscher showed that this wasn’t true, especially for the largest ranches in the region.
  34. See the transcript of the Robert MacNeil Report. The panels of Duncan’s exhibit have been digitized and are part of Kansas State University’s Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art Digital Collection.
  35. Paul Theroux, “The Wizard of Kansas,” New York Times, October 27, 1991.
  36. Wes Jackson’s account of the Land Institute’s work in Matfield Green comes in part from an interview with Derek Hamm for his book project Talking with People, Land, Art, and Place, a collection of interviews on the topic of social practices in rural contexts, self-published in 2018.
  37. Koger was not involved in the establishment of the annual performance series.
  38. Cindy Hoedel, “Volland Store revival on Kansas prairie celebrates the spirit of founder Otto Kratzer,” Kansas City Star, June 26, 2015.
  39. Currently, the Kansas Livestock Associations operating principles include a statement of opposition to “attempts to narrow the business options or limit the individual freedom of livestock producers to innovate in the management and marketing of their production unfettered by additional government regulations.”
  40. In a 2011 article, the Sierra Club has pointed out that despite knowledge that practices like patch-burn grazing are necessary for the protection of Flint Hills wildlife, these practices are not required in most easement agreements. See “The Real Threat to the Flint Hills,” Sierra Club Kansas Chapter.
  41. If there is a bright spot, it is that, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, interest in easements by Kansas ranchers has surpassed the service’s budget, and a queue has been set up to evaluate the lands of interested ranch owners. On the other hand, this funding deficit underscores the need for greater public support for conservation: easements are federally funded, but they require non-federal matching funds. At the time of writing, Kansas has no dedicated funding source for conservation easements.
  42. Terry West, “USDA Forest Service Management of the National Grasslands,” prepared for the symposium on the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Historical Perspective at Iowa State University (Ames), June 15-18, 1989; and Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning magazine, December 1987.
  43. Adam B. Smith et al, “Phenotypic distribution models corroborate species distribution models: A shift in the role and prevalence of a dominant prairie grass in response to climate change,” Global Change Biology, February 17, 2017,
  44. Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust.”
  45. Quoted by Kurt Repanshek in “Newspaper Turns Back the Calendar and Calls for ‘Buffalo Commons National Park’ in Kansas,” published on National Parks Traveler, November 15, 2009 (original article no longer available)
  46. A firestick is a homemade device endemic to the Flint Hills. It consists of a long steel pipe capped at both ends and filled with gasoline. Small openings allow gasoline to drip out of the pipe, which is then lit at one end. According to rancher and folklorist Jim Hoy, as a vernacular tool, firesticks vary in their design from rancher to rancher.


Timothy A. Schuler, “The Middle of Everywhere,” Places Journal, November 2019. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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