70 clas­si­cal mu­si­cians. 200 acres of windblown prairie. And the brac­ing spirit of the heart­land. A Kansas sym­phony in six move­ments

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - BY JEFF MACGRE­GOR PHOTO GRAPHS BY ACK­ER­MAN + GRU­BER

THIS MIGHT BE THE MOST beau­ti­ful place in Amer­ica. Walk with me. Walk awhile up and down these Kansas hills, where the tall­grass prairie rolls out deep green on every side, the land ris­ing and falling to a far­away hori­zon, out to the silent edge of a high, hot sky, the big bluestem and the wild al­falfa and the switch­grass and the In­dian grass and the buf­falo grass wav­ing and sway­ing in the wind, gathering in the streambeds where the East­ern red cedar and the cot­ton­wood shadow the springs and seeps, un­til even your own foot­steps sound far away and that abid­ing green reaches for you and fi­nally, grate­fully, you feel your­self dis­solv­ing into the im­men­sity of the world. You are taken up, even as you slip away. This land­scape is its own po­etry, a match for the breadth and reach of your imag­i­na­tion, a wilder­ness of per­fect soli­tude. There are no pol­i­tics here, only peace; no sad­ness, only hope; no doubt, only cer­tainty. Not a house, not a fence, not a sin­gle hu­man sign, only you, alone at last and at one with ev­ery­thing.

Un­til you crest that fi­nal gen­tle rise—and there in front of you are 6,000 peo­ple and the Kansas City Sym­phony Orches­tra. And as the fa­mil­iar mod­er­ato of Smetana’s “Moldau” in E mi­nor from Ma Vlast is car­ried away on a stiff wind, along with the moo­ing of half a hun­dred cat­tle, you’ll be for­given for think­ing you’ve lost your god­damned mind. Se­ri­ously. It’s like that scene in Fitz­car­raldo where they haul the steamship over the moun­tain. An opera house in the Ama­zon jun­gle? Sure. A sym­phony on the prairie in the mid­dle of nowhere? What­ever.

This is June in Kansas and this is Sym­phony in the Flint Hills.

Oh, Give Me a Home

START HERE: the map on An­nie Wil­son’s din­ing room ta­ble.

An­nie Wil­son is a rancher and an ed­u­ca­tor and a lawyer and a song­writer and a singer. Mostly these days peo­ple seem to know her for her singing. She has a fine voice, sweet but res­o­lute. You can of­ten catch her on Fri­day nights at the Cot­ton­wood Falls artist’s co-op open mic. She is also the of­fi­cial, state-ap­pointed, gov­er­nor-ap­proved Flint Hills Bal­ladeer. She is slen­der and sharp-fea­tured and wears glasses and has blond hair she some­times keeps in a pair of un­braided pig­tails or lets down when she sings. She is at the age when folks stop ask­ing your age. In the pic­tures for the al­bum cov­ers she wears a red sash at her waist and a big straw cow­boy hat. She writes songs with ti­tles like Sail the Sum­mer Sky and My Di­a­mond Creek Cow­boy and Big Bluestem: King of the Prairie.

She and her hus­band, John, live on a ranch a few miles west of Elm­dale, Kansas, which is it­self a few miles west of Cot­ton­wood Falls, Kansas, which is it­self pretty far from any­where, but is the home of the loveli­est lit­tle gov­ern­ment build­ing in the coun­try, the Chase County Court­house. We’re two hours south­west of Kansas City, Mis­souri, by car—or more likely by char­coal gray metal­lic F-350 crew cab Pow­er­stroke du­alie with a fifth wheel hitch, two bales of hay and a Rub­ber­maid filled with horse­shoe­ing tools in the bed.

This is the cen­ter of the Flint Hills.

AN­NIE HAS BEEN POINT­ING this out on the map, which she helped de­velop and dis­trib­utes along with les­son plans to re­gional schools and mu­se­ums. The map shows what amounts to the last of the tall­grass prairie in Amer­ica. There used to be 170 mil­lion acres of it from Canada down to Texas. We plowed most of it un­der. Al­most all of it. Out­side a few pre­serves and set-asides, much of what lit­tle is left now oc­cu­pies a 60-milewide wedge of bright green run­ning from about Blue Rapids, Kansas, down to Fair­fax, Ok­la­homa. An­nie’s map de­tails the last few acres of one of earth’s great­est and fastest-dis­ap­pear­ing tem­per­ate grass­lands. For the past 40 years, she and her neigh­bors have been fight­ing like hell—some­times with each other—to keep it in­tact.

The threats to this frag­ile land­scape are many, and im­me­di­ate and far too fa­mil­iar. Real es­tate and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment. Pol­lu­tion. Ex­trac­tion. In­va­sive plants. Cli­mate change. Power gen­er­a­tion, wind farms, oil fields, frack­ing, pipe­lines, dams, high­ways.

Sit­ting at her din­ing room ta­ble, we go through the ecology and the sci­ence and the his­tory of this place, the econ­omy and the ge­ol­ogy and the pol­i­tics, some of which finds its way into the grade-ap­pro­pri­ate les­son plans An­nie writes for the school dis­tricts.

Around 275 mil­lion years ago, Kansas was the east­ern floor of a warm, shal­low body of water cov­er­ing much of what is now the Amer­i­can Mid­west. For hun­dreds of cen­turies, as

Oh, give me a home where the Buf­falo roam

Where the Deer and the An­te­lope play; Where sel­dom is heard a dis­cour­ag­ing word,

And the skies are not cloudy all day.


min­er­als and tiny dead sea crit­ters set­tled to the bot­tom along with their con­tri­bu­tion of cal­cium car­bon­ate, lime­stone was form­ing on the ocean bed. In the cracks and crevices of that lime­stone were the mud­stones and cherts—call them shale and flint—that now make up the soft rock/hard rock layer cake of these hills. Bake for a few mil­lion years. Leave that cake out in the rain long enough and it even­tu­ally erodes into the rounded swells and table­tops and washes we walk to­day.

For thou­sands of years, the first peo­ple of North Amer­ica walked it, and came and went across these sun­shot hills and hol­lows hunt­ing bi­son and elk. Euro­peans even­tu­ally hiked blink­ing out of the claus­tro­pho­bic East­ern forests and by the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, ex­plo­ration here was un­der­way in earnest. In 1806, Ze­bu­lon Pike, foot­sore and no great speller, gave the place its name when not­ing in his jour­nal “Com­menced our march at seven o’clock. Passed very ruff flint hills. My feet blis­tered and very sore.” Down in Ok­la­homa, these are called the Osage Hills and make up a sub­stan­tial part of the land overseen by and un­der the care of the Osage Na­tion. Then and now, from mi­crobes to mi­gra­tory birds, the tall­grass prairie is one of the rich­est, most di­verse ecosys­tems on the con­ti­nent.

By the mid­dle 1800s there were homestead­ers and farm­ers com­ing and go­ing and tear­ing up the prairies with their new­fan­gled steel plows. And once that na­tive grass is plowed, it never comes back as it was. Never. Nor does the habi­tat it pro­vides for in­nu­mer­able species of an­i­mal life. What saved these hills was the flint.

And the shale and the lime­stone. You couldn’t get a plow into it. So the pi­o­neers left the up­lands alone, but tilled most of that rich acreage down in the bot­toms by the rivers and the streams.

Out on the hills they ran cat­tle, and cat­tle mean cow­boys—and in­evitably com­merce and ranches and fences and towns and rail­roads, and the econ­omy and the mythol­ogy of the Flint Hills were well and truly launched by about 1880.

Be­cause it turns out the tall­grass prairie is not only stun­ning, but lus­cious. Cat­tle fat­ten fast here, prof­itably so, and over the years the Flint Hills be­came fa­mous for its vast ranches and tran­sient beef op­er­a­tions. Bring in a herd of mar­ket cat­tle for a few months, fat­ten them up and ship them back out. Part of that has to do with above-av­er­age rain­fall in east­ern Kansas and the way the lime­stone stores or re­dis­tributes it; part of it has to do with the nutri­tive value of those deep-root- ed prairie grasses pulling valu­able pro­teins and min­er­als up to where the cat­tle can make use of them; part has to do with the her­itage of hard work every rancher shares with every other; and part has to do with fire.

In early spring, ranch­ers here burn a re­gional patch­work of pas­ture­land. Flames 30 feet high! Smoke so thick it closes the in­ter­state! A week or two or three later, those black­ened acres come back green and bright as an emer­ald. The new growth is ir­re­sistible to cat­tle. And for thou­sands of years be­fore that, to the buf­falo. Na­tive peo­ple burned the tall­grass too, as an at­tracter for the elk and bi­son they hunted. And fire keeps the prairie from be­ing over­run by trees. Back into pre­his­tory, light­ning did that work.

So earth, air, fire and water. Two hun­dred seventy-five mil­lion years’ worth of it. Makes it seem sim­ple.

But his­tory is ruf­fer even than flint. The death and dis­place­ment of Na­tive Amer­i­cans in ser­vice of “Man­i­fest Des­tiny” or free en­ter­prise or pri­vate prop­erty can­not be ig­nored. Nor can the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of de­vel­op­ment and profit-tak­ing on these last few acres of one of the coun­try’s great­est trea­sures. This is some of the most con­tested ground in Amer­ica.

The fight among ranch­ers and farm­ers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and politi­cians and en­ergy pro­duc­ers will never be com­pletely set­tled. But last­ing al­liances and a lot of progress have been made lately. For ex­am­ple, it seems in­tu­itive that ranch­ers were the most nat­u­ral stew­ards of the re­main­ing tall­grass, and stood to ben­e­fit most by its care­ful man­age­ment. As con­ser­va­tion­ists learned not to vil­lainize them, but rather to work with them and guide them to best prac­tices—and the ranch­ers learned to lis­ten and com­pro­mise—they all found them­selves on the same side. Part­ner­ships be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate in­ter­ests, sci­en­tists and politi­cians, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy have been help­ing pro­tect more and more land here by lim­it­ing de­vel­op­ment with con­ser­va­tion ease­ments. The ease­ments are vol­un­tary and legally bind­ing. They place per­ma­nent re­stric­tions on how landown­ers can use pri­vate prop­erty, by spec­i­fy­ing which re­sources are to be pro­tected. They’ve been an el­e­gant an­swer in a po­lar­iz­ing de­bate. But the es­sen­tial ten­sion be­tween profit and preser­va­tion is a con­stant. The prairie only feels in­fi­nite. It is not.

An­nie’s quiet for a minute. The din­ing room is lined with fam­ily pho­tos. Just then she says, “I think that our best hope

through all this is ed­u­ca­tion. I feel like what can bring us to­gether, what we can do, is find com­mon ground, and that is our love of the land. I re­ally be­lieve all of the sides do love the land.”

Where the Buf­falo Roam

BRIAN OBERMEYER , bearded and af­fa­ble, is the Flint Hills project di­rec­tor at the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy (TNC). Kris­ten Hase, of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, is the chief of nat­u­ral re­sources and act­ing su­per­in­ten­dent of the Tall­grass Prairie Na­tional Pre­serve. Her ranger hat is per­fect. They run the Pre­serve to­gether.

This is where the buf­falo roam.

The Pre­serve used to be the old Z Bar Ranch. Be­fore that it was the Spring Hill Ranch, and it’s a beauty. More than 10,000 acres of rolling tall­grass, a lime­stone man­sion with a gi­ant lime­stone barn, and its own herd of Amer­i­can bi­son. About a hun­dred head. It be­came a na­tional pre­serve in 1996. Hase and Obermeyer go back and forth like old col­lege chums from Em­po­ria State, which is what they are.

“It is a unique pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship be­tween NPS and TNC,” says Obermeyer. “We’re the third pri­vate landowner since es­tab­lish­ment of the Pre­serve. Be­fore that, it was in the Na­tional Park Trust, and they ran into some fi­nan­cial chal­lenges and so TNC stepped in and ac­quired the prop­erty. It’s a nearly 11,000-acre prop­erty, and the Park Ser­vice owns only about 34 acres, but the en­tire prop­erty is a unit of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

“Nancy Kasse­baum pro­posed this idea of a new model for the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, where the park’s pri­vately owned and the gov­ern­ment can­not own more than 180 acres of this park.

“The ranches see the ad­van­tage of the preser­va­tion. Be­cause that’s agree­able to the an­cient prac­tice of the bi­son. They’re go­ing to move across the land, and they’re go­ing to eat and eat and eat, and then they’re go­ing to go away. Then things will burn in the spring, and then they’ll come back in the next. That’s the clas­sic cy­cle, and the ranch­ers go along with that be­cause that’s how they do their work any­way.

“Al­to­gether, I think we’re at about 110,000 acres of con­ser­va­tion ease­ments in the Flint Hills. The goal for the Flint Hills Legacy Con­ser­va­tion Area is to even­tu­ally have 1.1 mil­lion acres of con­ser­va­tion ease­ments in the Flint Hills.”


for the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy in Kansas. His smile is a bea­con and his dress shirt is pressed to crisp per­fec­tion. And his con­cerns for the Flint Hills are pres­sure from wind en­ergy and agri­cul­tural en­croach­ments and water pol­lu­tion and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment and the oil busi­ness and nui­sance plants and in­va­sive species like John­son grass and East­ern red cedar and honey lo­cust and smooth sumac and hu­mans.

If you stop the burns, the whole prairie will be lost to trees in 30 to 50 years. But if you burn too much too of­ten, you de­stroy habi­tat for threat­ened species like the lesser prairie chicken. If you graze off or plow un­der too much of the na­tive grasses, maybe those fields come back choked with less pal- at­able, less nu­tri­tious Old World bluestems, in­tro­duced by us 100 years ago for for­age and to con­trol ero­sion and now ev­ery­where along the road­sides and fence lines.

Big bluestem, sci­en­tific name An­dro­pogon ger­ardii, is the King Kong of the Flint Hills, the an­chor grass. Its roots and tillers lit­er­ally hold these hills to­gether, a web trav­el­ing deep into the rock and soil, grip­ping the flint and sta­bi­liz­ing the sub­struc­ture while pump­ing mois­ture and min­eral-rich nu­tri­ents up to the blades—there to be eaten by the beef or the bi­son or the woolly mam­moth. It is a thing to see. Walk­ing in an un­cropped field, an un­grazed tall­grass pas­ture on a hill­side in the wind, is like swim­ming in a soft green sea.

Late-ar­riv­ing grasses with names like vil­lains from “Game of Thrones,” Bothri­ochloa blad­hii and Chlo­ris ver­ti­cil­lata— Cau­casian bluestem and wind­mill grass—crowd out the na­tive tall­grass. Push down hard on a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion here, and a thornier new prob­lem pops up over there. Worst case? The whole prairie col­lapses in a cou­ple of decades.

Na­ture is per­fect. But once touched, how do we un­touch it? And yet Manes, em­phat­i­cally, is an op­ti­mist. “We don’t have to have the sci­ence per­fect. We don’t have to have per­fect an­swers. We don’t have to get the eco­nom­ics per­fect. We just gotta get close and get started. Most of the agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers, most of the in­dus­try folks are ready to go. I know we’re bet­ter peo­ple than to pass on an easy op­por­tu­nity like this. The same is true with agri­cul­ture as it is with re­new­able en­ergy and cli­mate change. We can fix this stuff. The foothills don’t have to dis­ap­pear into a boil­ing cli­mate, or the dust of a plow. The foothills can be here for our great-great-grand­chil­dren.”

Jim Hoy is a well-re­garded author and folk­lorist and pro­fes­sor, with a doc­tor­ate in Me­dieval and Re­nais­sance English lit­er­a­ture. Ask if you should call him “doc­tor,” he will in­sist you call him Jim. He helped to pop­u­lar­ize the phrase most folks in the Flint Hills use to de­scribe the sub­tle beauty of the place: “The Rocky Moun­tains take your breath away. The Flint Hills let you catch your breath.” His son Josh runs the fam­ily ranch, which fat­tens cat­tle and slen­der­izes dudes. They run 250 head of longhorn, and maybe 1,200 year­ling cat­tle. Va­ca­tion­ers come here to ride and ranch a week or two at a time. Tall­grass leg­end has it that Ze­bu­lon Pike was sit­ting on their prop­erty when he made that Flint Hills jour­nal en­try. Josh is mar­ried to Gwen, and they both wear the big straw hats fa­vored here against the sun. And Josh, with his brush mus­tache and wirerim glasses, bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to young Teddy Roo­sevelt.

“I’d like to be a cow­boy,” Josh says, “but I have too much debt and too many ul­cers. I’m not re­ally a cat­tle­man. . . . I’m a rancher. I care more about the grass, I love cat­tle, I love horses and all that, but it’s the land I’m most con­cerned about.

“We’ve put con­ser­va­tion ease­ments on all the acres we can, that we ac­tu­ally own and con­trol, which isn’t enough, but it’s some. But yeah, the gen­er­a­tional trans­fer in this gen­er­a­tion and the next gen­er­a­tion af­ter that com­ing up is gonna dras­ti­cally change this land­scape, be­cause right now land is re­ally start­ing to turn over in this area. A lot of older ab­sen­tee landown­ers are sell­ing off to liq­ui­date funds and stuff and it’s gonna change things.

“There’s a depth of knowl­edge that’s al­ready dis­ap­pear­ing.”

Where the Deer and the An­te­lope Play

CHRIST Y DAVIS IS ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Sym­phony in the Flint Hills non­profit. She worked at the Kansas His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and runs a preser­va­tion busi­ness, too, and owns what may be the most charm­ing laun­dro­mat in Amer­ica just across the street. Over steak salad at the Grand Cen­tral Ho­tel in Cot­ton­wood Falls, she gets right to the point. “To me, the Flint Hills is a re­ally big cul­tural land­scape. What I do every day is help pre­serve this mas­sive cul­tural land­scape that’s prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant cul­tural re­source in the state, maybe in the coun­try. Our event cel­e­brates this place, but never for­get that it’s im­por­tant to pro­tect the place that we’re cel­e­brat­ing— with the idea that it’s taken 20,000 years to be­come this place and we can screw it up in 30.”

That said, how do they get the Kansas City Sym­phony Orches­tra and a gi­ant stage and six or seven thou­sand peo­ple from the mid­dle of some­where to the mid­dle of nowhere?

“The stage comes on one trailer,” says site co­or­di­na­tor Bill Hart­nett. “All the au­dio and light­ing equip­ment comes in five 26-foot box trucks. So, all in all, the heavy equip­ment, it’s about 70 to 80 trucks in and then turn around and leave, and 70 to 80 come back to pick it all up and take it away. And 60 to 70 struc­tures. Park­ing for 3,000 cars.” The site changes every year.

“We started planning for 2019 months ago.”

BACK UP THE HIGH­WAY in Kansas City there is a lun­cheon for the Sym­phony in the Flint Hills board and a re­hearsal for the KCSO and guest artist Aoife O’Dono­van. Af­ter their re­hearsal in the Kauff­man Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, Ja­son Se­ber, as­so­ciate con­duc­tor of the KCSO, who will lead the orches­tra the night of the Flint Hills con­cert, talks about the spe­cific chal­lenges of that venue.

“The heat—and the wind espe­cially—make things chal­leng­ing just be­cause mu­sic is blow­ing all over the place. Any time you’re in an out­door en­vi­ron­ment like that, espe­cially one that is not a per­ma­nent struc­ture, it’s not like a con­cert hall, where you have all those acous­tics built in so we can hear each other well.”

Evan Hal­loin, dou­ble bassist, agrees. “It’s harder to keep the bass in tune be­cause as it warms up, it ex­pands a lit­tle bit, and the bow. . . . So I don’t know if this is too tech­ni­cal, but we put rosin on our bow, and it’s like . . . at room tem­per­a­ture, it’s like pow­der, and then when it gets a lit­tle warmer, it turns into liq­uid, and it’s just like . . . it’s harder to grip the string. But there’s noth­ing you can do about it. You just play through it.” Susie Yang and Mered­ith McCook are cel­lists.

“One time,” Susie re­calls, “it was very windy and an­other cel- list’s mu­sic flew off. So he jumped off the stage with his cello, got the mu­sic, got back on­stage and started play­ing. I al­ways hope for wind be­cause the stag­nant heat is what can re­ally get you.”

“And they al­ways have horses in the dis­tance,” Mered­ith says, “with the sun set­ting while we’re play­ing. So it’s al­ways very beau­ti­ful. It’s a very one-of-a-kind ex­pe­ri­ence for us. And for the au­di­ence, I think.”

“It’s kind of like when I go out to the Grand Canyon,” adds Lawrence Figg, also a cel­list. “You lose your­self. You’re sud­denly much smaller than any­thing you can imag­ine in the uni­verse. You’re one with this huge land­scape. I mean, talk about big sky. When I say big sky, that’s a big sky. You be­come so tiny. As soon as you get out there.” He’s played every one of these Flint Hills con­certs.

So has vi­o­lin­ist Alex Shum. “Even on the way driv­ing out there, I be­gin to breathe deeper and I feel more ex­pan­sive. The cow­boy mu­sic, the Amer­i­cana mu­sic, the view, the hori­zon: So you sit out there, en­joy the space, soak in the mu­sic. I think you just feel re­ju­ve­nated.

“I joined the orches­tra in 1978, al­most 40 years I’ve been here. I grew up in Hong Kong, build­ings, no space. I couldn’t be­lieve there’s such an area. Lim­it­less. You see as far as the eyes can see. No trees, no houses.”

Where Sel­dom Is Heard a Dis­cour­ag­ing Word

THE FLINT HILLS Na­tional Scenic By­way, Kansas Route 177, runs north-south from Council Grove down to Cas­so­day. It is an as­ton­ish­ment. Don’t hurry. You’ll find your­self pulling over more than once to take ad­van­tage of what the lo­cals call the view­shed.

And while this land de­mands to be walked, to be lived on, to be felt un­der your feet or gal­loped across, to drive these rolling hills at dawn or at dusk un­der a sky the color of saf­fron feels like the kind of proto-road trip that speaks to a mythol­ogy as pow­er­ful as that of the lone­some cow­boy: cars and land­scapes and speed. This isn’t the zom­bie driv­ing we com­plain about on Mid­west­ern in­ter­states. It’s more like find­ing your­self in the clos­ing scene of your own movie, or brushed into a paint­ing by Ge­orge Caleb Bing­ham. That light!

Win­dows down and the clean rush of air over the car, the cool and the shad­ows com­ing off the hills, the bird­song in the dis­tance and the smooth turn­ing of the world be­neath you feels like a kind of op­ti­mism. And in those mo­ments you can find in your­self a re­minder of why so many for so long came west. From Europe, from the coast, from the East—the East with its Park Av­enue aris­toc­racy and its fac­to­ries and its smokestacks, its board­rooms and its bar­ren fish­eries and ex­hausted forests, its hedge funds and its courtiers and its pedi­cures. Some­how,

the East has al­ways felt used up, at once cor­rupt and cor­rupt­ing.

But, oh, the West! The West is some­how al­ways new, still fresh, still green. The fron­tier closed more than 100 years ago, but the West of our imag­i­na­tion re­mains pris­tine and un­pop­u­lated. The il­lu­sion of which is our true in­her­i­tance. No mat­ter the re­al­ity, the West is al­ways Amer­ica’s sec­ond chance.

Thus in the glow of myth and morn­ing it’s easy to for­get that en­ergy ex­trac­tion is the other big lo­cal busi­ness. It’s powering the car you’re rid­ing in! It em­ploys a lot of peo­ple here­abouts and pays out a lot on oil and gas leases to farm­ers and ranch­ers. The Koch brothers’ em­pire got its start just up the road, in fact, and their Flint Hills Re­sources com­pany is head­quar­tered over in Wi­chita. And a lot of that oil and a lot of that gas sits right un­der the Flint Hills.

So, to para­phrase Ben Franklin, the tall­grass prairie is an Eden—if you can keep it.

ELEXA DAW­SON is dark-eyed and wears a sin­gle mom’s ex­pres­sion of tired amuse­ment. We sat and talked at the Hoys’ place over in Cedar Point. She lives on the other side of the county with her two daugh­ters, one of whom, 7-year-old Rose­mary, has just fin­ished telling us she can drive a skid loader and is a great dancer. Elexa holds down two part-time jobs—bar­tend­ing at Ad As­tra up in Strong City, and at Mul­ready’s over in Em­po­ria. She’s also the lead singer and song­writer of the Skirts—whose man­dolin player is An­nie Wil­son’s daugh­ter, Emily—a pop­u­lar lo­cal acous­tic roots band that just re­leased their sec­ond al­bum, Mother. She’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist, too.

Just about a year ago she raised ob­jec­tions to a pro­posed waste­water in­jec­tion well out near Di­a­mond Creek, not far from the Tall­grass Prairie Pre­serve. Along with sev­eral other women she was crowd­fund­ing a le­gal cam­paign to op­pose the high-pres­sure in­jec­tion of salt­wa­ter—5,000 bar­rels of it a day—deep into the lime­stone. A con­se­quence of which is of­ten “hu­man-in­duced seis­mic ac­tiv­ity.” Earth­quakes. They lost, but the Flint Hills Stew­ards were born.

“Also there are en­hanced oil-re­cov­ery wells, where they’re push­ing fresh­wa­ter of­ten into the earth down way below the water ta­ble, to ex­tract oil and salt­wa­ter. The water usu­ally doesn’t get re­cy­cled but put back down into these holes.

“So we’re pol­lut­ing and de­plet­ing all of this water to get just a lit­tle bit of oil out of the ground. We are go­ing to start talk­ing to the ru­ral water dis­tricts that are sell­ing the water—to pres­sure them as con­sumers, to get them to stop sell­ing it.”

Elexa wor­ries about oil com­pany earth­quakes and pol­luted agribusi­ness runoff and wind farms and pes­ti­cides. Elexa is Na­tive Amer­i­can—Potawatomi—and this is her home.

For hun­dreds of years, the Osage and the Wi­chita, the Pawnee and the Kansa—the Peo­ple of the Southwind—all made their homes along the streams and rivers here, un­til forced far­ther south onto ever-shrink­ing hold­ings by set­tlers from the east. These were their com­mu­nal hunt­ing grounds and to­day are lit­tered ev­ery­where with knapped flint ar­row­heads. By the end of the 19th cen­tury, the Kansa were mostly gone from Kansas. Re­lo­cated to Ok­la­homa. This place is crowded with old ghosts.

“I have to take the time to re­store my spirit and then go back out and re­sist again,” she says. “I need to spend time ob­serv­ing the prairie and ob­serv­ing the animals and plants that are there and undis­turbed. Get­ting to es­cape and be in that place is very restora­tive for me. I think it emp­ties my head, re­stores my soul, fills my heart. Be­ing in that space helps me keep my calm cen­ter, al­ways re­mem­ber­ing, ‘OK, I’m not sup­posed to save the world, but I do have to do my lit­tle part, and I know why I’m do­ing it.’ The prairie is def­i­nitely the in­spi­ra­tion for all of it, the rea­son for the ac­tivism, for ev­ery­thing.”

And the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day

THE CON­CERT THIS YEAR , lucky num­ber 13, is down in But­ler County, on the Rosalia Ranch of the Gottsch Cat­tle Com­pany. The site takes up a cou­ple hun­dred acres on the vast prop­erty. In fact the ranch is nearly the same size as the Tall­grass Prairie Pre­serve, 10,000 acres.

Lon­nie and Car­los are vol­un­teers. “This is my 12th year,” Lon­nie says. “My fa­vorite part is when they play the last tunes, and they drive the cat­tle across the prairie. . . . I don’t care how many times you’ve seen it, it just takes your breath away.”

“Do you cry at the singing of ‘Home on the Range’?” Car­los asks. “No, I’m past that.”

“You’re a hard man, Lon­nie.”


“THE FLIN T HILLS ARE AMA ZING,” says for­mer Kansas gov­er­nor and for­mer Sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Kath­leen Se­be­lius. “You can see what First Amer­i­cans saw on the prairie, with na­tive grasses and wildlife. I knew what a trea­sure this land was in the heart­land.” Sym­phony in the Flint Hills be­gan un­der her ten­ure as gov­er­nor. She and then-Se­na­tor Nancy Kasse­baum worked to se­cure the Tall­grass Prairie Na­tional Pre­serve and col­lab­o­rated with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy to make sure that the park and sur­round­ing lands were pro­tected.

“One of the chal­lenges,” says Se­be­lius, “was nav­i­gat­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate bal­ance—we were able to se­cure with an agree­ment with util­ity com­pa­nies not to pur­chase wind en­ergy within a cer­tain bound­ary, de­fined by al­ready paved roads, and with landown­ers who agreed to the preser­va­tion area and to pro­mote the vol­un­tary bound­aries.

“Se­na­tor Nancy Kasse­baum was a cham­pion for mak­ing sure that the fi­nances would sup­port the park area from be­ing sold and de­vel­oped.”

Maybe it is enough to say of Se­na­tor Kasse­baum, now 86, and the causes and con­ser­va­tion she cham­pi­oned, that when she re­tired from Wash­ing­ton, when she came home, she set­tled here, in the Flint Hills, in the quiet of the tall­grass, not far from Council Grove.

Due re­spect to every man in Kansas, it feels like women made this hap­pen.

THE DAY IS COV­ERED WAGONS AND COW­BOYS, horses and cat­tle, wind and sun. There’s a gi­ant, labyrinthine story cir­cle made of straw bales. Over there, just on the brow of that

hill, tent talks from na­tional experts on tall­grass and water (this year’s theme) and wa­ter­ways and fresh­wa­ter mus­sels and the lit­tle sil­ver fish found here­abouts, Topeka shin­ers. An­nie Wil­son and her band, the Tall­grass Ex­press, are walk­ing around.

There are food tents and bev­er­age tents and tents for the pa­trons and tents for the lec­tures and a tent for kids to try mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. There’s a stargaz­ing tent with tele­scopes the size of Civil War ar­tillery pieces, and long lines of peo­ple ask­ing ques­tions like “Is that Venus?” (yes). “Can I see the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion?” (no). There are tents for cook­ies and water and fold­ing chairs, first aid and emer­gen­cies and guided prairie walks. They’ll all van­ish in a day or two.

It’s Bri­gadoon. By way of Werner Her­zog.

There’s a me­dia tent, too, where the young, avid writ­ers and artists and pho­tog­ra­phers of the Flint Hills Me­dia Project come and go. They pro­duce a stun­ning an­nual jour­nal of the event. There’s an art tent, of course, be­cause in ad­di­tion to beef and grain, the Amer­i­can prairie has pro­duced art and artists in great abun­dance. Some­thing in that pow­er­ful iso­la­tion, maybe, the pro­found soli­tude of the plains, puts an artist in mind of heaven and earth and our place in things. Gwen­dolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes and W. Eu­gene Smith and Gor­don Parks and Char­lie Parker and Wil­liam Bur­roughs are all con­nected to Kansas. The tall­grass prairie and the Flint Hills stand as their own sub­cat­e­gory of the Kansas arts, in every medium from mu­sic and po­etry to pot­tery and pho­tog­ra­phy and plein air paint­ing. By ac­cla­ma­tion, the great­est work of art ever pro­duced in the Flint Hills is 1991’s PrairyErth, by Wil­liam Least Heat-Moon. “If you draw two lines from the metropoli­tan cor­ners of Amer­ica,” he wrote, “one from New York City south­west to San Diego, and an­other from Mi­ami north­west to Seat­tle, the in­ter­sec­tion would fall a few miles from my po­si­tion.” A wide, deep ex­plo­ration of Chase County, it re­mains a canon­i­cal work of 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can non­fic­tion. The Flint Hills Quilt Trail is worth trav­el­ing, as well.

The con­cert pro­gram tonight blends Aaron Co­p­land and John Wil­liams with Peggy Coolidge and Peter Boyer and Bedrich Smetana. The orches­tra is in re­mark­able tune and the sky is a Max­field Par­rish wash of turquoise and or­ange, and Aoife O’Dono­van has a voice like clear water from a sil­ver pitcher. The au­di­ence is rap­tur­ous.

And why not? As Ja­son Se­ber says, “We try to pro­gram this con­cert so that it has a nice mix be­tween the stan­dard clas­si­cal reper­toire and some off-the-beaten-path pieces by ma­jor com­posers such as Aaron Co­p­land; pieces that don’t nor­mally get pro­grammed in the con­cert hall, but are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the land­scape. The theme this year was Wa­ter­ways, so we ended up pro­gram­ming that Rolling River (Sketches on “Shenan­doah”). In gen­eral, we’re think­ing of what kind of mu­sic is go- ing to be peace­ful like the prairie, and ex­pan­sive, open, wide.”

And Peter Boyer’s reimag­ined Shenan­doah— and the Smetana and the Co­p­land—all suc­ceed tonight, wildly so, in part be­cause each is fa­mil­iar and lyri­cal with­out ever seem­ing shop­worn. Ev­ery­one knows this mu­sic with­out know­ing it. Smetana, a Czech, was de­scrib­ing in The Moldau the flow of the river Vl­tava through the coun­try­side on its way to the city of Prague. Tonight his mu­sic is the wind across this green sea. Co­p­land, Amer­ica’s most em­phat­i­cally Amer­i­can sym­phonic com­poser, has man­aged in every mo­ment of The Red Pony to cap­ture na­ture in art. “Morn­ing on the Ranch” is au­di­bly, rec­og­niz­ably ex­actly that to every rancher in this au­di­ence.

The sig­na­ture show­stop­per from the time of the found­ing is the “Home on the Range” sin­ga­long clos­ing the night. At that mo­ment, Beethoven, Brahms or Bach have noth­ing on Dr. Brew­ster Higley, a Kansas trans­plant who com­posed it as a poem for his lo­cal news­pa­per in 1873 or so. Set to mu­sic by a neigh­bor, Daniel Kel­ley, and many times re­vised and re­ar­ranged since, it was made the Kansas state song in 1947. It is a thing to see 6,000 Kansans singing and sway­ing in the twi­light. Tears welling, throats catch­ing, the only hitch this year are the cat­tle. A dozen or so cow­boys are meant to drive the pic­turesque lit­tle herd across a hill ad­ja­cent to the stage, but this year the beef are un­co­op­er­a­tive, and stub­bornly head wrong­wise back the other way. Still, the sky is afire and O’Dono­van’s voice cools a fevered world as she leads a joy­ful cho­rus in melody and sol­i­dar­ity. Turns out the ones like­li­est to smile/ cry are the old ranch­ers them­selves, and tears stream down those raw­boned cheeks unashamed. Folks head up the aisles, wip­ing their eyes.

“I thought it was great. The mu­si­cians, they’re world class. Them play­ing out here is a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“The land­scape is what’s so amaz­ing, be­cause it’s Kansas and we think that it’s flat and it’s not.” “Yep.”

“It’s not flat at all.”

“The soloist was, oh my gosh, her voice was just mag­i­cal, ab­so­lutely mag­i­cal.”

“I DIDN ’ T KNOW what to ex­pect,” O’Dono­van says af­ter­ward. “I don’t think I could have pos­si­bly re­al­ized how cool it was gonna be un­til I was ac­tu­ally singing ‘Home on the Range’ as the sun was set­ting. It was re­ally in­cred­i­ble.

“I had no idea some­thing like that ex­isted. Just kind of flab­ber­gasted. More than any­thing I was struck by the sheer beauty and grandeur of the land­scape and the fact that there’s an or­ga­ni­za­tion that gets an en­tire orches­tra to the mid­dle of the prairie, and there’s just this big com­mu­nity event. I felt like the peo­ple in the tall­grass prairie just had this love for the place. This want to re­vi­tal­ize,

and for com­mu­nity that you find in re­ally re­mote places. Even though it’s ac­tu­ally not that re­mote, we were only a cou­ple of hours from Kansas City.

“Usu­ally when I’ve done big or­ches­tral out­door con­certs, I think peo­ple are there more to have a pic­nic, or chat with friends. Peo­ple were re­ally tak­ing in the mu­sic in a way that of­ten out­door au­di­ences don’t.

“I’m not sure why that was. Maybe just the fact that they were within this in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral am­phithe­ater. But they were re­ally lis­ten­ing. As a per­former, look­ing out and see­ing peo­ple re­spond­ing to the mu­sic was as much of a gift as the beauty of the place.”

And with that, O’Dono­van heads back out on the road.

THERE’S A LONG LINE for the tele­scopes at the stargaz­ing tent. There’s the western swing trio Hot Club of Cow­town in the dance tent. There are cow­boy po­ets in the story cir­cle, and cow­boy singers and cow­boy lis­ten­ers and cow­boy hats and cow­boy boots. Belt buckles big as the queen’s tea ser­vice. The stars fan out across the sky and ev­ery­where you turn there are slow-dancers and hand-hold­ers, bare-shoul­dered two-step­pers and sly stolen-kissers, wan­der­ers and wagon rid­ers, all be­neath a scimitar of cres­cent moon.

An hour or two later you’ll see Ja­son Se­ber in line at the McDon­ald’s down in El Do­rado. Dou­ble Quar­ter Pounder Value Meal. “I think we played pretty well,” he’ll tell you.

Peo­ple head for their cars to wait out the traf­fic. The road and the world seem far away. That’s it. That’s the end.

Home, Home on the Range


It’s qui­eter now. Most folks are gone and just a few feet from the tents or the stage the light falls off un­til the world goes black. You step out into it. Some­where be­hind you in the dark, An­nie Wil­son sings on.

An­nie Wil­son, the of­fi­cial Flint Hills Bal­ladeer, has traveled to 183 re­gional schools, pre­sent­ing her grass­landsen­vi­ron­men­tal cur­ricu­lum.

Trav­el­ers ar­riv­ing at the Tall­grass Prairie Na­tional Pre­serve board buses for nar­rated tours or hike 40 miles of trails criss­cross­ing the open space.

The en­trance to the per­for­mance siteat Rosalia Ranch. Since 2006, the con­cert has at­tracted an au­di­ence ofal­most 80,000.

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