I have been grateful for the opportunity to be back in Kansas for a few days. Sure, its governor and legislature may be competing with Virginia's to see which can embarrass me most, but it still feels like home in Lawrence even though we only lived there four years.
But I was also happy, as it turned out, that the presbytery meeting at which I was considered as a candidate for ordination (for which I was approved, thankyouverymuch) was in Manhattan. For one, it gave me the chance to do a little humor by wearing a purplish dress shirt and claiming it was in the name of "peacemaking," and for the other, it brought me a little closer to some of my favorite land on the face of this country.
Once while driving from Kansas City to Salina for a concert (yes, that sounds backwards, but it was an American music concert), I was struck by a particular moment when light and landscape combined to overwhelm me. I was, unbeknownst to me, passing through the Flint Hills, essentially the last bit of hilly terrain before the flatness of western Kansas takes over. The time of year and time of day conspired to dazzle me with shimmering golden color washing, oh so briefly, over the landscape. I actually had to pull off I-70 to take it in.
Today the sky offered no sunlight, and I was in a slightly different place; this particular patch of land is part of the Konza Prairie, a fringe of the Flint Hills set aside as a research preserve. The research encompasses factors from the biodiversity of the region to the long-term effects of such phenomena as fire, drought, or animal grazing.
Sadly, there were no bison in evidence today.
For this native easterner, this particular region keeps touching something in me that just doesn't respond to the kind of nature one gets back east, with the possible exception of the Okeefenokee Swamp or something similar; something that has resisted the encroachments of humanity to a degree that the land around it has not. It also works differently than larger, more obvious features like the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers or the Grand Canyon. The Konza Prairie and the Flint Hills are subtle; they don't trumpet their majestic grandeur like some natural entitlement. You have to let it soak in.
No one would suggest these are majestic mountains, but these hills and ravines were enough to thwart the plows that broke the plains. They also harbor over six hundred different varieties of plant life and an array of animal types including the aforementioned bison.
I think what keeps striking me about this patch of scraggly prairie is its rawness. The east is all polish and spoilage. Even the historic sites that dot more or less the entire state of Virginia represent something that got tamed, domesticated, spoiled. On the other hand, the sheer grandiosity of Grand Canyons or Rocky Mountains is nature gotten cocky, the ecological version of the braggart who won't shut up about how cool or how awesome he is. Not so the prairie; it is a test of your ability to be still and listen, to shut your mouth and open your eyes and let nature be subtle and surprising; a test of your ability or willingness to see beauty in something raw and scraggly and unprepossessing, and yet possessed of a wealth of hidden treasure.
It would be supremely arrogant of me to pretend this bit of rambling and these bad iPhone pictures will convince anyone of anything. I can only offer it as just one corner of the appeal this region has and will continue to have for me. There are a lot of factors that have conspired to draw me to this northern corner of a state I only lived in for four years and which yet feels strongly home-like. There are many people and other places that play a large and central part in that. (But to be honest, trying to explain the appeal of funky, fun, stick-out-like-a-blue-thumb Lawrence would take a whole series of entries here.) This particular patch of land a good solid hour and a half west of Lawrence fits into the picture somehow, and I'm glad today's business took me back to it, if only for a few minutes from a viewing stand on a windy, chilly Kansas afternoon.