Beyond the Commonplace: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 'Kansas is boring', declares the beleaguered traveler. The declaration seems justified by the expanse of drought swollen farmlands along commuter-choked highways but the expression is short-sighted; usually, it means the traveler has never ventured further than the freeway. The French painter Camille Pissarro: 'Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing'.

'On a clear day of summer along this section of highway 50 (the Flint Hills of Kansas), the world changes in a few miles from green to blue, from shadows to nearly unbroken sunlight, from intermittent breezes to a wind blowing steadily as if out of the lungs of the universe.' - PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

tallgrass prairie endangered ecosystemOur continent's most endangered ecosystem, the tallgrass prairie (America's grassland) has shriveled to only 5% of its former glory (the map image at left is from Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie). It is as if a horde of invaders slowly consumed the former empire, devouring its majestic sprawl, one paved asphalt assault at a time. I once wrote about this conflicted aspect of conurbation, my struggle with progress versus preservation and the need for protecting nature from our own relentless consumption. I don't think I am alone in the dichotomous feelings one has, benefiting from the amplitude of the 21st century at the expense of our consumptive ways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Flint Hills of Kansas and the Osage Hills of Oklahoma are, in a sense, our tropical rainforests, our delicate ecosystem of the plains. The elegant tallgrass can grow up to ten feet in height, so high that Indians would at times resort to standing on their horses to see ahead. These photos are from two separate visits to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, so taken was I by this pulchritude of the ordinary that I had to return, and will return again (and again).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On one hike, I took a meandering ramble across multiple rolling hills hoping to reach the zenith of a vista so that I could survey the area in its entirety. After a ten mile excursion, I realized that everywhere I turned was a vista. Far from flat, the rolling hills resemble undulate ocean waves, relentless intervals pealing in roils of pristine landscape, untouched, unscathed, untrodden by the wheels of progress.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is incredibly difficult to encapsulate the majesty of the tallgrass prairie. A friend stated it is like capturing the grandeur of a mountain. I feebly attempted to capture (through my lens) the vastness that surrounded me. I wanted to bottle the fragrant prairie wind-waves that banked upon you like drifts of snow, I wanted to take the one true picture of my life, one that reflected, in a snap, natural beauty in unvarnished essence. At one moment, I turned my head and saw behind me a few horses crossing the pasture. At the back of the photo (above) you can barely make out the silhouette of four or five deer against the treeline, their bodies lit like small amber flames by the setting sun. The drone of cars was conspicuously absent as if human machinations were held at bay by the immensity of the sky. Perhaps 'fly over country' is not an insult after all ...

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

'All art is but imitation of nature', writes Seneca. I understand the vision of the impressionists as I survey this wondrous landscape. I picture them, perched beside the Seine or in a French pasture, easel and paints at the ready, brushstrokes being applied in dots, inches, and mini-strokes, hurriedly daubing the prismatic colors hoping to yield the exact effect of glint from the sun across water, golden amber-light delicately bending the grasses, the multitudinous shades of shadow and light. 'The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life (William Faulkner).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The allure of homesteading is at its most provocative at sunset as the fulgent orb drifts into the corner pocket of the west and the resplendent grass unfurls in virescent, verdant colors, magnanimously yielding tones from every color spectrum in the sky. The tops of the grasses take a subtle form of light, dusted with the salt of the earth as light-mist settles over the plains. It is easy to see why our Indian brethren believed in ancestral spirits. Perhaps they drew strength and solace from moments like these, drifting with the sun into night's slumber, the image of the downy plains speaking peace and comfort ... 'a landscape that is incomparable, a time that is gone forever, and the human spirit which endures.' (N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Buffalo roam these plains, their hewn-curved paths drifting in strands across the grassy-embroidered lowlands. Though I didn't see them, I heard their bellows and lowing. I was anxious to stumble across them over each next rise, my western upbringing reminding me to respectfully keep my distance. Occasionally, I would cross a large, round indention in the supple grass where a bison had once reposed. The grasses here begin to bear the brunt of summer's scorn but I am reminded that 'Autumn is the mind's true Spring' (Cyril Connolly).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

'I know a man who runs every morning. He runs into the foothills, where there are deep, many-colored folds in the earth, and there are many more rabbits than people. The running, it may be, satisfies some longing in his breast.' - N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When beauty reaches great subtlety, the Japanese call the effect 'Shibui' - restrained elegance. - Richard Kehl

All photos were taken with my mirrorless Olympus E-PL5.

About this photo series: Beyond the Commonplace.