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© Scott Jost
In pre-dawn January darkness I set out on the county highway from Newton, Kansas, where I grew up, toward Kansas City and a flight that will take me back to Virginia where I live. Past Elbing, I almost recognize a slight shift from black below to black inflected by azure above. Miles pass, and blue and black resolve into separate fields. At the stop sign for U.S. 77, an orange edge has established itself, announcing the horizon. Reaching Cassoday, dawn transitions from red orange to deep blue through a transitional sky space that is both orange and blue but neither orange nor blue. I've arrived in the Flint Hills, a rolling expanse of native grasses and plants that, at nearly 10,000 square miles, is the largest remnant of an unplowed tallgrass prairie that once extended from Texas into Canada.

On any day, including blinding summer days when car doors flies open and hot wind scoops you out of the car, the Flint Hills are intensely beautiful. Once while driving a narrow gravel road through freshly burned grassland, a single native redbud in full bloom appeared in a blaze of magenta against the charcoal black hillside. Another time, at night, my flight descended through spring thunderstorms over Chase County while approaching the airport in Wichita. For just a moment, winding ribbons of fire on the prairie below appeared through an opening in thunderheads, illuminated all around by blue-white flashes of lightning. Never a fan of flying, I was so overcome by beauty that I forgot to worry.

These encounters with fire, or the reminders of fire, in the Flint Hills are, for me, intensely aesthetic. But they are more than that. They are reminders that, for millennia, the Flint Hills has been the site of reciprocal relationships between land and humans who tended the prairie, nurturing plants, animals, and people in the process. Fire burned away dead plant matter, invasives, and scrub, refreshing native perennials that, in turn, attract grazing animals. Fire, as a renewing and sustaining process, was adopted by Native Americans, then much more recently by cattle ranchers.

I am easily enamored of places of all kinds, and those of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, my adopted home, now occupy me the most. The Flint Hills, though, provided my earliest awareness that pristine landscapes are also human landscapes. The small remaining fragments, and the people who continue to steward them, demand our deep respect.

Back in the car after a stop for gas at the Matfield Green Service Area, the light of approaching dawn blazes through billows of dried grass on either side of the Kansas Turnpike, and I feel once again as if I am flying low, approaching home.

Copyright © 2020 Scott Jost. All rights reserved.


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