Feeling the passion, power of fire on the burning prairie

By A Contributor

The underappreciated splendor of Konza Prairie familiar to many Riley county residents provides artistic inspiration for Edward Sturr’s new book of photographs, “Fire and Form on the Konza Prairie.”

Established in 1971 through the efforts of visionaries such as Professor Lloyd Hulbert of Kansas State University and philanthropist Katharine Ordway, the Konza Prairie Biological Station is 8,613 acres, and one of the largest tracts of tallgrass prairie remaining in the U.S. 

Fire is essential for its survival. The dynamic biological and physical forces of fire, ignited by lightening or humans, help maintain the integrity of the prairie. Fire is vital to Konza Prairie, and its effects are now managed in a way to allow scientific comparisons of different burn regimes. From 2001-2012 Edward Sturr accompanied Konza fires crews during the spring “burn season” of March through May to photograph the fascinating and sometimes frightening images of fire.

Sturr, an emeritus professor of art at Kansas State University is a prominent landscape photographer who first began exploring Konza Prairie through his camera lenses in 1990. He has photographed the prairie in every season, but the photos of fire are the most provocative. 

The powerful beauty, shear force, and danger of fires are skillfully captured by Sturr.  Always respectful of the unpredictable nature of fire, Sturr evokes its drama and magnificence through his photographs. As Sturr states in his introduction, he was constantly aware of the fire’s radiation. Its searing heat was dangerous to him and his camera, and as soon as the shutter clicked he moved away quickly. The intense heat created distortions in the images that fascinated him.

The elements of traditional landscape photography are evident in all the photographs, but the frenetic, mesmerizing allure of the fire’s flame is central to the compositions.

The cover photo, “Flying High” shows an advancing fire in the immediate foreground, as black smoke billows up to meet a cloud-filled blue sky. Sturr’s strong design sense is displayed in “Ripped.” A diagonal fire line engulfs the tall grass while a back fire lurks ominously on the smoke-filled horizon. The speed at which fire rakes a Konza hillside is beautifully expressed in “Top Flight.” One fire traveling uphill is about to collide with another moving downhill. The dramatic red orange flames are contrasted to the blackened smoldering ground.

One of Sturr’s most intense photographs is “Vortex.” The gigantic funnel of roiling white smoke erupts into the clear blue sky. Low on the horizon line, the golden grass provides the fuel for the fire’s rapid progress across the flat plain. “Corona” has an otherworldly elegance to it. The glowing rise of black earth looks like receding lava flows while black and orange smoke emerges overhead.

Sturr has a good eye for abstract images as well.  In “Dark Matter” he shows us how two fires meet. They will eventually burn out having exhausted the fuel source.  The bright yellow orange flames that charge through the landscape are contrasted to the stark charred hills blackened by the recent fire. The lack of depth perception in “Layered” presents an abstract view of bright horizontal bands of color. The flat feel of the stacked layers is broken up by the smoke in the middle ground providing a hint of dimension. The devastation of fire and its residual heat is eerily presented in “Fire Mist.” Bare trees stand as lone survivors in the smoky landscape while isolated flames burn in the distance. 

Looking across the landscape Sturr captures the fascinating forms of rising smoke in “Rippling.” The linear quality of the abstract landscape is punctuated by the strip of fire marching through the middle ground.  Occasionally, Sturr leaves the panoramic landscape to show us close up fire views as in “String Theory” and “Dry Brush.” One can practically hear the crackle of the grass as it is consumed by the evolving fire. 

In addition to Edward Sturr’s 43 photographs, “Fire and Form on the Konza Prairie” is augmented by Elizabeth Dodd’s lively essay, “Red Buffalo, Black Butterflies.” Dodd vividly describes her impressions of being part of a fire crew on a controlled burn.  The cadence of her prose captures all the excitement, danger and exhaustion associated with the team effort to both start fires and extinguish them safely. Her exhilaration for the experience is obvious as she sweeps the reader into the action and gives us an eyewitness account of the hard work associated with the burn regimes.

Sturr suggested that Dodd write an original poem about the prairie and she composed “Watershed Burns with Lightening” specifically for the book.

John Briggs, director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, provides insightful information in his article about the importance of fire for the long term health of the prairie ecosystem.  He also integrates information about the native plants and animals of the prairies, including the reintroduction of native bison on Konza prairie. 

Konza Prairie is an exceptional treasure.  It’s a living laboratory for scientists, a refuge for animals and plants, an outdoor classroom for children and adults, and it is a sanctuary for contemplation. Konza Prairie is also a source for many types of artistic inspiration.

Sturr’s curiosity and respect for nature’s life cycles on Konza prairie is reflected in his stunning photographs. Sturr’s artworks, coupled with the contributions by Elizabeth Dodd, and John Briggs invites the reader to discover the distinctive wonders of Konza Prairie.

Jessica Reichman is the former curator of the Beach Museum of Art.

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