Tracy Seeley, former English professor at Yale writes brilliantly about detailed memories of Kansas from an early age. These include rich descriptions of places where she lived, relationships and people who shaped her life.
She is excellent at research, places, events and people. However, in some places, she had details about relatives and friends that did not show how they influenced her future. It made tedious reading. The book could have been shortened.
It was a pleasure to read the writer’s classic recollections and remembering experiences, people and places in her past, and comparing how they influenced my life with that of the authors. This included growing up on a farm in Oklahoma and being influenced by the synergy of my sprit that included my parents, ancestral transference of characteristic from when life started, environment, circumstances, my mind, subconscious, and laws of nature. I think my parents and education had as much or more to do with shaping who I am.
She reminds us that a place is both a location and in our memories. A place can shape and make us whole again and she looks for the meaning of home. Kansas defies memory, a place far mor complex and elusive than in cultured myths. I think the Flint Hills grow on you after you move here. Early on the author stated there is no place like home. Are you kidding? Nearly everyone she meets has escaped Kansas and no one dreams of going home. Who would give up dancing in sparkling ruby shoes for a farm house in the middle of a desiccated nowhere?
Some Kansans are defensive when they know they are registered in the oceans costal consciousness as hicks and hay seeds. To all critics, Seeley recommends they jump out of their jumbo jets and see what is on the ground as they fly over a zone and consider it a waste of time and petrol fuel.
After establishing herself in a profession, she went back to Kansas where she had lived in her young years. The high plains felt familiar even though they seemed haunted.
They were relentless in scale-time and space-vaster than human thought. Because its enormity it called forth mythical imaginings. She described Western Kansas geographically as a long, dry, fossil-ridden sweep of the high plains. In Americas Story, the landscapes are myth filled places and cowboys, Indians, pioneers and the toughness it takes to endure. The story is that no matter how tough things get, real Kansans stay, they endure. In Goodland, the county’s collected family stories are entitled “they came to stay.”
As the writer mapped out her residences in Kansas, the addresses took on the power of a spell and become an incarnation. Goodland, she said, was on a boundary between nowhere and a thousand miles of wheat. The high plains spooked her. The roads roll on through an open vastness, nothing but yucca, scrub and unrelenting horizon where you could drive an hour or more without passing another caravan, emptiness that stretches from the mountains for at least 500 miles.
In college in Houston, Kansas crept up through the cracks and she was working hard to become a Kansas-refusing to inherit her parent’s unfitness for prairie life. Her meditation made her trip to Kansas more than a matter of curiosity, but a pilgrimage of reconnection. It was a return to the place she came from-unembarrassed to clam it and know it. A journey to touch ground.
At the end of the two weeks, she recalled she had fallen in love with Kansas or let herself admit she had loved it all along. Every spring, for the next five years, she got the itch for the state. She still felt the tug, not of nostalgia, but of long horizons, open sky, fall grass and wheat fields, of wind and the smell of ozone before a summer storm.
Through a courtship she kept a steady eye on Kansas. There was still something she needed to learn yet she didn’t yet know what. She knew she felt drawn to the stories that lay on the landscape, bigger stories of those of her own small life. When she thought of the state, scenes came flooding back.
When Seeley visited the land institute near Salina, she drove away elated and changed. The deeper sense of place she had been longing for was waiting in the roots of the prairie. Wes Jackson, executive of the Land Institute, told her he loved the location, but don’t tell anybody, because other think it is flat here and we re just a bunch of slack jawed prairie bullies. The prejudice didn’t bother him and it keeps out the riffraff. An advocate for Natures Best, he said the planet is in a perilous state. The fossil age will end like the Stone Age. What will such a future look like? He said agriculture would help save the planet. The problems and possibilities are huge. Seeley was hooked. The bottom line must be measured in benefits to commodities. She had become a recruit of natural systems, farming-organic, sustainable and petroleum free.
Reminiscing about her experience at the museum, she felt caught in the headlights of a new idea. On her earlier hostility toward Kansas, anew—as a historical, national habit. She began to see how the threads of her life journey had intertwined community, earth, stories and roots. The sense of place required the lore of wild plumbs, stars, seasons and people who share a common life. All the things she had missed she felt ready for. The vision is not going to the museum. It’s about inhabiting every place fully knowing that the land is there and what it teaches. She knew she wanted to see the Flint Hills again, an oasis of wild grass.
She knew she was a child of Kansas. She had been shaped by its subtleties and sweep. So in coming here, she felt at home. She was learning to know and delve deeply in things as they are. When in Matfield, the author drove outside the town to observe the drama of a sunset and observed the lack of silence. The prairies are alive at dusk more than at any other hour. The prairie birds set in chattering, the tender lament of the mourning dove, the high-pitched whistle of the Scissortail’s swooping in their orbits over the grass. A syncopated racket filled the air for an hour.
The changer or gong of call and response-hoot, alone, or the moment the sky went dark, all around stopped after one trill from a single Meadowlark sailed across the grass. It is reported there are ten million insects per acre on the prairie. When a lace lives in you, beyond your senses when the many maps are laid out on your heart, maybe that is when you really belong to it and when it belongs to you. When one little city can give you a world of stories, it can be enough.
She visited places of her childhood, understanding how they had shaped her. The afternoons on braided rugs confirmed her as a lover of looks for the rest of her life. Then now losing Goodland changed her—a child who turned inward and carried her grief like a shield against loss. As she drove across the state, she remembered the changing landscapes, the glacier fields, the sinuous rise and swoop of the Flint Hills, the flat pan of the sea-fossil redlands, she knew that by late October, the shorn fields would be wearing daring chartreuse of winter wheat—a shock of color in the otherwise tawny palette of winter. As she left Matfield, she felt more a tug of wanting to stay. She wanted more than traffic noise and the many people of the city. She wanted green places. Little by little, with every conversation, every mile, every museum, she takes Kansas more deeply into herself. She settled into the comfort of knowing and belonging. The farming of land in Western Kansas was for fools, she stated, for people willing to empty the Ogallaha aquifer, and leave the place hard and dry as a summer stone. It is not given to industry that requires much rain. As she drove away from Kansas, sycamores soughed and sighed, and in the tall grass, butterflies, wild flowers and wind all rang to her—come again.
The author sat in Los Angeles on her balcony and visited other places including the spring pastures blooming in the Flint Hills. Sometimes, she thinks of crossing the border to Kansas where she feels connected and whole. If, she says, we are to survive, the future has to lie in the rooftop of the prairie…in its lessons of sustainability, community and earth.
She was in her own tall grass, dreaming dissolved into something complete and great beyond self, beyond body, beyond ego and time.
She tasted the raison after her meditation in the past and the present. Not leaping too far ahead. Places are woven into a web that makes live both eternal and enduring. “I have little trouble, most of the time, letting the rest go,” she said.
Les Frazier is emeritus professor at Kansas State University.