Spotlight on the Eastern Kansas Prairie
By Duane L. Herrmann
Walking out on the grasslands, where trees are distant mounds down under the horizon, where creeks run, I see sky. On all sides, all around me: sky. Nothing but sky, only sky. The vast, immense blue of sky. The walk has taken me through some of those trees, which are now far behind. I have crossed the creeks, some tiny, some not, on rocks or logs that I could find. I prefer the rocks; there is less distance to fall. To get to this rolling prairie in eastern Kansas I have to walk some distance. The land is familiar, my family has been here five generations.
Along the creeks, under the trees, there is shade and often a breeze. Sometimes I sit in the shade and watch the patterns shadow leaves on the water or grass beside me. The shade is my friend, sheltered from the heat, I rest.
Some creeks are spring fed; others carry only runoff from rain. The first will likely have water all year long, though at times only a trickle. The latter will go dry if enough time has passed since there was rain. I prefer a creek with running water when the rippling of water over rocks is enchanting. It is as though the creek is singing. Beside such a creek is where I like to sleep. Sleeping outside is an experience I treasure. Sometimes I simply wrap myself in a tarp for a quick rest, on other occasions my accommodations are more elaborate.
“How can you do it?” Some ask, especially when I have no tent around me.
“I curl up, close my eyes – and sleep,” I simply say. They shake their heads in amazement. I must be a fool. Maybe, but it is simple pleasure I enjoy.
A campfire is always nice at night. The flickering flames are alive and make fascinating shapes. The dying embers, too, create interesting patterns in the dark. One must be careful though, so the fire does not escape; not one of mine ever has.
A deer antler catches my eye. It is fresh, shed within the last year. Older ones show signs of decay or being eaten, or at least nibbled upon. This one is clean and bright, evidence of hidden life one seldom sees, as are the bowls of grass where deer have slept not long ago. A cluster of such bowls means a herd was recently here.
Birds call, answer and respond. Bits of color flash above me, from tree to tree. I can’t see them as much as hear them, but that is fine. I am glad they are here. Their songs add to the wind in the leaves and rustling branches.
Occasionally, nearer to me, is a furtive rustling in the grass; some rodent, I’m sure, out searching for food. It may smell me and be aware that danger is near, so it stands still. I am no danger, though, but it does not know. After moments, it resumes its search, but away from me just in case!
I note patches of poison ivy, for I am highly susceptible. One winter, after the leaves had fallen, without knowing there was a great deal of poison ivy among the brush I was clearing, I came to have blisters solidly from my knees to forehead. It was a textbook case. When I sought medical attention, the entire staff came to observe and learn. The day had been unseasonably warm and I had worn only cutoffs. I will never clear unknown brush in the autumn or winter again!
From the creeks I have walked uphill through trees or grass, and my legs know I am ascending. I hear the hum of a distant, invisible plane — not surprising, since this prairie is not far from Forbes Field, outside of Topeka. Coming out of the trees, the atmosphere changes. There had been sentinels alongside, and sheltering shade above, now, out in the open, the sounds and sights change. The light is bright. Birds are more distant. Grass and wildflowers are the noticeable companions. Being above the trees, one gains new a perspective on them. They are not so large. And they are many shades of green. Newer leaves on top are bright and fresh.
Glancing down to a shrub at knee height, I spy a bird’s nest tightly woven and snug in the branches of the bush. An avid bird watcher could likely discern what species of bird built it, but I am uninformed. I can appreciate the skill it took to build, and the bravery in locating it so startlingly close to the ground. There are no eggs or bits of shell, so I must assume all was well and the hatchlings grew and flew on their way. And, unexpectedly, a scattering of bones: probably a deer. They are plentiful now that their predators have diminished. For this one, the cause of death will remain an unknown. The cycle of life continues.
Now, on the top of a ridge, or swell of the earth, on the rolling prairie, I see only sky. The sky forms an upside down bowl of blue above and all around me. I am in the center of this upturned bowl. The blue is amazing. Overhead, at the “top,” the blue is rich and deep and endless. As it nears the edges, along the horizon, the color becomes lighter and lighter, until along the “rim,” meeting the horizon, it is a very, very light, soft blue. The shades of blue blend subtly, you can’t tell where one fades into the other. It is a perfect meld.
Within the blue are patches of bright white, tinged with grey. These silent shapes slowly move, nearly imperceptibly, in one direction. They seem to be great, silent ships which float with ease across the sky. Sometimes, weather currents cause two layers of clouds to cross each other, each layer going in its own direction. Watching them can make one dizzy. I have to lie on the ground to watch them, or I might fall down.
Today, though, I stand, with the wind blowing across my face, ruffling my hair, and embrace the sky, the clouds, the vastness all around. The wind whispers in the waves of grass surrounding me. They bend and bow just like waves of the sea. It is no stretch to talk of a sea of grass, the waves are proof. I stretch my arms and slowly circle to experience the entire panorama of low green earth and high, immense, sky. I can circle and circle only noting far distant farmhouses and barns, points that appear again and again. Otherwise, it is just the earth and sky and me. I know there is endlessness above me and every side all around me, that beyond this earth are worlds and universes just as vast or greater than this one. Only under my feet do I see a limit. I know I am little. I may be insignificant, but I am out there and I witness and remain amazed by this vastness. My heart swells to embrace the earth and endless sky.
Duane L. Herrmann, is a survivor who lived to tell, a writer who exposes lies, and a lover of the pure light of the moon - and trees! He is a contributor to anthologies: It’s About Living, Summer Shorts, Twisting Topeka, The Way We Were; recipient of: Ferguson Kansas History Book Award, Robert Hayden Poetry Fellowship; included in: American Poets of the 1990's, Kansas Poets Trail, and Map of Kansas Literature. He has recently been nominated to be the Poet Laureate of Kansas. He has work published in print and online in U.S. and elsewhere, and spends time on the rolling Kansas prairie, as reflected in Prairies of Possibilities and Ichnographical:173
Banner photo by Derek Wright.