Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1952
Why would you write 624 pages about a county in Kansas? William Least Heat-Moon says the book itself is the answer, but, if pushed, he might substitute one of his “commonplaces”—quotations from writers, that he gathers and cobbles into introductions for each of his thirteen sections. Henry David Thoreau’s journal...
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Why would you write 624 pages about a county in Kansas? William Least Heat-Moon says the book itself is the answer, but, if pushed, he might substitute one of his “commonplaces”—quotations from writers, that he gathers and cobbles into introductions for each of his thirteen sections. Henry David Thoreau’s journal observation would suffice: “The ancients, one would say, with their gorgons, sphinxes, satyrs, mantichora, etc., could imagine more than existed, while the moderns cannot imagine so much as exists.” The question posed about the value of Kansas as a topic displays impoverished consciousness. That Chase County in Kansas is not merely a blur to be registered as one passes through at seventy miles per hour is a proposition that Heat-Moon is well-prepared to defend, having spent six years researching and writing this book: talking to “countians,” reading in the courthouse archives, “dreamwalking” on the land, sitting in cafes, pondering maps, consulting local academics, and, all the while, composing the graceful sentences that will keep readers turning the pages. The drive to do all this originated not wholly from the author, he suggests, but from mystic sources, the urging of dreams, longings, and “loomings” which directed an inspection of Kansas land and life to a revitalized awareness of what is there.
PrairyErth is Heat-Moon’s second book about America. His first, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982), offered a wide-angle view, dipping into whatever showed itself to the lone van driver in flight from job loss and divorce. Around the states he took a trip whose only rule was remaining on the backroads, and avoiding interstates. If that book revealed through the writer’s flight from what had been home to what was constantly new, PrairyErth illuminates through system and rootedness. Chase County, the subject of the book, is divided on the map into twelve quadrangles, and from each of these Heat-Moon makes a book division, each division composed of six chapters. Each section begins with a map, hand-drawn by Heat-Moon, of the quadrangle under inspection. Beside it he places a three-lines-down, two- lines-across longitude-latitude logo with a dot marking the subject-quadrangle’s location.
A certain quadrangle’s section of chapters might contain political history, description of the terrain, an interview with a farmer, an introspective meditation on reality, and a collection of old newspaper articles. As its subtitle suggests, Heat-Moon’s book is at once natural and human history, a study of parallel realities, and a mapping of mapping, or the inspection of the white man’s penchant for branding places with grids—Thomas Jefferson’s linear crosshatchings on land. This map-consciousness is relatively new to Kansas. The land’s previous inhabitants, the Kaw Indians and their ancestors, knew Kansas by walking and riding in it while hunting bison. Alien to Kansas is the white mind projecting geometrical order, whether maps, roads on county lines, or fences of osage orange hedge.
For PrairyErth, Heat-Moon researched the Kansas before these projections, the history of the pioneer-projectors, and the contemporary inhabitants. The white is not all bad to the Indian’s good, but his habits of trespassing and stealing are thoroughly documented. Some pioneers are lauded, Sam Woods especially, a cantankerous abolitionist and orator, and Heat-Moon respects and records those who today live in the Indian’s old home and feel privileged to suffer the threats and embraces of wind and floods.
Above all, PrairyErth contains meditations upon physical Chase County. The Flint Hills there once contained only 4 percent of the total acreage of long grass prairie in the United States. Today they bear nearly 100 percent. Settlement has forever altered what was for pioneers in the early 1800’s a spectacle of primordial prairie with grasses growing six to eight feet tall. The prairie grass of Chase Country catalyzes Heat- Moon’s vision of America before railroads, electric lights in farmyards, and automobiles.
A pleasant irony persists. Heat-Moon is on the side of the white mappers as well as of the migrating Indians. His deep look at a small part of Kansas is as much an act of white civilization as Indian mysticism, and aside from the book’s final section, which shows the painful destruction of the Kansas Indian identity by the U.S. Government, the story told of humans is of white settlement in Chase County. The methods used to find and present the story are, along with research hikes and nights spent meditating on the dark prairie, the usual tools of mapping scholars: “I’ve come across 140 ways to spell Kansas, and if you include the confused Ac-, Es-, Ok-, Uk- forms at times applied to the tribe, I’ve found 171 variations that employ every letter of the alphabet except b, f, and v.”
Missing from this piece of Kansas, Heat-Moon says, are the original names for everything in it. All those 140 or 171 names for the aboriginals are wrong. And to the right name, possibly “Hutanga,” not a shred of meaning-tissue adheres. Heat-Moon gives himself a difficult assignment: to be the late-come Adam and find this place anew in words. Connection is one of the book’s themes, and words follow the play of consciousness across objects and phenomena to render connection. Heat-Moon’s skill at connections can be breathtaking. His ancestor is Thoreau, who spent pages on the observation of ice crystals. Heat-Moon’s descriptions have the advantage of greater science and equal wonder. What is going on when a prairie falcon take its prey? And what is going on when a man stands in the hills watching? Everything happening is formed water.
[A]ll around me are absorptions and percolations, everything soluble, and grasses sucking the mutable rock, everything between forms of liquidity, and all things formed of liquidity: the harrier a feathered bag of nutrient waters falling onto the furred sack of sapid juices, thirsty for hot rodent blood it can turn into flight; and what was I but a guzzling, sweating bag of certain saps waiting to give up its moisture: press me dry, powdery dry, and you’d have a lump of mineralized soil, about enough to pot a geranium.
Despite the appearance of system in chapter divisions, Heat- Moon’s exploration is selectively random. He sees himself as a civilized hawk, landing on things-as-words. While thinking about writing the book he asked a Ouija board if he would have help, and Ouija said “wind rider” or “hawk” would aid him. “For the long journey into the prairie that I was just beginning, that obscure medicine had somehow already taken on the form of hawkness. I’m not quite saying that this figure-hawk is supernatural but rather only suggesting a less conscious mind using an emblem to reach toward a vague awareness and push it to the surface where shallow reason can look it over.”
Heat-Moon as hawk finds there is more to prey on than can be eaten. What he bypasses—high school sports teams, a woman who leaves notes on his van asking to be interviewed—is not less important, just not selected. One chapter contains Studs Terkel-style interviews with high school students regretting their inevitable leavetaking of a too provincial county. A man who eats raw hamburger sandwiches, and forces them on the author, is Heat-Moon’s synecdoche for the gloomy, brutal adults of Chase County. It may not be a place to live anymore—for people, that is.
PrairyErth will be the holy book for those who remain. If the Indians and whites are both going away, whoever comes will have a guide to adjustment and continuance. The mystical roots of this place are the literal nature—grasses, hills, springs, rivers, and wind. “Wind people” may have been the original name of the first Kansans. The new culture will acknowledge that these presences, mostly inanimate but of enormous strength and extension, most be lived in and with, not poisoned, ploughed under, overcultivated, and eliminated. Heat-Moon frequently cites Wendell Berry to ballast his intuitions about the land: “The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”
Heat-Moon envisions his subject as centrally mysterious and meaningful for all Americans. Chase County is not Yellowstone, not megalopolis, not wilderness, not the suburbs. But it is, if one draws an x from the four corners of the United States, the virtual center of the country. Neither citified nor wholly wild, it is part of that great expanse of space which suited Indians and demanded “settling” by white people. The hiker in Chase County sees an emptiness eloquent with wind, land contours, and space to which mechanisms of habitation are both maladjusted and powerfully lured. Heat-Moon would prefer future men to see themselves as inhabitants, rather than civilized and civilizing. Humans can only live here in a truce with the elements. That does not necessarily mean dwelling in buffalo-hide hogans. The white use for stone Heat-Moon honors and admits a longing to practice, stonemasonry being his vocational choice as a boy along with writing. The stone of Chase County offers that element most symbolic of man’s placement vis-à-vis the world. Obstinate, heavy—it yet allows itself to splitting and sectioning by quarriers. Heat-Moon includes an interview with a retired rock cutter, and ponders the remaining rock mansions and houses in Chase. The truce between man and nature works this way: People should use what they cannot exhaust or have the power to exhaust. Buffalo might have been such a resource, and were until white hunting ravaged them.
In “To Consult the Genius of the Place in All,” a late chapter, Heat-Moon does just that—talk to a smart man. Wes Jackson, native Kansan, relation of John Brown and Dwight D. Eisenhower, offers a new way to inhabit Kansas. With a doctorate in genetics, he sees “the danger in homogenized agriculture given over wholly to annual one crop fields.” Jackson’s wisdom is to look at nature, how she makes things live, and harmonize human endeavor with the natural pattern. This means no more using-up and killing, the technique of modern agriculture seen in pesticides, herbicides and massive consumption of fossil fuels. According to geological surveys, current consumption of world fossil fuels will exhaust the source in thirty-two years. Jackson admires the Amish for wise and moral choices. “The Amish seem to have embraced a Paleolithic reality. I’m talking about patterns as old as our species that we’ve obscured by laying a technological veneer over them. But if we will reestablish the conditions which make community possible, most of our old predilections will come back as gifts arriving from we won’t know where.” Nature is coming to an end only if we kill it, Heat-Moon agrees. Nature is both out there, willing to be used, and within us, those paleolithic urges for healthy community which the sin of pride, evidenced by white exploitation, cancels.
PrairyErth preaches inclusiveness, an Indian awareness of spirit in nature connected to the intellect of modern science, thereby allowing proper habitation of places like Chase County. William Least Heat-Moon, part Indian as his name suggests, placed himself in the land for several years as a medium—awaiting inspiration, seeking knowledge, doggedly writing, and randomly pointing. The future of Chase County and much of American life may depend on how much stock an American populace will put in such acts of rediscovery.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, August, 1991, p. 2079.
Chicago Tribune. October 13, 1991, XIV, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 16, 1991, p. 17.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, August 1, 1991, p. 985.
Library Journal. CXVI, October 1, 1991, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 20, 1991, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 27, 1991, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 40.
Time. CXXXVIII, October 21, 1991, p. 95.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 13, 1991, p. 4.