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...
(The entire section is 1952 words.)