Something I plan to do for my PrairyErth class this fall is offer a couple of (optional) field trips to Chase County to visit some of the places mentioned in that book, so as to give students a sense of what has changed in the intervening 20-some years since it was published, and what has not. The early-fall trip will be out to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and the November-ish trip, when the weather will be more unpredictable and in any event cooler, will be a driving tour of different towns in the county that Heat-Moon mentions. Yesterday, my wife and baby son and father-in-law and I made something like a dry run of the later trip, exploring the southwestern quarter of the county (in particular Wonsevu and Cedar Point). For various reasons, we had to cut our trip short, but speaking for myself it was a qualified success, seeing as we visited a part of the county that most people, certainly most non-countians, never see. (There is much to say about that part of the county, if my students can see what there is to say about it.)
And, my wife was able to take this marvelous picture out the car window as we headed home.
As I said to her last night, the evening sky wasn’t spectacular the way Kansas sunsets can be, but the clouds had a kind of mottled appearance that made them interesting to look at. Moreover, this shot, taken south of Mattfield Green on State Highway 177, is one you’d show to someone who asks you, “What’s a typical Chase County photograph?” A shot that conveys the vastness of the sky, the prairie’s near-treelessness, some sort of object (in this case the freight train just below the horizon, about a mile away from the road) to give the viewer a sense of this space’s scale: it’s all here.
This is the space my students will be reading and thinking and writing about for the coming four months. It frankly will challenge them to move beyond saying the obvious about it–“There’s nothing there”–to begin to see what is there.