On the bright side of the dreamscape

The summer of 2011 brought two months of soaring 100-plus temperatures including a couple of days the scale hit 108 or 110 Fahrenheit. The drought started even earlier in the year and continued into November, with only a few sparse showers breaking the monotony. As a result, the tallgrass prairie isn’t the same as in 2010 when I enjoyed my first full year in my new domicile. In 2010, the grasses retained their fresh green colors until late in October. In 2011, the shiny green changed to a somewhat less vivid hue already in August, presented much less luster in September, and showed full fall regalia long before the first of October. I am not complaining, for the autumn prairie is a sight to see.

While in the high desert of New Mexico the cottonwood trees lining the few rivers and creeks predict the slow approach of winter with New England-style yellows, browns and reds adorning their branches for weeks on an end, the desert’s low vegetation hardly changes. The greens turn a little greyer perhaps, but the desert’s overall appearance remains essentially stable, whatever the season. In contrast, on the prairie the trees that create a canopy over the watersheds, the sycamores and the cedars and the oaks and also the cottonwoods, do not announce the new season by changing much color – their leaves just fade, then abruptly drop. Meanwhile, it are the lower vegetations that create an autumn which can easily compete with New England’s. The prairie grasses, whether tall or medium high, display all color solids from the green side of the solar spectrum between purple and yellow. While hiking between Thurman Creek and Little Cedar Creek, a few miles south-east of Matfield Green, I notice how astonishingly different the fall greens are: olive and olive green, greenish yellow and, oh so different, yellowish green, and bluish green and greenish blue. A better eye than mine must be able to distinguish all 79 gradations of green that are in the book and, as if this discovery is not disturbing enough, discover several colors from the red side of the spectrum as well, from yellow to purple blue. All come in different tints and shades, with different brightnesses and lightnesses building up even more variety, and different hues and saturations creating an astonishingly exuberant luminance and purity. Endless combinations of hues –copper, rust, silver, “UPS brown,” what-not– contrast with the green pigmentations draped over the gently sloping Flint Hills. The time of the day and the light of the sun and the shadows thrown down by the occasional clouds also have their say and add to the mysterious vastness of the land. The whole ruddy prairie around me blushes.

The prairie’s subtle beauty is undeniably most brilliant and powerful in the fall. What I experience does in no way rhyme with the generally accepted view that Kansas is flat and faceless and dull and dark and dumb and unbearably boring to boot. It is hard to comprehend what Joseph V. Hickey had to conclude in his 1995 book ‘Ghost Settlement on the Prairie’, namely that since the early 1900s “Kansas has represented the dark side of the American dreamscape, a recurring national nightmare of rural poverty, backwardness and lost hope as opposed to the contemporary myth of glitz, glamour, and material abundance of the city.” It is not just the land that doesn’t deserve this harsh verdict, at least not the land in central and eastern Kansas; the western part is a different story. Many lively communities may, since the turn of the previous century, have lost their luster, but nightmarish they became not. Not then, shortly after the land was discovered and homesteaded with hope; not now, after all the enormous changes in agriculture, economy and society of the past one-hundred years. People indeed left; for “diaspora is no stranger to rural areas.” People also returned and newcomers joined them — for space and pastoral conditions found a new appreciation.

The Kansas prairie presents an abundance of unique grasses to someone like I, who in the first fifty years of his life only knew lawn grasses which, I believed, were best used to accommodate the game of soccer anyway. The prairie grasses are something else. In the beginning of my discovery (I am ashamed, yet have to admit it) I believed all I saw in the Flint Hills were tough, nasty weeds or, what I would call for their height, bushes. Nowadays, I understand that where my feet and sometimes my knees or my thighs up to the hip disappear, I am caressed by western wheatgrass, eastern gamagrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, sideoats grama, sand lovegrass, tumblegrass, purple threeawn, switchgrass, silver bluestem, tall dropseed, indiangrass, or little barley. Most of these honorable grasses, I now know, have a good or even excellent livestock grazing value. Most of them, I learn, also have a great wildlife value offering good nesting, fair protective cover and plenty of vitamins.

Not that I am capable of recognizing all cool or warm season grasses, sedges, forbs and shrubs. I am still the newcomer, I need a guide in my hand to help me find the grass plant’s ligules, auricles, stolons, glumes and spikelets, not to mention the buried rhizomes, although by now I get it that the stem is also called the culp and am able to point out the veins and the panicles without anyone’s help. Pubescent grasses have hairs and prostate grasses, yes, they lay their stems down on the surface of the ground.

Where my feet disappear in prairie grasses, they are often on historic ground. Today they definitely are, because I am approaching the High Prairie Cemetery, an area as large as a football field surrounded by a barbed wire fence to protect it from grazing cattle. I open the small, worn gate and enter — what a place to be buried or have one’s ashes thrown into the wind, with its 360 degree undisturbed view of rolling prairie hills and only one single human habitat in sight, in the far distance. I find three, four simple gravestones and a series of small, flat limestones marking the graves mainly of children who died at a young age, in the late 1800s, the early 20th century.

The High Prairie Cemetery is a left-over from the High Prairie section of what once was Thurman, Kansas. Now an abandoned settlement, the land was “developed” by William Thurman, after whom also the creek was named. Thurman is one of the many present-day ghost settlements on the prairie, places which from the start differed from villages and towns by being “informal,” unpretentious groupings of houses and farms and maybe a few businesses, a one-room school house, a simple church. Settlements were free and autonomic communities not of lone pioneers, but associations where group solidarity and kinship networks meant something. The competitive market place where people were different, where some people believed they were better than others and behaved as such, where one could find segmentation of social activities, was far away, which in the days of the horse wagon meant five miles or more. Humble backgrounds and limited resources were to be found in the settlements; “seen as lowly in the commercial scheme of things, they rarely became stable.”

Thurman was four miles out of Matfield Green close to where once settlers paused at a watering hole, where even Zebulon Pike is known to have camped on his trek to the west. The settlement began as a “fourth-class” post office in the 1860s and after the Homestead Act of 1862 had made land available to poorer farmers. At that time, the U.S. population was roughly 30 million and what would become much later the State of Kansas counted a mere 100,000 people. Thurman in the seventy years of its existence would never exceed a few hundred people, roughly one-hundred families. They farmed, they had pastures and orchards and a few heads of cattle grazing on the hills. Dairy cows were tried for a while but didn’t bring luck. Beef cattle fared better in these hills of flint and limestone cobbles and steeply sloping terrain, so unsuitable for farming. Acreage could first be bought for $1.80, then $3.00, then $5.50. I remember that in 1996 an agricultural acre (4/10th of one hectare) could be had for $500, which the old timers found exorbitant if not indecent, $150 should be more than enough (by now, I guess it’s $1,500 an acre). For a time, the settlement counted two general stores and a blacksmith shop, a church (the last one to close its doors in 1931), and several schools (the last one closed in 1944). Already the closing of the last general store, Eastman’s in 1912, had led to the dissolve of many formal and informal patterns of social interaction in Thurman; by 1935, only 35 families remained in the Thurman area, altogether 107 people — and Thurman merged with Matfield Green.

From the start, it was this nearby town that overshadowed Thurman and became the hub of the area, with at one time six churches, the Matfield Green State Bank, a post office, a hardware store, a bakery, a shoe store, a harness shop, a lumberyard, a high-school, a physician, a barber, a grist mill, a meat market, a drugstore, a real estate agent, two hotels, ‘The Matfield Green Independent’ newspaper (which included Thurman), and later the railroad for shipping cattle. Matfield Green even had an elite, formed by the Brandley and Crocker families who loved to show they were different, and the Rogler family members –those of Pioneer Bluffs– who were more modest.

Matfield Green was founded by David Mercer in 1858. He came from County Kent in England where he lived near Five Oaks Green and Matfield – thus Matfield Green. Mercer Spring and Mercer Creek were named after him, as well as “my” Mercer Street. He started with farming in the stream valley and later became the town’s postmaster and developer / speculator, who dreamed of the coming of the railroad (“the vanguard of civilization”) and drew up a village plat map and rosy township layouts “for the thousands of ranchers and farmers who would come and enjoy the booming economy.” In those days, the postmaster, a political appointee, was since he knew “everybody and everything” the center of the community, and yielded quite some power. In 1876, Dr. George Bocook added a grid plan for more future growth. His name adorns another street sign, as does the name of former store owner Ben Largent. Both names make me believe their owners must have migrated from France to the U.S., and been asked at Ellis Island if they had any money to support them, to which they answered “Oui, beaucoup,” and when asked for their name, they must have misunderstood and repeated “Beaucoup” and “Beaucoup d’argent, oui” respectively. The overworked, hardly listening immigration official, always in a hurry, must have written down Bocook for the one and Largent for the other.

The bust of the 1890s (when 34.4 million Americans lived below the poverty line and the country counted 4,000 millionaires, which shows us how much life has improved since then, namely to 46.2 million people officially poor now and thousands and thousands of millionaires and hundreds of billionaires around — what admirable progress! and in just one-hundred years!) — the bust of the 1890s as all busts caused many foreclosures. Many were driven from their lands or forced to become tenant farmers. The growth was halted, the building boom stopped. The coming of the telephone didn’t help rural development either: this bridge to the outside world altered the networks and allowed new patterns of interaction to surface. If one now wanted to know something, they checked with “Central,” the switchboard operator uptown. Turn the crank … a good operator could tell who was where and why and when to be expected back. It meant the ruination of old-time visiting.

The closing of many rural post offices, the advance of the automobile, mechanization of farming and ranching, the growing number of out-of-state land owners operating big cattle companies, the machinations of capitalist entrepreneurs, the Dust Bowl (although the Flint Hills were not scoured, people had to cover their windows with wet towels to keep the sands out), the next bust … even if the year of 1929 was a good cattle year, in the end drought and depression drove more families away from Thurman. Matfield Green, too, lost its dreams to bigger towns, then many bigger towns lost them to the cities. But …

Not all developments were bad. Good things happened, too. The contours of new dreams were sketched. In the early 1900s already, some people began “to shift from perceiving land solely in terms of its profit potential and to develop an embryonic sense of partnership and commitment to the local landscape,” writes Hickey. People slowly learned to understand that if they want to live harmoniously with the land, they cannot do without sharing. The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson in the 1970s began to send out his message that small places are the seed stock of good people and a strong and healthy culture, where so many right values are developed, where discipline and hard work are considered constructive, where people have elbow room and a chance to connect to nature. The recent revival of Matfield Green is new proof that dreams are worth living for. Personally, I have more hope for the good future of Matfield Green and other rural communities than for the prospects of Rio, Mexico City, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Cairo, Jakarta. Hypercities. Megacities. Exploding cities with gigantic problems — in Rio the common matra is “Baghdad is here.” The “Planet of Slums” is approaching and some slums already count 12 million squatters. Gated communities offering safety to the wealthy are called “off world.” Matfield Green will never have such an “apocalyptic background,” will never be such an overcrowded “Dome of Hell,” never the “darkest side of our dreamscapes.”

I continue my autumn prairie hike on the bright side. Most cattle have been shipped out, this year earlier than common because of the heat and the drought, which left creeks dry and many pools practically empty. I try to locate dwellings of the old settlement, but all I stumble upon are a few broken lines of local stone which may have formed a wall or a foundation. Everything else reminding of Thurman is gone, with the last school house burnt down, the last farm replaced by a newer ranch complex (three ranchers still live in the area). I hear of a sturdier wall still in place, somewhere, and a spot where old pans and pots and some rusty machinery are buried in the grass, but I cannot find any. It is eerie, knowing how hard the settlers worked and how eager they lived in their once so active community, to detect no legacy, nothing, even if it’s a mere seventy years since the settlement “died.” In cities around the globe it is blandly accepted that neighborhoods are torn down to make place for newer developments. Here, the land seems robbed of all its history. Only the cemetery has a story to tell. So, of course, have the gorgeous grasses.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, October 2011 

Main literature: ‘Ghost Settlement on the Prairie – A Biography of Thurman, Kansas’ by Joseph V. Hickey, professor of anthropology at Emporia State University