Prairie hermitage

Five miles east of Matfield Green and 25 miles south-east of Cottonwood Falls, and roughly the same distance west of Olpe, there is grass as far as my eye can see and there are a just few clusters of trees to indicate the presence of a pond or a creek or both. One such line of tall trees, mostly oak and cedar, is running parallel to Little Cedar Creek Road, a flintstone and limestone gravel throughway connecting WP Road with 50 Road, two of a grid leading to distant pastures and used almost exclusively by cattle ranchers. I know that “hermitess” Carole Brown lives somewhere under those trees. Yet from the road I do not see any sign of habitation. I have to leave my SUV on the gravel and hike down to the tree line and follow the creek, then ford it to find the location of the primitive hermitage where Carole lives in solitude, “Forlorn and naked (…) remote from all pleasures of the world,” to use Shakespeare’s words. Naked she is not, at least not when I finally meet her, in July it is, and it is no longer bitter cold and the leaves are abundant on the trees and the prairie grasses are high. But imagine her hide-out when it is winter … and think of the central Siberian plateau. Uninviting, that’s the word.

Carole, a violinist and bassist who plays classical music as well as jazz, of her own free will left “civilization” to hermitize on the prairie. Or, rather, she decided to get out of the rat race for a while and asked Jane Koger if she knew of a secluded place where she could stay in peace, and Jane said Yes and took Carole to an old shack, practically falling apart, and Carole said Wonderful, I’ll do it. At that time, it was winter. Carole decided to sit out the winter – without running water, without comfortable heating, without power. Twelve years later Carole is still living in her prairie hermitage, and she still lacks 21st century heating, running water, plumbing, and electricity. She owns no car. She bicycles the 25 miles to Cottonwood Falls, and 25 miles back, that’s an 80 kilometer return trip (even after seventeen years in America I still think in kilometers), to do her grocery shopping and no matter what the weather is like –pouring rain or ferocious winds or 105 degrees Fahrenheit heat– she refuses the ride I or someone else offers her when meeting her on the road. “No, thanks, I need the exercise. I sleep better after a ride, you know.” No wonder.

Only when she decides to spend some time with her parents in Kansas City, Carole allows someone to come and get her and drive her east, to the Missouri border. Both her parents are musicians; they played the violin in the Kansas City Symphony. When in the city, Carole herself does gigs and plays her instruments to make a little money, enough to allow her to remain in her hermitage for another couple of months. She only has to let someone know she is in town and this someone will spread the word that Carole is available in case a band member needs time out. She will never join a band or an orchestra permanently; strong ties wouldn’t suit Carole. Not anymore. Or rather, they never did.

Carole became a professional musician when at age twenty she moved to New York City. The Manhattan music scene disillusioned her quickly, and she worked as an editor at a publishing house for long years before returning to music. At that point she also returned to Kansas City, and “while the rest of the world was going crazy over the Y2K fiasco, I was preparing for a brand new life, a true life in nature. I moved the day after Christmas 1999.” She was forty and, not being the mountain-woman type, had never roughed it, never even camped out until she was twenty-eight years old. But she had loved being out in nature ever since she was a kid.

Now a very young and athletic fifty-something, Carole Brown figures prominently in Kathryn Sommer’s ‘A Passion of Her Own – Life-path Journeys with Women of Kansas’. She is in the good company of Nancy Kassebaum Baker, United States Senator from 1979 to 1997; Jennifer Jo Cobb, professional race car driver; singer, songwriter and musician Melissa Etheridge; Bonnie Johnson, pilot, aerospace engineer; Emira Palacios, National People’s Action co-chair; Kim Thomas, the first African-American female mayor in Kansas (of Stockton); Kirsten Tretbar, documentary film maker; and our own Jane Koger plus a few other outstanding cattle women, and horse women, and organic farmers, and ecologists. The quotes in italics are from this book, the other quotes are from a recent conversation I had with Carole. I first tried to locate her hermitage in the coldest time of the year, on purpose, to experience some of the worst circumstances she is exposing herself to, out there, in no-man’s land, without any refined and comforting amenities. It was easier than expected to find her place because the winter grasses were low and showed a pathway for me to follow and the barren trees along the creek opened up some view. There was ice on the creek and the winds were blowing ferociously. Luckily, Carole always leaves her door unlocked and I could get in, out of the cold. Anyone who happens to stumble upon her domicile is invited in whether she is there or not, and is advised by a handwritten note on the door “to take whatever you need.”

The cabin was constructed from local rock and pieces of plywood plastered with dirt. The threshold is high, I guess to protect the interior against invading sands and water. The cabin sits low and mere steps away from the streambed of the Little Cedar Creek, which at this location is somewhat wider and creates a swimming hole. The north bank is high and protects Carole’s spot from the most miserable winter storms. Inside, the space where Carole lives, cooks, sleeps, and stores her provisions and her books, measures roughly 15‟x9‟, or 15 m2. That’s all. Her small Vogelzang woodstove occupies a whole corner, as does the door. A “kitchen area” with a small table and a narrow bench are built in under shelves for her pots and pans, her tins and bottles and storage bins, and more books. No space is left for hanging art, which, I hear later, she regrets much. Carole sleeps in a hammock, she reads by the light of an oil lamp, she gets her water from the creek, where she also takes her baths. On my first unannounced visit, her two mountain bikes are parked inside and occupy most of the central space. Nevertheless, I sit down on the bench and remain seated quietly for a while to experience Carole’s home as inviting, as cosy in the Dutch sense of the word: a happy, warm, comfortable, pleasant, peaceful place – a place that is “breathing” and a place to enjoy deep breaths, a place for friendship. As all must do who visit Carole’s home I wonder, Would I be able to live this way? Not for one week, but for years and years? Or rather, what I think is, Gosh, I wish I was able to live like she does …

When we meet at last, at her home, the circumstances are different, the sky is blue, the wind is warm, and her hermitage is an inviting Shangri-la. Carole may be a hermit, but at the same time she is an open-minded discussion partner and a most gracious host who invitingly yells and waves when I approach her habitat and whose smiling eyes never darken during a meeting.

“The hardest?” Carole says, “Well, what I discovered, and what drags me down most, is the continuing battle to make it to the next day. The daily chores to keep the house standing, to fight the elements, to grow veggies in poor soil, to cut firewood. When I came here, I was in the belief that I would have all the time in the world to enjoy nature, to read, to think. But what I am thinking most about is: plain survival. The creek becomes a raging stream and approaches dangerously, sometimes the house is an island in an inland sea, completely surrounded, sometimes the water almost enters my house. It happens every year.”

To battle the invasion she built earthen dams, strengthened her walls. To beat the crumbling of her floor she at long last decided to raise the threshold and put in a real mud floor in old-fashioned Indian and settler style. Repairs are the ever-returning chores. Materials have to come, on bicycle, from Cottonwood Falls or Strong City. “Everything takes time if you don’t try to buy new stuff, do not have all the tools, do not have electric tools to do the job for you.” Dog food for her two companions has to come on bicycle, too. But: “No regrets. Even if after twelve years I am a little tired of the place I live in, I am content and happy with my lifestyle. I am dreaming, seriously thinking, of finding a new spot and designing and building my own house. I have some savings, I can buy a small piece of land and no longer be a guest of Jane’s. If I can find something not un-similar to where I am now, far out, away from invading sounds, under trees, near a creek … I would build with a little more space including wall space to hang art. I would have cabinets instead of open shelves – I don’t need to be able to see everything, I sometimes find the openness disturbing, my eyes need more peace and quiet, I am a minimalist. Also, a separate storage for my bikes and for firewood. For my garden tools. No, there will be no electricity. Nothing to power a computer. No cell phone, no.”

No need to change her lifestyle. Carole still finds her passion in solitude. “Early in my life I began to be troubled by a vague sense that I would not be allowed to remain my authentic self or hold on to my own true personhood to experience life from a unique individual perspective. I was too often told how the world is, or should be, and what my proper place would be in it. Even then I knew that what I was told was not necessarily the truth. The concepts of indoctrination and socialization were far from my awareness at that young age, but I sensed that I would be expected to adopt the indoctrination that constantly surrounded me in order to further the agenda or the cause of someone else, or simply for their convenience. The cost of that, it seemed to me, would be to surrender my authentic identity, my thoughts, my intelligence, my own unique gifts and my contributions, whatever they may be, in order to confirm to that societal agenda.”

No wonder Carole could not remain in the bustling artificiality of New York City. “It altogether took me four hours to commute to and from my work by bus and subway, five days a week. Four hours each day, that’s only just a little shorter than riding my bicycle to Strong City and back once in a while to do my shopping.” So, Carole stopped stressing out and (re-)connected with nature; she was emotionally ready for isolation. “Societies consider people who can be alone to be a threat. I believe the more technology we create to serve and protect ourselves, the more threats we see and the more fearful we become. I question the claims that contemporary life is superior to simple life lived close to nature. And, really, I did not find loneliness out on the prairie, I am still connected even though I do not make use of the modern channels of communication. I still enjoy many friendships and also the people I happen to meet when bicycling to town. Moreover, I find that my self-forced physical labor provides a balance to my intellectual activity. I study, I read plenty.” One day I, at that time coincidently accompanied by two women living in Berlin, found words and sentences in German and Russian written on one of the exterior walls of her cabin, telling us life was good and we were welcome. “Yes, I read German literature. I study Russian. I want to read Chekhov in the original language.”

Carole’s mind is as active as can be and her thinking is as clear as glass, probably because she doesn’t allow infiltration from coercive, manipulative and domineering exterior influences. “Twelve years ago, my opinion of the world was harsh. I wanted out. I had to escape from a wasteful and destructive way of life. Learning to live without artificial limits became a relief. In due course, my viewpoint softened a little because I lost the aggression society, notwithstanding my early aversion and skepticism, had managed to install inside me. My sense of humor improved. I can easily joke about my experiences out in the big world, then, in New York, or more recently, in Kansas City. That big world is not the real world, even if more than fifty percent of the world’s population is already living in monster cities. That’s where wolves eat dogs and men eat men, isn’t it.”

Carole’s only serious problem now is the long period of drought that is hitting Kansas. Floods are nonexistent, the creek is practically empty, and Carole had to start hauling water in gallon jugs tied to her bicycle’s carrier. “This year, I am spending more time in Kansas City. I have to. No water at all makes life impossible. I am okay with this forced exile because my parents are frailer than they used to be and we want to spend more time together anyway. I am okay with it also because I know I will be back. The real world, my real world, is here, along Little Cedar Creek.”

Or along any creek “by shallow waters to whose falls melodious birds sing madrigals” (George Herbert). There will be plenty of water running in Carole’s creek again, oh yeah.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, November 2011 

Photo: courtesy of Tania “Caya” Wiite, Berlin, Germany 

To read: Kathryn Sommer, „A Passion of Her Own‟, Greeley, KS, 2004