The deadliest woman in the west

I cannot wait. A few more weeks and I will be my pyromaniac self again. It has been thirteen years since I last set fire to the prairie. Jane Koger, rancher / buddy in the Flint Hills east of Matfield Green, east-central Kansas, in March of 1997 asked me if I was willing to burn parts of her land and when I said “Oh yes!” she handed me ten big boxes of long matches. “Do it,” she said. And by Jove, I did it.

I walked for four days throwing down matches into the winter grass and leaving the prairie ablaze behind me. Long waves of grass, slowly burning. I had seen forest fires in Montana but this was different. The sounds … no aggressive howls, but sing-songs. The destructive forces, absent. Not, say, the giant cruel crushers from Hawaiian Pacific shores, but reverently rolling, whispering waves of the kind that stir saturated ponds. Impressive, but not threatening. Nature on fire at its most pleasant. The cattle thought so, too. They stopped grazing for a second, walked around the fire, continued grazing whatever was left. The only one hurting was I:  at the end of each day my neck and right shoulder were begging for physical therapy, for to beat the winds I had to bend low before throwing each match. Many hundreds of times. I set fire to the prairie the old- fashioned way, I didn’t use kerosene, nothing.

The pyromaniac in me remained happy and excited throughout the evening as the fires continued to creep up the hills in lines so orderly that any remaining fear of danger and destruction disappeared from my thoughts. I fell asleep fully content of the job I had done and I slept a good night’s sleep in solemn peace. The next morning, the earth all around our little house on the prairie was black. Charcoal black. What a sight. Yet again, what lacked was the feeling of disaster. Peace hadn’t returned, peace had never left the prairie. I could sense it, almost hear it: the earth was ready for spring, the deep grass roots were pumping blood, the young greens were making ready to punch through the surface of the earth and enjoy the sun — then swiftly rush through kindergarten, finish elementary school, scramble through junior high, graduate from high school and enter college. They were all set to have a brilliant career. To grow and grow and rise high and proudly dominate the tallgrass prairie.

Within just one week, the first fresh and fertile green stems were showing their heads and excitedly scanning the land, not knowing that the hungry cattle were just around the corner and just as excited. The cattle arrived by the hundreds of thousands. They stayed until the fall, to graze, to fatten themselves on feed more delicious than they could have imagined. To become pure grass-fed cows, producers of the most magnificent natural beef, of beef that might make even a convinced vegetarian wet his or her lips (I had almost typed convicted vegetarian). There is a saying in the Flint Hills cowboy country: that it’s easier to get accepted here if you’re gay or lesbian than when you are a vegetarian. Vegans better beware.

Setting fire to the prairie was one of the most memorable experiences in my life. The power I exercised with every match I threw … Not a macho kind of power, no hurting or killing force. Setting fire to Jane’s rolling hills rather was a creative action. I contributed to new life, I revitalized the earth, distributed vitamins, gave hormone shots. I fathered many young grasses. By setting fire to the old grasses I saved the prairie. No wonder I slept in peace. Years later, after having experienced many prairie burnings, the feeling is the same. Setting the prairie afire leaves me a content man.

In the old time, when the tallgrass prairie, of which nowadays 99% is gone, still covered 142,000,000 acres of America, prairie fires were not so peaceful. The Indians called them “the red buffalo” for the speed and force with which they moved. Diaries from early settlers talk of “the scarlet hurricane of light,” “that came marching and advancing like an army.” “The deadliest woman in the west” with her “hot breath threatening destruction.” The “infernal geyser” that “roared past us like a railroad train” or anyway “faster than a horse could run.” By its light, “we could read fine print for a ½ mile or more.” The pioneers had to fight the prairie fire with counter fire and by digging ditches and furrows. “The crimson blaze zoomed up fifty feet,” and “on the wings of the wind came destruction, death, swiftly, unwavering, inexorable. Whoever stood in the path of this holocaust had no choice but to fight” by running backfires and stamping out the flying sparks. The prairie chickens would call to each other in tones of distress “like the wail of a banshee.” Many would burn and the ruined nests of the hens were conspicuous by their whiteness on the charred land.

Prairie chickens once flourished in the grasslands. Today, not many of them are around. Like the bison they disappeared together with most of the prairie. The few remaining ones suffered much from the modern day prairie fires, not started by lightning like in the old days, but on purpose, and prescribed to enrich the lands. For fire doesn’t destroy prairie grasses, which grow from the stem up rather than from the tip of the blade, and the growth of native species such as big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass increases significantly following a fire.

Jane, who calls her ranch the “Republic of Grass” (“a sense of place, a state of mind, a state of grace, a story that must be told to the next generation, a light to illuminate the right questions, for Republic of Grass is an ancient homeland with many citizens and no definable boundaries. It can be inhabited, explored and cherished, but it cannot be owned”) — Jane started patch burning in cycles, to make sure that surrounding each patch she sets afire plenty of grasslands remain untouched to offer a safe haven to nesting prairie chickens and to other plains animals. On her ranch the prairie chicken is no longer an endangered species. Last year, I caught them doing their tumultuous, magnificent mating dance. It’s a sight to see, with hardly any comparison.

Prairie fires may no longer be the dangerous force they once were, they left enough enduring scary impressions. The revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1931 said that, “A single spark can start a prairie fire,” and he proved he was right and more than once, too. Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos American special forces would call out “Prairie Fire!” when in contact with superior Vietcong troops and death was imminent. ‘Sparks and Prairie Fires’ is the title of someone’s theory of unanticipated political revolution. ‘Prairie Fire — The Policies of Revolution and Anti-Imperialism’ is another publication although never as widely circulated as, in 1973, the Weather Underground’s so called Communist manifesto, ‘Prairie Fire’, edited by William Ayres. There is even a link between iPods and prairie fires – it’s about designing legal regimes for complex intellectual property.

Which makes me thirsty. No problem, I will have a Redneck Prairie Fire (1 part Louisiana Hot Sauce, 1 part grain alcohol White Lightning). Or a Bitchin’ Scorpion Prairie Fire (1 shot of tequila, 1 shot of DeKuyper Cherry Brandy, ½  teaspoon of honey, ½ teaspoon of lime juice, ½ teaspoon of Frank’ Red Hot Pepper Sauce). Even the Belgians invented a prairie fire drink subtitled Belgian Hell from the Russian Steppe, with Love, of course. One shot of vodka, a few squashed Brussels sprouts, 26 drops of Tabasco sauce. To which I personally would add a good shot of tequila, to guarantee the “infernal geyser.” Cheers!

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, February 2010