Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Allure of the Flint Hills

"Matfield sits on the western side of the South Fork, against the brow where the uplands drop to the river terraces and then rise again a half mile eastward to run brokenly to the Flint Hills escarpment.  The hamlet is snugged in enough to make me believe that with a terrific heave, I could throw a rock up and out of the valley onto the the uplands; it is this compression of river and trees and simple dwellings, hidden from the prairie sweep, that give the village its unornamented, if decrepit, charm and keeps its name from being a hoax."
-William Least Heat Moon, Prairy Erth.

At least five generations of my family have been drawn to the allure of the Flint Hills.  In my search for the root of this attraction I am indebted to the work of Joseph V. Hickey, Jim Hoy and William Least Heat Moon.  Their vivid descriptions of the land and the people who inhabited it have provided me with a rich backdrop for understanding the people and places that are my heritage.

I have come to think of the Flint Hills in feminine terms much like a sailor thinks of his ship as a “she”.  Her gentle breezes through the tall grasses tempt men like the ruffle of a woman’s skirt or a soft kiss.  Her perfume lingers over the prairie beckoning you to follow.  She is a temptress whose soft voice seems to whisper, “Come to me. Like the red tailed hawk souring above, I will set you free”. 

Yet she is a fickle mistress.  Her soft breezes can suddenly  become tornadic winds that destroy men’s lives. Without warning, her warmth turns frigid leaving men stranded and alone in the icy cold of a winter blizzard. As if on a whim, she moves from drought to flood without a care or concern for the lives she destroys in the process.

But she will not set you free. Like the Sirens of mythology, she calls men back with sweet promises. “Come back to me,” she whispers.  “It will be better next time.”  Women cannot compete with the power she holds over their men.  Like the wives and lovers of the sea captains of long ago, they wait and hope.
Pioneer women followed their men into the Flint Hills in search of the dream.  Often times it was not a dream of riches or wealth, but of a paradise on earth where one could derive sustenance from the land itself. The Flint Hills promised bountiful wildlife and fertile valleys.  If a man had a strong wife and many children, the land would provide the rest.  For most, it was an empty promise.  Families withered and died from starvation or the harshness and unpredictability of the climate.  Those who survived, remain loyal to the land and the dream.  They are rooted to the soil in ways others cannot understand. It is against this rich background that I begin to piece together the tapestry that is the beginning of this legacy.  

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