Sunday, October 28, 2012

PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon

We were visiting the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint HIlls of Kansas when I noticed a flyer advertising the book, PrairyErth and I remembered finding it in the library, sometime around 1992. It may have been written and published then, but its heart is deep in the 1960s -- a big, messy, sprawling, passionate set of essays and quotations about the very county we were then standing in.
We went on to revisit the flamboyant Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, and found lunch at the town's one visible eatery, the Emma Chase Cafe and Gift Shop.  As we paid our bill, I asked whether there was a bookstore in town (it is a one-street shopping district, so I thought, fat chance).  What are you looking for? An older book, PrairyErth, I answered.  She humphed. Her colleague said something I didn't catch.  I'll make a phone call, she said.
The news was that the bookstore (still invisible) had two copies for ten dollars each, and she had a copy for ten dollars, and we could pick which one we wanted.  Of course, we left the Emma Chase with our book in hand.
The author, who teaches or has taught English and has written a couple of other books, takes as his subject here Chase County, Kansas.  In detail.  Taking the topographical map series which has defined the land by gridlines, he has explored each section minutely, talking to "countians" as he terms Chase County residents, climbing through fences, plodding through tall grass, getting lost sometimes and frightened sometimes and hungry occasionally and bored only when he has misdirected himself.  He has made a "deep map" immersing himself so completely in the history of the place that he can imagine the voices of the 19th century settlers among others.
The stories he tells are often riveting -- murder and courage and fear and chicanery and love and deceit -- and once you know to leaf past the parts that aren't for you on this trip through, you find yourself learning a lot about the history of the place and of our country.  Like any good poet, he opens himself to his readers and shares his own emotions, his excitement and occasional bafflement.
I would share some of his stories, but it's best if you find them yourself. We profit from having seen and walked some of the same places, but his writing is so vivid that you'll be able to learn from him wherever you are.
Don't be put off by the size of the book.  It needs to be sampled in pieces and set on a bookshelf between times.  And don't overlook the Commonplace Book collections of quotations.  They are carefully selected by a thoughtful judge.


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