Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 7, 2014

My "beautifully irrational love"

The past two weeks, I played host to two campus visitors. Carla and Johnny work at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology near Cartago. They were here to learn how Kansas State University promotes itself and see if those methods can be applied at their school.

But as their willing guide, I tried to make their leisure time interesting and enjoyable. While their country is small compared to the United States, Ticos, as they refer to their fellow countrymen, can rightfully boast about their homeland's mountains, volcanoes, beaches, rain forests and roaring rivers. Certainly, our landscape is not as spectacular as theirs. In fact, I've heard visitors describe it as "barren," "uninteresting," or "boring." My late mother-in-law even described it once as "that God-forsaken place."

Still, I feel our Flint Hills are awe-inspiring in their own way. Unlike a place such as Costa Rica, the beauty of this area does not reach out and assault the visitor's senses. Instead, it comes into view the way the stars do at night when a person allows the eyes to adjust to being away from the city's light.

It is usually a subtle place - with softly undulating hills, multi-colored grasses and buzzing of insects. Yet it has a dramatic face as well. Temperatures range from well below zero to over 120 F. Violent and sudden thunderstorms can produce flash flooding. Howling blizzards can close highways, schools and businesses for days at a time.

The name for this part of Kansas arose from a comment recorded by Lt. Zebulon Pike in September 1806 as he traveled west through what would one day be the state of Kansas. He noted having crossed some "very ruff flint hills."

Those hills extend approximately 200 miles north to south and about 60 miles east to west, most being within the state of Kansas. A thin layer of soil covers limestone containing chert, a hard, yet brittle rock. Native Americans sought chert to make knives and arrow heads. The limestone was later used as building material by settlers.

Since Carla would begin shivering during the short interval it took to walk to the car, it was clear that a stroll on the prairie for two people from tropical Costa Rica was not practical. For that matter, January is a bit too cold for even this native Kansan to be outside for very long.

But Manhattan offers the next best thing. Being the largest city in the Flint Hills, it was a natural choice for the Flint Hills Discovery Center where inside it is comfortable all year round.

It is one of those places where it seems you learn something new every time you visit and this time was no different. We began our "tour" by watching the multi-media "Immersive Experience," a film that tells the story of the Flint Hills through sight, sound and special effects. We were mesmerized as we "felt" the thundering herds of bison, the wind on our faces, the smoke of the prairie fires and the gentle touch of snowflakes. And we were captivated when we "heard" the voices of the past - of Native Americans, Spanish and French explorers, freed slaves, cowboys and pioneers. The narrators of the film described the hills and prairie as "remnants of the bottom of the sea," and a "layer cake of substrate," - references to the fact that this whole area was once part of a vast inland sea. But now, as the center of the nation's breadbasket, the description of it as a microcosm of "birth, death, fire, rebirth, growth and death" was also fitting as anyone who has ever seen the vast burning fields in the spring can testify.

The Flint Hills are also home to one of the last remaining stands of tallgrass prairie in the world. Less than four percent of its original 140 million acres - once stretching from Indiana to eastern Kansas, from Manitoba to Texas - survives today. The word "grass" is derived from the Aryan word "ghra" - that is also the root word for grain, green and grow. And grow it does - not only above ground where we can see it, but below, where the roots reach for the moisture.

The area's ecosystem supports more than 40 grass species, hundreds of wildflowers, 150 bird species, 30 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 31 mammal species and some 10 million insects per acre.

After several hours, we left the Discovery Center to meet with husband Art for a late lunch. Carla and Johnny said they had enjoyed learning about the area's cultural history and the geology.

"For us, it was very interesting to know the origins of this place," Johnny said.

But a phrase I had heard kept returning to my thoughts. The film's narrators spoke about a "beautifully irrational love of the landscape." I think that describes my feelings quite well. Kansas is also in the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states. In his 1988 book "Lost Horizon," Wayne Fields summed up both these aspects of this place I call home.

"The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity."

Upper left: the Flint Hills are indicated as the green area on the map of Kansas; lower left: Johnny and Carla by one of the exhibits; right: Johnny checking out what he needs to be a true cowboy.

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