During the months of March and April, large areas of rangeland in the Flint Hills are set ablaze. These prescribed burns help preserve the tallgrass prairie, control invasive species (such as Sumac and Eastern Red Cedar) and help minimize the risk of wildfires. This annual rite of burning is just one aspect of life in the Flint Hills. To understand the place better, Commentator Rex Buchanan says you need to live there. Short of that, he recommends a new book written by Jim Hoy, a man who's lived there a long, long time.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence. Jim Hoy's book, My Flint Hills: Observations and Reminiscences from America's Last Tallgrass Prairie, is published by University Press of Kansas.
Read more about springtime burning in the Flint Hills.
Just about every Kansan I know, no matter where they live or where they’re from, seems to love the Flint Hills. And nobody knows the Flint Hills better, or loves than more, than Jim Hoy. A retired English professor from Emporia State, Jim spent most of his life in the Hills. He’s just written a new book called My Flint Hills: Observations and Reminiscences from America’s Last Tallgrass Prairie, published by the University Press of Kansas.
The Flint Hills are, of course, that swath of tallgrass prairie that stretches from Washington County, Kansas, in the north, down to Cowley County in the south, and on into Oklahoma. They remain largely in native grass, are home to a long-established cattle and ranching culture, and capture everybody’s attention each spring when ranchers burn off the pastures to get rid of brushy vegetation and help bring on the new grass.
Jim taught Flint Hills folklore classes at Emporia State and wrote newspaper columns about the area, some of which were the basis for some of the essays in this new book. But all the while Jim kept riding horses and moving cattle. Much of what he knows comes from days in the saddle. That’s maybe the best kind of knowledge.
Jim has an unapologetic, unabashed adoration for the Flint Hills. But his demeanor is so genuinely unassuming that he doesn’t come off as bragging or exaggerating, the way people from some places do. Here’s Jim quoting a local cowboy: “I’ve worked on ranches from Montana to Mexico, and this is the prettiest place I’ve ever seen. But you have to love grass.” And here’s Jim’s take: “If you want to have your breath taken away by rugged spectacle, go to the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon; if you want a chance to catch your breath, come to the Flint Hills.”
There are plenty of ways to do that, even for people from the city. The Konza Prairie near Manhattan and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City both have great hiking trails. The Symphony in the Flint Hills each June is a chance to see Flint Hills mixed with high culture. And the drive from Matfield Green to Madison, over cattle guards and through open range, is a dandy. Just make sure your spare tire is aired up.
One of the things I like about Jim’s new book is the conspicuous love of language. He uses words the way the locals do, like when he talks about “jumping”—that is, scaring up—prairie chickens. And I love the names of the people he writes about. Names like “Toad” and “Turk” and, my favorite, “PeeRoy”.
I grew up in the Smoky Hills out in central Kansas, and I have about as much affection for them as Jim Hoy has for the Flint Hills. But it’s hard to deny the thrill of a Flint Hills pasture burning, especially at night, or the brilliantly green grass that grows up from the blackened surface after the fire. Or the burnished reds of the waving grasses in the fall.
If you can’t get out in the Hills, Jim’s book is the next best thing. And if you can go, Jim’s book will set the stage. My Flint Hills will help get you through the winter, kinda like the thought of green grass in the spring.
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