Saturday, December 8, 2012

PrairyErth: a very short review

I am reading a most remarkable book.

William Trogdon, who also goes by William Least Heat-Moon, is best known for his book Blue Highways.

I have not read Blue Highways.

I am not reading Blue Highways.

I am reading one of Least Heat-Moon's other books: PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country.

I don't really want to tell you what this book is about, partly because you'll come to the wrong conclusions, and partly because it isn't about what you think it's about.

Here's what Publisher's Weekly said:

Whereas Blue Highways dealt with Heat-Moon's auto trip across America, PrairyErth (an old term for heartland soils) records a journey mostly on foot across the tallgrass prairies and grasslands of Chase County, Kans. In a great cornucopia of a book, a majestic, healing hymn to America's potential, Heat-Moon attempts to penetrate the spirit of the land...

I guess that's actually not too far off.

But let me try two other descriptions:

PrairyErth is an entire book about a single county in rural Kansas.

PrairyErth is the story of a country and a people, and of how the influences of geography, history, culture, biology, and sheer dumb luck left us where we are.

Oh, heck, I don't really want to tell you what this book is "about", because you'll say to yourself: "sounds boring."

And it's not boring, at all.

In fact, I find myself savoring, inching, crawling through the book, a page at a time, enjoying every bit.

Least Heat-Moon calls himself "an inspector of the ordinary", which, I think, is just marvelously appropriate. He is the sort of author who can write an entire page about a hill, or a bush, or a gust of wind, or the doorstep of a house, and you'll find yourself simply enthralled. Here he is, just going for a walk, "in a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far":

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is with your eye on a far goal, because you then begin to believe you're not closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland sense of scale and time didn't fit this country, and I started wondering whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot fell just where it had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people: circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere.

As it turns out, Least Heat-Moon doesn't need to "really get somewhere," as he is fascinated by where he is:

I'd come into the prairie out of some dim urge to encounter the alien -- it's easier to comprehend where someplace else is than where you are -- and I had begun to encounter it as I moved among the quoins, ledgers, pickled brains, winds, creek meanders, gravestones, stone-age circles. I was coming to see that facts carry a traveler only so far: at last he must penetrate the land by a different means, for to know a place in any real and lasting way is sooner or later to dream it. That's how we come to belong to it in the deepest sense.
(The "pickled brains," by the way, are an exhibit in the county museum.)

At times it may seem like Least Heat-Moon is just wandering, bouncing from topic to topic ("I'm scribbling things down", he says), but it's not like a child with ADD, unable to sustain any interest; rather, he is deeply, deeply interested, and finds himself interested in everything about Chase County, Kansas.

As Least Heat-Moon observes, this was not a likely place for people to settle, and it took effort, and a rather subtle form of deception, to convince them to travel so far, and to such a place; appealing to their sub-conscious urges was necessary:

Of the fifteen longitudinal streets, ten have the names of trees, and none of a prairie grass or native forb or legume. These names are fossil history of attitudes that town promoters employed to attract settlers from the eastern woodlands, people who had experienced little to prepare them for this big grassland, even the pioneers from the smaller and wetter prairies of Illinois and Indiana. The homesteaders brought with them a notion corroborated by their Christianity that this hugely open spread was a kind of failed forest that needed only the hand of civilized man to redeem it from its appalling waste, and they reversed here their usual practice of axing wilderness: they planted trees to remove it. Rather than learning what the prairie could provide and then changing their ways to harmonize with a land new to them, the settlers began trying to remake it into the East.

Hopefully I have whetted your appetite for this delightful book, and for Least Heat-Moon's insight, his clarity, and his superb phrasings and poetic voice.

You may think that you care nothing about Chase County, Kansas, and wonder why it would be worth the time to learn about it; I can only hope that this brief taste gives you the motivation to give PrairyErth a try.

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