Sometimes, the most important work you can do is in your own backyard. In my back yard lie the Flint Hills—5.2 million acres that represent one of the last significant stands of tallgrass prairie in North America. Once the continent's predominate landscape, less than 5% remains today. Arguably, the Flint Hills, along with the adjoining Osage Hills of Oklahoma, are the largest remaining example of one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.
It might also be argued that my interest in the Flint Hills is somehow inherited. I am a sixth-generation Kansan with deep ties to the region on two sides of my father's family. And it was my mother's ancestor, explorer Zebulon Pike, who first coined the name "Flint Hills"—descriptive of the bedrock that lies just below the surface. It is this same shallow, "flinty" limestone, and nothing else, that has saved these 20 or so Kansas counties from the plow.
Early settlers soon learned what the Plains Indian had long known—that while these rocky hills may not be much good for farming, Big and Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switch Grass make excellent pasture. Dwindling herds of bison were replaced by domesticated cattle, and ranching became the socioeconomic model that continues to dominate and shape the region today—and it is the stockman who serves as the principal steward of the land.
In the Fall of 1981, I left my home in Wichita to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence. All but the most obtuse routes from one to the other traverse the Flint Hills, and suddenly my eyes were wide open! This was not the Kansas that I knew. It was not flat. It was not neatly divided into squares. Some of it was not even fenced. This was that magical place that my grandfather and great aunts recalled so fondly—the landscape that my pioneering ancestor, Sebastian Nehring, described this way:
"This is a good country --much better in many respects than the Fatherland. The vine-clad hills of the old country are not so rich as the rocky hills of Wabaunsee County."
When I was a senior in high school, my grandfather passed away, leaving unfinished a plan that we had made—to explore together the places of his youth. I was especially enamored with the idea of visiting "the old home place" (pictured above)—part of a small, interrelated community of Prussians and Swedes that had settled along a branch of the Mill Creek south of Alma, Kansas. This is where my grandfather and his siblings spent weekends and summers—and the setting for all sorts of stories. And so, during my freshman term at KU, it was with a heavy heart and borrowed camera, that I set out to realize our adventure—alone. I never could have imagined that I was embarking on a 35 year journey of discovery—both inward and outward—one that continues to this day. Writer William Least Heat-Moon once said, "A true journey, no matter how long the travel takes, has no end." This has certainly been true in my case.
On my first trip, I remember somewhat timidly knocking on a door in Alma and reintroducing myself to my grandfather's brother. He provided a rough set of directions, and off I went.
Later that day, I stumbled across the small family cemetery where my great-great-great-grandparents are buried. Its location was no secret to anyone—except for me. Yet I felt as if I had made the most amazing discovery in the world! It is an interesting thing for an 18-year-old-kid to suddenly have this deep sense of belonging—and not really know what to do with it.
I envision this website as being many things. Above all else, it is intended as a celebration of the people, places, and rich traditions of an area that is not only central to my own identity, but in many ways central to the identity of America. The Flint Hills not only represent a now barely imaginable "sea of grass," that once extended from Canada to Texas, and from eastern Kansas into Indiana, but also a place where many of the icons and ideals that shaped a nation endure.
Anthology: A collection of selected literary pieces or passages or works of art or music.
When I was struggling to find a name that was both descriptive and available, I kept coming back to the definition of anthology—and I kept stumbling on the word art. While I am pleased when one of my images is appreciated for its aesthetic value, my motivation has always been more journalistic in nature—attempting to somehow capture and share experiences. Still, it is a collection—of photographs accumulated over a significant period of time—and I am pleased to be sharing selections from this body of work here.
Without a doubt, this work owes a significant debt of gratitude to my cousin, Stephen Anderson. It was a common interest in family history that brought us together some 15 or 20 years ago. It was "Anderson" who took the place of my grandfather in teaching me about my Flint Hills heritage. I looked forward to our many visits and I think he did as well. It feels so strange now, to pass that way and not knock on his door. He always seemed so genuinely pleased to see me. Stephen was a fine friend and his loss leaves a void that will be long felt.
Continue to Part One of the collection.
STAYING IN TOUCH
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Other organizations that share an interest in the people, places, and traditions of the Flint Hills: