Tuesday 27 August 2013


It's more than 20 years since I read PrairyErth - a deep map by William Least Heat-Moon and it's still singing in my head.  A most unlikely source of compelling reading as it is 600+ pages on a single county of Kansas - which, since the Wizard of Oz, will ever be associated in our minds with monochrome. But utterly engaging it is.  If you have the patience and stamina for the long haul, this book is so rewarding that I'm tempted now to lash out $0.01 (+p&p!) and buy me another copy from Amazon. A 'Deep Map' is an excuse to ramble and present a gallimaufry of Quite Interesting stuff about and around a particular place - a bit like The Blob explores the territory known as my "Mind".

PrairyErth is set in its unique topology, but that is buffeted by the weather (incl tornadoes) and overlies a characteristic geology, which determines the soil, which determines the vegetation, which determines the fauna that romped and slithered through the tall-grass before people ever arrived in Chase County. The view is so much richer because WLHM looks at these interlocking dimensions of the place through scientific as well as English-major eyes.  And the people who finally appeared in this landscape were so intrinsically interesting that you need to hear their back-story and listen carefully to their folk-lore and songs.  But most of all it is, like Thoreau, a celebration of the ordinary.  As WLHM said "Be careful going in search of adventure - it's ridiculously easy to find."
“Suddenly, over the slope, as if tethered to a cord of air drawing quickly upward, came a Northern Harrier, motionless but for its rising. So still was the bird - wings, tail, head - it might have been a museum specimen. Then, as if atop the wind, it slid down the ridge, tilted a few times, veered, tacked up the hill, its wings hardly shifting. I thought, if I could be that hawk for one hour I'd never again be just a man.” 

Why today?  Because it's William Least Heat-Moon's birthday (1939 but who's counting?).  PrairyErth was published in 1991.  A decade earlier, he had written another extraordinary book sweeping across the whole of his native land rather than a microcosm of it.  Blue Highways tracks his solo journey in a camper-van from sea to shining sea and back entirely by back-roads (colored blue in Rand-McNally road atlases).  It's a similar conceit to Bill Bryson's later, funnier and more famous Lost Continent. If you're leery about spending $0.01 (+p&p!) on my rec, you can read an interview: but be warned, even that isn't a soundbyte. At 15,000 words long, it is half as much as the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery.

It's worrying how easily we can get to be voyeurs on the territory.  Here is the dead centre of Cottonwood Falls. When we're finished reading the notices outside the Municipal Building of Chase County, we can stroll across the street and get a coffee in the Grand Central Hotel and Grill (it's beHIND you).  I hope they have nice donuts, and I'm sure they will.

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