PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon
I bought this book some eight summers ago—my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf reads “July 1994″—fresh on the heels of having avidly devoured Heat-Moon’s first book, Blue Highways. At the time, I had put down roots by purchasing a house in my hometown, a scant mile from the hospital where I was born, and was building up calluses and home repair experience by restoring the lovely old yellow-clapboarded wood-frame dwelling. Yet without really realising it, I was bogged down in the swamps of lower Michigan. I’d been working too long at the same job, and was stuck in an uninspired relationship that would ultimately, inevitably, go nowhere, and the urgent wanderlust of Blue Highways sparked my own, albeit unwittingly.
Heat-Moon’s fabulous prose style and way of tying together separate threads into an insightful whole made me more than eager to pick up his (at the time) latest work. But back in 1994, I couldn’t stomach it. Without understanding how desperate I was to flee the sedentary rut I was in, I found myself shrinking from PrairyErth and shrieking in a virtual agony. Six-hundred-plus pages about one county in Kansas without a single town larger than a thousand people, a place made up of little more than grassland and a few creeks and a river and some barely perceptible hills? Get me out of here!
So now I’m living in Chicago, the town that purports to be on the edge of the prairie even though nowadays you’d have to head west through two full states before you’d find anything that isn’t strictly farmland, if not sprawl. My life has turned great, I’m out of that rut (no offense to Michigan, for I’ll always consider myself a Michigander and hope to return there some day) and happily married and here I am in one of the many buildings of this amazing man-made steel mountain range, looking out to the west all the way to the very flat horizon (at least until that new high-rise over there gets a little taller, which should only be a few weeks). Though I may argue it, Chicago really does stand on the edge of the prairie, and gets its life force from the prairie, and so now, years after I bought it, PrairyErth holds quite a newfound fascination for me.
The basic premise of PrairyErth: A Deep Map is to focus acutely on the details of a single place, to get to know its people and its topology and its history. Heat-Moon arranges his book with the same meticulous symmetry that can be seen in the rectilinear map of Chase County itself.
The book is divided into twelve major sections, one for each of Chase’s quadrangles. Each section begins with a hand-drawn map of the quadrangle, followed by a few or several pages of quotations that somehow may tie in, however esoterically, with the section to follow. These quotes range over the entire length of recorded Kansas history, though not all are specifically about Kansas, from famous wordsmiths such as Thoreau and Walt Whitman to contemporary scholars.
Then comes a chapter titled “In the Quadrangle,” where Heat-Moon describes some of the history specific to that quad, usually intertwined with a fragment of his own travels within the quad in search of some artifact or place or tale. This chapter usually will also describe the arrangement of the quad, illuminating the map at the beginning of the section in a way that colours and legends and topographical lines never could.
The chapters that follow then bring tales of the people, stories that are not strictly interviews and not purely narrative, as Heat-Moon is always present (often as “that book writer who’s half a bubble off plumb”) to allow us to be vicariously invited into the homes and lives of the people of Chase. Finally, each section wraps up with a chapter, usually titled “On The Town,” that carries longer tales that thread across the quadrangles and draw them into a larger arc.
Throughout, Heat-Moon, caught on the cusp between modern America and his Native American heredity, sees the land and its people in ways that they—and perhaps we—might never see themselves, stumbles upon events of strange serendipity, and collects the pieces of the puzzle into a fragmented but splendid whole.
A thought occurred to me: PrairyErth is so full of tales, is such a detailed description of Chase County, Kansas, that my first tendency is to want to go there, for it must be such a wondrous place, full of history. My second thought is, yes but every place has its tales, its history; he could have written his book about any county in America and come away with as thick a volume, as many interesting tales and themes. Chase County is not all that unique. And yet a book about, say, my current residence of Cook County, Illinois, would be something completely different. Pondering that, I came up with a theory:
To find the old bones, the history, the geology, the major threads of a place like Cook County, one must dig quite deep, and look far beyond (and beneath) the landscape of tall buildings that even today spring forth from the ground more quickly than tallgrasses. But in Chase County, where the soil is hard, and the courthouse is the tallest building for miles, and the wind rubs off paint and patina and false personae with the ferocity of a prairie fire, the history is right there on the surface, right in front of your eyes, if you know how to look at it.
Heat-Moon’s “deep map” is certainly that, deep, but its depth comes not merely from digging in the ground but also from having the time and the patience to hear the tales as they’re blown on the Kansas wind.