All the way to Junction City, a vague sense of dread pestered me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The Symphony in the Flint Hills is a very big deal every year. I was supposed to be the resident poet. What did that mean?
My friend HC Palmer (who interestingly has just “HC” written on his birth certificate) asked me to take his place at the Symphony this year. Sure, I said, not knowing what I was getting into. But one of the things I have learned recently is never to turn down an opportunity to work in my field.
Ninety percent of everything, they say, is showing up. I planned to show up for the Symphony in the Flint Hills. I spent weeks losing sleep about it. What if I do something wrong? What happens if I don’t do what I’m supposed to exactly right?
I made it a point to sit down with HC a couple of time and discover what he did as poet laureate for the Symphony in the Flint Hills. He gave me some pointers: Buy about a dozen pocket-sized spiral notebooks and enough pens to go around. Introduce yourself. Invite people to write about their experience.
In the past, HC, who is an accomplished poet of enormous talent, asked people to sit down after their prairie walks and write haiku or some short form of poetry. Not a big deal, he said. Just do it as the people can take it. It won’t be for everyone but there will be people who take you up on the offer.
My fears and dread began to drain away when I pulled into the volunteer parking area, which was a swath of land adjacent to the site where a number of white tents flapped in the gusty wind. Some friendly volunteers in safety vests waved me into a spot at the end of a line of cars. I sat for a moment in the car. It was strangely silent after the rumble of the gravel road. Other people pulled in next to me. I wasn’t alone here, I said to myself. Others of these people must also be first-timers, and they probably had as much idea of what they were doing as I did.
After a quick ride in a golf cart, a breeze through the volunteer line where I picked up my T-shirt, and a long walk to the prairie tour tent, very friendly people greeted me. I introduced myself around to six or seven people I would spend the afternoon with. “Oh, so you’re the poet,” more than one of them said. No one had every addressed me this way before. The Poet. I liked it.
The Symphony in the Flint Hills, which is a nonprofit that operates year-round for their signature event, held a volunteer orientation. Some 600 volunteers serve the 6,000 attendees. Various activities kept people busy all day and led up to a Kansas City Symphony performance. Bands and singer-songwriters played under some of the tents. Storytellers performed in others. Amateur astronomers set up their scopes at a tent at the edge of the area, which spread out over a half-mile or more. The astronomers wanted to serve people who stayed after the symphony performance and see what the sky held for them.
Our tent stood out by the astronomers. Prairie tours started early and I accompanied one of the guides out on the open space. We were on a rise and could see twenty miles in all directions. Endless mesas ran to the horizon, punctuated with tree-filled draws and valleys. The wind came across the field in waves, swaying the grasses and flowers. We stood in the middle of what was once a shallow inland ocean. Layers of sediment laid down over millions of years lay exposed in the draws. A layer of cherty limestone, for which the Flint Hills are named, outlined the upper layer of the mesas, which were, in turn, covered with verdant green.
After my walk, I started my job. I greeted groups of people as the “writer guy” or “The Poet.” I invited people to take my notebooks and pencils and to write down their impressions, feelings, notions, whatever contemplation of the prairie induced in them. They could tear out the pages and take their note with them, or they could leave them in the books for the next people to read. I assured them that whatever they wrote, the people who came after them would find interesting.
And people wrote as the tour guide explained the complex ecology, botany, and geology of the prairies on which they walked. The Flint Hill represents only 3 percent of what was once a vast tallgrass prairie that spread from the panhandle of Texas up into Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and from the plains of Ohio to eastern Colorado. It was a landscape of tens of species of grasses, legumes, and flowers that evolved with the bison. Fire and drought and extreme weather formed the prairie. Native Americans used fire to expand the prairies and bring bison into areas of soft grass that grew from the scorch.
Here’s some of what the prairie walkers wrote:
- “Wind refreshing. The people are maybe a little rough on the prairie plants. But the beauty of how it rolls across the grass and causes the wildflowers to dance above the waves of grass is a sight to comfort your eyes.”
- “I can see what you do. I can hear how you sound. I can feel your cool breeze. Yet, you can never be found.
- “Poet knows a lot. Probably did his homework or knows how to read stuff.”
- “Any armadillos? They’re gross. They’ll ruin this pretty grass.”
- “Time is the fourth dimension. You have to use your imagination to see what was here before based on the clues that remain today.”
- “Day by day, year by year, slowly, steadily building the soils over time uncounted. This was here long before we were and will be here long after we are gone.”
We probably conducted prairie tours for two or three hundred people. Many of them walked away feeling enlightened. The tour guides loved their work. I did the best I could and engaged a number of people.
When our tent closed at 5 p.m. in anticipation of the symphony performance, I walked through a column of horse-drawn wagons drivn by men and women in cowboy garb. Interestingly, some of them played and texted on their phones. I supposed that distracted driving matters less behind a horse than behind the wheel of a ton or two of Detroit and Japanese steel.
I got back on the highway around the time that the prairie is the prettiest. The sun swung low in the west, turning the grasslands hues of red and orange. The shadows lengthened. It felt good to be by myself in the car. I had crossed these prairies in car and on foot. It was a comfortable place to be.
I hoped that the symphony came off well. Whether it did or not ceased to be important to me. I had been The Poet. That was enough.