FUNDAMENT / FIRMAMENT
When I landed on the soil, I looked on the ground and I says this is free ground. Then I looked on the heavens, and I says them is free and beautiful heavens. Then I looked within my heart, and I says to myself I wonder why I never was free before? [i]
– John Solomon Lewis, on his arrival in Kansas
Seeking road-side respite on a long stretch of driving across Kansas west of Salina, I pass a historical marker signpost just ahead for the town of Nicodemus. Pulling aside a shaded park with scattered picnic tables, I decide to take a break from the road and pull out my makings for lunch. Sandwich in hand, I cross the grass to an information board. With the words “In July 1877, negro “exodusters” from Kentucky established a settlement here in the Promised Land of Kansas…” I am riveted. I’ve happened upon the sole remaining African American town in the west from the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War.[ii]
Though the North’s victory over the South technically ended slavery, some grim times lay ahead for newly freed blacks seeking equality and prosperity. Shadow organizations like the Klu Klux Klan emerged to ensure white supremacy in all things economic, and separatism in everything else. Seeking opportunity, African American leaders like Henry Adams and Pap Singleton tirelessly promoted relocation from the oppression of the South to the Freedom of the West. Home of the famous abolitionist John Brown, Kansas became one of the most popular destinations. A trickle became a flood: within ten years, from 1870 to 1880, the population of blacks in Kansas soared from 16,250 to 43,110, some 6,000 of whom were exodusters from the South. Fleeing blacks like Reverend Simon Roundtree, Zack Fletcher and wife Jenny Smith Fletcher became Nicodemus’s first settlers and early town leaders, spurring others to colonize the town.[iii]
Surviving the initial harsh winter by selling buffalo bones, taking work far away, or accepting help from the Osage natives, these pioneers planted their first crops the following spring as the town began to prosper. By 1887 there was a full complement of stores and services, several churches, post office, hotel, two newspapers, a band, even a baseball team. But continued growth was doomed by failure to lure the Union Pacific Railroad to pass through their town.[iv]
Gradually, some moved away, others died, and the Great Depression and Dust Bowl took their toll here as elsewhere. By 1935 only 76 residents could be accounted for. In 1997, Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing the designation of Nicodemus as a National Historic Site. The NPS now leases space in the old town hall with plans underway to restore several other historical buildings.[v] The town of 20 now annually hosts an emancipation celebration every July and a ‘Juneeteenth’ jazz and blues festival in the month before.[vi] Perhaps further promise yet to come awaits the town of Nicodemus and others like it across the Great Plains, but only if they can re-imagine an economy more diverse than corn or soybeans alone. We must imagine a more diverse way of growing our food, but we must also learn from prairie lands to imagine our way into more diverse relations with each other.
Might emergent political and religious practices be a reflection of workings on the land? While one segment of the Midwest population symbolically model their beliefs after the diversity of a mature tall-grass prairie, another seems to take their cue from large scale, mono-cultural farming.
Noting extensive changes in land-use and economic patterns here over the last 150 years, I ponder that a region that once gave rise to some of this nation’s most progressive political and spiritual movements has now become the seat to fundamentalist religious zealots.[vii] In Capital City, we see a depiction of a city and region perched on a commercial and political powder keg, but the radical roots depicted in the novel’s fictionalized agrarian politics run quite deep. Radical, from the Latin radix, translates to ‘root’:[viii] is it any wonder that a landscape that gives rise to bluestem and its unfathomable reach into the soil would also inspire political sensibilities rooted in soulful values respecting individual farmer’s rights and progressive community-based values. Rising land prices, high mortgages, plummeting prices, and rampant railway land speculation, all conspired to concentrate wealth to a privileged elite. In response, ‘The National Grange for the Patrons of Husbandry – ‘the Grange’ for short – was founded in 1867 in Minnesota and spread rapidly through the agrarian Midwest.[ix] Regional organizations such as the Farmers and Laborers Union and the Colored Farmers National Alliance also arose. Their genesis summons a familiar story to those who worked the land; the hand that sells, not the hand that grows, is the one that has the full grip on the wallet. Through the 1880’s, continuing ongoing tensions between poor growers and privileged sellers gave birth to a pro-farmer Populist Party that managed to elect 5 U.S. senators, 6 governors, and 46 congressmen in the 1890 elections.[x]
One of the primary planks in the Populist platform spoke out against the exclusive emphasis on property rights and the ownership of land by those who did not work it, a politic indicative of a region settled by homesteaders scratching out an existence on relatively small plots of land. Ideals of self-reliance and cooperative labor and mutual support abounded in the Midwest.[xi] Fast forward a hundred years and the polarities reverse; strident voices on AM talk show radio blast those who would weaken property rights in any way, shape or form. Absentee owners amass larger farms and ranches, and greater federal subsidies for oil-intensive production. And the Kansas that once welcomed John Solomon Lewis and others like him to free ground and freedom of heart and soul now has become a breeding ground of political divisiveness and religious intolerance.
The early Midwest described by writers such as Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather was characterized by significant religious tolerance: Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Plain Quakers, Shakers, Bruderhofs, Swedenborgs, Moravians, Rappites, Amanas; all these and others were welcomed as homesteading settlers to the new promised land,[xii] though it must be noted that there was a pronounced lack of religious tolerance for those Native Americans still in the area. A great deal of this diverse influx was a result of the European immigration encouraged as a result of the 1862 Homestead Act, but religious seekers from other parts of North America, including Baptist blacks from the Reconstruction south, made their way to Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and other prairie states.[xiii] One must wonder where that nuanced climate of tolerance has gone. Popular media leads us to believe that all Christians are rabid fundamentalists and all scientists intolerant of spiritual discourse. The truth is likely as nuanced and varied as a wild prairie, but few on the Left or Right take the time to delve beneath their knee-jerk prejudices.
Prairie plenitude rests on a fundament of soil; and our human plentitude surely subsists from the fundament of integrative soulfulness we experience. Having razed the diverse forest of grass and raised a monocultural factory of corn, can we pretend that a poisoned and perishing soil has not also diminished our individual and collective character? Restoration of land may also require a restoration of our abiding relationship to that land, and a reformation of attitudes and habits, as well as a re-imagination of hope.
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I face into a persistent east-bound wind at the crest of a hill at the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Strong City in the Flint Hills.[xiv] As I hold out my arms and lean into the column of air, I must check to make sure I haven’t actually grown wings. The nearest trees stand at least a quarter mile away. Even these few cluster like outcasts in a tuck of the valley. From every vista flow strong currents of open space, bursting stretches of sharpened light, and the ceaseless murmuring of tall grasses.
Nearly 11,000 acres in reach, this site is the nation’s sole publicly maintained facility dedicated to the preservation of the legacy of tallgrass prairie.[xv] As I spin on my heels for a 360 degree view, another surge of primal spaciousness flows through me, something I can only imagine ancestral natives and first explorers of this realm feeling as they stood in such locales. It’s a defining moment: the East feels extremely claustrophobic to me, not only from the thickly reforested landscape and densely populated locales, but from the thicket of ongoing duties, never-ending projects, and monotonous meetings of my increasingly complicated personal and professional existence.
I remember back to my first experiences of tallgrass prairie at Hayden Reserve in northeast Iowa. There I’d diligently screened out my immediate surround in order to imagine the vastness of America’s historical prairies. Here I can open my eyes, my senses, my mind, and my heart, with every vista as wide open as the others. It’s the external antithesis to my internal intellectual and emotional terrain, which more closely mirrors the intensely cultivated farms blanketing the rest of the state than this spacious expanse that radiates out from where I stand.
Here, where the wild persistent wind sweeps everything clear, I give myself over to this land. Let those outer winds scour clean the sculpted curving surface of these hills. Let my inner winds tempest and roar as well, sweeping clear the chaff and cull of dead thoughts, desiccated stalks of belief, broken branches of misplaced action. Dark rain-swollen clouds boil upwards and blow in from the west. I take in the patterns swirling through the bluestem and switch grass. If this were dance, I would be stunned by the masterful choreography. Shafts of sun snaking through torn rents in the cumulonimbus add to the kaleidoscopic effect. Outcrops of limestone and chert thrust from the thin soil. Some, weathered and hollowed by time, hold ephemeral pools lined with a community of mosses and tiny ferns.
For a moment, I can visualize myself in this area after the Permian-age limestone laid down under eons of inland sea was thrust upward by the toss and tilt of geologic muscle. Humbled by millennia of persistent weathering, this place becomes exalted by enterprising flora and fauna. I picture grass seeds blowing in along with clay and silt from the engineering rivers further west and south, lodging in the cherty gravel, and rooting down through cracks in the limestone bedrock. In such a landscape anything seems possible.
Two weeks into my prairie sojourn, I'm liberated of artifice and normality. No one I meet knows me or a damn thing about me. I can shed the coat of the overworked colleague, the grieving son, the concerned brother. I can pretend to be a Jehovah's Witness, a dangerous criminal, an encyclopedia salesman, an out-of-work Chippendale’s dancer. Prairie landscapes constantly reinvent themselves. In a place like this preserve, populated by some 400 plant and over 200 bird and mammal species, then every footstep could create a new niche, every rainfall a potential rise of one organism and the demise of another, every grain of blowing sand a possible tip in balance from one species over another.
Gazing out into the limitless horizons under the expansive sky, my mind truly empties and my spirit stretches out into fifty miles of elbow room. But prairie reality at is not really an emptiness waiting to be filled, but a dynamic fullness reflecting maximum potential for creative change. Lessons from prairie spaciousness and its teeming complexity show that soil’s fundament reflects a kind of creation predicated on vast diversity, not abnegation of singular difference. Tall grasses sink deep into the earth’s firmament, but never stand alone in native grasslands ecology. Thinking like a prairie shows me that hundreds of ways of knowing knit the fabric whole, reinventing, resilient not because it is steadfast and fixed but imminently and variably adaptable.
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[i] "Stories of the Great Westward Expansion - Stories to Be Told - African American History in the National Parks: The Exodus to Freedom," National Park Service, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/untold/banners_and_backgrounds/expansionbanner/exoduster.htm>.
[ii] "Nicodemus National Historic Site," National Park Service, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/nico/>. Additional travel information on Nicodemus can be found at "Nicodemus, Kansas: A Black Pioneer Town," Legends of America, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/OZ-Nicodemus.html>. More information on the Exodus and Southern Reconstruction can be found at "African American Odyssey: Reconstruction and Its Aftermath," Library of Congress, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart5.html>.
[iii] "Nicodemus, Kansas: A Black Pioneer Town,"
[v] "Historic Buildings of Nicodemus," National Park Service, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/features/nicodemus/buildings.htm>.
[vi] "North Central Region Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Display," North Central Region Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education http://www.sare.org/ncrsare/nicodemus.htm>.
[vii] I gained much insight into the nature of fundamentalist thought from the writing of Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (New York City: Random House, 2000).
[viii] The New Century Dictionary of the English Language 1460.
[ix] "National Grange," The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, 16 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nationalgrange.org/about/history.html>.
[x] Stanley K. Schultz, "How Ya' Gonna' Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?: The Rise of Populism," University of Wisconsin, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/textonly/lecture10.html>.
[xi] Wikipedia's definition of Populism is a useful starting point for many works detailing the rise and fall of the Populist Party in North America: "Populism," Wikipedia, 16 Oct. 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism>.
[xii] Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance maintains an extensive data set of memberships in various Christian denominations in the US, reflecting the diversity even within our majority religion: "Christian Denominations in the U.S.," Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 14 Oct. 2006, <http://www.religioustolerance.org/us_rel2.htm>. The Religious Movements Homepage Project at Univ. of Virginia maintains profiles of many groups cited in this passage: "The Religious Movements Page: Alphabetic Listing of Group Profile Pages," University of Virginai, 14 Nov. 2006, <http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/profiles/listalpha.htm#h>>. The National Park Service’s Amana Colony site describes in detail the experience of one of those early groups with a Utopian vision: "Utopian Societies: The Amana Colonies National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary," National Park Service, 14 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/amana/utopia.htm>.
[xiii] "Homestead Act," Specific information on the impact of homesteading via these acts can be found at: "Kinkaid Act," University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://csce.unl.edu/~mbeerman/histday1.html>.
[xiv] The region is explored with fascinating but near-excessive depth in the sprawling William Least Heat Moon, Prairyerth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
[xv] Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve sites: "Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: Home Page," also "Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve," National Park Service, 12 Oct. 2006, <http://www.nps.gov/tapr>.