In PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon makes art out of the mundane: wandering the roads of Chase County, Kansas (population 3,013), getting to know the residents and their stories, and eulogizing the lost way of life and disappearing prairie. The New York Times calls PrairyErth a “wonderful and welcome book” written by a man who is “something of a loner, a trifle old-fashioned, a bit mystical and just as much at home in the tallgrass prairie as on the far side of a cracker barrel.”1[1]

That he is. Heat-Moon (William Trogdon) has made something of a literary cottage industry out of leisurely trips through what one might call the unapparent America, whether he lingers in one place or carefully makes his way along back roads or neglected rivers. He observes, he thinks, he makes friends, he takes notes, and he elegizes fading ways of life and forgotten peoples. In Kansas, the prairie becomes for him, quite simply, a new way of seeing.

Hiking in woods allows a traveler to imagine comforting enclosures, one leading to the next, and the walker can possess those little encompassed spaces, but the prairie and plains permit no such possession. Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean…”

Lonely Prairie

A lone tree stands amongst a sea of grass and rolling hills on the Kansas Prairie in northern Ford County (“Lonely Prairie,” Michael Schweitzer Photography)

PrairyErth, a decade in the making, is as leisurely and ruminative as Heat-Moon’s strolls through the 774 square miles of Chase County. Part travelogue, part commonplace book, it’s the result of years of travel and research. He becomes a fixture in the diners, a guest in homes, a recognized walker of the roads. He is the writer, intent on getting people to open up, to remember.

The American disease—and I’m quoting someone I can’t recall—is forgetfulness. A person or people who cannot recollect their past have little point beyond mere animal existence; it is memory that makes things matter.

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Paul Theroux calls PrairyErth “a good-hearted book about the heart of the country.” It’s also the work of a good-hearted writer who, after sharing with a fellow traveler a nineteenth-century diary of a frontier wife, ruefully notes his companion’s response: “How far we’ve come from it all.”

[1] Paul Theroux, “The Wizard of Kansas.” The New York Times, October 27, 1991.