Archive for February, 2011

“PrairyErth” by William Least Heat-Moon

I bought this on one of my last visits to The Odd Book in Wolfville, N.S., before moving to Halifax almost a year ago. The Odd Book is relatively small, but it’s well organized and specific without being snobbish. There are dedicated Classics, archaeology and linguistics sections, for example, but also a wall of mass-market mysteries and a good stash of Archie comics. A friend of mine once said, before coming home for a summer while doing his Master’s degree, that the only place in the Valley he wanted to work was The Odd Book and that if he couldn’t work there he wasn’t really sure what he was going to do. They weren’t hiring. I’ll have to check and see if he’s over that yet.

On this visit I came to the cash with William Least Heat-Moon’s first book, Blue Highways, in my hand, and the store’s owner, Jim Tillotson, steered me toward PrairyErth on the new arrivals shelf. I read the first couple of chapters soon after, but was just too buried in the minutiae of moving into a new place and learning how to be a working person again – lunch-packing, for instance, eluded me for the first few weeks – and so I put the book aside. Then, after finishing The Great Railway Bazaar back before Christmas I found myself still in the mood for non-fiction but wanting something a bit more…stationary, and PrairyErth beamed from the shelf, looking fat and happy and entirely unscathed from its previous rejection.

The book is subtitled (a deep map) and that’s exactly what it is. Heat-Moon went to Chase County, Kansas, a place where not much is thought to happen, and just inched his way through it, sometimes walking, sometimes rooting in courthouse records and the journals of those who settled or passed through, and sometimes waiting, in the grass or in a bar or in his van, to see what does happen. Some of his research has to do with particular routes through the county – railroads, secondary highways and paths. In one of my favourite sections he tries to uncover the Orient Line, a railway that was to have connected Kansas City and China, via Mexico, but that he begins to suspect may be no more than rumour.

Kansas is more or less the dead middle of the (contiguous) United States, and it’s also where east becomes west, or vice versa. It’s got the last large expanse of tallgrass prairie in the country, and one of the recurring elements in PrairyErth is the position of various people Heat-Moon interviews on the proposed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (which was successfully established a few years after the book’s publication). It’s a contentious issue for Kansans who still dream of a return to the days when a viable living could be made working prairie rangeland. In one chapter Heat-Moon recounts a conversation he has with essayist Wes Jackson in which Jackson outlines his vision for a new kind of agricultural community for a post-oil future, a model suited to the current economic reality in Chase County: relying and putting a greater value on human labour and keeping more of the products of that labour in the local area.

PrairyErth is of a piece with some of John McPhee’s writing, in terms of the steady, on-the-ground chipping away at history, geology, ecology, economics, and … I don’t know, maybe happenstance, and the implied conviction that these need to be studied together. My one disappointment with it was that the parts I expected to like the most I actually liked least. These are where the author examines the effect of the prairie on his mindset. I travelled across Montana and North Dakota by train a couple of years ago and I guess had secretly hoped to find a closer articulation of my own experience of that landscape. The sentiments seem quite genuine, but the language he used often left me cold. Walking kept wandering into dreaming and into baggy statements about time. Given how much I like the rest of the book I’m tempted to say this is really a matter of vocabulary. Or a cultural divide, and I am just being ignorant.

Or maybe it’s all the solitude. In the final chapter Heat-Moon and a friend, a fellow writer the (now) late Clive Scott Chisholm, embark on a multi-day walk to try to find the Kaw Trail, a path through the county, once travelled by the Wind People tribe when they were relegated to territory south of their original lands. Together the pair bounce ideas about the prairie off each other that to me are much more accurate and interesting than much of Heat-Moon’s deeper solo musings. With Chisholm Heat-Moon has a sympathetic ear (Chisholm himself wrote a book about a long walk he did following the Mormon route from the Missouri River to the Great Salt Lake Valley) and someone to jog him out of the most earnest of his ruminations. There is a Tent Dwellers-like repartee here, both in terms of the wit and a particular brand of checked intuition. It was a good note to go out on, I thought.