Chapter 20 - The Prairie

The Williamson family lived on a straight sandy road lined with dozens of mulberry trees. The first day I was there, the boys took me to the best trees and we climbed ladders, ate berries, and stained our mouths and fingers bright red. The bees followed us all the way back.

Elaine and Mike Williamson told me to make myself comfortable in their house, and after the trip I would remember their family as a true home on the road. Everybody sang Cat Stevens around the piano, and there were familiarly lively conversations at the dinner table. The ages of the kids were about the same as in my family, too: Betony was fourteen, Willow was eleven, and Pippin and JJ were eight—they were only missing a four-year-old. Katie, who was my age, was in Toronto studying at the National Ballet School of Canada.

“Do you want to go for a drive?” Willow asked on the second day of my visit. Willow's eyes sparkled like my sister's did. "Dad takes us for fun drives!"

“Okay,” I said. “Where?”

“Oh, near here,” Betony said. “Dad knows lots about plants, and we go look around…”

Mike was a small, wiry man with a passion for things that grow in the Midwest. “When most people visit, they think the landscape here is boring,” Mike said as we got into the car. “But it’s not! So much grows here—grasses and flowers and plants—and they’re all beautiful, just different from the ones you have in New England or California. I want you to see the beauty in our land.”

For the next two hours, the six of us roamed the roads of the Sandhills, hopping in and out of the old van every few hundred yards. And the "boring" state of Kansas, along with the “monotonous” green and yellow of its prairies, came alive for me under the enthusiastic tutelage of Mike Williamson.

I discovered a whole new ecosystem, one that can survive the heat, wind and other dramatic fluctuations in the prairie weather, and that actually needs those conditions to thrive. Mike and the kids showed me countless different grasses, one plant that oozed orange-ish juice when broken and another that was touch-sensitive and whose leaves folded up when I brushed my fingers against them.

Mike’s respect for Nature was evident in his voice, especially when we passed an odd-looking truck that was spraying something on the side of the road. I wondered what it was.

“That,” said Mike, “is a government-subsidized *Thing* that goes around and sprays hemp plants. It grows wild here, you know—people call it ditchweed. The thing is,” he continued, his voice trembling slightly, “mostly those drivers are lazy. They usually spray the whole roadside, not just in spots—which is bad enough—like they’re supposed to do.

"There’s so little left of the original Sandhills—so little left that’s actually true prairie and not mutilated by bad farming and erosion! And those trucks are ruining what’s left, killing off everything that lives along the roads, which makes the soil blow away 'cause there's nothing to hold it down… Do you know that the few feet of ditch on either side of these roads is just about the last remaining virgin prairie left? Most everything else has been plowed or paved over…”

We drove a little further, and then Mike stopped the car and turned off the engine.

“Listen” he said, and we all stood perfectly quiet. There was nothing to be heard except the vague sound of the wind blowing the grasses. Then I noticed something else. CLUNK. CLUNK. CLUNK.

“What's that?”

“The oil wells,” said Mike. “They’re another thing that's endangering the prairie. Those rigs–” he pointed into the field, where I now saw the grasshopper-like oil rig bobbing eerily up and down “–run night and day, night and day until the oil runs dry. Then—" he pointed again across the road to a rusty, unmoving hunk of metal “—they leave 'em. It costs less to build a new one than it does to reuse the old one, so they leave it to rot. They don't understand the prairie. They don't care about it after they've gotten all the money out of it they can."

Mike’s voice was definitely trembling now. After we climbed back into the car, everyone was silent for a while.

The sun was sinking low on the horizon when we finally headed toward home, and as we drove slowly along, two deer leaped powerfully across the road. “Isn’t that just magic!” exclaimed Mike. “Isn’t that just magic!” The deer were magic. It was magic that in the last two hours, I'd learned to see plants in the fields that yesterday I thought were just grass and brush.