Progress in Kansas

Flint Hills Rhapsody

by W.L.W. in the Emporia Gazette

PROBABLY it isn't the fault of the painters that they have never been able to catch the majesty of the Flint Hills. It isn't a matter of color. They can do that. But no painter can ever put on canvas how it feels when you turn your neck. This isn't meant to be funny. The Flint Hills aren't funny. Their beauty isn't anything to cackle about.

     The majesty of the Flint Hills is the majesty of simplicity, of clean lines and vast sweeps. If you try to crowd it into a canvas, between a four-sided frame, it vanishes. For instance, the sky is an enormous thing in those silent hills. The earth dwindles to a flat disk at your feet with low horizons without end.

     Try to cramp it into a canvas, and what have you? An expanse of white or blue sky between those four frames, and at the bottom of the picture, a thin line of green. But it holds none of that immensity. To see it all you must turn your head, get the feel of it through your own movements, see the never-ending sky and never-ending horizon.

     The feeling the hills give you is their all-pervasiveness -- forever out, forever beyond, and forever up. When you must be stopped by the frames of a canvas, their gandeur vanishes, and you have only a clever study in oils of a pie-shaped segment of prairie.

     Again you can't paint silence, and that is part of their majesty. Silence to be felt must be pointed by tiny sounds. There is the twitter of a little ground-nesting bird, and then stillness. The tinkle of a cowbell and the murky quiet closes in again. The gentle sigh of the wind, the quiet death of the little breeze. Absolute silence is only a dull roaring in the ears. The silence of the Flint Hills is a straining to catch those far-away quiet sounds, the gurgling of a stream-fed brook muffled by watercress which grows along its limestone banks. The crisp sound as a red steer twists a mouthful of bluestem from the velvet sod. The wierd humming of telegraph wires. Sounds so tiny that to hear them you must stand very still in the middle of the great wheeling horizon and check your own breath.

     To feel the Flint Hills you must watch their slow changes, the patches of cloud shadows that creep along the horizon, changing the fresh green of the new grass to a deeper emearld with a blue undertone. You must watch the veils of gray drizzle which hang from one big bank on the far horizon, its loose ends only just trailing to the point where the sky meets the rolling hills.

     To know them you must ride over them, seeing, as you come over the top of every hill which was once itself the horizon's end, another deep valley whose slopes are dotted with cattle so far awah they look like red ants, and your road dwindling to a yellow thread climbing yet another far-away horizon.

     No canvas can ever hold the Flint Hills because their feeling is one of freedom -- of endless stretching away in space and in time. Art of any sort must have limits, boundaries, squares of canvas and frames. No pigment squeezed from any tube can show that limitless stretching away, that reaching out without end, that freedom which is in the Flint Hills.

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