MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Chase Co. rancher Jane Koger includes an unusual line in her return address. In addition to the names of her ranch, town, and state, she also locates herself in the "Republic of Grass." Four generations of her family have earned their living on the tall grass prairie, she says, and as long as the "republic" endures, many more can do the same.
The "Republic of Grass" extends throughout the Flint Hills, where miraculously, some 5 million acres of native prairie still exist. These gorgeous autumn days offer a splendid opportunity to get to know the grassy citizens of that Republic, as the grasses have gone to seed now, and their seedheads are their nametags. In the spring, grass seedlings look alike, and it can take a magnifying glass to tell them apart. But now, with their identifying seedheads in full view, it is easy to recognize them, even from a distance. Take a hike on the prairie or a drive along Flint Hills roads, and you will see the grasses nodding to you, introducing themselves.
The tall one with the large plume on top is Indian Grass, whose seedhead changes as fall progresses from a rich brown-gold to tan. The one with the multi-branched tinker-toy top is Switch Grass, often found in large, light-colored stands. The tall grass whose seedhead looks like an upside down turkey foot, with the toes pointing toward the sky, is Big Bluestem, the signature grass of the "bluestem pasture," as the tall grass prairie was once known. "Redstem pasture" may be a more fitting term this time of year, as many tall grasses assume a wine-colored tint as fall progresses. In fact, in Kiowa-Apache, Big Bluestem is called "Red Grass," while in Ponca and Omaha it is named "Red Hay." (But perhaps "red" isn't a perfect translation of the native words for Big Bluestem. The English language evolved amid European moors and woodlands -- does English even have the words to describe the array of subtle colors we see on the prairie this time of year?)
Mixed in with these statuesque individuals are some mid-sized grasses, such as Little Bluestem (with feathery seedheads up and down its stalks) and Side-Oats Grama, whose widely separated oat-like seeds often concentrate on just one side of the stem. There are hundreds of important plants on the tall grass prairie, but these five grasses are the major forage grasses--the basis of the cattle industry.
If you experience déjà vu as you contemplate the grasses, or feel a sense of comfort and well-being, there may be good reason for it. All human history is entwined with grass, from our first upright steps on the savannahs of Africa to our ten-thousand-years of surviving in the heartland of North America. Some of the grasses that you see along Flint Hills roads (or rather, their living roots and rhizomes, which you cannot see) have been sending up green shoots every spring since the glaciers withdrew. For each of those seasons, we humans have been there with them, creating entire economies and cultures based on large grazers--the prehistoric herbivorous mammals first, then modern bison, and now cattle. In each of those phases, the sine qua non of our well-being has been grass.
Is it any wonder, then, that grass should be deeply rooted in our hearts, as well as in our soil? Walt Whitman, our great poet of democracy, could think of no better metaphor for the mysterious unity of all beings than "Leaves of Grass." And to this day, we refer to the base of our society as "the grassroots."
But we Kansans know that grass is not just metaphorical. Grass is real plants producing a real economy and a real culture. When we sing "Home on the Range," we think of being at home on real land--and we evoke a longing for that belonging.
So when we see the grasses waving at us, we should wave back. They are our long time companions. They have shaped us, fed us, inspired us, kept us company on our long journey. If ranchers such as Jane Koger have their way, they will keep us company forever. To know the grasses is to know ourselves -- to know that we, too, are citizens of the Republic of Grass.