Blanketed Landscape I, Chase County, Kansas, 2016

INTRODUCTION

Sometimes, the most important work you can do is in your own backyard. In my back yard lie the Flint Hills—5.2 million acres that represent the last significant stand of tallgrass prairie in North America. Once one of the continent's predominate landscapes, less than 5% remains today. Arguably, the Flint Hills, along with the adjoining Osage Hills of Oklahoma, are the largest remaining example of one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.





It might also be argued that my interest in the Flint Hills is somehow inherited. I am a sixth-generation Kansan with deep ties to the region on two sides of my father's family. And it was my mother's shirt-tail ancestor, explorer Zebulon Pike, who first coined the name "Flint Hills"—descriptive of the bedrock that lies just below the surface. It is this same shallow, "flinty" limestone, and nothing else, that has saved these 20 or so Kansas counties from the plow.



Wabaunsee County, Kansas, approximately 1886. Image includes my great-great-great-grandparents Gottfried and Anna Elizabeth Nehring, and my great-great-grandparents Gotthelf and Sara Nehring. All but Sara were born in Prussia and arrived in Kansas before statehood. They were the quintessential European settlers making a new life on the "western frontier."



Wabaunsee County, Kansas, Circa 1912. Image includes my grandfather, Milton Feiden, his father, and his grandfather.


Early settlers soon learned what the Plains Indian had long known—that while these rocky hills may not be much good for farming, Big and Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switch Grass make excellent pasture. Dwindling herds of bison were replaced by domesticated cattle, and ranching became the socioeconomic model that continues to dominate and shape the region today—and it is the stockman who serves as the principal steward of the land.



The Count, Wabaunsee County, Kansas, 2010


In the Fall of 1981, I left my home in Wichita to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence. All but the most obtuse routes from one to the other traverse the Flint Hills, and suddenly my eyes were wide open! This was not the Kansas that I knew. It was not flat. It was not neatly divided into squares. Some of it was not even fenced. This was that magical place that my grandfather and great aunts recalled so fondly—the landscape that my pioneering ancestor, Sebastian Nehring, described this way:

"This is a good country—much better in many respects than the Fatherland. The vine-clad hills of the old country are not so rich as the rocky hills of Wabaunsee County."

When I was a senior in high school, my grandfather passed away, leaving unfinished a plan that we had made—to explore together the places of his youth. I was especially enamored with the idea of visiting "the old home place" (pictured above)—part of a small, interrelated community of Prussians and Swedes that had settled along a branch of the Mill Creek south of Alma, Kansas. This is where my grandfather and his siblings spent weekends and summers—and the setting for all sorts of stories. And so, during my freshman term at KU, it was with a heavy heart and borrowed camera, that I set out to realize our adventure—alone. I never could have imagined that I was embarking on a 40 year journey of discovery—both inward and outward—one that continues to this day. Writer William Least Heat-Moon once said, "A true journey, no matter how long the travel takes, has no end." This has certainly been true in my case.




On my first trip, I remember somewhat timidly knocking on a door in Alma and reintroducing myself to my grandfather's brother. He provided a rough set of directions, and off I went.

Later that day, I stumbled across the small family cemetery where my great-great-great-grandparents are buried. Its location was no secret to anyone—except for me. Yet I felt as if I had made the most amazing discovery in the world! It is an interesting thing for an 18-year-old-kid to suddenly have this deep sense of belonging—and not really know what to do with it.

I envision this website as being many things. Above all else, it is intended as a celebration of the people, places, and rich traditions of an area that is not only central to my own identity, but in many ways central to the identity of America. The Flint Hills not only represent a now barely imaginable "sea of grass," that once extended from Canada to Texas, and from eastern Kansas into Indiana, but also a place where many of the icons and ideals that shaped a nation endure.



Calf Roper, (Josh Hoy) Chase County, Kansas, 2010


THE IMAGES

It sneaks up on you. One day you are kid exploring his heritage and taking pictures to show Dad—and then the next thing you know, 40 years have whizzed by and you have amassed a significant (if not a little overwhelming) body of work. This is the second generation of this site. The first attempted to be all-inclusive and it was simply too much. Too many images. Too slow. This time, I have limited myself to twenty (or so) photographs in each of six categories—which has not been as easy as it might sound! It is a work in progress, and it is the tip of the iceberg. If you are looking for something in particular and don't see it, let me know. I hope you enjoy looking through these images as much as I have enjoyed making them over these many years. Above all else, I am forever grateful for the many wonderful friendships that I have forged along the way.


IN MEMORY

Without a doubt, this work owes a significant debt of gratitude to my cousin, Stephen Anderson. It was a common interest in family history that brought us together some 20 or 25 years ago. It was "Anderson" who took the place of my grandfather in teaching me about my Flint Hills heritage. I looked forward to our many visits and I think he did as well. It feels so strange now, to pass that way and not knock on his door. He always seemed so genuinely pleased to see me. Stephen was a fine friend and his loss leaves a void that will be long felt.



Stephen Anderson, 1940-2017


OTHER PROJECTS

I have been busy working on a new project that is close to my heart. Emil Redmon's Cow is a growing archive of stories from the farm and ranch. To date, the project has maintained a Flint Hills focus. Please consider checking it out.

I am also the co-founder of a small publishing company focused on "plains-folk and prairie landscapes"—The Konza Press.


Continue to New Work






All content ©COPYRIGHT 1985-2024 Mark Feiden.