Each year, Flint Hills ranchers engage in a practice that predates European settlement by more than 400 years—burning grassland for effect. Plains tribes did it, in part, to attract large herds of bison, deer, and other game. Today it is done to maintain pastures free from weeds (including trees) and improve the quality of grasses for the commercial grazing of beef cattle. It is estimated that nearly one-million head are fattened in the Flint Hills each year. The practice of prescribed burning is called into contention from time to time but without it, two things are certain: The value of the grass (in terms of both nutrition and dollars) would be significantly diminished and prairie ecosystem would be lost, in short order, to eastern red cedar and other invasive species.

My first up close experience with burning was in 2010 when my friend, photographer Edward Robison, invited me to join him at a workshop he was hosting in Chase County. This event was seminal in two ways: It was my introduction to Josh and Gwen Hoy—who would become my friends, teachers, and generous benefactors. And though we had met before, it cemented my friendship with Jim Hoy—who I have collaborated with on a number of book projects including The Flint Hills and Prairie Fire.

I am not the first to consider range-burning as artistic subject matter (Louis Copt, Judy Mackey, and Larry Schwarm, are the pioneers), and I am certainly not alone of late, but I don't see myself giving it up any time soon! The sweet smell of burning grass is the first sure sign that winter is finally behind us—and I can't wait to be out there! This has not a thing to do with photography—it is about renewal—of both land and spirit.

I've slipped in a picture of my parents. Can you find them?

This is my friend Gene Barr telling a good story about burning. You can hear more stories like this at Emil Redmon's Cow

All content ©COPYRIGHT 1985-2024 Mark Feiden.