As a fourth-generation Kansan who has spent more than half her life elsewhere, I often experience life in the Flint Hills in stereo. There is a soothing ancestral connectedness to this land, kind of like a bass line, overlaid with a traveler’s exuberant awareness of its wildness.
Last weekend’s Flames in the Flint Hills pasture burn atFlying W Ranch
in Clements, Kan., was like that. There aren’t many places in the world where cowboys on horseback hand 200 people matches and tell them to light them and throw them into tall, dry grass. We burned off one pasture in the daylight, ate a steak dinner and listened to live bluegrass music before setting fire to a much larger area after sundown.
By 10 p.m. in darkness scantly relieved by a waxing crescent moon, I found myself walking across acres of black ash twinkling with tiny orange embers. Whirls of white smoke floated up from the scorched earth like an army of Casper the Friendly Ghosts. Here and there, softball-sized cow patties glowed gold and purple, like solar-powered lawn ornaments.
We looked like extras from a sci-fi apocalypse film, my fellow paying guests and I, trudging along with iron rakes, smoke-smudged brows and bandana-covered faces, wandering in Spirograph patterns, unable to discern in the hilly haze how to get back to the bunkhouse.
Eventually, a ranch hand on horseback rode up and pointed toward a hill to the south and said, “That way. When you get to the other side you’ll see the campfire.”
Thing was, between us and “that way” were several snaking lines of burning grass. Nobody wanted to be the one to ask if we were really supposed to walk across fire, so we nodded and started looking for low points in the flames. (ATVs were available to transport tired or nervous guests.)
Stepping over a fringe of fire 6 inches high and deep, I was happy I was wearing cowboy boots and not plastic-soled tennis shoes.
When I reached the edge of the burn zone, safely back on tall dormant grass, I turned around. Horseback riders were silhouetted against a tangerine glow. Behind them, necklaces of flame draped across the far hills, and I had a strange longing to walk back toward the fire.
Burning pastures has a time-honored history on the prairie. It is also controversial. Native Americans set the prairie afire, dragging great flaming balls of burning straw and leather scraps from a rope behind a horse. They had two motives: security by eliminating tall brush that could hide enemies, and renewing the grass that nourished the bison.
The Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club has raised concerns about Flint Hills burning causing air pollution in Kansas City and Wichita and harming the lesser prairie chickens (now a threatened species). The club also acknowledges that new methods of patch burning, such as the Flying W practices, can limit some of the effects.
Brian Obermeyer of the Nature Conservancy, Kansas chapter, spoke to visitors that day, explaining that prescribed burning in the Flint Hills is necessary to prevent the last large stand of tallgrass prairie in North America from becoming forested by invading trees. Local ranchers also say devastating uncontrolled wildfires would be likely to break out in this drought-prone area if they were not allowed to control thick brush by burning.
Flying W owners Josh and Gwen Hoy invite visitors to help burn in April and round up cattle in other months throughout the year to supplement their income and allow them to continue ranching in the Flint Hills, where their ancestral roots run deep. The Hoys also believe dude ranch experiences raise awareness about the endangered prairie ecosystem and encourage city dwellers to become active in conservation efforts.
My first nighttime burn, in typical stereo fashion, left me awed by the magnificence of an age-old spectacle and giddy at the exotic rarity of being able to put myself quite literally inside a burning ring of fire.
For information about Flames in the Flint Hills next April, call 620-274-4357 or go toflinthillsflyingw.com. This year, the all-day event with a day and night burn, steak dinner, live music, educational talks and fireworks cost $100 per person.