Finding the Sublime Beauty in the Midwest

Sublime- for most of my young life my understanding of this word was misplaced. It wasn't until the pursuit of my graduate work that sublime was made clear. Sublime is a feeling experienced when encountered with unspoken beauty and possibly terror that leaves us in admiration. Think about standing on the beach looking at the ocean. The vastness of the water holds us in a trance of awe and a pang of trepidation.

This past week I returned to the Flint Hills of Kansas, a landscape where I began my adulthood life and career. The Flint Hills are an oddity of sorts in the Midwest and Plains states. Shaped by the eons, flat-topped cuestas of hard limestone bend into curving valleys. When European settlers began their conquest of the Flint Hills, shallow topsoil would not yield to the plow. Here cultivation of traditional Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans are near impossible outside of the river valleys. In the Flint Hills, the last vestige of a once expansive tallgrass prairie remains.

My father and I ventured into Kansas in 2007 to investigate the landscape architect graduate program at K-State. As we entered the Flint Hills for the first time, my understanding of the sublime took root. If mountains dazzle us with terrifying heights and splendorous views, the prairie of the Midwest finds beauty in its subtle nature. Gazing over the tall grasses and forbs, struck like lightning a connection to the past, jarring me from the present. Much of history is laid bare on this unplowed landscape. A huge departure from my upbringing.

My choice for masters in landscape architecture was between K-State and another Midwest university. While the other university boasted state-of-the-art facilities and technology, plus an immaculate campus, the prairie won me over. After completing my graduate studies, my now wife and at that point two dogs and an infant son stayed a few more years in Kansas. Family brought us back home to Illinois, to where we are now.

Many have said to me, "Kansas is flat." I then respond, "You've never been to Central Illinois." Carved by glaciers, Central Illinois was scraped clean and level. Wind sweeping down from the northwest deposited fine loess particles, building our soil far beyond what is found in the most plentiful valleys in the Flint Hills. Tallgrass prairie set to work creating a thick sod of organic matter and Native Americans cultivated this prairie landscape for over 10,000 years.

In Illinois, the tallgrass prairie is all but extinct. Small sanctuaries of remnants and reconstructed prairie dot our landscape sparingly. In the Flint Hills, most of the land can be classified as prairie with property owners managing their stakes as range for cattle. In the fall and spring prairie burns are common and a favorite sight of mine, especially at night. Driving across I-70 during burn season in the evening, the fire line snakes along hillsides in the inky darkness. Daylight brings to view blackened hills with the promise of life.

Stealing a line from Nature Conservancy Hubbard Fellow, Eric Chien, who borrowed from his Illinois colleague Jeff Walk, "The sky is my mountain." Standing on the Scenic Overlook near Manhattan, Kansas the meaning of sublime becomes apparent. Rekindled is my spirit for the Midwest, as I return to Macomb, watching over the broad horizon separating Illinois from the sky. This is our mountain.