Heat-Moon Plumbs the Plains
Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N. Y., teaches fine arts ., The Christian Science Monitor
IN his previous book, the enduring bestseller "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America" (1982), William Least Heat-Moon strayed from the expressway to follow minor roads in the United States leading to places like Nameless, Tenn., and Dime Box, Texas. Along the way, he found that the squiggling meanders of the secondary roads that mapmakers mark in blue are more symbolic of the American character - and characters - than the straight and standardized four-lane "red" interstates. "Blue Highways" offered palpable assurance that the heart of the country was inventively, if not always virtuously, offbeat.
There are echoes of "Blue Highways" in "PrairyErth," which draws its name from the old geologic term for the soils of the central grasslands. Standing in the monotonous and bleak terrain of the Flint Hills in Kansas, the last remaining large expanse of tall-grass prairie in the country, Heat-Moon ruminates on the emotional pull of the area. "I don't much understand why I am here," he muses, discerning almost instantly that whatever the reason it is not "to explore vacuousness at the heart of America."
To get to the "Blue Highways," Heat-Moon started out from the middle of the country. "PrairyErth" begins there, too. Yet, by the previous book's standard of 13,000 miles and 38 states, Heat-Moon barely journeys at all. Instead, he resolutely surveys the biology, geography, and history of each quadrangle in the 744-square-mile portion of Kansas known as Chase County. What emerges is a series of deep-cored moments of time, with all the layered fecundity and intrigue of a geologist's freshly drilled sample.
Better, perhaps, one should say that Heat-Moon shares with English poet William Blake the profound suspicion that one can fathom the world in a grain of sand. Under his intense delineation, the sparsely populated Great Plains county swells to the proportions of a sovereign territory, whose richness lies in the accumulated human and natural history deposited there.
In synoptic retelling, "PrairyErth" sounds a little too calculated, like an old-timey Americana gift shop conveniently located in a rest area along the interstate. Indeed, a selected perusal of the quotations, anecdotes, lists, and interviews compiled by Heat-Moon will yield heartwarming nuggets. Few can resist stories like that told about Populist congressman "Sockless" Simpson of "Medcine" Lodge, Kan., who, when asked why he misspelled the name of his own town replied, "I wouldn't give a tinker's durn for a man who can't spell a word more than one way."
But in Chase County, the quaint and the whimsical lie hard by a frequently tapped vein of irony. …