Americans have always lived in a land of possibility—a place where the grass is "hopeful green stuff," as the poet Walt Whitman put it. Our habit is to wonder what we can make of a place, to gaze at the future instead of the present. As a result, nature often lies hidden beneath our expectations. That's why the Flint Hills of Kansas—the last great swath of tallgrass prairie in the nation—can be so hard to grasp. The Flint Hills are no longer hard to get to, no longer a matter of ox train and overland trail from somewhere east of the Missouri River. They're transected by roads of every description now. But when you get to the hills, when you rise onto the low shield of flint and limestone that defines them and walk up onto the highest brow and stand into the wind that's trying to pry your ears apart, what do you see?
Open sky, open land, unending horizon, the "limitless and lonesome prairie," to quote Whitman again. But the word that also springs to mind may be "nothing." A glorious nothing, but nothing nonetheless.
That too is an American word, full of the conviction that nothing much stands between herds of bison and herds of cattle, between the millions of acres of tallgrass prairie that once stretched across the plains and the millions of acres of corn and soybeans growing there now. Historically, we have valued the prairie grasses mainly as cattle fodder or as placeholders till the sod could be broken and crops planted, crops that are themselves just placeholders until the houses eventually come. The prairie topography is almost too subtle for us, which may be one reason the National Park System contains only a single unit dedicated to grassland—the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas, the heart of the Flint Hills.