It sneaks up on you. I realized today that I have spent nearly forty years (almost two-thirds of my life) documenting middle America. I have a special interest in the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas—4.5 million acres that represent one of the last significant stands of tallgrass prairie in North America. Just eighty miles or so at its widest, this narrow oval of land, bisecting Kansas and extending into Oklahoma, is all that remains of a diverse prairie ecosystem that once stretched from Canada to Texas, and from the Great Plains to the forests of the East. According to the Nature Conservancy, less than four percent of the world’s tallgrass prairie remains—and most of that is in Kansas.
Saved from the plow by a layer of “flinty” rock lying just beneath the surface, this last little bit of lush, protein-rich, bluestem prairie is one of the most economical places in the world to add weight to livestock. It is estimated that more than a million head of cattle are fattened here each summer. As has been the case since the earliest days of statehood, it is a ranching economy that underpins the Flint Hills, and it is the stockman who serves as the principal steward of the land.
My journey of discovery began innocently enough—with a borrowed film camera and a desire to learn something of my family’s history. How I tumbled from a long weekend in the Flint Hills into four decades of photography, publishing, and advocacy is beyond me! But I wouldn’t trade it. Though I will forever be in love with the landscape, the best part of this adventure, by far, has been the people I’ve met along the way.
In 2017, I launched Emil Redmon’s Cow—a growing archive of stories collected from older farm and ranch folk. The initial focus of the project has been the Flint Hills. The name references a neighbor of my great-great-grandparents and represents all the stories about my own family that I will never get to hear. When I tell people about what I am doing, I ask what they might give to hear one of their grandfather’s grandfathers tell a good story. I believe it is important to preserve tomorrow’s history today.
In April 2020, an old friend who works for the Smithsonian reached out to me with an idea. She had been following this project and wondered if I would be interested in checking in with some of the folks I had interviewed to see how they were coping with the pandemic. Of course I was happy to collaborate, share my work, and visit with my friends on the prairie.
I met with nine people over a two-month period. The interviews were casual and unstructured. I simply wanted to see how they were doing and what they were thinking. It is important to remember that these were the very early days of the pandemic. On May 21, 2020, when the first of these interviews was recorded, Kansas was under a statewide stay-at-home order but had only experienced 204 deaths (today, that number is 5,719). As of September 2021, sparsely populated (2,811) Chase County, where two of the interviews were filmed, has experienced just three COVID-19 deaths.
Josh, Gwen, and Josie Hoy
Evelyn Zeckser and John Hund
Dennis Hague and Piper Hayes
In January 2020, Evilyn Zeckser celebrated her 101st birthday. Before COVID-19 vaccinations were available, John Hund and his wife, a social worker, both contracted the virus. Both have fully recovered and been vaccinated.
The forced restructuring turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Flying W. When I last checked in, Josh, Gwen, and Josie, with Jim’s help, were busy shipping cattle and were doing well.
I have not had an opportunity to catch up with Dennis and Piper.
In August 2021, Bill Brethour was hospitalized in Kansas City with the Delta variant. Because he was fully vaccinated, he had a relatively mild case and has made a full recovery.
Mark Feiden is a designer, writer, and photographer based in Kansas City. He is the co-founder of The Konza Press, which publishes books and fine-art prints celebrating “plains folk” and prairie landscapes.