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Green ocean: A Lima/Flint Hills encounter

The afternoon sun shines down on Rosalia Ranch during the 9th annual Symphony in the Flint Hills. (Photo by Krisi Colburn)

The answer stared right at me.

Originally from the chaotic metropolis of Lima, Peru, I found it difficult to process the quiet, unperturbed nature of the Flint Hills. When I first came to Wichita, it pleased me to find a calmer, tighter community in comparison to my anxiety-ridden neighborhood back in the motherland.

Nevertheless, as months and years went by, I gradually noticed alarming similarities between the city I ran away from and the one in which I found myself. This filled me with great sadness, as I became disillusioned with the Sunflower State and all I learned about it through movies like “The Wizard of Oz.”

In my mind, Wichita encompassed the entire state of Kansas. Had I not signed up for the Flint Hills Media Project, this misconception could have remained for years.

The first time I set foot on Rosalia Ranch, I witnessed something beyond my writing capabilities. The “sea of grass” metaphor William Least Heat-Moon used to describe the Flint Hills in his book PrairyErth took shape as I laid eyes on this year’s Symphony in the Flint Hills event site. It immediately inspired me to craft an article based on the tallgrass prairie and its significance – I simply needed to develop my own accurate description for it.

Wichita State student Paulo Lazo Interviews Christy Davis, executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, during the FHMP visit to the site Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Photo by Amy DeVault)

Nothing came out. “Sea of grass” was already taken.

Nevertheless, I refused to give up.  On the day of the concert, I came across John and Sharon Fox, a couple who volunteered after their son and his wife spoke wonders of the event. When I asked them about the importance of the tallgrass prairie, they came up with their own definition – something I hadn’t accomplished thus far.

“You can’t describe it,” John said. “People don’t get to experience it anymore.”

As it turned out, they would not be the first to mention the “indescribable” factor that makes the Flint Hills a national treasure.

Attendee Lavonne Widmer sat on a compact haystack. An Oregon native, she spent part of her life surrounded by mountains, though that has never hindered her respect for the indefinable beauty of the Flint Hills.

“It’s Kansas’ gift to our nation,” she said. “I wish more people were aware.”

Yet another person had devised his own interpretation, and I remained stuck.

Joe Leibbrandt, a Ulysses resident, took a short break from volunteer work as I approached him. His wife had helped out at Symphony in the Flint Hills for several years, and he had finally decided to join her for the first time.

“I’ve loved this grassland ever since I was in college,” he said. “Best place to raise cattle.”

No matter how grateful I was that so many people cheerfully supplied me with their take on the tallgrass prairie, I grew frustrated with my own inability to explain what stood right in front of me.

I strolled toward the stage; another volunteer greeted me as strong winds threatened to blow away my notepad. Nancy Riegle, a Tecumseh resident, has assisted with seating at the event for four consecutive years.

“Last year we had rain; now we have wind,” she said. “I love the experience, though — beautiful landscape.”

Her grandfather was former Kansas State Senator and World War II veteran Roy Wilford Riegle, who fought hard to preserve the tallgrass prairie in his later years, thus deep admiration for the Flint Hills appears to run in the Riegle family.

When Riegle’s sister Janis told me she’d visited Peru in the past, nostalgia took over me. Even as the magnificent view of Rosalia Ranch stood right before me, I reminisced on the country that observed my growth and sheltered me early in life.

Still, I didn’t long for it. I didn’t miss the Friday night cacophony of buses honking at each other, or the Saturday morning mayhem in the streets of Lima.

A sheer moment of clarity dissipated the fog.

As far as the human eye could see, there was nothing but green with the slightest hint of blue.  I comprehended what the Flint Hills inspired within me — a concept I’d never fully grasped.


— Paulo Lazo