The BNSF railroad clatters by in clear view from Mindy’s kitchen window. Its rumble feels comforting, familiar. Like the rustling spring-leafed trees in the front yard, it reassures me that I am here. It’s my eighth year visiting Matfield Green, heart of Chase County, Kansas, the heart of the tall grass prairie. If you fold a map of the lower 48 states in quadrants, Chase County is at the heart-center of the U.S.
I woke from a dream many years ago, with the words Prairie Pilgrimage emblazoned in my forehead. Compulsion drove me to google those words. I found Prairie Festival, an impressive annual event hosted by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Their brochure said, our office may be modest, but our purpose is not, we aim to change the way most of the world grows its food. Speakers Wendell Berry and Naomi Klein were on the program. I was hooked and asked Sandy, a friend from Kansas City, to go with me. A colleague suggested I read the book, PrairyErth, a “deep map” history of Chase County, Kansas, by William Least Heat Moon. I devoured the book on the plane. Amazingly, Sandy had a good friend (one of 52 residents!) living in Matfield Green, and off we went to the Festival and to visit Matfield Green! Sandy and I met local residents Ton and Ans, a Dutch couple, who had moved to Matfield after reading PrairyErth! We drove the backroads that opened to vistas of vast undulating hills stretching to blue-green horizons in all directions. I fell in love with the prairie.
A series of synchronicities followed. By happenstance, I met Matt, an Episcopal priest from Wamego, Kansas, a small town (home of the Wizard of Oz Museum) an hour north of Matfield. When I told him about my dream, my infatuation with the book PrairyErth and Matfield, he said, “but what about the pilgrimage?” He committed to accompany me on a prairie pilgrimage. We mapped out a four-year plan and invited a few friends. Our aim was to be reverent, to walk the land and be open for anything.
Matt and his wife Erica, met Mindy, the local community nurse. She introduced us to Jane who gave us permission to walk on her 4000 acre ranch. We rented VRBO vacation houses. Showing up the last weekend of August each year, we called ourselves “the walkabouters”: Joe, Glenna, Jancy, Tammy, Mark, Matt, Erica, Dan, Angela, Paulette, plus special visitors.
For years I’ve explored a deeper sense of democracy. Rather than a form of government, I understand it to be something more, a yearning that people share in their hearts and souls. Deeper democracy rooted within humanity is uniquely personal, an open space, a place full of possibilities that urges us to realize the potentials of ourselves and our collective flourishing.
Convergence: The dream urges me to take a prairie pilgrimage. Friends appear to support me. My quest to understand spiritual qualities of democracy takes me to the prairie. The allurement of the prairie connects me with the deep invitation of democracy. Beauty, virtue and vitality are rooted here in the land itself. It is an awesome, unencumbered, mystical open space.
I believe that humanity is on the verge of embracing this deeper understanding. Rather than relying on political rhetoric and theoretical arguments to explain democracy, this kind of personal, inner democracy may be best illustrated and experienced by telling stories.