Saturday, April 09, 2005

Prairie Fire Friday

Psalm 65:9-12 (New International Version)

9 “You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it. [
a]
10 You drench its furrows
and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers
and bless its crops.
11 You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.
12 The grasslands of the desert overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.”

Here in the Flint Hills April is a landmark month. It’s the time for renewing an ancient ritual, the burning of the range. I’m told that the tradition goes back to the times when Indians roamed the tallgrass prairie freely. For the next three weeks or so all of Lyon County will be caught up in the smoke and history of this tallgrass happening.

Last night Nancy and I, along with two good friends, drove out to Cottonwood Falls, which is about twenty miles west of Emporia. There were big “doins’ at the Emma Chase Café. About a hundred or so hungry pilgrims were gathering there along with us, hungry not only for the catfish, chicken fried steak, and the fruit pies, but also hungry for fellowship. The smoke and the fires had drawn us all to celebrate an old tradition and to renew human bonds of friendship, laughter, and music.

The food was served family style, served on what our hostess called “Styrofoam china and crystal.” I had the chicken fried steak and Nancy had the catfish, washed down with mint ice tea served in mason jars, capped off with home made pie a la mode. Both meals were good enough we hardly noticed the lack of real china and crystal.

At 7:30 the musicians began to gather. There were, if I counted correctly, seven playing guitar, two on banjo, a mandolin, two fiddles, a hammer dulcimer, a piano, two harmonicas, a ukulele, and, in the kitchen hidden from view, the cook and chief bottle washer was manning the bass. It was an eclectic group, including a big boned woman, with huge ham hock hands, wearing a Minnie Pearl hat, playing fiddle. Her fellow fiddler was a young man, goateed, a brown derby placed neatly on his head. Unlike the woman, he had long slender fingers which put him out of place with his fellow musicians, who were much less refined and more weathered. The mandolin player could have been, I guessed, a college professor. He was wearing red tennis shoes, a suit coat, an orange tee shirt, a baseball cap, and blue jeans held up by suspenders. One of the harmonica players was a middle aged man who was wearing a black leather vest with several pockets, each one home to a different sized “instrument.” In the middle of the pack sat a silver haired grandmother, possibly a great-grandmother, playing guitar. And so it went, each member adding to the ecclecticness of the group. Individually they were diverse, unique. Together they called themselves “The Tallgrass Gospel Singers.”

For the next hour and half they strummed, picked, and sang, sometimes in tune, sometimes not. I suppose if we’d been at Carnegie Hall we might have been disappointed, but here in the heart of the Flint Hills this was a happening. Being together, fellowshipping and singing seemed far more important than professionalism and style.

One gospel standard followed another, with an occasional break for more worldly fare. At about 8:15, Annie Wilson, one of the guitarists, led us in a rousing edition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Once we all got cooled off and settled down from that steamy piece, it was back to more gospel standards. My favorite was “Shall We Gather at the River,” which was led by the silver-haired grandmother sitting in the middle of her brood. Her voice was gravelly, yet still strong enough to transport the whole room to another world. She sang, the musicians played, and the words took hold in me:

“Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing from the throne of God.”

Refrain

“Yes we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints by the river,
That flows by the throne of God.”


No it wasn’t Carnegie Hall. It was only down home bluegrass. But last night it was music as it was meant to be. It was a vehicle, transportation to another world, carrying a hundred or so folks to a world that transcended the cares of the day.

We left at nine. As we made our way east on the highway back to Emporia the smell of smoke filled the air. Off to our northeast, about three or four miles distant, I could see the glow of a prairie fire slowly, effortlessly making its way down the hills. I watched the fire move as I drove along, then as I looked in the rear-view mirror I felt I was even catching a glimpse of the fire of the bluegrass melodies following us down the highway. With fire following and fire beckoning, I felt a deep sense of comfort, I think the same sense of comfort King David must have felt when he remembered his days as a shepherd boy:

Psalm 23:1-3 (King James Version)

1 “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”

It’s now Saturday morning. The air outside my window is clear, the sun is up. But here in the stillness I can still smell the smoke. I can still see the fire. The prairie fire has taken root in my heart, filling me with a sense of God’s goodness. Like the fires I saw on the horizon last night, it’s beckoning me, quietly, to worlds on high. It’s an unseen prairie fire, the carryover from an evening of fellowship and music, warming the heart.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Phil,

Thanks for the poignant reminder that the real America still exists if we'll but take time to seek her out.