We had the honor of meeting George Frazier, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas at the Kansas Book Festival, and we reached out to ask him a few questions about what he feels is just so special about Kansas.
What inspired you to write your book The Last Wild Places of Kansas?
George: My entire life I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Kansas.
In school, when we sang “Home on the Range,” I wondered how we could countenance a state song that celebrated the buffalo when we had once tolerated their annihilation. Later, when I eventually started to notice the unique landscapes of northeast Kansas and decided to dig my heels into our prairie firma and learn about my home bioregion, I immediately ran into a (mostly figurative) wall of barbed wire. 98% of Kansas is privately owned, so getting access to wild places became my main problem.
Like a lot of people who grew up in or near a city and because no one in my family owned land, I realized I’d spent my life without much direct knowledge of this place I called home. I was knew the wildernesses of Colorado, Montana, and California. But not the wild places of home in Kansas. I felt like a stranger.
So I spent three years travelling all over the state, researching our forgotten environmental and Native American history, “rediscovering” some little known wild places, looking at some of the more familiar ones with new eyes, and meeting hundreds of private land owners who took me into the hidden interior of Kansas.
I wrote the book for people who, at some point in their lives, suddenly “wake up” and smell the sunflowers, people who want to experience the real Kansas – not the placeless farm country Kansas of wall calendars and coffee table books.
What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?
Kansas has always been an extreme place – politically, weatherwise, and in the phenomenology of wild places. It seems like people are either completely clueless or, strangely enough, almost Pollyanic (is that a word?) in their knowledge and opinions about the state’s wild landmarks and remaining fragments of native ecosystems. The lack of access has indeed come to mean non-existence for most Americans and many Kansans, but wild Kansas champions don’t have to rubber stamp every weedy wildlife area or scrub forest nature trail as fantastic. The truth is more complicated.
In the book, I’m very generous with what I find, but compared to other recent works on Kansas geography I tried to paint a picture of the state of our wild lands in the early 21st century.
We have much to be grateful for – our rivers are the cleanest they’ve been in a century, extirpated species are making comebacks, there is renewed interested in hiking and paddling, and local communities are getting behind efforts to promote their wild places.
I tried to focus on the good that I found, while pointing out areas for improvement. More than anything I think most people need a pair of glasses fitted with Kansas “lenses” to appreciate our bioregions. My book is hopefully a prescription.
Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?
When I was a kid, as soon as you flew into Kansas airspace the flight attendants had to stop serving booze. I think my parents and most other travelers would have preferred “fly around” country.
Do you find inspiration in Kansas for your writing?
My book took years to write – almost nine all told. I worked on it not only in Kansas, but in California, Florida, Missouri, Mexico, Fiji, Colorado, and Canada. When writing about nature, I’ve found that being removed from your subject sometimes helps distill a refined perspective. Walking through the prairies in your mind can help more than walking through an actual prairie in terms of the craft. But my favorite Kansas writing space was the old Glass Onion loft above Yello Sub that used to be on the KU campus. I thanked them in my book’s acknowledgments, but by the time it came out, campus Yello Sub had been razed to make way for the Oread Hotel. This probably means I need to writer faster!
For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?
For prairie immersion there is no better place than Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve outside of Strong City. Bison and bluestem. Head north through Council Grove to Manhattan after your hike. There you can do more hiking at Konza Prairie or drink beer in Aggieville – both are true Kansas experiences.
For someone who grew up in Kansas and feels like they’ve seen everything there, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?
Hike the Breidenthal tract near Baldwin City, the ancient pecan forest at Fort Leavenworth, the trail than connects the main highway at Big Basin in the Gypsum Hills to St Jacob’s Well, the Santa Fe Trail (20+ miles of it) at Cimarron National Grassland, or canoe the Kaw from the point where the Smoky Hill (our ancient buffalo river) meets up with the Republican in Junction City to the bridge in Manhattan. My book goes into great deal about all of those experiences.