What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with A Kansas Bestiary authors and artist

As a part of our what’s so special about Kansas series, we reached out to the authors and artist of A Kansas Bestiary. Read our review of the book here and read on for their thoughts about what makes Kansas so special.bestiary_cover_t180

A bit about them from their website: Jake Vail lives in the Wakarusa watershed and works as a librarian in Lawrence, Kansas. Doug Hitt holds an M.A. in Earth Literacy and has studied with eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. Lisa Grossman is a painter and printmaker in Lawrence, Kansas, whose work focuses on the wide skies, prairies, and river valleys of Kansas.

Kansas Trail Guide: Our book with University Press of Kansas is all about trails in Kansas for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Many of the trails are in state and county parks. Do you have a favorite park or favorite trail in Kansas? If so, what is it that makes it special for you?

JV: I’d pick the long loop at Konza Prairie (my first exposure to the Flint Hills), and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Doug and I went for a two-day meander on the trails there during the writing of A Kansas Bestiary. From free-ranging bison to box turtles to scissor-tailed flycatchers and the great surprise of prairie chickens booming in the evening, it turned out to be a Kansas highpoint.

But remember that almost all of the state is private land. I’ve been fortunate to get to know some farmers and ranchers and see sides of Kansas that many people haven’t. We need more parks! (And “we” includes the critters.)

DH: My favorite trails are in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City. The open vista of horizon and multi-hued flora, the breezy soundscape punctuated with insect hum and sparrow call unleash me from too-much-thought.

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

Black-footed ferret. One of the animals in A Kansas Bestiary. Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

LG: By far, the trails I frequent most in all seasons for biking, hiking and foraging are the Kansas River Trails along the Kansas River in Lawrence. These start at the 8th St. boat ramp and wind eastward through the woods for a total of 13 miles (- I think) Experiencing them on an almost every-other-day basis allows me to feel the subtle and sometimes dramatic shifts in weather and season.

But for sheer inspiration and grandeur I’ll choose the main trail into the back country of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. It only takes about a mile of hiking to get yourself into the most vast, quiet expanse of prairie with very few obstructions on the horizon, which is so rare. You can really lose yourself there with a few miles of easy walking. Plus there are bison and it’s open 24 hrs.

Kansas Trail Guide: What inspired the writing of A Kansas Bestiary?

JV: Indirectly, moving to Kansas and then realizing so many people fail to appreciate it – here and elsewhere. More directly, Barry Lopez’s essays and Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron’s A California Bestiary.

DH: The impetus for writing the Bestiary actually came from Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron’s book, A California Bestiary; but, the actual inspiration–the driving force–came from the deep pleasure of encountering the creatures that we had chosen to honor.

LG: This is Jake and Doug’s to answer!

Kansas Trail Guide: What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?

JV: That the opening scene of the Wizard of Oz portrays Kansas accurately.

DH: Foremost, the Great Plains are “plain.”

LG: That it’s big and empty.

Kansas Trail Guide: Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?

JV: It wouldn’t change minds, but the history of Euramerican travel here is instructive. After Coronado and Zebulon Pike, eyes on a particular prize, both got lost, Kansas became “walk-over country,” to get most directly to the markets of Santa Fe, the green fields of Oregon, and the gold fields of California and Colorado. Now we drive the interstates (which started near Topeka, thanks to a Kansan) or move from big airport to big airport. Really, what isn’t flyover country?

DH: All ecoregions have their unique language. Some, the front range of Colorado for instance, shout grandeur. Others are quieter, more courteous, subtle. Attuning ourselves to the latter is a deep pleasure akin to reading haiku.

LG: Spend a few nights in the Flint Hills. That should do it.

Kansas Trail Guide: For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

JV: If you’re interested in the bestiary, you’d be interested in the fairly new Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan and the Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms. But mainly I’d recommend getting onto the back roads, and striking out on foot and taking time to explore.

DH: Tallgrass National Preserve, Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira Refuge.

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

LG: I’d like to suggest different criteria for exploring Kansas. I’d ask you to seek out places rich in biodiversity, a natural silence, and the widest spans of unimpeded horizon you can find. If you find a place with all three it’s a treasure indeed.

Kansas Trail Guide: 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?

JV: Following Heraclitus, I believe you can’t step into the same Kansas twice. Visit a favorite place in all seasons, from different directions, in all kinds of weather, day and night, for a short time or a long time, and it will be different every time.

DH: I am one of these people! When I find local lodging in small towns like Council Grove, Herrington, Stafford and then spend several days attuning to the nearby wild areas, I experience unexpected adventure. The key word is “expectations.” How do these cause us to dismiss or minimize what is right before us? “Plain” is a state of mind.

LG: I’m from Pennsylvania and didn’t come to Kansas City until 1988, and I wondered where I could find the prairies. Local friends directed me to the Flint Hills and that changed everything for me. The open expanses and vast skies became my inspiration and vocation. Luckily, PrairyErth was published right after I got here so that deepened my understanding and appreciation for exploring the Flint Hills initially.

As I’ve lived here over 25 years now, I’ve come to appreciate the waterways, especially the Kansas River, where I’ve kayaked and encountered a whole new side of Kansas––170 miles of the Kansas Water Trail – all open to the public for recreation with boat ramps nearly every 10 miles. It’s fabulous.

Kansas Trail Guide: What makes Kansas special for you?

JV: It boils down to open skies and the frequent surprise.

DH: Expansive horizons, the subtle play of light on cloud and grass, the stormy intersection of high and low pressure zones.

LG: Especially as an artist, I can use the fact that Kansas is largely under-appreciated to challenge myself to convey the immense beauty I find here to those who don’t see it. Places like Santa Fe or Sedona are so obviously beautiful that there are 1000’s of artists there and I would find that a much more difficult situation!

The space itself is what I revel in here. My work invites folks to slow down and take the long way–to stop long enough to see which way the clouds are moving, how the light changes, to sharpen their awareness and senses to the place.

Finding and cooking wild Kansas edible mushrooms

We’re in the midst of mushroom season in Kansas, and they’re one of our favorite wild plants on the trail.

If you’re in Lawrence the second Saturday of every month from April to October, you can go out with the Kaw Valley Mycological Society and hunt for mushrooms. The following Wednesday, you can check out what was collected and learn more about the mushrooms of Kansas.

And if you want to head out on your own, here are 5 Kansas mushrooms you can eat with cooking recommendations.

As a disclaimer, mushrooms can be toxic and easily confused with many that look alike, and this should not be used as an authoritative identification guide. Be confident that you know what you have before biting into a wild mushroom. When in doubt, throw it out. Use a field guide, like the one published by University Press of Kansas to help you.

Morel mushroom. Photo by Michael Hodge

Morel mushroom. Photo by Michael Hodge


One of the most popular and well-known wild mushrooms in Kansas as well as one of the first of the season, morels can be found in wooded areas, particularly near creek beds and dead and dying trees. The surface will be deeply pitted and the inside will be hollow.

To cook: Clean them by soaking them in cool, slightly salty water and rinse them thoroughly.

Then saute in butter or olive oil for about 5-7 minutes. For a gourmet twist on the flavor, saute some minced garlic for a few minutes in the olive oil before adding the mushrooms.


Chanterelle. Photo by Ole Husby

Chanterelle. Photo by Ole Husby

Frequently found in forests near mature, living trees and growing out of the ground (not from the trees themselves),  these mushrooms are a uniform bright yellow or gold color with wavy tops and smell fruity – a bit like apricots. You can typically find them in Kansas from mid-June to October.

To cook: Popular with gourmet chefs around the world, chanterelles need to be carefully cleaned to remove dirt with a small brush or cloth, using water if necessary. Avoid soaking. Eaten raw, they have a peppery aftertaste and can be used in green salads, but they taste better cooked.

Saute them in butter or oil for a few minutes – they should be lightly browned and still firm and they can then be paired with sauted green beans or with scrambled eggs and chives. They’re also a good topping for grilled chicken and steak.

If you end up with a lot of chanterelles and you can’t cook them up in a few days, you can dry them in the oven (be prepared for a strong smell in the kitchen) overnight on low heat.

Maitake. Photo by Ben Harwood

Maitake. Photo by Ben Harwood

Maitake or Hen of the Woods

Growing along the base of oak trees, these mushrooms are characterized by their overlapping growth. A pale or dark brown on top and white underneath without gills, they have wide, flat fronds and you can find them in Kansas in the late summer and fall.

To cook: Take the time to thoroughly clean the mushrooms, and remove the core of the stem before cooking.

Pan roast them in olive oil for a few minutes after they turn golden brown and then add fresh rosemary and a dab of butter and some salt and pepper and cook for about another minute. Drain off any excess oil before serving them up.

They can be frozen fresh, but don’t thaw them before cooking. Toss them straight into the pan from the freezer.


Oyster. Photo by Dominic Alves

Oyster. Photo by Dominic Alves

These white or gray mushrooms grow only on trees, often on elms or willows. It has a broad, fan or oyster shaped cap and firm white flesh. They can smell a bit like anise if harvested from a tree. There are some lookalikes, so be careful. You can find them in Kansas in late October and November.

To cook: Cut off the stem and run them under water quickly to flush out any bugs or dirt in the underside crevices. These mushrooms are ideal in stir fries as they cook quickly.

Cook them in hot sesame or peanut oil with minced garlic and ginger for a few minutes, and then add some chicken broth and soy sauce and simmer for a few more minutes, and then serve over rice.

They can also be dried and stored – they dehydrate quickly. Rehydrate by soaking them in boiling water for 15 minutes.

Black trumpet. Photo by hr.icio

Black trumpet. Photo by hr.icio

Black trumpet

With a funnel like shape, these small gray and black mushrooms can be found in moss and near oak trees and other hardwood trees.  They have a fruity scent, and they are close relatives to chanterelles. Find them in Kansas through summer and early autumn.

To cook: Clean by dunking them several times in cold water and squeezing them dry.

Saute in butter and then serve them with cooked pasta and topped with parmesan cheese and fresh chives.


What are your favorite wild Kansas mushrooms? Share those along with any favorite recipes in the comments below!

Edible wild plants on the trail

While there is certainly a place for trail mix and beef jerky in your pack, a little bit of culinary adventure and variety can be found growing right alongside most trails in Kansas. With some basic botanical knowledge and common sense there are many plants that will serve as a veritable outdoor pantry for your next time on the trail. While outdoors, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sampling the following wild plants:

1. Mulberries. Planted and eaten by early settlers and Native Americans, mulberries are one of my favorite wild snacks. The sweet fruits ripen in mid-summer and the juicy purple berries make a terrific snack while on the trail. The berries can also be used for pies and jams, but they’re so good right off the tree that I’ve somehow never managed to bring home enough to preserve.

2. Sandhill plums. Commonly found in thickets throughout tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of eastern and central Kansas, wild plums are a delight to eat during late summer. When the berries are fully ripe, the slightly tart plum fruits are also a favorite food of many species of wildlife.

Morel Mushrooms

Freshly picked morel mushrooms

3. Morel mushrooms. Morels are a highly sought after delicacy and many “mushroom hunters” scour woodlands of central and eastern Kansas in the early spring in search of the delicious morel. Morels appear around the time that redbuds bloom and are only present for a few weeks in any given area.

The distinctive wrinkled caps of the mushroom and the hollow stalk make them easy to distinguish from other species but they should not be eaten unless you are absolutely sure that they are indeed morels. While the other plants on this list can be eaten raw, these mushrooms should be cooked before consumption. Personally, I’m partial to sauteeing them in a little butter with a hint of garlic.

4. Wild rose. The beautiful wild rose grows state-wide in prairie areas of Kansas. The fruits of the wild rose are known as “rose hips” and are extremely high in Vitamin C. They ripen during August and September and can be eaten raw or made into jelly. The flower petals are also edible and make a tasty addition to a spring salad.

5. Yucca. The sharply pointed leaves of this species make it easy to identify and it is common in many areas of central and western Kansas. There are a variety of parts of the yucca plant that were consumed by Native Americans, including the flower stalk, petals, and the immature fruits. While on the trail, try the distinctive white petals for some interesting eating.

These species are common throughout Kansas and fairly easy to identify, but always make certain that you are 100% certain of the correct identification (especially with mushrooms) before eating any of these plants while on the trail. If these plants leave you wanting even more, look for additional information in Kelly Kindscher’s authoritative guidebook – Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie published by the University Press of Kansas.

Kansas Trail Guide book set for early 2015 release

Those who know the 100+ miles of trail in Kansas have discovered first hand that despite the stereotypes of the state as nothing-to-see flatland, Kansas in fact has some world-class scenery and great trails through the rolling countryside for those on foot, on a bike, and on horseback. From urban trails through historic Kansas City, to singletrack mountain bike paths along the Blue River in Manhattan, to the 117 mile Flint Hills Trail, this book will feature the best of the Kansas trail system.

To be published through University of Kansas Press, our Kansas Trail Guide will include detailed descriptions of trails across Kansas by geographical area, including GPS information, how to get to the trailheads, where to park, which trails are open for cyclists, hikers, and/or horseback riders, suggestions for nearby outfitters and restaurants, and for the long distance trails or as applicable for the shorter trails, the best options for camp sites nearby and along the way.