Now there’s an ubiquitous phrase on the Plains: we excel at “putting down roots”…Growing up in Kansas there is quite the opposite idea. Less so roots and more so treacherous vines.

By Jeromiah Taylor


For weeks at a time, I get a word stuck in my teeth. A shard that slices — pit and the pendulum style — a new wound of attention. I might as well tell you, on the off-chance my confession dislodges it, that the word of the moment is topography.

Recent selections from my journal attest. Nov. 4 offers this cinematic musing:

…thinking about the shifting landscapes between the Osage Plains, the Oklahoma Panhandle, eastern Colorado, and northern New Mexico. Black to red to ochre soil and always the topography rippling out forever.

Or on Nov. 22:

As a little boy I would trace the folds of my bedsheets with my eyes and fantasize the rippling cotton was a dainty topography – built to the scale of my Godzilla aspirations. Surveying the woven vista I could finally grasp the long-perspective that I craved.

I think it likely this preoccupation with novel words is a holdover from my teacher’s pet days. Getting drunk on the sheer savory mouth-feel of speech. Like my middle school classmate, the girl who kept a list of “happy words” — meaning words that she found sonically pleasing, regardless of their meaning. As I recall, sciatica made the list.

Though the current phase, topography, enjoys unusual longevity. A certain hypnotic power that extracts memory like ore, leaving me riddled. The word beckons me to explore this warren of tunnels, as if I could step into myself. It isn’t implausible, really, that a child with a child’s imagination, especially one born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, could see the surface of the Earth in his bedsheets. This land is a harsh instructor of nuance. A child prone to boredom, stuck in a car for hours, must strain every muscle of focus, scrutiny, adoration, and most of all, desperation, to discern any diversion in the Plains. There’s a certain doom. If you have ever driven, alone, on a two-lane highway, straight into the horizon, with not a thing in sight to break your view of where you think you’re going — there’s a certain doom. The more space you have, the smaller you know yourself to be, consider a child with “Godzilla aspirations” — that is a child trying to get a grip on things, that is a child trying to invert the proportions he knows best.


Months ago, I ate lunch with a friend. She was born and raised in Wichita, but has lived in St. Louis, and now New Jersey since graduating college. This friend, my dearest, brought along her fiancée, who’d I’d yet to meet, and I brought my boyfriend. We ate at a taco place on the south side, and talked about the things young people talk about. Notably, the idea of “what is next”. The prospect of my boyfriend and I’s relocation cropped up. He said he wanted to maybe go bigger, but still Midwestern. I said “I wanna stay on the plains.” The fiancée, who is from Ohio, asked what the difference was.

I can’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it was inarticulate. In fact, this essay is a partial, and quite belated response. After I tried and failed to outline our ecoregional differences, the pair commiserated on their journey over and down.

“It was so flat and open”, said the fiancée.

“Even though I grew up here, after being away for a while, looking out and seeing nothing but land and sky was suffocating,” said my friend.

Months later, I read My Ántonia for the first time. And there it was, right in the first chapter; my friend’s suffocation and my own doom. Jim’s very first impression of Nebraska reads:

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made…I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had gone over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead mother and father were watching me from up there…I had left even their spirits behind me…Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.”

“What will be will be”, a succinct summary of a peculiar fatalism which thrives on the plains. Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play, August Osage County, offers another expression of that fatalism; its character Barbara, tells her husband: “This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues.”


I have a theory that plains people and mountain people occupy opposing ends of a continuum. In the middle are those people coddled by hills, and on either end are those accustomed to a horizon, and those accustomed to a hovering mass. I can’t be in the mountains, everytime that I am I feel as if I’ve been misplaced, dropped by some giant hand into a cereal bowl; I get the distinct impression something bad is about to happen, and when it does, I’ll have nowhere to run. And yet, despite Kansas’s far removal from any ocean, I love beaches. The ocean and the plains are the same thing. Each represents the edge of the world, an ongoingness you can never hope to span – total freedom. I regret that I’ve not yet been able to liberate myself from that notion, as it is essentially that of the frontier; the need to have somewhere to go, whether or not you have any good reason to go there. I have ancestral roots in the Flint Hills, and my romantic preoccupation with geology, with the topography of my blood, led me to Audin’s “In Praise of Limestone”. Thinking I’d have something in common with Audin’s figuration of shaly folk — the “inconstant ones” who adore the Mediterranean because it “dissolves in water” — I was disappointed. For the poem did not confirm my nostalgia, in fact it impressed upon me my own intractable difference from hill people, it was the germ of my mountain vs. plain theory. My ilk and I, and that of the mountain people, are ascribed this motivation by Audin: “The best and worst never stayed here long but sought / Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external, / The light less public, and the meaning of life / Something more than a mad camp.”

Basically, we were not at ease with ease.

Driving out to Fort Scott last December, I was mesmerized by the grass. It burned purple against the gray sky, and the winter trees made their vain attempts to touch the “dome of heaven”. Their naked silhouettes neatly lined up, scraggly soldiers, stationed as they are, alongside a creek or river. Never allowed to stand on their own, lest a canopy form, and the grass lose the war that has been waged on this land for millenia. The purple flames cascaded in the unbroken wind, moving like hair, reminding me of the diagrams I had seen of cilia in the lungs. The Plains are the lungs of the Earth after all. Or so it seems, with all that room to breathe and stretch out. All that rich black dirt to dig into, and to squish your toes into, and to put down thick gnarly roots into.

Now there’s an ubiquitous phrase on the Plains: we excel at “putting down roots”, don’t we? The encroaching settlers rushing, staking, grabbing, claiming, seeding, tilling, “improving”. The grass itself, reaching downwards for meters, its long reach the necessary architecture for top-soil; it is “holding on for dear life”, in the parlance. Any job listing for a high-level position in Kansas will lure the highly-educated prospective candidates from their coastal metropoli with the tantalizing opportunity to “put down roots”. In anticipation of concerns over the comparatively low pay, the listing will inevitably add “low cost of living”.

Growing up in Kansas there is quite the opposite idea. Less so roots and more so treacherous vines. Meaning you’ve got to get out in a hurry or it might get to be too late. As if the longer you’re exposed to the Plains the more complete their hold over you is; the more irreversible the necrosis, the more severe the infection. Like they might just swallow you up. “Getting out” is surely not unique to Kansas. It is part of small-town life everywhere. It seems to be the belief that if you live in fly-over land that life will pass over you too, and just as fast. Escape urgent, doom imminent, and inertia the great enemy.

Why do we stay? Not many do. A bounty of headlines exist combining the words “Kansas” and “brain drain“. Technological innovations have worsened a century-long decline in agricultural jobs and rural populations. Aircraft jobs have decreased. There’s meat packing still. If you’re in search of information work we have a state university system, a few museums, some corporate headquarters. Though if you’re in a position to mind your principles, good luck getting a cushy job uncontaminated by Koch money. Myself, I write most often for free, work at a coffee shop, and live with two other people. That cost of living only goes so low you know.

Do we stay, do I stay, because of an affliction? A state of mind? Has it got a hold of me? Or do I stay to “put down roots?” Maybe I’m “holding on for dear life”. Or maybe, I stay for the sake of a challenge, because I am not at ease with ease. Maybe I think it’d be nice to die and be a husk. Like the old sun bleached bones, or the quarry dust that coats each leaf, or the thistles and the maple seeds after autumn or the crunchy cicada skin on the rough bark or these rivers that have been too damn low for too damn long. Or maybe I have just suffocated. Accepted my doom. Fallen off the edge. Been lost to prayer. Left the souls of the dead behind. Only time will tell. But it moves slowly here. What will be will be. In the meantime, as I await an indefinitely postponed epiphany, I am accompanied by Audin, his far-away voice carried to me by the wind:

Not to lose time, not to get caught,

Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble

The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water

Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these

Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music

Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,

And does not smell.

Jeromiah Taylor is a writer from Wichita, Kansas. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Chicago Review of Books, Lambda Literary Review, The Millions, The New Territory, Chautauqua Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and others. As a Catholic convert and gay man, Jeromiah’s work often explores the overlaps of queerness, aesthetics, and faith. He is the founder of the emerging Vulnera Christi Catholic Worker in Wichita. You can find him on Instagram @byjeromiahtaylor, and on X @JeromiahTaylor.