In Praise of the Prairie

Kathryn Timpany - Sioux Falls, South Dakota
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, April 20, 2012
Kathryn Timpany

For many people, the middle of America is merely a collection of fly-over states. But Kathryn Timpany believes the prairies, farms and towns of the Great Plains – as well as the people who make their homes there – are the heart and soul of our country.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe the prairie is the heart and soul of America, with its vast expanses of land and sky, and with its people who understand how being deeply rooted can grant you the freedom to sway in whatever wind comes your way without breaking.

I believe in the wisdom of prairie grasses. Their roots go down so deeply and spread so widely that most of their life is contained in an underground labyrinth hidden from sight. Because of this, nothing can steal their livelihood – not blizzard, nor fire, nor drought, not even the twisting, tearing winds of tornadoes or violent dust storms.

I believe in the people of the prairie. Whether full of courage or folly, the settlers who made it all the way out to the prairie, and managed to stay here, personified the kind of strength of character that fills verses of American songs. They came for a better life, for cheap land, for independence, for a fair chance.

I am a product of that migration. My mother’s family left Pennsylvania to help found Topeka, Kansas, in the 1850s, and my father’s family came from Minnesota soon thereafter. As a child I can remember how my first glimpse of the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas took my breath away. The sweeping stretch of tree-less, grass-carpeted, flat-topped hills with no houses and no power lines thrilled me. I intuitively felt a visceral freedom I could not yet name at that young age.

When I was 19, I left the prairie to chase my dreams. I was lured by the thrill of new faces, cultural riches and graduate degrees. Twenty years later, and a lifetime wiser, I ended my exile and returned to the landscape that is a place of strength and peace for me.

I believe the people of the prairie can teach twenty-first century Americans what it will take to thrive in the coming years – patience and perseverance and a regular dose of potluck suppers. You can’t get rid of Grandma’s recipe box. You can’t clear out the barn and the tool shed, even if you aren’t running stock any more. There are things in there you will never be able to replace, things that might come in handy someday.

Prairie people understand the kind of balance you need to have between freedom and responsibility to guarantee that everyone gets the best possible chance in life, from the richest family in town down to the one who contributes the least, thereby ensuring the community doesn’t lose its deep-rooted, life-giving compassion. On the prairie, everyone matters.

I now live on a more northern part of the prairie, in South Dakota. It’s a great comfort to know that I can leave the city at any time and drive across that open land. I can drive for hours if I need to. For days, if my life calls for that. I believe the prairie will always be bigger and stronger than the foes and fears that I might have to face.

Kathryn Timpany is a sixth-generation Kansan now living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she is senior pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ. Timpany loves to wander the back roads with her spouse and travelling companion, Tim Worthington. Together they have four children and three grandsons.