Dear friends of Switchback,
Brian and I have been doing a lot of driving over the past month. Driving long stints of 18 hours, from Tarpon Springs, Florida to Chicago. Or a mere 13 hours from Oakley, Kansas to Chicago.
A good dose of that driving takes place at night. There are pros and cons to driving at night. For musicians like us, night time can be the best time to get from point A to point B. There is almost a magical quality that transforms the road from daylight driving into the mysterious realm of darkness. The daytime commuters are long gone, leaving the people who need to journey in the dark: truckers and musicians.
One of my favorite night drives is heading along I-70 to or from western Kansas or Colorado this time of year. The high plains in springtime is alive with smoke and fire. The vast stretches that make up the Flint Hills get burned. It is a necessary ritual for people who live on the prairie, inherited from the native people who controlled their hunting grounds with fire.
It is a misconception to think of the Plains Indians as just a hunter-gatherer society. In many ways, they were stockmen, and they provided for their stock by burning the old grasses and invasive trees to make sure the bison, elk, antelope and deer could have rich pasture. The native people had a term for prairie fire: the red buffalo. Indeed, it can look like a herd of bison, crawling across the brown grassland, leaving a churned trail of black in its wake.
So, in the dark of the night, driving along the highway, it is especially exciting and eerie to see the fields aflame. Off in the distance, the red hue creeps along the prairie edge highlighting in its glow the billowing smoke. The fire of course is attended by humans, but in that part of the world, there are few human obstructions to limit its advance. Buildings are few and far apart and fences are no obstacle to its advance. The fire may be tended by people, but the fire is calling the shots. The smell of charred plants fills the nostrils, even as we zip along at 80 miles an hour. It is a different smell from burning wood, almost too thick of a smell to enjoy. Brian and I look out of the windows of the van as we are witness to an ancient ritual of renewal in sight and smell.
It is at times like these, that I wish I could have lived in the era of the great painter George Catlin. Catlin, was a self-taught portrait artist, who left a career as a lawyer out East and made his way onto the midwestern prairies. Here, before the great swell of settlement began, he painted his way across what would be the Midwest. His paintings were sometimes criticized for being too simple. And like all artists, Catlin lived a remarkable, but painful life. But he captured the vastness of the land and was able to paint portraits of the chiefs and everyday people of this land in an honest, and endearing fashion. Luckily, his works are preserved today in the Smithsonian; but not before he died, unsure of whether or not they would be preserved. Such is the lot it seems of an artist.
So it is here, out on the vast open that is central and western Kansas that a person can appreciate what Catlin saw. Remarking on prairie fires, Catlin said:
These scenes at night become indescribably beautiful, when their flames are seen at many miles' distance, creeping over the sides and tops of the bluffs, appearing to be sparkling and brilliant chains of liquid fire (the hills being lost to the view), hanging suspended in graceful festoons from the skies.
Riding along the modern highway, it is possible to catch a glimpse of what must have been a wonderful, amazing wild world. Catlin was one of the lucky few who witnessed this world with his own eyes. And yes, the burning fire does look as if it is somehow suspended from the sky. It must have been something to be out there with such a view, watching something silently make its way across the nighttime. How quickly that world was forever changed.
Here in the spring, out on the prairie, for a few minutes, I can ride along with George Catlin, oblivious to the tires on the pavement, or the occasional billboard and feel what he witnessed. And in that moment, time can be suspended and I can simply be free.
American Roots & Celtic Soul