I came of age surrounded by the subtle beauty of the Flint Hills, understanding that the endless sky is as much a landscape as all the rest. Growing up as I did, relocating throughout eastern Kansas, from her tip to her toes, I was intimately connected to this land and her inhabitants. I came into consciousness with a heart beating deep for hawks crisscrossing the horizon, we children catching grasshoppers at dusk, frog calls setting the scene.
It’s no surprise I fell in love with A Kansas Bestiary. This book of essays, written by Lawrencians Jake Vail and Doug Hitt, and illustrated by Lisa Grossman, delves into Kansas’ wild heart, presenting small mysteries, unfolding surprises, posing riddles, leaving the reader to weave along a path rich in imagery. A beautiful poem, a love letter to the Kansas beasts.
In the title laid the first mystery: What exactly is a bestiary? Each essay focuses on a specific animal, but they don’t attempt to paint a complete portrait. Instead, I felt as if I was given pieces of a puzzle, little by little uncovering a bit of science, a bit of conjecture, a bit of poetry. I learned that bestiaries, made popular in the Middle Ages, are traditionally illustrated and may include a fantastic mix of natural history, folklore, myth, and religious allegory.
Vail’s and Hitt’s unique voices and the relationships they ask the reader to develop with each of the fifteen Kansas animals made for fun, engaging reading. Winding from historical to biological, sometimes humorous and sometimes prophetic, they ask us to embrace these creatures in magical ways, to imbue them with supernatural powers: meadowlarks as deep time mapped messengers, “God’s dog” -the coyote- creating the world, feathered lizards patrolling crop circles.
If the book is a love letter to these animals, it also serves as a reminder of the fragile nature of life in twenty-first century Kansas, where wildlife stands “marooned on shrinking islands of crops and concrete” and boreal chorus frogs have to navigate “bipeds with a penchant for pavement.” Lisa Grossman’s intricate pen and watercolor drawings illuminate each passage, both hearkening to the past and demonstrating our current interdependence. A gopher snake is framed by fences, a car snaking down the road, wind turbines on the horizon. Hawks survey a train bringing coal to the power plant. Behind a box turtle, shadows of wooly mammoths lurch across the horizon. At one point the authors, invoking Robert Bringhurst, ask, “Are there languages to think in other than the ones we talk?” I would invite you to engage Grossman’s incredible art for the answer to that question.
Raised on John Muir, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, the legends of many Native American tribes, I was delighted to discover their wisdom in A Kansas Bestiary. Included are other favorites of mine such as the poet Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and many local biologists and naturalists, including our amazing Nature Center director Marty Birrell.
In one of their many riddles, Vail and Hitt ask us, “That coyote, standing atop the great round hay bale-what is he looking for? What does your heart say?”
In gratitude, my heart rejoices in these woven wilds of Kansas and sings praise for those who have spoken so eloquently for the beasts, for the trees.