Return to PrairyErth is a 90-minute documentary film directed by John O’Hara on the return of renowned author William Least Heat-Moon to Chase County, Kan., inspiration for his New York Times-bestselling book “PrairyErth: A Deep Map.”
Published in 1991, Heat-Moon’s book made a small county on the tallgrass prairie famous, and received acclaim as one of America’s great modern travel narratives. Richard West of the Chicago Sun-Times called “PrairyErth” “our modern-day Walden.”
In one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, the Kansas Flint Hills contain the nation’s last remaining expanse of undisturbed tallgrass prairie. At one time, prairie covered 140 million acres from Texas to the Canadian border, but now only about three percent remains intact, mostly in the Kansas Flint Hills.
The tallgrass prairie was formed 250,000 million years ago after an ocean covering Kansas receded, setting into motion the process of life, as we know it today. Heat-Moon walks us again through the panoramic vistas and wide open spaces of the Flint Hills, where one sees the timeline of existence at their feet; from ocean to rock to soil to grass to animals to humans.
Heat-Moon spent much of the 1980s wandering Chase County (pop. 1300) by foot, exploring its history, meeting its diverse characters and reporting his thoughts in rich, vivid detail. And although his passion is evident, Heat-Moon expressed great concern for the future of the tallgrass prairie, discovering residents who were indifferent about protecting the land, suspicious of environmentalists and fiercely opposed to the presence of the federal government.
Heat-Moon believed the people of Chase County lived in a time warp and worried that their bygone ways would one day force them to make a harsh transition to the 21st century. But, nine years into the new century, attitudes have progressed and, despite new threats, the environmental outlook for Chase County is promising. In Return to PrairyErth, Heat-Moon guides us through Chase County 2009, and learns how life and local culture have changed, making the region a frontrunner in the environmental movement.
In the 1980s, there was no public access to land in Chase County. Heat-Moon witnessed residents locked in a cultural battle with out-of-town environmentalists wanting to establish a prairie national park in their county. To most landowners, the idea of a national park meant the presence of an intrusive federal government, jeopardizing local ownership and traditional ways of life. The fight lasted through much of the decade, with threats and charged rhetoric. One resident even wrote a national park would result in, “Watermelon rind all over the streets. Daughters assaulted by New Yorkers. Buildings burned by drug dealers.” In 1996, after promises of an economic boom and jobs for the county, the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve [TPNP] was opened. But since then, many think the park has been a failure. While attracting only 20,000 visitors a year, residents are still waiting for the TPNP to improve a stagnate economy and create local jobs. And to make matters worse, some hold the park responsible for driving away a proposed wind farm project that would have provided jobs and millions of dollars for the county.
Today, however, the relational gap between environmentalists and more conservative interests has closed a great deal. Ranchers and environmentalists have discovered that preconceived notions and stereotypes only stall progress, and that they actually need one another in order to preserve the tallgrass prairie and traditional ranching practices.
In Return to PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon meets a new generation of Flint Hills residents committed to progress and protecting natural resources, many who are at the forefront of today’s “green” revolution. And, through new attitudes and cooperation, Chase County ranchers are now participating in some of the most innovative conservation projects in the country.
Although the future looks bright for the tallgrass prairie, environmental threats remain.
The most contentious issue in Chase County today is the potential development of industrial wind farms. Fearing irreversible damage to the prairie environment, Chase County residents and former governor Kathleen Sibelius, defeated a proposed wind farm project in 2001. However, wealthy power companies see profit on the gusty Kansas prairie, and local officials see wind farms as a way out of economic turmoil. For one Flint Hills community, the economic advantages could not be ignored. In neighboring Greenwood County, near the tiny town of Beaumont, 100 turbines twirl in the wind atop 400-ft towers; paying landowners over $200,000 a year while creating clean, renewable energy. Opponents in Chase County today, sense increased political pressure to build wind farms in an area plagued by a declining economy, while the green revolution explodes across the U.S., creating jobs, reducing carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
Heat Moon also reconnects with citizens of Chase County featured in “PrairyErth” as they tell personal stories of their experience with the author and how the book changed their lives. We also visit the unique, quirky communities Heat-Moon wrote about, like Matfield Green, a true western American village. Once considered a ghost town, Matfield Green’s population (68) has more than doubled since “PrairyErth” was published. Today, Matfield Green is home to an extraordinary array of personalities from artists to architects; railroad enthusiasts to environmentalists. And, in a state known for conservative politics, over fifty percent of Matfield’s residents voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
Heat-Moon never meant for “PrairyErth” to be the final word on Chase County. Near the end of the book he writes, “I’ve considered the chapter a place to insert a kind of internal and preplanned afterword I might complete, say, a decade from now, when the new millennium begins, a… celebration where I’ll tell you the outcome of the loomings and the fates of some countians you’ve met.”
With renowned author William Least Heat-Moon as guide, moving interviews and the powerful imagery of the Flint Hills, Return to PrairyErth explores how a sparsely populated Kansas county went from living in a time warp to leading the way in environmental progress, and how opposing groups set aside differences in order to preserve the last undisturbed expanse of American prairie. And, in his inimitable way, Heat-Moon observes our conflicted relationship with nature and how one small Kansas county has worked to resolve that conflict.
Return to PrairyErth experiments with the documentary form by combining two styles, vérité single camera technique and spirit of place. Spirit of place takes documentary filmmaking to an eloquent level of conscientious reality by merging the unique and enduring elements of a particular society, expressing the true nature of place. This approach to storytelling explores the deep, spiritual relationship between a person, their land, and customs.
Return to PrairyErth features an original soundtrack by Chapman Stick artist, Trevor Stewart set to the picturesque imagery of the Flint Hills, un-staged interviews, archival photographs and film footage, and abundant natural sound. The viewer is immersed in the transformative nature of tallgrass prairie while becoming acquainted with Chase County, Kansas as told by today’s preeminent travel writer, William Least Heat-Moon.
Return to PrairyErth, through the words of William Least Heat-Moon and the vision of Director John O’Hara, articulates the vital and precious nature of the land, and how people from different cultures and lifestyles are working together to save the last remaining expanse of true American prairie from destruction.
John O'Hara Director/Cinematographer/Writer/Editor
John O’Hara entered the TV/Film Production field later in life. In early 2001, John returned to Wichita State University with the intention of learning the business and spent four years at the local CBS affiliate while taking courses in broadcast journalism.
In late 2002, John produced his first documentary for public television, “Standing In Times Past,” which aired on Wichita PBS station, KPTS.
In 2004 and 2005, John produced two more Wichita-themed documentaries for public TV, “The Legacy of James Mead” and “Frank Lloyd Wright in Wichita.” John has also produced for the series “Kansas Health Watch” at KPTS.
In April 2007, the film “Flint Hills: Meditations From a Kansas Prairie” premiered on public television statewide and in Kansas City. The film focuses on the spiritual effect of the Flint Hills and how the region has inspired poets, artists and musicians. In the most talked about segment of the film, the late Easter Heathman tells the amazing story of how as a 14 year-old, he witnessed one of the most famous air disasters in American history when famed Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne and seven others were killed as their passenger plane crashed on the frozen prairie near Heathman’s home in March of 1931.
Before John became a filmmaker, he spent 25 years performing as a musician in symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles; as a soloist and in chamber music. John has performed with some of the world’s great musicians such as Ray Charles, Branford Marsalis, the Vienna Choir Boys, Mel Tormé and Philippe Entremont. John also spent ten years as an announcer and journalist in public radio.
Currently, John resides in Wichita working as a filmmaker, voiceover specialist and freelance producer.