The Annual Prairie Burn

 

 

Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn
Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn

The annual Flint Hills prairie burns are again approaching.  In just a few short weeks ranchers in the Flint Hills will begin their annual burning of the prairie.   This event has become an event to experience for casual observers and photographers alike.

Where and What are the Flint Hills?

The Flint Hills – Big sky, expansive landscape, and a horizon that stretches on forever is the beautiful four-million-acre swath of land in eastern Kansas makes up about 80 percent of what is left of the world’s tallgrass prairie, according to the Nature Conservancy. The prairie’s is composed of mostly Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, and a geology of limestone and shale.  Historically it was known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills.  Zebulon Pike was an explorer who first coined the name Flint Hills after entering in his journal about “very ruff flint hills”.  It was suggested that over time Flint Hills had a better ring to it than something like Bluestem Pastures.

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Dusk on the Burning Prairie

A Bit about the Flint Hills

It’s written that clay soil and cherty (flint) gravel is what saved the Flint Hills from the plow, While there were some areas used for agriculture during the period between the Civil War and the 1900’s, much has been turned back into pasture. Among Flint Hills folklore, author James Kindall, suggested the Osage Indians, after having been displaces for the third time to what is not the Flint Hills, were pleased about its unsuitability as farmland as the tribe was unlikely to have to move again.

Why do they Burn?

The Prairie Burns
The Prairie Burns

 

 

Prairie fires are essential to maintaining the unique ecology of the flint hills. Native Americans used fire on the prairie to generate new growth that attracted bison. And later, with the arrival of cattle in substantial numbers in the 1860s-1870s, burning and grazing, as key range-management methods, have helped maintain the structure and function of the tallgrass ecosystem.

Without the burning practices the prairie, which provide nutrients and help the grasses grow, would become mostly a scrub forest of essentially Eastern Red Cedars and would have little practical use for anything. As such, the ranchers have a springtime ritual, which sustains the lush grasses for the cattle and has come to provide unique and beautiful opportunities for photography. While the winter and spring weather will determine when the burns take place, it usually happens during a period around mid-March through the latter part of April. Last year the burn took place following a two-year hiatus because of drought conditions; though, high spring-time winds can also cause ranches to cancel or postpone  planned burns.

Prairie Burn Photography Workshops

For the last couple of years Craig McCord Photography Workshops teamed with Manhattan Kansas photographer, Jason Soden, conducting several exclusive prairie burn photography workshops. It is really a joyful experience, not only for the great photography involvement, but to get to know the ranchers and their way of life. These folks are true Americans that love their simple but  hard-working  lifestyle and are happy to share their stories and experiences with visitors.

Photographers work their creative magic during the burn
Photographers work their creative magic during the burn

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While photographing the burns it was a pleasure to watch young rancher-to-be children participating in the springtime prairie burn ritual. Then later they played and roasted hot-dogs as the elders prepared the cowboy meal for our photography group. As we relaxed around the camp fire enjoying our cowboy meal of pulled pork and all the fixings, including homemade cookies and brownies, we discussed photography and prepared to venture out for the second burn of the day, the dusk burn. This time of day for me is the most exciting, as the flames reach toward a red setting sun that creates cowboys silhouettes against the backdrop of the burning prairie.

This year we are again we will host a  host  Flint Hills Prairie burn photography workshop at the Clover Cliff Ranch and Bed and Breakfast in Elmdale, KS. .  We are looking forward to another fantastic exclusive photography event.  If you wish to take part in next year’s prairie burn workshops, send me an email at craig@craigmccordphotography.com and I will make sure you get on the list.

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