Star Gazing, Cattle Grazing...and a Symphony?

By Rebecca Sutton
White tents at sunsets in middle of Kansas grassland prairie

The 2017 signature event from Symphony in the Flint Hills. Photo by Jeffrey McPheeters

Deep in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the vast tallgrass prairie looks much like it did thousands of years ago. The rolling hills still stretch uninterrupted, their slender grasses rippling in the breeze. The night sky still burns bright with stars, untouched by light pollution. And every spring, the hills are burned to promote new growth to feed cattle, just as they were once burned by Wichita, Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee communities to attract bison.

To garner appreciation for the region’s unique landscape and culture, leaders from across the region founded Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2005. The idea grew from rancher Jane Koger, who celebrated her 40th birthday by inviting 3,000 people to attend an outdoor symphony concert on her ranch. “It became an inspiration for our organization as a way to inspire people to protect this landscape,” said Christy Davis, executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills.

Based in Cottonwood Falls, population 900, Symphony in the Flint Hills has continued to build a constituency for the tallgrass prairie, which is the largest remaining ecosystem of its kind—although still just 3 or 4 percent of its one-time size. Every June, the organization hosts its “signature event,” when the Kansas City Orchestra performs an outdoor sunset concert amid open ranchland, attracting roughly 7,000 people each year.

“There is no better way to enhance an appreciation for anything than to pair it with music and art,” said Davis. “It's one thing for us to go out and look at the landscape. But when you create a music program that is inspired by that specific place, it really enhances that emotional response.”

The signature event also includes educational activities, food, stargazing, and a cattle drive, all of which celebrate the rural communities of the Flint Hills’ 22-county region. “We're listening to a world-class symphony and half the audience is wearing wranglers and cowboy hats,” said Davis. “It's not a sight that you see every day.”

For the organization’s 2019 signature event, audiences will be invited to not only appreciate the prairie’s current majesty, but to begin thinking about its future. “Wide-open spaces encourage big thinking, and deep thinking,” said Davis. “They get people thinking about large expanses of time, because this is one of the few places left in the world where it looks like it did thousands of years ago. So you wonder, what will this place look like a thousand years from now?”

To encourage these types of cosmic musings, the event—which recently received an NEA Our Town grant—will carry the theme JUMP!STAR, an allusion to both astronomer Annie Jump Cannon and a time far in the future when the polestar will shift. Through two years of workshops with artists and scientists, Flint Hills residents will be encouraged to imagine how their communities, clothing, foodways, and values might change by the next millennium.

Although this type of thinking can certainly seem fantastical, Davis believes it is critical to the region, where population loss, isolation, and economic challenges are significant issues. “When you're in rural communities, your day to day existence is survival,” said Davis. “So the idea is that these people who know how to think big are helping propel this conversation about what their future looks like.”

These conversations and workshops will inform the eventual signature event, which will feature the foods and costumes community members dreamed up, dance performances they helped shape, and an original composition by artistic director George Ferrandi. Participants will also help create largescale paper lanterns, which will be illuminated as part of the final symphonic performance. With all that’s planned, Davis said it should be a signature event that’s hard to top, and one that generates national and international recognition of the tallgrass prairie.

“It will create this awe-inspiring activity that enhances understanding,” said Davis. “It will create a conservation culture among the people who live here, and among the people who will live here in the future.”