Colorado nature writer finds roots in Kansas prairie

Mary Taylor Young chronicles journey home in 'Land of Grass and Sky'

Mary Taylor Young likes to say she's from where the prairie ends and where it begins.

The naturalist and writer dwells in Castle Rock, Colo., a Denver suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where the shortgrass is the last prairie stand before the craggy mountains jut skyward.

What: "Prairie Reflections," a nature writing workshop by naturalist, biologist and author Mary Taylor Young.When: 1 p.m.-5 p.m. May 11.Where: Kansas University Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.Details: Fee is $28. The workshop is open to participants aged 12 and up. To register, contact the museum's public education department at 864-4173.

But her family's roots stretch back to what was once the burgeoning tallgrass prairie of northeastern Kansas.

Her great-great grandfather, Levi Hoard, brought her ancestors to the tiny town of Wilder, just off Kansas Highway 7 near Olathe, back in the 1870s. He established a farmstead a stone's throw from the Kansas River on the west edge of the Great Plains.

Young recently sojourned in this part of the country to connect with her past. In a somewhat painful moment, she learned the farmhouse where her grandmother was born 100 years ago was razed in the 1930s and replaced by two still-standing homes. But she tarried for a few moments on the land where the house once stood.

"I realized I was as close as I was going to get to where my grandmother was born," she says from her Colorado home. "I just had this really strong sense of place and connections. It was very exciting."

Young chronicles this journey in "Land of Grass and Sky: A Naturalist's Prairie Journey," a book brimming with tributes to the prairies and grasslands. A writer seasoned in the ways of the natural world -- she has a degree in zoology -- Young uses language to vividly describe her encounters with creatures, climates and ecosystems.

She'll teach others the devices of nature writing May 11 during a workshop at Kansas University's Natural History Museum. "Prairie Reflections" will run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd. Participants will receive a copy of Young's book, from which she'll draw examples of some of the keys to nature writing. They'll also be given time to write their own material.

"I really find that what people who want to write, or even like me who write for a living ... what we need most is the time to write, just to kind of trigger those juices and remember that we can do it and make ourselves do it without being distracted by the phone or the laundry or whatever," Young says.


Young was a classic army brat. Her family moved so often, she never knew what to say when people asked her where she was from.

"My grandmother's house in Leavenworth was about the closest thing to a constant home, a reliable place," she recalls.

It wasn't until she was an adult that she settled in eastern Colorado. She's moved around, of course, but she considers the Denver area her home. She lives there with her husband and daughter.

But six or eight years ago, her intrigue with the prairie landscape got her to thinking about waterways and how they flow. She realized that two rivers that begin as streams at the base of the Rockies -- the Smoky Hill and the Republican -- eventually come together at Junction City to form the Kansas River.

It wasn't long before she realized the Kansas River flows very close to the part of Kansas where her mother was from and where she spent time as a child visiting grandparents.

Soon, memories of her grandmother talking about a place called Wilder sparked her curiosity, and she was on the phone with a Johnson County archivist who hunted down an atlas that showed the riverside community of Wilder as it looked in 1874.

There, tucked into a bend in the Kansas River, was a plot of farmland marked "Goddard," the name of Young's' great-grandparents. She arranged to visit an aunt who lives in Leavenworth so she could do some poking around.

From there, it was just a matter of following the map.

"I put the 1874 map on one side of my desk, and I put the modern day map next to it, and I could very much see how the old roads and the ferry followed what is the modern highway," Young says. "My grandmother had talked about living near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and I realized that rail line runs right there through Wilder."


What came next were a series of discoveries that left Young feeling bound to northeastern Kansas.

She and her infant daughter followed Highway 7 south out of Leavenworth and crossed the Kansas River.

"Being from out here, where it's so dry and all our waterways are a mile wide and an inch deep, I'm fascinated with big, muscular rivers like the Kansas River, just full of water," she says. "I'm also fascinated with the idea that moisture that falls on us out here as rain, snow and hail is the same water that's flowing through that river downstream."

Young and her daughter found Wilder, "just a collection of old houses," where they met a group of kids who had set up a lemonade stand in the back of a Honda Civic. They learned from the children that a new housing development would soon consume the adjacent soybean fields.

"I realize I have found Wilder just in time, seen it just before it vanishes beneath a subdivision," Young writes. "How surprised Nana would be to think of her rural birthplace that 'wasn't much of a place' transformed to overpriced mini-estates for expatriates from Kansas City."

Young and her daughter followed the road up a hill and across the railroad tracks and suddenly came upon two old farmhouses. Young spoke to a man out front using a bobcat tractor to clear brush.

"I told him what I was doing: 'I'm looking for the farm where my grandmother was born,' and he said, 'Well, my granddad built these two houses in the '30s, but he said when he built them he tore down a much older farmhouse, and it was over there,' and he pointed," Young says.

That's when Young walked "over there" and lingered a bit.

Later that day, Young's aunt led her to Monticello Cemetery, just up the road in Monticello Township, where her aunt remembered leaving flowers on family members' graves one or twice a year as a youngster.

"I found all these graves. I found my grandparents and aunts," Young remembers. "My mother's oldest sister named Deleo had died tragically when she was 19, and my grandmother has always told of this beloved older sister, and there was her grave."

She couldn't locate her great-great-grandfather's tombstone at first.

"Finally, I found this white marble column, and it was covered with moss. When I looked close, below the moss, I could read the etched letters of his name and the date of his death and all that. It made me think strongly of that Emily Dickinson poem about 'Until the moss had reached our lips and covered up our names,'" Young says. "And I thought, 'But I'm here to read the name and to remember who he is.'"


Young documents her journey back to Kansas in a chapter called "Turkeyfoot," another name for the head-high bluestem grass that once cast long shadows on the eastern Kansas prairie.

In addition to "Land of Grass and Sky," Young has written many other books, including the "Colorado Wildlife Viewing Guide" and "On the Trail of Colorado Critters: Wildlife-Watching for Kids."

"The hallmark of my writing is that I put much more in my guidebooks than just who, what, when, where, why," she says. "I try to get readers to feel what I feel out in nature. What is going to make people feel that connection?

"It's the things that touch the sort of universal factors of human nature: watching birds build nests and feed their young, listening to their singing, watching a hawk come down and grab a rabbit. ... These are all factors I try to convey because what people really look for are connections to themselves."


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