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Can this photographer's images of central Kansas help save the disappearing prairies?

Photographer Philip Heying in the Flint Hills near his home in Matfield Green, Kansas.
Laura Cobb
Photographer Philip Heying in the Flint Hills near his home in Matfield Green, Kansas.

Kansas City native Philip Heying has made his home outside of Matfield Green, Kansas, for the past 3 years. He says the landscape around the speck of a central Kansas town is under threat.

A migrating snapping turtle stopped near a pond on Dobbins Ranch at 6:30 on the evening of June 2, 2022. Philip Heying took her picture.

The ranch is just south of Matfield Green, Kansas, where the veteran photographer has lived for nearly three years. After residing, working, and exhibiting in France, Italy, New York, and California, Heying’s move to the speck of a town two hours southwest of Kansas City allows him to be “within the subject that I most want to photograph,” he writes on his website.

Heying’s was a homecoming with a mission. The Kansas Citian and University of Kansas graduate photographs the Flint Hills to draw attention to the grave danger they’re in and encourage others to act.

"The face of a migrating snapping turtle near the northwest pond on the Dobbins Rance – 2 June 2022, 6:30 p.m."
Philip Heying
"The face of a migrating snapping turtle near the northwest pond on the Dobbins Rance – 2 June 2022, 6:30 p.m."

In 2022, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his Flint Hills work.

“Prairies are disappearing all around the world,” says Heying, who has pieces in the permanent collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Microsoft Art Collection, and the Spencer Museum of Art. “They're either getting turned into farmlands or being neglected into deserts or turning into forests from invasive species.”

Intact prairies are massive carbon sinks – one of seven natural features able to draw in more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they release – making them crucial components of the planet’s ecosystem.

“Also, they're just places where a person exploring with open eyes and an open mind can get in touch with fundamental aspects of their experience as a human, and even their well-being,” he says.

To drive that home, he’s filled his exhibition “A Survey of Elemental Gratitude” with macro and micro views of the Flint Hills — from our vast solar system to tiny pond algae — creating a tension and sense of urgency. The images are displayed at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central location through Dec. 9.

Heying’s shot of the Milky Way includes “three jet navigation light trails” and a lone shooting star, a juxtaposition that could point to man’s insignificance or brilliance.

"The Milky Way with a meteor and three jet navigation light trails seen from open range west of Matfield Green – 2 September 2022, 10:13 p.m."
Philip Heying
"The Milky Way with a meteor and three jet navigation light trails seen from open range west of Matfield Green – 2 September 2022, 10:13 p.m."

“To spend time living in a grassland is to become subliminally connected to the central alchemical idea: As above, so below,” Heying writes. “The intermingling of forms, the echoes and symmetries of processes that determine and permeate these forms, are constantly apparent.”

Heying’s remarks can seem abstract, but his observations verge on scientific.

In lieu of brief descriptive phrases or whimsical wording, Heying grounds each image with labels noting the location, time and date it was made.

“Algae in a brook tributary of the North Fork Verdigris River – 27 May 2020, 5:41 p.m.” is uncannily similar in color and texture to the migrating turtle’s portrait — the plants and animals are so interconnected they even look the same.

“Everything is contingent on everything else,” Heying says. “We spend way too much time controlling and manipulating the world and not nearly enough time being part of it.”

"Algae in a brook tributary of the North Fork Verdigris River – 27 May 2020, 5:41 p.m."
Philip Heying
"Algae in a brook tributary of the North Fork Verdigris River – 27 May 2020, 5:41 p.m."

And while he does want viewers to feel called to act, he doesn’t want to come across as militant or angry. Instead, Heying hopes people will experience a feeling of inclusion.

“We're in the midst of a massive emergency,” he says. “That's really the ultimate motivation for what I'm doing now, is trying to deal with my feelings of concern about the state of the planet and the ecosystem and all the life around us.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Kansas City Public Library.

Philip Heying will discuss his exhibition “A Survey of Elemental Gratitude” at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7 during the Heartland Book Festival at the library’s Central location, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64105. The event is free with RSVP. More information at HeartlandBookFest.org.

The exhibition, “A Survey of Elemental Gratitude,” is on display through Dec. 9 at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64105. More information at KCLibrary.org.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."