On the same road trip that I visited New Harmony, Indiana, mentioned in the previous post, I took a short detour to visit Monument Rocks in western Kansas.
The Monument Rocks are striking rock monoliths jutting up from the flat prairie, the lone vertical topography visible in western Kansas. For me, living in Colorado, Kansas is table flat. I have spent enough time there to see and appreciate its gentle rolling fields, like ocean swells. But its predominant characteristic is its grand horizon and expansive skies.
Driving across this prairie landscape, its massive scale is deceptive and only the occassional grain elevator gives any indication that you are moving at all. And, as LeCorbusier rightly noted, these grain elevators are magnificent structures, their stark utilitarian forms almost otherworldly and beautiful.
The Monument Rocks, while not nearly so tall, are equally dramatic, all the more so for being vaguely mysterious. We all know these kinds of sedimentary rock spires can be formed from the erosion of the surrounding material, leaving only those portions protected by harder cap rocks. The hoodoos all over the American West are similarly stark, vertical rocks and are part of the iconic imagery of the West.
However, coming upon this sole collection of stone spires, not as you might long to see them in a John Ford movie, amongst cactus and sagebrush, but amidst the green prairie, they appear as an alien intrusion.
It is certainly not a stretch to imagine these rocks as some ancient, ruined castle, a medieval outpost commanding the vast horizon. Surely anything vertical in this landscape is an expression of human occupation, a marking of place and habitation in defiance of nature.
The castellated spires and ruined walls speak of a disasterous battle, the fortress's inhabitants fled or dead. Only the slowly decaying masonry bears mute testimony to the loss of a powerful and vibrant culture, ravaged by unimpeded winds scorching across the prairie. It is no wonder that these spires and walls were named the Monument Rocks. The name is a testimony to namer's imagination, to people's inescapable identification with verticality in a landscape of a vast, unrelenting horizon.