MANHATTAN — Wednesday, I saw the Flint Hills like never before.
I got a glimpse back millions of years, when they were covered by a giant sea.
Then I experienced the forming of what’s now the largest stand of tall grass prairie in America.
That lesson included looking yards below the surface, to see how native grasses send roots eight feet or more into the rocky ground to survive.
I was taken to when the first native people came for the hunting and great tool-making stones.
The experience wound through the days when sodbusters went broke trying to farm the rocky land, and how ranchers have made the Flint Hills some of the finest grazing lands in America.
This and a lot more was found within the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a 35,000 square-foot facility owned by the city of Manhattan.
In the words of Bob Workman, center manager, “This is not a museum … it’s a learning center.”
Amen, and thankfully.
Instead of moth-eaten animal mounts, and maybe the shoe from a horse that was in the pasture when Knute Rockne’s plane crashed, there were dozens on interactive displays.
From critters that live beneath the soil to how the land depends on fire, the displays show what’s in the Flint Hills, and why.
My favorite part, by far, was Tall Grass Prairie: Tides of Time, a multi-media room with a large, wrap-around 67-foot screen.
The voice-over dialogue about how the hills were formed, and change through the seasons, was worthy of publication.
The videos were good and greatly enhanced by a solid sound system that literally made you flinch at the crack of thunder and sight of lightning.
A replicated breeze blew through the room when prairie grass was dancing on screen. Kids really enjoyed the rising smoke from the floor and falling snow used to accentuate scenes.
The center has two floors of exhibits that flow through most elements of the Kansas prairie.
Again, it’s the interactive features that help with the entertainment and education.
Unlike a history museum, the Discovery Center does a good job of adding the current human element to most things.
At the Voices of the Flint Hills display, visitors pick from myriad issues and details related to the Flint Hills.
A video featuring a key Flint Hills resident appears on a sizeable screen, discussing the issue.
I watched two of the 100 or more videos. The quality was first-rate and illustrates the topic so it’s far more than just a talking head.
But I wish more attention would have been given to some specific types of wildlife. They’re certainly worthy.
Grassland birds are some of the most imperiled species in the nation.
Greater prairie chickens, the iconic wildlife symbol of the Flint Hills, are seeing 30 percent population declines across much of the region.
Unless some things change, some biologists estimate they may be gone from the Flint Hills within a few decades. A few minutes of springtime males displaying and calling would have been some powerful images in the multi-media room.
Several other species, including meadowlarks, are suffering as much. Hopefully the Discovery Center will find a way to give the birds their due.
One thing that was interesting, too, was the number of families there Wednesday afternoon. The Discovery Center seemed to keep all ages engaged.
There’s even a stop to help you continue the adventure when you leave.
Just inside the door, and free of charge for the public, is a kiosk featuring dozens of attractions in the Flint Hills’ region. A push of a button gives details and directions to the attraction. A push of another button sends it to a nearby printer or your e-mail.
Manhattan, unfortunately, is a tad more than two hours away.
But I advise budgeting twice that long for the return trip.
You might consider stopping at some place like the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve on the way home to wander a while.
A few hours at the Flint Hills Discovery Center will let you see the prairie like never before.