Friday, July 13, 2018

Hands or Tails?

Recent heavy rains have done more than make grass grow. Bugs like this moisture, and they’re reproducing at record rates and sponsoring insect gatherings in town and out. Not only are humans swatting and smacking at bugs torturing fleshy landing pads on arms, legs, foreheads, and more, beasts are busy dodging biting and stinging creatures as well.

During a visit to Mom’s in Wakeeney, we decided to drive about to see what effect these downpours have had on roads, streams, pastures, and fields. We didn’t need to look long before we saw washed out rural routes and fields, brush hanging off highest fence lines or dangling from tree branches bordering creeks and streams, shallow ponds drowning once thriving wheat, and cow herds massed tightly into fence corners.

When I first saw those bovines grouped like junior high girls at their first dance, I thought about the old saying that cattle gathering in corners predicted impending storms. I was puzzled because I’d checked the weather channel that morning, and, while it’s not always accurate, it had forecast clear days ahead. Why, then, were these girls and their calves snuggled tight enough you couldn’t count them on a hot day?

I couldn’t imagine that they wanted to be positioned nose to tail or side to side so close that nothing could make its way through that herd without major rearranging. Then a fly bit me at the same time a mosquito announced its irritating presence with an obnoxious whine. Aha, those cows had united to protect themselves and one another from noisy, hungry, flying hordes.

While humans use hands to swat, flatten, or wave away these aggravations, cows don’t have that option. All they have is a tail—a nice switchy device with a knot of hair at the end, but it’s hardly adequate to address swarms of starving bugs. Their problem-solving strategy impressed me. No dumb animals here; these girls did not intend to be passive victims.

Such close proximity might have forced less than hygienic cattle to not only smell but absorb body odors emerging from various, slimy orifices. However, I doubt that’s a real concern for creatures that start life nursing directly underneath their mother’s tails. Nope, these gals and their babes got up close and personal, leaving tails free to swipe and slap each other’s pests.

While making sure I observed at a distance far enough away to avoid inviting their six-legged tormentors to land on me, I noted that mamas and babies chewed cuds, stomped feet, and swished perfectly designed fly swatters in such a rhythm that it kept those blood suckers from landing on them or any nearby bovine. An army of agitated insects hovered overhead in a hangry cloud. I’m sure if I’d been closer, I’d have heard audible complaints.

I enjoyed cruising the countryside to view Mother Nature’s recent activity. Even more, I appreciated watching the wrastling match between cattle and insects. It’s good to know that bovines can deal effectively with airborne forces possessing nasty stingers and sharp chompers. I’m definitely pleased that I come with hands that can use a flyswatter.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Inviting Bluebirds of Happiness to Move In


Humans naturally seek happiness—some carry lucky charms or practice mystic rituals to attract it. Others find inviting blue birds to the yard does the job. Apparently, such choices aren’t unique to modern humans. For eons, world cultures have honored timid, sky-colored creatures as omens of good fortune.

Nearly 2000 years before Christ, Chinese storytellers wrote about a bluebird that delivered messages from the Queen Mother of the West, an immortal. Native American societies also celebrated these brilliantly-hued beings. Some tales associate them with the rising sun. In fact, the Navajo still sing the bluebird song as part of their winter Nightway Ceremony. European cultures, as well, included these beauties in literature involving a fairy-tale search for the bluebird of happiness.

Considering their history, it’s not surprising these pretty birds are beloved. Unfortunately, like many species, their habitat’s changing and invasive species increasingly compete for food and nesting sites. Residing on the prairie is even more difficult for this cavity dweller who seeks hollow trees or posts to set up housekeeping.

To complicate matters, the azure darts are finicky. They require nests a 100-yards distant from other hopeful parents and cleared landscape around their homestead. Healthy sparrow, sharp shinned, and Cooper’s hawk populations lurk close by, so a view increases survivability for adults and offspring. However, it makes it difficult to attract the picky rascals to nest near humans.

Despite these creatures’ suspicious natures, shrewd birders can entice them to live close enough to watch their broods mature. Visit a garden shop or online site to learn more about this species’ housing requirements. Carpenters can construct summer rentals designed specifically to attract them. Others can buy well-designed blue bird boxes.

Cedar siding offers a good structure choice. Craft a watertight roof and a floor with small drainage holes. Blue birds aren’t just harbingers of happiness. They’re tidy as well so select nesting structures with bottoms that easily open for spring cleanings.  One source suggests leaving the inside unpainted rough wood to encourage easy fledging.

To discourage rival species, build or buy nesting boxes with entry holes no larger than 1 ½ inches wide. Starlings won’t fit in that opening. To further discourage invaders, exclude external perches. Blue birds don’t need them. They’re also satisfied with a 4” x4” nesting space, which is too small for competing sparrows. Conveniently, such units fit atop fence posts.

After offering species-specific housing, further improve the environment by providing shallow pans filled with fresh water. Place savory snacks nearby. Blue birds are insect and fruit eaters so don’t offer seeds. One authority recommended chopping berries into pieces or even offering meal worms as motivators to relocate. With plenty of live bugs and wild currant available, we’ve never bought treats.

Once you convince them to move in, the fun begins. Despite their shy nature, these heralds of joy are natural entertainers. Their aerial acrobatics turn insect catching into comic entertainment.  Watch mom splash in the birdbath with her babes for twenty minutes of bliss. Observing them pop in and out of their tiny doorways as they feed young stills racing pulses and lowers human blood pressure.

It requires effort to convince  blue birds to call your yard theirs, but once they move in, you’ll see why humans from the beginning of time have invited them to live nearby and woven them into their shared stories.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Country Living Catastrophe

I was visiting with a girlfriend today about cat behavior and how despite being domesticated house pets share wild counterparts’ behaviors. This discussion retrieved a nearly forgotten memory involving two kids, a bike, a cat, and a mouse.
The adventure began on one of those sensational spring evenings when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun sinks slowly into the horizon making your system vibrate so that even though you’re tired, you aren’t ready to settle down. Just as I called the girls inside for their bath, a squall emerged from our rural driveway where our eldest was practicing riding her bike without training wheels. She’d mastered starting, stopping, and turning so I’d gone in to draw their water.
Racing outside, I found her sprawled in gravel.  Thankfully there were no broken bones, but after close investigation, I saw pebbles and dirt chunks embedded in her knees and palms. I guided her into the house where she could soak it loose in the tub, making it easier to remove. As I led one sobbing child up the steps, I spied our youngest trying to take something away from the cat. So much for hindsight, I’d think later.
I comforted tear-stained kid 1 while she trickled water over skinned appendages when I heard a shriek from child number 2. She raced into the bathroom with something dangling from her finger. She held it out to show her sis, and I observed a mouse--yes, a writhing rodent attached to her index finger.
Daughter 1 joined little sister’s howls while the mouse wriggled and contributed squeals of its own. However, it didn’t let go. At that point the cat raced in to check on the prize that he’d caught and been tormenting before our fair-haired girl intervened.
At this point, I’m scared the critter will fall into the bathtub furthering injuring daughter 1 so I guided little sis’s bleeding hand over the commode. In turn, she bangs the hitchhiker on the toilet rim. When our feline leapt to recapture his prey, I abandoned our toddler long enough to toss the cat and slam the door. Curiously, that action multiplied the volume in the bathroom, perhaps inducing the mouse to release its vise-like grip and somersault into the toilet.
Someone, and I suspect it was me, flushed the stool. I know I didn’t have a carcass when the thought of rabies flitted across my mind. Of course, my husband was at work and out of reach so I told kid 1 to keep soaking her wounds. I disinfected kid 2’s bite and comforted her as I simultaneously called the emergency room to see if we needed shots.
The good news was we didn’t. The bite victim contentedly sported a Band-Aid on her injured digit while I picked gravel from her sibling. It wasn’t painless, but the extended soak that left daughter 1 wrinkled like a prune made it easier to clean her wounds.
By the time their dad returned, sleep was the last thing on anyone’s mind. We had red badges of courage and stories to tell. The only one in the house still upset was the cat who meowed repeatedly over his lost snack.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Guilty Pleasures Await

Warmer weather means gardens, birds, spring cleaning, walks, fishing and more. For many, scores of garage sale ads make up for a long winter without a reuse or recycle fix. There’s a whole group of folks whose guilty pleasure involves sorting through unwanted belongings, hoping to score treasure.

As a kid, I attended church rummage sales with mom or gramma. These involved tables full of well-worn clothing or outmoded hats. Unlike our daughters and grands, I didn’t anticipate weekly scavenger hunts where I might find already broken-in jeans, cowboy boots, denim jackets, camo, hunting and fishing supplies (including a Herter’s crow call), a favorite game piece, a specialized cooking utensil, or funky d├ęcor to sizzle up outfits and rooms.

While garage sales potentially interest anyone, they’re perfect for dressing children. Considering kids outgrow clothing before it wears out, these weekend sprees offer a budget Godsend. Expect to find quality jeans, tops, shoes, and coats for pennies on the dollar. Of course, you have to factor in added expense for toys your kids latch onto while you upgrade their wardrobe.

As a result of these trips, our girls had more playthings than they needed. Ditto for the grands. Their moms find clever sandboxes, motorized bikes and cars, doll houses, and more for prices that don’t break the bank. Oftentimes, these items are in excellent condition and can be resold when the sprouts outgrow them. It makes financial sense to practice a reduce, reuse, recycle policy.

That said, my favorite part of garage sale-ing is discovering treasures I didn’t know I needed. Some shoppers hit the streets each Friday and Saturday with a specific list. Others count on serendipity to bless their adventure. With our kids are grown, I’ve joined the second group, which adds a new level of anticipation to the experience.

I’ve picked up clam shells big enough to serve as bathroom sinks and a conch larger than a basketball. One now showcases rocks, the other necklaces. This decades’ long addiction helped me build an extensive shell collection. These finds pushed it over the top.

In addition, cool kitchen gadgets and cookware from American history wait to be reused. I didn’t even know about springform pans for making cheese cake til I found one at a garage sale. Now, it’s a kitchen essential. Recently, I picked up a never-used ceramic tart pan for a dollar.  While I use it only once or twice a year, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg so there’s no guilt.

This doesn’t cover vintage finds that include everything from Civil War letters to handcrafted lace doilies to WW II Ration books, stamps, and magazines. These discoveries make a history lover salivate. You never know when you’ll score the find that fills a hole in your collection. As a bonus, you often get the item’s background story.

 I hesitated to share my love for this guilty pleasure for fear it might increase competition. However, the growing numbers of advertisements lead me to believe good deals await anyone willing to hit the road to find them.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Art on the Move

Frequently, I see ornate box turtles crossing country roads or highways. Because I like this pack-its-own-home reptile, I dodge these speed bumps. While seeing them slowly lumber across the road triggers a smile, I hadn’t thought much about these Kansas state reptiles until recently.

This summer, I’ve been waking up early to enjoy the cool morning air as I water, weed, and pick veggies. A bonus of rising with the sun is meeting some of my yard neighbors that hide during the heat of the day.

One such friend is a good-sized box turtle that hangs out under my rose bushes in the mornings. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and today we met officially. This particular terrapene ornata, according to scientists, is at the larger end of expected sizes for its species.  I’d guess its shell is three to four inches across and five or six inches long. I didn’t have a measuring tape on hand at 6:30 a.m. for an official accounting, but she’s bigger than most turtles navigating Kansas roadways.

This particular reptile’s shell is dark with distinct yellow markings on the scutes or plates. Before she tucked her head inside her shell, I noted yellowish rather than reddish-orange eyes, which verifies she meets “she” criteria.

Like all box turtles, she has a hinged plastron that lets her tuck her head and limbs safely inside her shell. This ability frustrates hungry coyotes and other predators, but it won’t stop a vehicle cruising down the highway, one of this creature’s worst enemies. The minute she sensed me heading her way, she tucked everything tuckable until she resembled nothing more than a pet rock.

Ignoring her desperate, introvert-like attempt to achieve solitude, I placed my hands carefully along each lower side of her shell and examined her beauty close-up. Like any unhappy female, she promptly got even. Without sticking out head or legs, she peed, which made me jump backward to avoid a splattering.

 Once I finished my inspection of her masterpiece of black and yellow shell, I rewarded this pretty girl. I set a couple of pieces of melon in front of her so there would be a little something to make her day when she finally stuck her head out. Apparently, she can smell and likes cantaloupe because it was gone by the time I got upstairs to spy on her out the kitchen window.

After researching box turtle factoids, I see why she likes her flowerbed home. It’s damp, there are lots of sow bugs or roly-polies and other insects to meet her carnivorous dietary needs, and the temperature is more agreeable in that dark corner than most places in the yard. Containing the softest soil on the hilltop, it’s a great place to dig in for winter hibernation, which might explain my new friend’s greater than average size.

Now that we’ve met, she’s earned a daily serving of melon or fruit to enhance her diet. With room service like that, this lady should be glad to call this corner of Trego County home. I wonder how big my walking work of art will be next summer.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Seeing Possibilities in Junk

Spring cleaning involves scrubbing and sweeping away wintry stains, cobwebs, and dust. Outside the house it means raking wilted plantings and scouring patios and decks. Those now clean, fresh surfaces provide an artist’s canvas, inviting expression that can involve simply rearranging possessions or painting, constructing, and welding efforts.

Inside the house, this might involve moving furniture or adding bright pillows and throws. Outside, the possibilities are endless. One so inclined might use pallets to construct upright gardens that grow along a fence or garage wall or outdoor forts and furniture. Those who love funky yard art might head for the scrap heap to find broken down metal pieces that lend themselves to new lives as flywheel-bodied birds and insects with plier head ornaments, harrow tailed beasts, or disc and rebar mammals.

Waste not, want not is the mantra for folks who recognize a dolphin, stallion, or buffalo sculpture in a pile of rusty nuts, bolts, and gears. You can’t help but admire these creative spirits for both their vision and their skillset. Holy cow, they visualize a final product and then weld it out of what others tossed in the trash pile.

Think about possibilities waiting to be born from scrap heaps in garages, barns, and at the junk dealer’s. Old tractor seats wait to find a new life as a critter or a crazy looking picnic stool. Gazillions of metal knobs, faucets, and handles oxidize in isolation until inventive sorts spy them and reimagine them as garden fountains, coat racks, or google eyes on a dragon.

One young welder I know sees possibility in just about anything. He can take garage sale or auction- found plumbing pipes and turn them into high-end embellishments. I particularly like the innovative lamps he makes. If he gets tired of his day job, he could make a living selling his one of a kind furnishings and light fixtures.

In addition to scoping out creative neighbors, a stop at area flea markets or the Kansas Store on I-70 offers potential buyers and craftspeople a chance to see welded art creatures first hand. As a result of such adventures, my brother’s backyard now sports a tractor-seat-bodied and tailed strutting turkey. Who knows what discarded parts form its wattle. A welded grasshopper made of once useless implement parts guards mom’s roses. A heavy bodied woodpecker constructed from old plates, gears, and wheels climbs her trellis. A roadrunner made of soldered spikes oversees her dining room. My own collection includes a heavy-duty rooster, long-legged heron with leaf rake tail, and rusty armadillo formed from bits of rebar.

My husband recently bought a welder so once I find a source for metal, our menagerie will expand. Unlike living pets, these repurposed ones don’t require food or cleaning up poop. Besides, flying pigs and unicorn frogs exist in this world.

As you spring clean and find odd piles of metal or wood, consider the possibilities. How can you recycle junk into yard art that entertains you and visitors who happen to spot your creations? It’s not like we don’t have a model for grassroots art in nearby Lucas, Kansas.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Captain Albert Barnitz: His Letters and Journals

Following the Civil War, many officers born and raised in the East found themselves serving their country on the Kansas frontier.  One such man was Captain Albert Barnitz, born in Pennsylvania in 1835 and reared in Ohio.  He studied first at Kenyon College and later continued his education at Cleveland Law College.  While there, he published a book of poetry titled Mystic Delvings. This hinted at innate writing tendencies that modern readers still enjoy.

Barnitz’s road to the Kansas frontier began after the death of his first wife who died in childbirth in 1860. Still grieving, he soon joined the 13th Ohio Infantry as a three-month volunteer in 1861.  Following that service, he enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a sergeant.  By 1863, Barnitz achieved senior captain rank.

Following his recovery from severe injuries, Barnitz returned to serve under the command of George A. Custer in the Shenandoah Valley and fought his last battle at Appomattox.  He returned briefly to civilian life, but received a captain’s commission in the U.S. Army in 1866.  The following year he married his second wife Jennie Platt, and they began their Great Plains adventure that included writing and saving a series of letters and journals which shed light on military and social life of the time.

During his military career, Barnitz served at several frontier forts, including Leavenworth, Riley, and Harker.  His wife Jennie joined him at several of these postings.  When they weren’t together, they wrote one another regularly. Albert also kept a journal of his experiences over decades.   Fortunately for posterity, they saved these documents.

Through these letters and journals, readers can time travel to the years 1866 – 1869 on the Plains.  Robert Utley collected and edited them into the book Life in Custer’s 7th Cavalry.  Barnitz and Jennie write about military experiences, life on the prairie, Hancock’s failed expedition, a battle with Indians at Fort Wallace, Camp Alfred Gibbs (near the town of Ellis, Kansas), and Jennie surviving a flash flood at the site of the first Fort Hays.

Of interest to history buffs, Albert and Jennie’s letters reveal personal information about the Custers, Colonel Alfred Gibbs, Major Joel Elliott, Miles Keogh, and other famous colleagues.  Through this couple’s running commentary, readers see these historical personages as real people with their strengths and frailties.  In addition, readers see the evolution of Barnitz’s attitudes about these individuals and realize Captain Barnitz and Jennie’s opinions weren’t static.  This couple’s correspondence must’ve engaged Robert Utley completely as he studied their decades of text.

Their letters reveal Albert and Jennie’s love story, his desire to be a good officer, and his disgust with fellow officers who drank too much or abused their troops. Interested in nature, he provides excellent accounts of wildlife, plants, and weather in this region as well.

Because Barnitz had the observational and writing skills of a poet, he thoroughly recorded the essence of military life during one of the frontier’s most active periods, providing a time machine-like glimpse into a vanished era.  Life in Custer’s Cavalry is more than communication between a man and woman. It’s an invitation to visit their world.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Details Change but Stories Go On

We’ve visited daughters, grands, and friends throughout Western Kansas for several weeks and I’ve noticed Dollar Stores thriving in rural communities. Apparently, these replaced old-fashioned dime stores everywhere. What happened to the high ceilinged, wood-floored mom and pop shops similar to those Grace Stetz or my grandma and grandpa owned in Ellis, Bucklin, and Meade?

Times and people change, but there’s no way candy or toy aisles in today’s variety store hold the same appeal as vintage eye-level, glass-rimmed displays that captured a nickel-holding child’s attention. I’ve seen posts where folks of a certain age wish they could return once more to enjoy Grace’s or my gramma’s lemon-oil -scented exhibitions of the latest dollies, cap guns, or licorice bits.

I recollect the satisfaction of pulling open the heavy front door and stepping into a vast anything expanse of necessities people required. Curious explorers had to first navigate past a 4’ x 6’ divided candy display strategically located to capture interest and money. Wood dividers separated glass bins full of malt balls, chocolate stars, licorice babies, jaw breakers, caramels, and other cavity-inducing treats you could buy by the piece. Once you broke its spell, you traveled either left or right.

Kids usually chose left—toward the toys. Grandma and Grampa maintained a selection of Big Chief Tablets, coloring books and crayons, paints, plastic and metal cars and trucks, building blocks, and more. In addition, they placed a bouncy horse nearby so a young patron could ride and make birthday and Christmas lists while parents inspected needles, thread, underwear, mittens, hats, dishes, pots, pans, utensils and more.

A favorite section was the pottery display. The always dusted shelves were full of pastel vases and teapots decorated with flowers and pine cones in bas relief. While an adult attending auctions, I imagined Grandma and Grace would’ve benefitted by warehousing those Hull and McCoy pieces to finance their retirements. What they marked with $3.00 price tags, estate auctioneers sold decades later for a $100 or more.

From the time I first walked, I loved visiting my grandparents’ business. As family, we entered through the alley door where we first noted grandpa perched on a chair in his railed office, surrounded by still-boxed merchandise and stacks of unsold comic books, with an eagle eye view of the floor below. Few shoppers knew he watched their exploration of each department. He knew who’d left hankies unfolded or fingerprints on a shiny race car or who slipped something in their pocket before paying. Of course, it was Grandma or the clerk who returned mussed items to their former pristine conditions before the next customer visited.

While modern box stores keep rural residents in paper towels, soap, and bathroom products, visiting them isn’t anything like a trip to an old variety store. The lights, linoleum, and metal stands are too bright, and the candy is packaged as are the toys. A kid can’t try out potential purchases ahead of time. Besides, you can’t buy anything for a nickel!

Someday, our grown grandkids will reminisce fondly about the Dollar stores of their youth and tell their own youngsters what they missed out on. Details change, but stories go on.

Gardens Then and Now

By St. Patrick’s Day, my fingers itch to sift soil and plant seeds or potato eyes. Some March 17ths permit starting new growth while others force me to wait. Recently, I read a garden-themed post from old Fort Hays dated March 26, 1871.  it stated, “Ten men have been directed to report for work in the post garden and all the prisoners will report each afternoon until further orders.” Clearly, military leadership was eager to turn over that loam and insert seeds saved from previous harvests.

I thought back to old photos I’ve seen of early settlement days where barren prairie dominates the view. It’s easy to imagine how hungry residents and travelers would’ve been after a winter without fresh greens. Just thinking of eating straight-from-the-plant corn, tomatoes, or melons must’ve wreaked havoc on salivary glands. I know how I long for tender spinach or lettuce freshly plucked. In my imaginings, I taste sunbeams before they reach the roots.

Unlike us, those hardy souls couldn’t grocery shop to buy vegetables recently shipped from California or Mexico. Even canned goods offered less selection than consumers have today. You know soldiers and settlers anticipated fresh produce for long months.

Thinking about this historical document raised numerous questions. How big was this garden to require so much labor? What did they plant? How did they water it? Did prisoners see this as punishment or were they, like me, glad to get dirty hands? Once plants began production, did the commander post guards to prevent unauthorized reaping? What procedures did they use to store harvests and seeds for future use?

During past summers, I’ve seen reproduction kitchen gardens behind officers’ quarters, but with ten assigned men and additional prisoners to help, this endeavor required substantially more acreage than those small plots. After all, mess halls feed hundreds. If I planned this, I think I’d place it between the stables and creek so it would be easy to gather fertilizer and to create an irrigation system.

This thought reminded me of decades ago when an older gentleman in south Hays nurtured a phenomenal truck garden on the site of an old dairy. Every year, his abundant crops dazzled family and friends. Every one with a defective green thumb or too little time looked forward to buying his tomatoes, cucumbers, and other lush produce. When I recall his undertaking, I imagine the fort garden must’ve been similar. Every row would have been just as orderly and precise.

To this day, January and February’s first hints of warmth excite me into planning the moment when I tuck that season’s hopes into recently tilled soil. That said, my anticipation can’t match that of soldiers who hadn’t eaten fresh vegetables for at least six months. This reminds me how spoiled I am to have a vegetable drawer full of carrots, celery, radishes, peppers, and lettuce no matter the season. However, my taste buds remind me there’s nothing better than salad made minutes after picking and washing the ingredients.

Spring Inspires Crazy Imaginations

Decades ago, a student growing up in a clever family used his weekly spelling words to write a story that I still chuckle over. Each spring, I recollect his tale about the Easter Cow who unless offered tasty grasses would scare off the more traditional, egg-delivering rabbit. To prevent empty baskets at their house, this lad and his siblings would share tasty greens with their unique but never seen bovine. Over the years, my mind altered this ingenious family’s holiday rendition until I have my own version that includes greening pastures and newborn calves.

All it takes to trigger flowing creative juices is to drive slowly down a country road on a sunny day with windows rolled down. The sound of tires rotating over gravel soothes the spirit and fires up the right half of the brain, which according to some researchers is the random, intuitive, spontaneous side. Some might call it downright goofy. A few miles into wide open spaces occupied primarily by cows and my brain alters the end result of this former student’s assignment to create entirely new possibilities when it comes to Easter eggs.

Over time, his story evolved so that newly greened pastures dotted with tiny, newborn cows tucked into ovals turned into Easter eggs in my imagination. Despite the fact that most giant rabbit deliveries come in bright colors, gentle pastels, or wrapped foil, my story involves rust, brown, black, sometimes cream, and occasionally speckled orbs soaking up spring sunrays while their moms nibble tender, green shoots. Chocolate eggs are little brown bovines basking in golden heat. The only bunnies are neighboring cottontails and jackrabbits—no anthropomorphic rodents carrying straw baskets in my version.

Even though I know kids prefer Cadbury and speckled malted eggs combined with sugar-crusted marshmallow Peeps to celebrate the season, I love to cruise dirt roads and view gangly calves with unblemished noses and shiny eyes, bodies either rolled up in tight little balls or wobbling on spindly legs. My mom seconds my thought that this is the one time in the life of pasture-raised beef that they’re ever so clean.

If I’m lucky, I’ll see little burgers-to-be frolicking across fields with equally cute calves or impatiently butting mommas’ bags to bring down belly-filling milk. Equally enjoyable is watching huge mothers who aren’t nearly so clean and adorable as their babes caring so tenderly for their spring deliveries.

What I learned from my clever student was that I need not tie myself to traditional holiday stories. If it pleases me to drive across Kansas prairies under cotton ball filled blue skies imagining pastures polka-dotted with newborns posing as shiny ebony and russet Easter eggs then I should savor such moments.

This youngster’s story evolved once he shared it with me, so who knows how this wisp of fancy will inspire new traditions in someone else’s imagination. After all, the Easter Rabbit started somewhere. Maybe someday an egg delivering armadillo or noisy magpie will help kids celebrate spring.

Dot Connecting Possibilities

Those who play connect the dots find the experience relaxing or agitating, depending on the outcome. Some see relationships between one idea and another despite having too little information to clearly link them. To complicate matters, lack of resources can limit time or money investments even though strong interest in a subject exists. I know this sense of tension well, especially after reading recent articles about Clovis Caches found in America.

I suspect few care much about Clovis culture let alone have a burning interest in stashes of stone tools ancient inhabitants concealed and didn’t retrieve. While made of common, not precious, materials, these relics equal buried treasure for those who love archeology and connecting to ancient humans.

The term Clovis Culture came into existence when a sharp-eyed New Mexican noted artifacts formed using a particular bi-faced fluting between Clovis and Portales. Since that discovery, scientists identifying stonework designed with this pattern characterize them as Clovis points. Scholars attribute the style to bison antiquus and mammoth hunters who lived at the end of the Pleistocene era about 13,000 years ago.

The article that started my exploration mentioned the Busse Cache that contained Clovis bifaces made of Niobrara or Smoky Hill Jasper. Anyone who’s walked country roads or plowed fields in Northwest and North Central Kansas has seen this frequently ochre-hued, silicified stone even if they didn’t know what to call it. Researchers have identified prehistoric quarries containing outcroppings of this desirable knapping material in Trego, Gove, and Graham Counties in Kansas and Fremont County Nebraska. That tidbit has me trying to connect points in history based on limited knowledge.

Interestingly, these western Kansas excavations produced desirable knapping material early hunters used for thousands of years. Oklahoma archeologists have found it in sites from east to west. To entice further, prehistoric mammoth and bison bones found during work on roads, bridges, dams, or other such dirt shifting activities occupy shelves and dark corners in regional museums and personal collections.

This combination makes me wonder how many Pleistocene hunters wandered this way in search of game and resources to make dinner-capturing tools. After all, the Great Plains supported modern bison and native cultures who depended on them for survival. This information increases my curiosity about how often their ancestors roasted a mammoth haunch under prairie skies.

Keep in mind state borders are fairly modern concepts so migratory people would’ve wandered from one watershed to another without worrying about taxes, land ownership, or other recent complications.  Nearly a decade ago, Dan Busse in Northeastern Colorado worked a field and noted a fingernail-size bit of Smoky Hill jasper that wasn’t native to his area. Upon further investigation, he dug up a hunter’s pack of fluted Clovis-style stones. Among them are several manufactured from Niobrara or Smoky Hill jasper, commonly found in western Kansas and Nebraska.

Add to this data information about KU professor Rolfe Mandel’s 2014 dig near Tuttle Creek. His team specifically searched for evidence of Clovis and pre-Clovis inhabitants in what is now Kansas. Their efforts are in the hands of lab analysts who work to verify their findings.

Though few Clovis Cache finds are documented in the U.S., such articles offer hope that any day now a Kansan could be turning over soil and make a discovery like a landscaper in Boulder, CO.  He recently found a stash of 80 artifacts used to butcher prehistoric camels and horses in his yard.

Though I doubt I’ll find such treasure, the combination of connecting dots leads me to expect I’ll soon read about the person who does.

Sturdy Stock

When news stories are filled with the evil that people do, it’s easy to get depressed. Add normal life struggles, and a person can get so downhearted to never want to crawl out of bed in the morning. When bad weighs heavy, I recollect family stories that remind me I come from sturdy stock, where wimping out wasn’t an ancestral option.

This particular line started as religious dissenters in England who survived rolling Atlantic waves in the hull of a dark ship that landed them near Plymouth, Massachusetts. After several generations as Americans, this group left New England to start a brick factory in Ontario, Canada. Along with changing nationalities, they switched religious preferences to Methodism.

As followers of Wesley, they migrated to Northwest Kansas in 1873. My 3x great grandfather finally answered the call to preach and found himself riding or walking waterways that drain this region. He knew the Sappa, Prairie Dog, Bow Creek, North and South Solomon, Republican and others like the back of his hand.

After his retirement, the Methodist Conference asked him to record the story he titled Forty Years on the Firing Line. The original copy was handwritten on Big Chief tablets. About 60 years after he recorded it, my mom transcribed and typed it into a legible document. Between his handwriting as well as inconsistent spelling and punctuation, she labored for months. Fortunately, she recalled she too descended from sturdy stock and persisted until she had a document that gave family members and historians a sense of early Kansas settlers’ lives.

When I read this, I wish he’d included more details. However, a much longer document might’ve deterred the editing and typing required to make it readable. He opens with, “So I have hurriedly written largely from memory, making many mistakes, leaving out much that might have proved interesting.  . . . I plead for pardon for all that I have failed in. I pray that our young men in the ministry of Jesus Christ—will not—complain nor murmur, but go where they are sent in Jesus name.”

That statement reminds me that around 150 years ago, Grandpa came to preach on the American frontier. Yes, the place I call home and consider modern and comfortable was a mysterious, unsettled land. Ill health had driven him from frigid Canada to Kansas. His father and 13 other family members joined this trek to homestead in Norton Co. He mentions they arrived on November 3, 1873 and were 128 miles from Lowell, Nebraska, their nearest trading center.

Thinking about Kansas Novembers I’ve weathered, his comment that “We were delighted with the country and especially with the climate,” surprised me. He continued with, “I believe it added years to the life of my parents and my wife who the doctor said would not live to get to Kansas and our boy 2 years and 3 months old, that weighed only 17 pounds whom the doctor said could not live is still alive and the largest man of the family.”

Over the next few months, I’ll share more of his experiences. His stories remind us western Kansans come from determined, capable gene pools. As descendants, we continue to make our communities fine places to live and raise families.

Staying Sturdy through Hard Times

Last week, I explained our family’s arrival in Kansas. In short time, those hardy ancestors faced more than isolation in Northwest Kansas. After surviving that first winter in their new country, they learned firsthand about plagues of Biblical proportion.

Grandpa didn’t spend much time whining in his memoir, but he explains how grasshoppers in numbers large enough to qualify as an Old Testament pestilence arrived. He says they devoured “everything that was green.” He’d traveled to what he termed Saline County, Nebraska where he saw insects “come down like snow until they were 2 inches thick on the ground.” According to him, “70 acres of fine corn just in the blister disappeared in 3 hours.” All that remained was stalks.  In addition to devouring corn, grasshoppers wiped out wheat and oat crops as well. I recall articles in old Ellis Headlights that verified this invasion. As a result, settlers depended on charity from churches and families still living in the East to help them survive those first years.  You know stomachs grumbled with hunger and growing kids wore hand-me-down clothing during such hard times.

Unfortunately, life didn’t improve the following year. According to Grandpa, grasshoppers came again in 1875 but “took the crops only in spots.” He explains that he and 3 neighbors lost their fields, but the hoppers left corn standing nearby. Despite, dire circumstances, he had a sense of humor, saying, “We had the sympathy of our neighbors which they lavished upon us. When I told them we were better off than we were the year before, they asked how that could be.” Tongue in cheek, I’m sure, this farmer/circuit rider explained, “We had a chance to steal. The year before there was no corn west of the Missouri River.”

Bad events come in threes, which held true for the insect invasions our ancestors experienced. A third year in a row, ravenous jaws zeroed in on Northwest Kansas. Grandpa Reuben says, “There were grasshoppers by the billions.” He tells a story about his brother-in-law accompanying him on church business. The two rode near Spring City, which is now called Lenora. They stayed at a church member’s home on Saturday night and awoke to “hoppers hung on the willow trees until they looked like weeping willows.” After the sermon and dinner, the two set out for grandpa’s evening appointment in a distant community.

Heading northeast, one thought he saw fire while the other claimed it was a dust storm. In short time, grandpa reports, “A hail storm struck us from the southwest and grasshoppers came down by the bucket full.” After battling their runaway team, they made it to church in time for Grandfather to preach. Shivering, he delivered his message in dripping clothes. The storm hadn’t hit this area, so the congregation found their preacher more than a tad curious.

Before evening ended, a passing traveler confirmed Grandpa’s experience, stating, “There were 2 feet of ice and hoppers in places and dead antelope on the prairie.” These difficulties didn’t dim Grandpa’s determination to preach and farm in Northwest Kansas. He did, however, say he never left home afterwards without his overcoat.

Again, vintage journalism verifies my relatives’ experiences. Such tales remind those whose families settled Kansas that we’ve particularly determined DNA pulsing through our bodies.