Saturday, January 30, 2016

Colorful Mystery

Memory works in funny ways. With passing time, one event blends with another until, eventually, recollections stitch themselves together like an old patchwork quilt assembled from every leftover scrap lying about the house. Snippets of bright color or interesting texture catch the eye and off a mind goes following a bunny trail that may not go anywhere. I started following one of those winding, backtracking thoughts recently and found myself lost in a mystery. I hope someone can help me find answers.

Since I was tiny, I’ve loved stained glass windows. I enjoy the varying hues, the stories each scene tells, and the way sunlight glows through, tinting everything in its path. Magically, words of hymns and sermons seem to float in that radiant light like waltzing dust motes during Sunday services. My first memories link to the sanctuary windows in the Methodist Church in Meade, Kansas. I loved how distant artists depicted Bible stories and characters in vibrant colors that seemed richer than any shade I could create with my crayons and paints.

Not long after these religious panels engaged my toddler attention, a relative moved into an Victorian two story with a gorgeous stained glass window at the stairway landing between the first and second floors. My cousins and I loved sliding down those stairs, which means we had to climb to that midway point to launch our speedy descents. I don’t know that anyone else dawdled on the way up, but I did. Sunlight radiating through that jewel-toned melted silica joined by lead strips dazed my senses enough that I didn’t feel a single bump on the way down.

Even now, my heart starts beating faster when I discover century-old buildings that contain their original stained glass. Apparently, a goodly number of early settlers found a way to put at least one decorative window in their home or business. For those on a strict budget, that might mean four tiny squares of color soldered in each corner of a rectangle or square. Well-to-do families had more options.

Those with fatter wallets might incorporate several ornamental windows throughout their home. Almost every long-established community has several of these two or three storied houses replete with decorative gingerbread, wrought iron fence work, and stunning glass throughout the property. These make me recollect a world with fewer distractions than ours has. What a joy it would be to look up to see sunlight streaming through amber, lavender, cobalt, ruby, and emerald tones while you were dusting, scrubbing, or cooking.

A trip to Cottonwood Ranch in Studley reveals excellent examples of such a home. The Pratt family members were among the first permanent settlers in that region. Mrs. Pratt immigrated from greener landscapes and struggled with the monotony of her new homeland. To help, her husband built a lovely ranch. Modern visitors see the evidence as they travel from room to room, admiring colorful glasswork in nearly every window.

Here’s the mystery. I want to know where early Kansans bought these windows. I did learn factories that produced these arts works weren’t local. So far, I’ve discovered that some of the big Catholic churches ordered their panels from either the East Coast or Europe. I can’t imagine the shipping costs on these breakables. What intrigues me even more is knowing every little town in this area had homes and churches decorated with these lovely works of art. Where did they come from and at what cost?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Kansas Day Dreaming

Windmills pull not only water up from below the earth but they also break a seemingly endless horizon to pull the eye toward heaven and optimism. In a stark, dry landscape, such attractions nurture not only bodies but also spirits. Just the memory of spinning blades drawing thin streams of cool water to spill into a tank is enough to send the mind back in time to recover damp earth scents and the sensation of green buffalo grass curling under bare feet. This ability to reclaim the past explains why so many paintings and photos of isolated windmills hang in Great Plains homes and galleries. This prairie icon means survival to anyone connected to this place for generations.

Wind has powered human life since early civilization. Confining it and making it work isn’t unique to Americans, but it has made homesteading and agriculture in Flyover country possible. Before these skinny towers lured  the eye upward from rolling waves of blue stem, Indian, and grama grasses, the arid nature of the place meant only nomadic people could survive here. Once Nathaniel Halladay invented the self-governing windmill, stickers—people who put down roots to stay through the good times and the bad—could claim homesteads and make dreams come true.

Once hopeful settlers declared the boundaries of their land, they drilled into the ancient underground lake beneath their feet to find water for themselves and their livestock. Those fortunate enough to tap into the aquifer no longer had to depend on live springs or the capture of unpredictable rains in a cistern. Where native occupants packed and moved when a water source vanished, this new technology permitted incoming settlers to create their own oases in what people east of the Mississippi called the Great American Desert.

This newly patented device promised more than it could deliver to many would-be ranchers and farmers who headed west to claim free land. Now days, poets, artists, historians, and the curious cruise dusty country roads to look for crumbling telltale towers silhouetted by collapsed ruins in the distance. Sometimes bullet-riddled vanes still spin in the wind, emitting a haunting banshee cry. Ironically, greenery growing at the base of these relics hints at still present underground treasure.

What these backroad wanderers find are stories written in dreams, sweat, and imported resources. Anyone who stops long enough to let their eyes wander over a former homestead in the middle of a current farmer’s wheat field or pasture has a decision to make. Do these ruins reveal the prelude to the lovely brick home and giant metal sheds up the road a few miles, or do they tell instead the sad tale of a forgotten family who left during hard times? Too often, the second version is the truth, but few of us find that romantic or memorable. We prefer the first, a tale of expectation and success.

Hope is what Halladay and his competitors’ windmills delivered and what makes them iconic prairie images even now. As long as some of us call these isolated plains home and long to remain here, someone will keep photographing or painting bent and tumbling towers that pierce the horizon and tell us dreams can come true.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Plainsong: Unlikely Heroes and Grace

Great Plains writer Ian Frazier invites response when he says, “There’s an idea of the Plains as the middle of nowhere, something to be contemptuous of. But it’s really a heroic place.” In earlier civilizations, poets and writers recorded epics about courage and grace. Author Kent Haruf takes that challenge to heart to produce a novel recounting the understated goodness and resolve of people who gain collective strength from the lonely landscape they consider home. The title fits both structure and setting of this not-so-gentle exploration a rural community in eastern Colorado.

Initially, plainsong meant a simple musical form used in the early western church. Listen to a Gregorian chant to understand this uncomplicated structure relying on melody unaccompanied by harmony. In one form, it functions as a call and response, the technique Haruf uses to develop his character-driven novel.

Who would imagine two crusty bachelor brothers living on a cattle ranch 17 miles from town as the rescuers of an abandoned, pregnant 17-year-old or adolescent boys left by their mother? Characters Maggie Jones and Tom Guthrie are more likely champions, though they require aid to overcome difficulty.

Despite dark and troublesome conflicts, Haruf offers help for every need. None of the sympathetic characters faces hardship alone. Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich words sum up the convoluted relationships, “For though love has been ridiculed and disgraced, exchanged, and bartered, dragged through the courts, and sold for 30 pieces of silver, the bright steady glow of its fire still shines on the hearth stones of countless homes.” As basic as an early plainsong, love answers need in this hard land.

Writing like a poet, author Haruf plays with his title. Readers, like redtails riding thermals, soar along as theme and structure weave together lives of flawed humans. As readers finish one page after another of his novel, evidence proves Haruf knows this place some dismissively call The Great American Desert or Flyover Country.

Haruf sings a song of The Plains. He knows its landscape, icons, and rhythms. From the first, he establishes mastery of place: “. . . looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, the increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform.” Who hasn’t watched scarlet rays warm the cold metal of a windmill?

Further into the work, he details a common ranching experience.

 “At last there was only the red-legged cow left to test, the one their father warned them about. . . . She regarded the two boys steadily as if she were some wild range animal that had never seen a human on foot before. . . . They were afraid of her and didn’t want to be kicked. . . . She dropped her head and whirled around, stubby tail up, stiffened, and galloped across to the other side. . . . She faced them, her eyes baleful-looking and her sides heaving. . . . She galloped into Bobby, knocking him back off his feet before he could jump out of the way. He landed on his back and bounced once like a piece of thrown stove wood wood. . . . He lay on the trampled dirt look up at the empty sky, trying to breathe.” Ranch kids across this region have left English teachers gripping red pens as they read essays describing this archetypal struggle between youngster and beast.

Plainsong resonates with details that define place. Haruf never misses the mark describing homes, streets, ranchland, red cedars, and solitude. At the end, he pulls the piece together with a familiar scene.

 “The two women came out onto the steps of the porch in the evening with the light behind them burning in the kitchen, visible through the open door, backlighting them. . . Their dark hair was damp and their quiet faces were flushed from the hot kitchen, from the cooking. . . . The women looked . . . farther out toward the barn lot and work corral where the three men stood at the fence, each with a booted foot crooked on the bottom rail, an elbow slung over the top rail, comfortable, talking. . . . Now the wind started up in the trees, high up, moving the high branches.

This novel is a hymn to place: a vanished inland sea turned expanse of grass and sky broken by occasional signs of human occupation. It’s a story of uncommon grace, the kind about which South Dakotan Kathleen Norris writes, “If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such trouble recognizing and accepting it. Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.”

Haruf’s unlikely heroes have found such grace.

Seeing This Place with New Eyes

By nature, Plains people share what they have with neighbors. It is how we survive and thrive. This opportunity for readers and lovers of ideas to explore and discuss our common landscape and the stories it generates is a gift. Each of us brings original perceptions to a collective experience. Our differences strengthen or weaken bonds necessary to make life good in a hard land. This group offers a venue for us to learn who we are because we value life on the Great Plains.

Over a billion years ago, a collision of tectonic plates in the Precambrian period initiated our current geological status. The Black Hills and the Eastern Wyoming and Central Texas uplifts make evident usually hidden metamorphic and igneous rock deep below us. Following the massive impacts that created the continent we recognize, reoccurring shallow oceans deposited layers of limestone, shale, and sandstone that wind and water carved into the geography we awaken to each morning.

The natural forces-- collision and erosion--that formed this land also shape the people who live here. Throughout time, this region has experienced ethnic, religious, political, economic, intellectual, and social impacts that affected its development every bit as much as that first crash of continental plates did. While two or more independent units melding together create a new form, erosion wears it away bit by bit to unveil hidden realities. Just as nature constructs and deconstructs, our selected texts will examine these pileups between humans and nature, cultures, and ideologies. Working much like sand and wind, authors’ words will shear away layers of confusion to reveal core truths that help us answer Wallace Stegner’s question, “Where do I belong in this country? Where is home?”

 Kiowa/Puebloan author and poet N. Scott Momaday further guides us with his wisdom, “A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning. It gives origin to all things.” Our authors gift uswith tales in which landscape plays an integral role. As readers, we learn how existing on this ancient seabed adds complications to our lives. Stegner states that writing about this arid country west of the 100th meridian requires new insights. “Perceptions trained in another climate have had to be modified. That means we have to learn to quit depending on perceptual habit.  Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see. Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them. Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them. And our fourth, unfortunately out of our control, was to train an audience that would respond to what we wrote or painted.” He’s thrown down a gauntlet, a challenge to this book club to find meaning by looking at our world through others’ words.

Plainsong, Empire of the Summer Moon, and the memoir A Strong West Wind deliver multiple genres through which to view the western third of Kansas, eastern Colorado, western Nebraska, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Each writer examines the emotional and physical impacts of place on those who make a life in its dust. Their craft validates Cather’s statement that “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” While we read, we peel away strata, striving to uncover our common experience.

People who write about the Great Plains and its inhabitants acknowledge that an endless horizon paired with unpredictable weather that can produce howling blizzards to raging tornadoes and moisture sucking droughts possesses as much if not more power than any towering mountain range or surging sea. These bards know the real magic of this place manifests itself in the shade of a porch on a hot afternoon, in watching dusk silhouette rows of red cedar, in discovering a meadowlark nest in an old buffalo wallow on the prairie, or in seeing a community unite to overcome nature or human induced trouble.

 Enjoy this opportunity to steep deeply in words about a place you call home. Relish the collisions and the unpeeling of layers to find our truths. Momaday probably says it best: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. I believe he ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.” Inhabit this space and delight in it.

The Times They Are a Changin’

I recently read an article explaining the world has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. This means future geologists will find human-created residue from radiation, plastics, mining, agriculture, and industry in the earth’s sediments. At this time, scientists haven’t made this official; however, mention in the media indicates the world is evolving. Change unsettles me, so for distraction, I imagined the lives of those who occupied this region I call home. Other than finding bits of worked jasper, chert, and flint in plowed fields and reading stories recounted after the fact in history books, small evidence remains of those who not only survived but also thrived in this arid country west of 98th meridian.

Despite prospering in this landscape, these cultures weren’t native to this place. They migrated from places like the Black Hills and Wind River Range speaking languages with Algonquin, Shoshonean, and Tanoan roots, which indicates their nations originated from distant parts of this country.

Prior to the arrival of Spaniards who brought horses from Europe, these bands journeyed by foot with the help of domesticated dogs trained to carry small loads. This limited not only their range of movement but also their ability to conquer others. Imagine how swiftly their lives altered when horses introduced faster and more efficient travel and ways to make war.

The grassy Plains provided a perfect setting for this equine culture to flourish. The fleet-footed beasts offered not only transportation and military strength but also wealth nourished by endless acres of sun-fueled grasses. Within a generation, people once limited to foot travel became savvy riders who covered enormous distances while hunting and warring. Historians explain that these adaptable equestrians mastered shooting game and fighting battles while firing up to thirty arrows a minute. Until firearm technology included reliable, repeating rifles and pistols, these archers were what some call “Lords of the Plains.”

Due to their nomadic life style, they adapted to unpredictable weather conditions on the prairie more easily than later arriving immigrants who established permanent residences. Mobility permitted bands to relocate as they exhausted resources or fouled an area. Their expanded ability to harvest native animals and plants generated improved nutrition, better housing, plentiful clothing, and other necessities.

 Buffalo herds numbering in the millions migrated through these grasslands seasonally. Native residents used the entire carcass to produce food, containers, tools, robes, and tipis. If they killed more than they could use, they traded for goods. For early Plains residents, these shaggy beasts functioned as a Walmart on the hoof long before Sam Wall conceived of his big box chain.

Even before the Civil War, Plains tribes saw their world changing. Once railways and roads bisected the prairie, they understood their way of life was under siege. For decades, they fought this transformation, successfully for a time. Once the Great Rebellion ended, new technology and hordes of land-hungry immigrants meant the old order was over. No matter how perfectly adapted these transient cultures were to living on this windy, dry ancient seabed, transformation was inevitable.

When I think of those dark-skinned people camping and hunting in the Smoky Hill, Saline, and Solomon River valleys, I wonder what they’d think of asphalt highways linking little towns that follow their old trails. What would they think of the changes wrought in this new age so heavily influenced by humans?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Join the Club

The calendar just rolled over to 2016, and it’s tradition to make resolutions. If your resolution involved more reading, joining a book club, or learning about the place where you live, then you might want to google, and sign up.

Unbeknownst to many, committed employees of High Plains Public Radio in Garden City devote their days to connecting High Plains occupants with one another and the world. Obviously, they transmit public radio standards, including A Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, All Things Considered, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and other shows recorded in cities far from our hometown. However, this station continues adding local programming. This creative team appeals to varied interests with     Learning the Birds, Growing on the High Plains, High Plains Outdoors, Ad Astra—Star Gazing on the High Plains, Agland, High Plains History, Prairie Tayles, Amarillo Symphony, Living Room Concerts, and the soon to be introduced Radio Readers Book Club.

After months of volunteer efforts to fine tune details involving webpages, study guides, discussion leaders, funding, book selections, forums, and more, the project launches soon--in January or February. If you enjoy meaty discussions with the likeminded or not-so-likeminded, sign up and order the texts from either your library or bookstore.

This spring’s theme is Sense of Place. Each selection explores landscape’s importance in human development. Anyone with a local address knows that living in the sparsely populated, arid high plains presents unique challenges, so the topic is worth examining. The initial books include the fiction, non-fiction, and memoir titles: Plainsong, Empire of the Summer Moon, and A Strong West Wind. Despite being different genres, each delves into the influence of place.

The first piece is the novel Plainsong by Kent Haruf. He set the interweaving stories in a small town in eastern Colorado. It’s similar to scores of communities bordering blue highways that connect the dots between grain elevators whose verticality breaks our never-ending horizon. Regional readers will recognize the teachers, farmers, adolescents, schools, quick stops, red cedars, dusty roads, and concerns that constitute his tale of small town existence. In simple, lyrical language, Haruf captures the essence of this landscape of waving grass, endless vistas, red cedars, and never neutral weather.

Empire of the Summer Moon takes us into the not so distant past when the southern part of this region was home to the Comanche who thrived in the most difficult parts of this expanse. It offers a sympathetic view of nomadic inhabitants who loved this landscape every bit as much as those who later homesteaded, built towns, and plowed the native grasses in order to farm the land. It peeks into native and white cultures to explore ideological differences that led a no win situation. Though it’s non-fiction, it’s an engaging read that leaves the reader mulling long after finishing the final page.

Gail Caldwell’s A Strong West Wind is memoir—a narrative based on her life in West Texas. A baby boomer, she offers a perspective of the developing agriculture and oil industries during the post war 50s and turbulent 60s. Readers respond positively to her introspective writing that explores the roll of landscape in a youngster’s development.

Through these stories and those coming next fall, High Plains Public Radio connects readers who call this contradictory landscape home. Participants may live a distance from one another, but using technology and airwaves,they can practice a new kind of neighborliness in this creative approach to a book club.