Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: Kansas

Flight of Unknown Birds

For Lent I gave up writing, and being a writer, and talking and writing about writing. A friend asked why, and I told her I couldn’t tell her until Easter. Truth was, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. But it turns out I’m not that good at keeping a Lenten vow, so here’s my answer.

The Flight of Unknown Birds

Coming over the ridge in the winter-golden hills
light angling toward the endless horizon
as it only does in late winter in Kansas.
How is it I have come to love this place
so deep in my viscera, rooted in me
in a place before words. Bald eagle lifting
into flight. Blood splattered on the road.

I should hit the brakes, grab my camera,
shoot, but I’ve done that before at this very spot,
more than once. No photo ever satisfies.
Only this moment itself can express
this moment. All beauty is unspeakable;
truth, inexpressible. In the back seat
my daughter bends her head to a book,
oblivious.

I have tried to quit writing for the spite of it.
Even walking away from certain failure,
I know I’ll come back. The light in winter,
the flight of unknown birds: all existence
is poetry. There can be no being apart from it.
I’ll write long after I’m dead, until my bones
disintegrate into the earth.

Winter Prairie 3

Decoding Negative Advertising, Kansas Style

Today let’s veer a bit from literary pursuits and philosophical pondering and talk about some of the fascinating subtext of electoral politics, specifically, the political ads that are inundating my mailbox these days. I’ll start out by telling you right now that Chase County is heavily conservative, so Democrats don’t waste their money on us. Everything I’m critiquing today is Republican, or anti-not-Republican.

One of the more prominent not-Republicans is Greg Orman, who is not a Democrat. He is running for Senate as an Independent against conservative old guy Pat Roberts. The Kansas Republican Party sent me this flyer, which brilliantly repurposes the country road motif of Orman’s own website. (Kudos to the Kansas Republican Party for getting good people to design their negative ads.) But instead of a peaceful Kansas country road, we see a road flanked by cameras on one side, and a wall on the other, presumably a border road between Texas and Mexico. Immigration is a hugely important issue to Kansans, because . . . because . . . maybe some of us have relatives who own property on the Texas border. Or maybe our children aspire to move to a distant city and compete for lucrative jobs washing dishes in restaurants. Maybe immigration is such an important issue because it’s something no one has done anything about yet, so the extreme right who have been in charge the last few years can’t be blamed for wrecking this particular train. Immigration is also important because rural Kansans are xenophobic, and fear is the first and biggest tool in the toolbox of negative advertising.

Next is another flyer from the Kansas Republican Party, this one about gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis. The most important fact to know about Davis is that he was born in California. (The flyer doesn’t tell us that he’s also a Cancer, which makes him diplomatic and emotional, while his opponent, Gov. Sam Brownback, is an analytical, organized Virgo.) In case you’ve forgotten, California is the home of the baseball team the Giants, who beat the Kansas City Royals in the World Series last week. The KRP is happy to remind us voters of this important fact by showing us a picture of the state of California with a baseball and the word GIANTS superimposed on it. There’s also a picture of California’s Rep. Nancy Pelosi, with strange black spots on her skin, and a much more attractive picture of Kansas’s own Bob Dole, who currently does not hold any office, nor is he running for one. He’s just there to remind us never to trust a person not born in Kansas. Because xenophobia.

Oh, look at the time. So many flyers, so little time. We’ll have to stop here, and save for another day the little girl gazing contemplatively through the chain-link fence at the strip club, the Voter’s Guide thoughtfully gifted us by the American Comeback Committee, who appear to be connected to the Republican Governors Association, who are allegedly funded mostly by Koch Industries. I’ll just leave you with one thought: Take a look at the images on these flyers and note how closely allied these candidates are with powerful people in government. Imagine if all the Kansas Independents and Democrats were good friends with Pres. Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. Just think of all the benefits Kansas could potentially reap from smarmy politicking. Ooh, it makes me feel greasy just to think about it. I think I’ll vote for every one of ’em.

WordPress gave us this cool voter information tool, but it can’t find info for my address, so who knows how well it works. See for yourself.

The Bees Know

I know I’ve said it before, but white heath is my favorite late-season native wildflower. When all the other flowers have spent themselves, white heath is just getting started. White heath keeps going till the last minute, when the themometer hits 32 on some early morning in October. White heath is always the last flower to leave the party of the tallgrass prairie summer.

Everybody hates white heath, except me. I have finally convinced the people who wield the weed whackers around here not to whack it, but I keep a few in out-of-the-way places, just in case. There’s a big patch this year by the compost, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it, after all. The honey bees appreciate it. There aren’t a lot of flowers left, and most of the others peaked a week ago, or more. It’s a glorious, sunny, warm day today, but there won’t be many more of these, and the bees know to make the most of every bit of pollen they can gather before the cold sets in.

I am not so industrious. I struggle to match my energy to the time available. I have gotten some good work done on my studio renovation this week, but it’s far from ready, and I didn’t really get anything done today.

Tomorrow I’ll take a lesson from the bees, I promise. The bees know.

More Prairie Burning

I promised you some pictures of burning prairie, and here they are. I couldn’t get as close as I wanted, without going into privately owned pastures. From the road I did get some dramatic flames and some blackened ground and some distance shots of black and smoking horizons. Maybe next year I’ll talk to some ranchers and get out in their pastures when they’re burning.

Vulture and Flame: Spring In the Flint Hills

Like the return of turkey vulture, prairie burning is a sign of spring in the Flint Hills. It isn’t the terrifying disaster some might imagine; the burns are lit intentionally to clear dead plant matter that would choke out new growth. From the blackened ground will emerge fresh grass, greener and more nutritious to the animals who graze here. It is considered an essential part of prairie stewardship, and it also raises the monetary value of a pasture. Prairie never burned or grazed by a hoofed animal eventually turns to woodland. Burning kills off the invasive trees, while the deep roots of the native grasses are left to send up new green shoots.

While I haven’t heard anyone criticizing the practice of burning the prairie, there is some debate about how often it ought to be done. Many ranchers burn annually, and profit from that practice. At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, they burn once every three years, and find that allows for greater diversity of plants, most notably, more wildflowers.

Weather conditions must be right for burning. Strong wind can blow the fire out of control. No wind allows it to burn out in all directions. A light, steady breeze is ideal, so that the flames advance in a predictable line, from one side of a pasture to the other. There may not be many days when the season and weather are right, so when they come, there’s a lot of burning all around. The smoke burns the eyes, and, even miles away, tiny bits of ash come falling from the sky.

Yesterday smelled like a camp fire, everywhere, all day. My client from Emporia reported smoke thick as fog on Highway 50. The fires at night are beautiful to see, but the day was preternatural and I couldn’t wait until dark. I went to the high spot at the scenic overlook, and though I didn’t see any blackened prairie, I got a few shots of the smoky hills.

It’s smoky again today, so maybe I’ll get a chance to photograph some actual flames. For now, here are some smoke shots, and I’ll post more later.

Fog in Kansas

Growing up in Kansas, I loved the rare foggy days. The air was still and moist, like a cool kiss. Formless gray where there were usually houses and trees inspired the imagination to wonder what unknown creatures might be hiding in the mist; what mysteries were quietly waiting to be explored.

Later I lived in Eugene, Oregon for a year, and was cured of my love of fog. The daily morning fog near the Willamette River is just as lovely and mysterious as that in Kansas, and its aroma of rotting cedar evoked a walk in wet forest. But as fall wore on into winter, my eyes got hungry for light. Everyone seemed to have bronchitis, and they liked to say that the Native Americans who had formerly lived in the region called this the valley of sickness and death. I don’t recall being ill myself; my only maladies were seasonal affective disorder and a ragingly combative, dysfunctional relationship.

Walking out of that relationship was my biggest achievement up to that time; it was a trial on par with graduating from college. I left Eugene, and there was no question that the place to go was home, which meant the midwest. I had some friends in Chicago. I’d never spent much time there, but the brusque midwestern uptightness of the city felt safely familiar after the hippiefied, enforced easy-goingness of the Pacific northwest, where I’d encountered more discord and conflict than in any other period of my life.

I’ve been in the midwest for twenty years now, in rural Kansas for ten, and I love fog again. I’m still surprised on those rare foggy days, when I step outside, and it doesn’t smell like rotting cedar. I think of those days in Oregon, and I find, if offered the chance to go back there, with the family I have now, I’d say yes in a heartbeart.

Lepidoptera, and Their Cousins

We’ve had spring rains this year, which means that it’s turning out to be a good year for butterflies. They deserve it, after the last two years of extreme heat and drought. In my last post about butterflies, I showed the three I see most commonly; the American lady, the pearl crescent, and the buckeye. I have since confirmed the white lepidopteran shown in that post to be a cabbage white, Pieris rapae.

Since then, I’ve caught a good photo of the other white butterfly who visits the flower garden. This one is similar to the cabbage white, and related, but not altogether the same; that is, the checkered white, Pontia protidice.

The American lady has a cousin who resembles her, whose common name is the red admiral. They are both Vanessas: the lady is Vanessa virginiensis; the admiral is Vanessa atalanta.

When the spectacular great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele, drops in, she’s usually pleased to show off her lovely silver spots.

But I’ve had the most difficulty identifying her cousin, who is much more shy of the camera. I barely get an aim, much less focus, before she’s off to some other bloom, leaving me, far more often than not, with nothing more than a picture of a flower. After perusing at length my antique Nature Library Volume 6, Butterflies, I finally found a picture that matched the bits of wing I managed to get into some of my photos; and learned that the variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, takes her Genus name from the Greek word meaning “easily scared.”

None of these lepidopterans are particularly unusual, or remarkable, as butterflies go; they’re just little bits of the daily miracle that is life here in the Flint Hills, Kansas, on this lush and living planet, Earth.

Kettle of Vultures, Cathartes aura

A group of turkey vultures near Burns, Kansas

A group of turkey vultures near Burns, Kansas

In mid-March I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas briefly, and I saw the first vultures of the year. I pulled off a busy highway to get a look, and they were lazily circling like any turkey vulture would on an ordinary day, though their overall concentration seemed a bit high. But it was late in the day, the typical time for turkey vultures to settle down to roost, and they often converge in favorable places. I concluded that they weren’t just arriving in northern Arkansas, but had arrived there before I did. By the time I got home, they were here too.

But today I took a drive down from Strong City to El Dorado. (Dorado rhymes with tornado, for you non-Kansans.) Just south of Burns I saw a kettle of vultures, and being the Cathartophile that I am, I stopped for pictures;  as I was shooting, another kettle soared on over my head, like the previous one, circling to the north. In the photo above, I count around eighty. That looks like migration behavior, not daily scavenging. It’s three weeks later than I first saw them; however, some vultures migrate thousands of miles, through the Central American isthmus and into South America. We can excuse some of them for being a little late coming back this way.

It was a perfect day for soaring. Looking to the south for any more, I saw a line of billowing clouds on the horizon. Vultures are inefficient at flying, but masters at soaring. A weather front creates ideal updrafts for them to ride.

Turkey vulture has long been important to me, and to see so many in their element thrills me beyond words. Whenever I feel a deep affinity with another creature, I look to its symbolism for messages it might have for me. Ted Andrews says much about vultures. He emphasizes the  importance of action over appearance or words. This is accompanied by an ability to use higher vision to access natural forces. Much can be accomplished with minimal effort. Vulture symbolizes death/rebirth and purification, though it may take three months for the process to be completed. “It [is] a promise that the suffering of the immediate [is] temporary and necessary for a higher purpose [is] at work, even if not understood at the time.”

Let it be so.

A Friend I Never Met

Isabel's chair

My mother-in-law, Pat, told me more than once about an interesting elderly lady who lived near Matfield Green, Kansas. Pat thought I would love Isobel. Naturally I did nothing with that information, and then it was too late. After Isobel passed on, Pat agreed to sort the kitchen and take whatever foods were suitable for the county food pantry. The kids were on spring break from school, so we all went down to help out.

Part of the reason Isobel had so much food stored in her home was that she lived really far out in the country, on a farm, I’d guess more than thirty miles from the nearest grocery store. She canned jellies, salsas, relishes, pickles, and beets. She kept a phenomenal quantity of food in her little kitchen: boxes of pasta, bags of flour and rice, cans of vegetables and juice. We took several boxes to the food pantry, to be redistributed; and we threw out a couple big garbage bags of food that was too long past date.

The house was typically small, about a third of the size of the barn. The chicken coop was bigger than the bedrooms. It looked like it’d been a long time since there had been any domesticated animals there. The outdoor cellar was caved in. The plastic-sheet greenhouse was in tatters, pots strewn about in the weeds.

When I looked at her books, I knew that indeed I would have loved to have known this woman. She read widely, from classics to science, history, art, the Kama Sutra. Charles Dickens shared shelf space with Isabel Allende, Kelly Kindscher, and Crescent Dragonwagon. She had encyclopedias, several dictionaries including Spanish and Latin, three shelves of cookbooks of every style of cooking you could think of, at least one book in Chinese, and a basic physics textbook which had formerly belonged to a man who had been a colleague of my father. We had been asked to keep an eye out for a book on Scottish dancing, which was on loan from a friend at the time of Isobel’s demise. Sorry, Carol, we didn’t see it.

Also typical of rural midwesterners was her propensity to keep old things. When you’re more than a day’s walk from the nearest store, it’s the middle of winter and you have no way of knowing if the money will hold out until spring, repairing that old broken chair in the barn might seem a lot more appealing than going all the way to town to buy a new one. So keep the broken chair, in case that happens.

But what a life it was, and what a person she must have been, living with a degree of self-sufficiency rarely dreamt of today; in a place where human activity is miniscule compared to the enormity of the prairie; yet still she was willing to expose her mind to the diversity and richness of human culture and experience.

If friends can be apart for long periods and still call one another friend, can we extend that boundary a bit farther, to those whom we haven’t met, but surely would greatly enjoy if we did? I think I will. Goodbye, Isobel, and happy travels, wherever you are, my friend whom I never met.

Hurricane Sandy Reaches Kansas

Weather here is typical for February, dreary and cold.

Weather here is typical for February, dreary and cold.

How big was the destruction caused by hurricane Sandy? This Kansas girl got a lesson in scale today.

There’s a man staying here at the Prairie Fire Inn and Spa who is bartering his room for labor. One of the jobs I’ve asked him to look at will require replacing some rotten wood on the exterior of one of the buildings. He says it’ll take about sixty feet of 1″x8″ wood.

I called Shep at the local lumberyard and asked him to deliver the wood, since we don’t have a truck. He said he was all out and would call me on Friday when it came in. Hadn’t heard from him on Tuesday, so I called again. The shipment had never arrived, but it was promised for tomorrow.

It turns out that the regional mills are sending 85% of the wood they mill to the Northeast, to rebuild after Sandy. 15% is remaining in the Midwest. When the shipment arrives, most of it will be spoken for by people on Shep’s waiting list, including myself.

How big was the destruction caused by hurricane Sandy? It was so big that, three months later and 1300 miles away, building materials are scarce.

We are living in interesting times, don’t you think?

It'll have to wait.

It’ll have to wait.

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