Monday, June 18, 2007

Hometurf War Averted

Yesterday I thought I was going to to speak.

It started innocently enough. Yesterday morning, Prairiewolf casually asked me why I wasn't worrying about the goathead plants that were cropping up in the yard, especially over by the dog kennels.

I asked, "What goatheads? I haven't seen any goatheads." (For those of you not familiar with these formidable plants, they are insignificant in appearance but produce a small, strongly thorned seedhead capable of doing significant damage to feet, bicycle tires and even car and truck tires. They are NOT a plant that I want increasing the biodiversity of my yard.)

He replied, "Those plants with the tiny purple flowers. They haven't formed their seed heads yet, but they're goatheads."

"Hmmm. Okay. I never paid attention to what the plant looked like. I've just cussed them out when I've stumbled into them before."

"Oh, yeah, that's them. I can remember my younger brother getting stuck in a 10' wide patch of them when we had just moved out to the campground."

"Well, we'd better get busy then. Let's try pulling them, then switch to Roundup if that doesn't work."

So that was our plan of action. It briefly flashed through my mind that I ought to doublecheck Prairiewolf's identification, but no, he's the Kansas country boy and he's usually very good about plant and animal identifications. I spent 45 minutes pulling the purple flowered plant (and a few other weeds), then we both went back out later yesterday and spent another 30 minutes pulling a bunch more.

This morning I was planning on starting to work on the front flower bed, but noticed several large patches of the infamous plant in the driveway when I went out to get my tools. That led to 2 hours of concentrated weeding in the gravel, until my fingers got so sore that I had to quit. The entire time I worked, I mulled over the post that I would make. "The Goathead Wars Commence" was my working title.

Once I got inside, showered, and poured myself some water, I sat down to start writing. I started out by googling "goathead" to see what I could find out about the plant's origins and biology.

Imagine my surprise when my prewar intelligence turned out to be totally false. The flowers on goatheads are yellow, the leaves are dark green and they rather flatly arranged opposite each other on the vines, which are up to 3' in length. None of the pictures or descriptions matched my infamous enemy, as previously identified.

I called Prairiewolf at work.

"Well, I know they are a sticker of some sort. Maybe they are sandburs," he said.

I googled "sandbur". No dice. It's a grass, and the mystery purple-flowered plant obviously is not.

I tried googling various combinations of small purple-flowered weed in Kansas, but nothing showed up. I tried looking in some of my Kansas wildflower books. I found the thistles I've been wondering about, but not my mystery plant. It looks like a weedy verbena, but I'll have to chase it further.

So I've declared a truce for now, while I try to figure out what this plant is. Until I see it seed out, I'm not willing to declare it a noncombatant, but full out maneuvers against it have been called off.

Thanks goodness I was able to find the good sense to check my facts, and the moral courage to change my plan of action when my original understanding proved unnecessary war averted.

P.S. As an act of contrition, Prairiewolf did a more thorough google search than I had done and found the plant's identity: Verbena bracteata, prostrate vervain. It does not form a sticker. It does, however, live in very much the same habitat as the notorious goathead, probably leading to his confusion as a boy.

Prairiewolf also wants me to let everyone know that we managed all of this without any people being accidentally shot, in the face or otherwise.

The goathead war has been cancelled for lack of a true enemy. Wouldn't it be nice if we were certain of all our important facts before we started real wars?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Twilight Circlings

Since Prairiewolf isn't feeling well tonight, I took our 5 month old setter pup out for a walk around the yard this evening, circling it 6 times at twilight. (I have slight hopes of sleeping through the night. He took in way more water than he put out.)

It was beautiful. The sky was a dusky turquoise lightening towards gold and mauve near the western horizon. The leaves of the cottonwoods and willows were darkly silhouetted against the remaining light, with a sliver of a moon peaking in and out as I moved around.

Completing the mid-June scene were hundreds of fireflies dancing above the grass. They started out dispersed throughout the yard. By the time I went inside, most seemed to have moved into the swale where they formed an early sparkler show. Magic for my memory.

Friday, June 15, 2007


This past winter, as I sat in an empty house adjusting to our return to the prairie from the longleaf pine forest of the deep south, it became important to me to reacquaint myself with my new surroundings.

I researched our new community, learning the outline of its history.

I read Dying and Living on the Kansas Prairie, by Carol Brunner Rutledge - a diary of the last 3 months of Rutledge's mother's life and how the Kansas landscape supported and comforted her as she drove back and forth from her home to her mother's side.

I visited the local arboretums. Prairiewolf and I took trips through the surrounding counties.

And I read PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon, a pointillistic word picture of Chase County, the heart of the tall grass prairie of the Flint Hills. PrairyErth is a long book . Reading it from cover to cover stretched out over weeks, given the short, before-sleep time slot I generally allot to reading books these days. It might not have been the most gripping book I've ever read, but it was sure fascinating and thought-provoking and full of images that transported me mentally through both time and space.

"...a wind blowing steadily as if out of the lungs of the universe." (p. 12)

"What I cherish I've come to slowly, usually blindly, not seeing it for some time...." (p. 81)

"On a rare day of near windlessness, I am sitting on a ridge.... Unlike a forest, a grassland lets sound carry, and I can count distant prairie voices: a harrier, a meadowlark, an upland plover. Each calls in plaintive phrases as if it admitted the prairie solitude into its notes. When the air does move, it pulls from the bending grass around me a soft outrush like a deep breath slowly vented, the wind giving voice to the grass, and it lending a face to the wind." (p. 201)

"The American forgetfulness. A person or people who cannot recollect their past have little point beyond mere animal existence: it is memory that makes things matter." (p. 266)

"A couple of days ago a man in Cottonwood said to me, Nothing happens anymore in Cedar Pointless. For years I've made a practice of seeing 'nothing' because I believe the American idea of 'something' usually ends up harming our perceptions and use of the land." (p.485)

"It wasn't really so much of a windy day as a day of a hundred winds: puffs, huffs, wafts, drafts, soughs, and murmurs." (p. 593)

Those are just a few of the many lines and quotes that I highlighted as I read. (Did you notice the importance of the wind?! This IS a prairie we're talking about, after all!)

The hardest chapter to get through was a series of excerpts from various historical documents and letters chronicling, in the settlers' own words, the treatment of the Kansa (Kaw) Indians by the white European settlers from 1802 to 1872, when the Kansa were forcibly required to give up what was left of their land and moved to Oklahoma. (Kansas gets its name from this same tribe of Native Americans, an extremely ironic fact given how this tribe was treated.)

Historical vignettes, biographies, wonderful collections of quotes, geography, natural history of the plants and animals, recollections of current countians, inventory lists, and old scandals. There is something for everyone here, and in the process a unique portrait of a unique county in a unique landscape emerges.

Questions About the Job We're Doing Raising Our Kids

Barbara Kingsolver, an author that I've greatly enjoyed in the past, has written a new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's rather drastic move to a small farm where they have tried to eat locally and produce as much of their own food as possible. I haven't read the book yet (although I'm planning to), but I've read several reviews that have intrigued me enough to put it on my "to read soon" pile.

The most recent review I read contained the following statement by Kingsolver, "The worst thing you can do for your species is raise helpless offspring. And our society is doing that. We've convinced ourselves that being able to manage a Web site is more important than knowing how to grow food or cook it." ("The New Frontier," Rebecca Barry, More, May 2007, p.42.)

That statement is both appealing to me and repellant to me. (For the sake of this post, I am assuming she was quoted accurately.)

The statement appeals to me because I do feel that it is extremely important for all humans to know how to grow and cook their own food, as well as to know many other practical skills. I also feel that it is extremely important that we all know and understand the biological principles behind healthy food and about our position within a (hopefully healthy) ecosystem. Raising competent, knowledgeable offspring is extremely important for the survival of any species. It only takes a generation or two or three for competence and knowledge to be lost, sometimes irretrievably.

On the repellant side, one of my problems with the statement is the concept of "helpless." What constitutes "helpless"? Is "helpless" different in our modern society than in a more primitive society? And what should constitute "competent, knowledgeable"? I know that our definitions of "helpless" are different for our own society than they would be for a "less advanced" society. Should those definitions be different and, if so, in what ways?

However, the biggest problem I have with Kingsolver's statement is the designation "the worst". Is raising helpless offspring "the worst" thing one can do for one's species? It's certainly bad, but is it "the worst"? What would be worse than that?

For some reason that I can't quite fathom, this is bugging me. I've rewritten this post several times, often being drawn into elaborate arguments with myself regarding the above questions, but I think I'm just going to put the questions out into the blogosphere.

Any ideas or thoughts, anyone?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

"It's a Wonderful Life"

Since returning to the Wichita area, I've started glancing through the obituaries every time I read a paper. I think it's because, for the first time, I have a chance of actually knowing one of these people from earlier in my life.

As I've worked on my family's history over the years, I've found that what I'm most interested in knowing about someone who lived before me is who they really were - What kind of person were they? What did they enjoy doing? What impact did they have on the lives around them? Would I have enjoyed knowing them? The dates and facts are good frameworks, but they tell me little about who this person really was.

So as I'm reading the community obituaries now, I look at them through my family history filter: What does this obituary tell me about the person who has died, not just as a family member, but also as a person?

It's fascinating. Some people have wonderful obituaries, while others are simply dry recitations of relatives or factual information about their life, and far too many are simply brief, often legal-type announcements.

While today's paper wasn't the most exciting for obituary notices, it did contain a fair variety, including a few that particularly caught my attention.

There was a probable classmate of mine and my brother-in-law's from high school. I didn't know this individual well at all, but it's always a little sobering when anyone you've known dies, especially if they are a similar age to you. The obituary was very brief, although it did tell me age, date of death, occupation, where the services would be, and that someone in the family was very religious.

Another gentleman who passed away was noted for being part of the team that prepared the Enola Gay for its famous mission in WWII. What must it have been like to have been a part of that mission, even simply as ground crew? Did he ever question his role in history? This man enjoyed model railroads and RVing and was married for 65 years, with several children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Another woman's notice brought a smile to my face. While she was generously lauded as "...fill[ing] her family and friends' lives with love, kindness, and compassion...," it was the following statement that made her life begin to come alive for me, "She was the third youngest born to a family of five boys and at an early age became quite skilled in cooking, sewing, and dealing with her brotherly pranks. She became her brothers' object of affectionate teasing and loved them so...." "She will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her." I'll bet that's very true.

There was a picture and a brief notice for a retired school teacher who reached the ripe old age of 98. What must she have seen during her life? Amazingly, the obituary states that she is survived by her husband. Assuming that he's anywhere near to her age, that's an incredible accomplishment in and of itself.

Sales people; several homemakers/community volunteers; an aircraft upholsterer, quilter/crocheter, and antique collector; company owners and businessmen; an electrical contractor; a jack-of-all-trades; a school teacher; an aircraft mechanic; a meat packer; an Air Force sergeant; and a former sheriff's officer. What a fascinating cross-section of lives and personal histories.

However, the obituary in today's paper that most captured my imagination was for the man that I labeled as a "jack-of-all-trades" in the occupation list above, although I meant that in a very positive sense. Perhaps I should have said free spirit or "Renaissance Man," but labels are notoriously stereotypical and it's hard to find an appropriate one when I only met this man through his obituary. He was born in 1954 and when he originally went to college, he "experimented in theater productions and majored in psychology. However, his near-encyclopedic musical knowledge and interest, considerable vocal and instrumental talents and a romatic sense of wanderlust led him in the mid-70's to emulate his musical hero, Jimmie Rodgers. Armed only with his guitar and a backpack, he hitchhiked, 'rode the rails' and buskered his way throughout the western United States,..." Later he served in the Army, notably during the Grenada campaign, and returned eventually to Wichita where he finally finished his degree in 1991 and then worked at a variety of jobs. "[He] will be missed by the large extended family of people he befriended, both in Wichita and around the country, and by the many animals he rescued and loved." His was obviously not a conventional life, but it sounds like a rich one.

As each of us goes through life, we leave a legacy, intended or otherwise, behind us. Our own personal version of It's a Wonderful Life. What waves, rippling out from our lives, have touched others' lives? What will our descendants know of us - assuming that we have any descendants - and what will they think of what they know? Have we made the world better for our having been here - or at least more interesting? People have been wrestling with these questions as long as they've been self-aware. The questions are unanswerable, for the most part, but they still intrigue me and, in many ways, fuel my interest in family history.

"The world's a stage..." What a fascinating production we're all involved in.

So Is It Nature or Nurture?

Prairiewolf and I have a long-standing, unresolved "argument" with some of our best, oldest friends about which is more important in the development of children: nature or nurture. We've had some wonderful, wine-fueled discussions about the subject, often lasting late into the night.

I had an experience yesterday that amused me and seemed to fall into the nature vs. nurture category...although I can't say with any certainty which side it supports.

Mom asked me to meet her at Lenscrafters to help her pick which frame, out of two she had narrowed her choices down to the day before, fit her face the best. The frames were actually identical, except for color.

When I saw them on her face, there was no contest. The lighter, more gold-toned one looked better.

We chatted a bit, then suddenly she asked which frames I had. These are fairly new glasses - only about 6 months old and I bought them at a Lenscrafters in Mobile - but I couldn't remember what brand or color they were, so we looked inside the legs at the identifying marks. Imagine our amusement when we realized that, out of the several hundred frames available, she had just picked the exact same frame in the exact same color that I have.

Nature? (That frame just looks the best on our face shape, with our coloring.)

Or nurture? (After all, she was the person who first taught me when something looked good or didn't. Our tastes aren't identical, but they are fairly similar.)

Even in this little vignette, I can't tell which is the more powerful force, but it sure is fun to speculate.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Windy Days and Windy Nights

The wind has been whipping for the last 2 days. Looking on Weather Underground, it was averaging 36-44 mph yesterday. Those were tropical storm force winds, but there was nary a stormcloud in sight. It's a little calmer today, with speeds of 20-30 mph being regularly recorded.

For years I would get upset about the prairie winds. They made gardening difficult, drying out the soil, drying out plant roots, drying out newly transplanted plants. They made housework difficult, bringing dirt and dust into the house with great efficiency. They yanked car doors and house doors out of my hands, blowing them open or blowing them shut with great force. They made walking and talking outdoors difficult. They grabbed dropped papers and deposited them yards away in a blink of an eye...and kept depositing them farther and farther away, the more you chased after them. And they made looking neat, with well-groomed hair, almost impossible.

Then we moved to Mobile. The air sits still there, full of humidity. At 70 degrees you feel like you are swimming through water. Sweat doesn't get dried off and blown away, it pools on your skin, adding to the heat rather than subtracting from it. When you pull a weed out and place it on the ground, you have to be careful or it will reroot because it takes days for the roots to dry out, if they ever do. For weeks I would feel like I never truly got dry.

So I missed the wind. Oddly enough, it was one of the things that I missed most about the prairie - that, and the enormous vistas and the sunsets and the sight of thunderstorms rolling in across the vast expanses.

Now when the wind blows, I smile a bit. It still makes a mockery of my attempts to keep my hair tidy. It still distributes dirt and dust into every nook and cranny of my house, despite my best efforts to keep things clean. It still sucks the moisture out of plant roots and leaves and skin and soil. And it still blows papers into the next county before you can turn around.

But it feels alive. And fresh. And invigorating. And I think that I will always carry with me, now, a secret glory in its very strength and wildness.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The "Unpacking a Packrat" Blues

Prairiewolf and I have decided that this week is to be devoted to unpacking, organizing, stowing stuff, and generally trying to do the final "fit" into our new digs. We reached the functional stage of settling in about a week after the furniture arrived - dishes in the kitchen cupboards, clothes to wear hanging in the closets, towels to use in the bathrooms, furniture generally in place. Now it's time to unpack and organize the books and to find places for family history pieces, Christmas decorations, empty stereo boxes, extra linens and towels, gardening supplies, tools, my old shell collection from Panama, and all the other detritus of living for over 50 years and being married for more than 30 of them.

Learning to deal with "stuff" must be part of my life's work this time around. Despite the fact that we had horrible packers on this move, our things seem to have arrived relatively intact. Packers are supposed to put aside and not pack any flammables that they find. However, as I've unpacked, I've found dozens of items that could easily have ignited during moving or storage (boxes of matches, a butane lighter filled with butane, flammable spray cans, for example), yet that didn't happen. Obviously I'm not meant to get out of my "stuff" dilemmas that easily.

I soundly descend from a proud family of packrats, a condition that I've come to believe is wired - or not - into one's genetic structure.

After my grandmother died, I went down to help deal with the remnants of her life that my grandfather did not want to have around anymore. It was incredible. She had shelves around the ceiling in her rooms, full of books. There were shelves in her closet, two shelves deep, floor to ceiling on either side. Stuff was stored under the couch, behind the couch, under the bed, in the storage room. All of it was tidy and very neatly organized, so you never really realized how much stuff was stashed away while she was alive. There was every letter anyone had ever written to her or to my grandfather, books of all sorts, years of National & International Wildlife magazines, knick knacks and artwork from their years spent overseas, sewing supplies, and ... Stuff. My grandmother saved the waxed paper from inside cereal boxes, neatly folded and stored. She saved every styrofoam tray that came her way. Every rubber band. Every TV dinner tray. As a newly married minister's wife during the Depression and later as a missionary's wife, she felt that some day she might need all these things.

My grandmother's youngest sister was even more of a packrat. She lived with her mother, and later her other sister, in a 3 room apartment in New York City. When I last saw this apartment - my great aunt must have been in her early 60's - there was just a small path through towering piles of magazines and newspapers in the only bedroom. The kitchen was tiny and crowded, but still functional. The front room was beginning to fill up with stuff too. I understand that eventually only the kitchen and bathroom were navigable.

Then there's my father. Suffice it to say that the packrat gene is alive and well and running rampant through his life and his house.

So I come by my hoarding instincts honestly, but that doesn't make them any easier to deal with.

Now, as we settle into our new home, I'm ready to buck the trend of my genetics and downsize to fit the house and streamline our lives. There are several big boxes filling rapidly with things that I can't fit in and don't see the need to keep. It's a start, but I need to do even more.

Yesterday's unpacking included lamps, lamp shades, extension cords, books, more towels, Christmas decorations, empty picture frames, and office supplies, to summarize the main categories. What will today unveil?

So often we are our own worst enemies!

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Ray of Hope

Counterbalancing my frustration with watching the citizens of this country slide into a lethargy where only sports and enslaving consumerism seem to matter, I read a magazine article the other day that has left me with a persistent ray of hope for the future.

Earlier this spring, as I was battling boredom and house repairs, I succumbed to an ad for a (new-to-me) magazine called Ode. Ode describes itself as being aimed at "intelligent optimists." While I often find myself being pessimistic, I'd much rather find ways and reasons to see the glass as half full, so I was ripe for their advertising copy.

The first 2 issues have come, and I'm really enjoying this magazine. One article in the May 2007 issue particularly captured my attention. It was by Paul Hawken and was titled "The Instinct to Save the Planet." In it, Hawken describes a worldwide, grassroots movement that he's become aware of which consists of small groups of people banding together to try to heal "...the effects of political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation." He notes that while this movement is huge, it is amorphous and has no name, no overarching structure, and no underlying "-ism."

A metaphor he uses that seems particularly apt is to see these small groups of people as humanity's immune response to the planet's " disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change."

Hawken has launched an open source network,, to help connect the groups that make up this movement throughout the world. He is also launching a "sister" databank of responsible companies,, to encourage corporate social responsibility and to help people find socially responsible businesses within their own communities. That second site seems to still be under construction, but I'm excited about its potential. A third site is planned, based on the governmental sector, to be titled WiserGovernment.

This same issue of Ode had another article, "The Power of Many" by Marco Visscher, that crystallized for me some concepts about wikis and the current "bottom-up" participatory movements, which the internet is especially allowing and mediating these days. Our son, Qkslvrwolf, has been trying to communicate the value of wikis and open source, participatory computer culture to us for quite some time now. This article finally helped me understand why he's been so optimistic.

As has so often been noted, change doesn't occur when people feel content and happy, but when they feel threatened and at risk. These two articles (and, indeed, this magazine in general) have given me a sliver of light in times that have seemed increasingly dark to me. It's wonderful to have specific legs under my vague feelings of hope that things just have to get better.

United We Stand

My topic in this post invites the use of cliche. "United we stand, divided we fall." "A house divided against itself cannot stand." You get the picture.

Cliche or not, I've noticed a trend that is really starting to eat away at me. Most of us in this country have to work to make a living. We may work as day laborers, college professors, construction workers, lawyers, homemakers, plumbers, executive assistants, stock brokers, or whatever, but we have to work to pay bills, to put food on the table and to have a roof over our heads.

The working people of this nation are allowing themselves to be divided against each other, which is only going to result in poorer pay, longer hours, and less security for all of us. And the new uber-rich aristocracy will be laughing all the way to the bank and back home again, in their brand new cars that cost more than many of us make in a year.

I'm seeing fault lines worsening between races, between religious groups, between ethnic groups. Folks, we're all in this together, and if we allow ourselves to give in and fight among ourselves, we'll be heading even faster back to the days when most of humanity could barely feed itself, while a few privileged ones lived in castles and believed in their divine superiority.

It's time to wake up and realize that humans have always advanced best when they've worked together for common goals, not allowed themselves to fall into petty squabbling. Which religion, if any, one believes in is not as important as treating others as you would like to be treated (a truth found in basically all religions) and as working to make the world a better, more just and loving place. Which race one belongs to is not as important as treating all races, your own and others, fairly and justly and with respect for the humanity which is in all of us. Which ethnic group one belongs to is not as important as understanding that we are all basically trying to find health and happiness and security, and as working together so that we can all achieve our goals.

If I blame someone else for my problems, I don't solve those problems. In fact, if I keep myself busy worrying about what a victim I am, often I make no effort to solve my problems at all.

As American citizens who work to earn a living, let's quit blaming each other for our problems and work together for livable wages, decent housing, affordable (better public?) transportation, good schooling, civil public discourse, and any other amenity that would make life in this country healthier and more supportive of its citizens. Let's be proud of our work, because it gives us satisfaction and a sense of purpose in life. Let's lead by example, and quit trying to raise ourselves by undercutting others. Let's start being the postive, involved citizens who've made this country great over the years.

We can do it. And it we don't want to lose our country and all it stands for, we have to do it. It's time.