Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The #Midwessay: Kathryn Jankus Day, Becoming Midwestern

Becoming Midwestern

Kathryn Jankus Day


When I was a child living in Pennsylvania, my grandfather would talk about his childhood in the middle of the country. In those days, there were still cowboys and shootouts and it sounded far, far away.  Pennsylvania was fine by me. But, then, in 1988, I made my first trip to western Kansas. All those proper east coast manners had a shock. People did not put on airs, or not the high-falooten kind. I remembered my parents saying that so-and-so was "the salt of the earth". It never made much sense until I got out to where the earth is wide and met the people who live there. A few of them had fun with my east coast innocence.
     For instance, Terry, having sold a colt that I liked, advised me how I could buy him back by going to the sale barn. "Now, you will need to talk to Roy, but you won't know who he is, so look for the man who has a big belt buckle with the name Roy on it".
     Now, I live in N.W. Kansas. The weather is like climbing a switchback road: hard winds, hail, drought, below zero cold snaps. Farm life is demanding, but the people are refined—not like the ones who show up at an elegant cocktail party, but like the refining work of a fire burning off imperfections. Kindness is in fashion. Helpfulness is a requirement. And humor is endless.
     "How are you today?"
     "Well, my wife says I'm better than nothing."


Kathryn Jankus Day’s award-winning paintings have been exhibited in a number of galleries and shows in both Europe and the United States. Her work has been featured both as book covers and as illustrations. She is represented by the Strecker-Nelson Gallery. Day divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Ludell, Kansas, where she has a studio. She earned a B.A. in Art History from Washington College.

Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
     In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
     All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
     Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
     No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story. Denise LowKansas Coordinator.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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