Thursday, March 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: Lisa D. Stewart, Kansas Rises

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 Low, Kansas Coordinator.


Kansas Rises

Lisa D. Stewart

It was a dry, blue noon in Miami County, Kansas, four days into my solo trek through Kansas on my horse, Chief. West 343rd Road, south of Louisburg, pointed us east. As hours passed, our gravel road softened, narrowed, and grew a young beard in its center as if it had slept late and lazed ungroomed between the fields. The world seemed higher and lighter. A shelf of rock beneath us was taking the breath of a lifetime, lifting us toward the sky.
     We rode an escarpment of limestone, the distillation of millions of years of sea life dying, sinking, layering, absorbing, and eventually turning to stone. Over the course of three-hundred-million years, that mud became lane shale on the edge of a sea that lapped here once. Meanwhile, the earth’s crust pitched upward at the speed at which I seemed to be learning what to do with my life. Between the layers of shale are thick slabs of Wyandotte limestone that tilt toward the surface like a raft on a wave, that for all we know, still is rising. 
     The wind that now was on a tear, had, over time, eroded the shale from the south and west, leaving high ridges of limestone, later blanketed with soil that supported bison and Osage Indians, 18th-century vintners, and now, us. Today, Chief and I had climbed the back of what formally is known as an Osage Questa, one in a series rising just west of 69 Highway south of Kansas City that nobody notices from their auto-bubbles. Chief and I stood on this crest overlooking Missouri, where thousands of men and women died to free slaves, or to keep them enslaved on this Civil War border between abolitionist Kansas and Confederate Missouri. (Today’s urban shootings here seem surgical in comparison to border-war times.) The wind seemed to be shaking us free of what made sense, and we became content simply to hold our hats, right ourselves, scan the horizon, and thrill at the thought of a drink and a snack in town.
     If that on which I stood were once as soft as silt, then hard as rock, then worn away by wind—I could be, too? I had been silt-like when I was a girl. At 54, my neck and shoulders were brittle. Yet, here I was, my body almost blowing away, the wind shaking me to my senses. What sense? The common sense I’d worked all my life to acquire? As a girl, I was sense, neither common nor good.  I loved to run, to swim, to wrap my arms around my horse’s neck. I loved to practice my trombone for hours—to double-tongue, triple-tongue. At 18, I did not know how to walk (or ride) away on my own.  Thirty years later, the original girl neared extinction, like the wild grapes we were farming away.  
     My own disbelief at having ridden away from my home seemed to be raising a white flag to the wind’s insistence that nothing in the world mattered but this road and what held it up. I led Chief to the middle of the road. Chief waited. I grasped his mane and hopped up.  e let me find my off-side stirrup, and he began to walk.

(from The Big Quiet: One Woman’s Horseback Ride Home, Meadowlark Books, 2020 


Lisa D. Stewart is a commercial writer and business consultant in Kansas City. Her first book, The Big Quiet—One Woman’s Horseback Ride Home was published in June of 2020 by Meadowlark Books. She is the author of more than one hundred journal articles in the equine industry and other business segments. She lives with her husband, Robert Stewart, editor emeritus of UMKC’s New Letters magazine, her horse, Chief, and dog, Paddy.

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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