Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The #Midwessay: Elizabeth Dodd, The Kansas Essay


The Kansas Essay

Elizabeth Dodd


In the last millennium, the essayist Scott Russell Sanders sent me an email, asking me to go ask my students whether they felt Kansas was in the Midwest. This was in the days he was working on his book Writing From the Center, and he was interested in our opinions. Well, sure! I told him (as I remember it) that cartographically speaking we were obviously in the middle—the geographic center of the contiguous states was a morning’s drive from where I live. As far as I—back then a fairly recent transplant—was concerned, if you have to use center pivot irrigation, mining fossil water for a cash crop, you’re in the West. That’s much of Kansas. So, put them together and we’re spot-on Mid-West. The students said, yes, they lived in the Midwest. (I still felt I’d moved to the West; there was a dust storm the month after my arrival.)
     This month we’ve felt positively Arctic. A wonderful online gizmo-whizzy called The Wind Map shows wind speeds and directions, pouring and pooling and purling across the continent, in just two simple tones: slaty background, smoky wind. It’s like visual white noise. You can watch it and feel your own breath relax under your shoulders—ujjaaaaayiii—look at the slow, controlled pulse of those currents, like watching a waterfall in slow motion, or tiny rootlets growing in super-fast speed, or maybe—but not creepily—hair growing into so many fond cowlicks and waves. Or maybe you’d think of Phillip Pullman’s Dust—all the dark energy in this universe that loves our souls. Right now while I’m watching, Kansas is (weirdly) a mostly-still-calm-place, while cold winds from Lake Erie seem to be funneling (also weirdly) west and south, but then roughly between Wichita and east to the Missouri border the winds bank and turn and wham, they’re all walloping Texas and its isolationist power grid. This is a look I’ve never seen on the Wind Map. 
     Recently those north winds plunged straight south from beyond the 49th Parallel, a north-south line from Canada to the Gulf. Temperatures plunged, too, the coldest here I remember—twenty degrees below zero. The Asks on the mutual aid Zuckerbuckpagegroup I follow blew up, too—so by mid-morning we were loading my huge camping cask of water and a space heater to go deliver to some stranger with frozen pipes. Twenty Below and the cedar waxwings, who breed all across Canada north of The Wind Map’s silhouette edge, converged on the deck. Two heated birdbaths, steaming their tiny microclimates of warm air, and the winter migrants clustered around their rims, gulping down water like hot soup (which, given the speed of their poop deposition, it might have been). Twenty Below. Summers are hot but I’ve yet to see them hit 120 F. Once, 113, when I was riding my bike home from work. Another, 114—and that summer it never dropped below 100 for two solid weeks. 
     See, Kansas is extremist county. It’s been such a reliable Republican stronghold that even a lightweight squinchheart like Roger Marshall, a doctor who said poor people don’t want healthcare, can cruise to a Senate seat on a current of PACbucks. Both our senators’ votes to acquit tRump were no less shameful for their predictability. But we also have a different history. In the turbulence after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, John Brown made the long trip from upstate New York to Osawatomie, burying a child dead of fever somewhere along the way, in Missouri. Kansas rejected slavery, despite anti-abolitionist domestic terrorism; stops on the Underground Railroad that spirited escapees northward appeared as far west as Topeka and Manhattan. According to historian Henry Littlefield, our Progressive history is even encoded in The Wizard of Oz, with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow uniting in a personified, late 19th-century Labor front. It was a senator from Kansas, Joseph Bristow, who in 1912 introduced a resolution that led to the 17th Amendment and the direct election of senators. Twice, in the worst of those black-blizzard, Dust Bowl years, the state threw its electoral votes (nine then, compared to the six we have now) to Franklin D. Roosevelt. There are even some progressive political outcomes in this century, despite the tRump banners still, even today, spitefully whipping the general sunshine. In 2007, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied permits to build three huge coal power plants, specifically citing “the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health,”—yes, that really happened—and in 2018, in the Third District elected Representative Sharice Davids, the first openly LGBT Native American to serve in Congress. 
     We worry these days about the various assaults on truth; the farcical offering of “alternative facts.” But facts are still there, sure as the limestone laid down from the mid-continent sea of the Cretaceous period. (Maybe reservoir is the wrong word—is deposition better?) You wouldn’t know it from the gassy word fog of our senators, but Kansas has deep reservoirs of facts, and there’s really nothing unique about Kansas in this regard. What is unique is the particulars, which always precipitate out from the changing currents of the moment. Facts stay behind, ready for us to pay attention. The great thing about essays—one of them, anyway—is that they’re not an extractive industry. They’re regenerative and renewing. You don’t have to stake an Essayist’s Claim and defend it at gunpoint to enjoy the richness of facts. Please, come—from any direction—come and join in.  


A transplant from southern Ohio, Elizabeth Dodd has lived for three decades in Manhattan, Kansas where she teaches at Kansas State University. The author of two poetry collections and three of essays, most recently Horizon's Lens, from University of Nebraska Press. With Simmons Buntin and Derek Sheffield, she is co-editor of Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, from Trinity University Press. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Terrain.org. 

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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