Thursday, November 29, 2012

Roots of the Tall Grass Prairie: Kitty, age 54

After spending an evening with a group whose focus is to preserve the Flint Hills, I decided that is is important to paint a portrait of who we are.......the people who were birthed, breathed and struggled through a lifetime in this most unusual place.  This is not a place where exotic flowers bloom in a generous environment but rather a place where tiny, scrappy flowers push through the flint rock and endure generations of harshness.  Each of us is a strand of the deep roots of the tall grass.  In order to protect our prairie we will need to be aware of each other's strength and be wary of those bringing plows.

Kitty, age 54
Born:  Emporia, Kansas
Generations in the Flint Hills:  I am fifth generation.

Early life:  in El Dorado, Kansas - site of the great oil boom of the 1930's.  My dad came out of the military in the 1950's to a good job as an electrician at the oil refinery in El Dorado.  He was from the Greenwood County area.  My grandfather worked in the oil fields and as a horse trainer; transient type work.  My grandmother graduated from what is now Emporia State University.  Everyone was greatly relieved when my grandfather agreed to marry her as she was nearly an old maid!  She never worked outside the home.  My maternal grandparents worked in highway construction, moved constantly and divorced regularly.  As a child I lived in a new home outside of El Dorado near the lakes.

Any awareness of the Flint Hills as a child?  Little.  I was fascinated with the flowers that grew in the ditches on our gravel road.  It was nearly impossible to ride a bicycle with the flint rock gravel, steep hills and wind.  I tried to grow my own flower garden as a child and only bachelor buttons could survive.  There were no trees on our property of ten acres.

Early adulthood:  We bought ten acres and a house and moved in with our three year old and baby.  We still live in the same home today.  My husband initially wanted to buy a place with a running creek but those are very rare here.  He was ecstatic to find this place which had three man-made ponds formerly used for a fishery.  He neglected to take into consideration the fact that the house had no (at least not affordable) source of heat, no air conditioning, no trash service and most significant:  no water source.  We hauled water in 500 gallon loads (two loads per week) from eight miles away - each week for ten years before coming up with the money to hook into the nearest rural water system.  We have no neighbors in any direction for at least one mile and are mostly surrounded by working ranch land.  The pastures are burned in April and within a few days the transient cattle arrive by semi truck to spend the summer fattening on the grassland.  They are shipped out in late August.  We have nothing to do with ranching or farming other than living in the center of it.

Later, after my mom married my step-dad, he liked to take long drives through the back roads of the Flint Hills.  He took us for a day playing in the riffles at Cedar Point.  He had a special secret place to gather spring water, marked only by a bucket on a fence post if you knew the exact place to look.  He took my children "hunting" for mushrooms, prairie chickens and pheasants.  I put hunting in quotes because you can imagine that any wild game was very aware of a man walking through the open prairie followed by two noisy children, a big white dog and two cats.  Each time we drove to their house, I would have quiet time in the car to just breathe in the Flint Hills as we drove the Kansas Turnpike.  I thought of the native Americans who loved this place and knew how to care for it and the settler families that followed; struggling just like we do today.

Middle Adulthood:  It's very difficult to stay financially afloat here.  My husband is a carpenter by trade and has always been able to work.  But my degree and interests are in economics and there are few opportunities here.  My choices for work usually center around clerical work at low wages which does not contribute to our financial picture when I figure in the costs of my 20 mile commute.  I always wanted to find a way for us to get out of this area - to move into a larger city where the wages were better and my chances of finding work were greatly improved.  A place where your car isn't covered in mud or dust, where you don't need all your vehicles to be four wheel drive with six ply tires; where trash is picked up from your curb each week; where you can run to the store and get buttermilk or chocolate chips within a few minutes; where you could work part-time and be home to start dinner.  My husband and children both flatly refuse to leave and always have.  They love this place and this lifestyle.  I've been odd man out, out-voted any time I talked of the opportunities we could have elsewhere.

In the past five years, I've slowed down enough to let the Flint Hills sink in around me; to know that even though its been extremely tough to live here, the rewards are great.  My great, great grandparents came here at the time Kansas was declaring statehood.  I remember my grandma keeping meat without refrigeration, washing dishes in a teacup of water and making craft supplies for us from brown paper bags.  She lived in a horse trailer during points of her life.  If she did it for us, then I can do it for my own children and grandchildren.   There is something here bigger than I can wrap my thoughts around and my family needs it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this post. I was born in Emporia, moved to KC as a girl, spent two years in Wichita. As a young woman, I moved to Montana for nearly a decade (all my daughters were born there) because I wanted "wide open spaces." Today, when we drive through the Flint Hills, I'm often reminded of Montana and have to laugh at myself for initially moving so far away, when the land I was after was so close to home.