The Story of Kansas

December 13, 2011

Love of the land connects Kansans

“The high plains at first gave him an overpowering impression of emptiness. Never before had he beheld such a sky — the cosmic vault of blue appeared to occupy a good three-fourths of the world, making small and unimportant the scattered farm houses with their meager clumps of ragged trees and inevitable windmills. But though the vastness at first oppressed him, eventually it distilled in him a sensation of fetterless freedom which he grew to love almost jubilantly.”

—Paul I. Wellman, in “The Walls of Jericho”

It’s called topophilia.

It is a combination of words from the Greek word “Topos” meaning place, and “Philia” meaning love of or for.

And some of us Kansans have it bad.

We can be struck with it on the back roads, in the canyons, by the waterfalls, in the badlands, the prairies, wetlands, sand dunes, caves, and on the rivers and hills of Kansas.

It can come at any time, striking anyone if they take the time to explore the 83,000 square miles of Kansas.

The unbelievers, rushing through on interstates or flying over for a few moments, call us flat and boring.

They don’t know what we know about the subtle and majestic beauty of this land we call Kansas.

“We have pretty impressive diversity if you are willing to open up your eyes and take it in,” said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey. “But you have to be willing to go to some places. You can’t just walk out your door and see huge diversity. It requires more of an effort than, say, when you live in Colorado and an hour later can be in the mountains. It requires an effort but the rewards are out there to match the effort.”

We are not flat. We’re built instead on an incline with an elevation range of 700 feet above sea level at our lowest point in the far southeastern corner of the state to our highest point 4,135 feet in northwest Kansas at the Colorado border. For every mile that runs the length of Kansas, we rise 8 to 9 feet in elevation.

We are not boring — the landforms of Kansas include the rugged, glaciated region of far northeast Kansas, the Flint Hills, the beginnings of the Ozarks in southeastern Kansas, and the Arikaree Breaks in far northwestern Kansas with its canyons and wildlife.

We have warblers and vireos, pelicans and seagulls, turkeys and deer, blue-winged teal, upland sandpipers, sandhill and whooping cranes, bats, swift fox, coyotes, badgers and prairie dogs — and most recently even the occasional mountain lion.

Kansas is rich in diversity of its wildlife partly because of its location in the middle of the country. Shorebirds fly through the state as they migrate north or south. Species indigenous to the eastern and western United States may wander into the state.

“We have our characteristic wildlife but we are also a divider of where the east meets the west,” said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center. “Any lost souls heading in one direction will pass through this area. “What we take for granted, the everyday, commonplace, non-special things are really pretty special,” Gress said. If we were to look at the state from an outsider’s perspective, we may have a “sudden, new appreciation for what we do have. Everything has adapted to a unique life on the plains.”

Many Kansans owe our careers to the land — as farmers and geologists, oil and natural gas producers, ranchers, and even aircraft machinists and production line workers.

In the 1920s, our flat topography and windy weather helped attract aviation pioneers.

We have some of the largest salt deposits in the world. At one time, we produced much of the nation’s coal.

We are ninth in the nation in both crude oil and natural gas production, which create $2.7 billion a year in family income and 167,000 jobs.

We are third in the nation in beef production and usually first in wheat. Agriculture and food production provides one in five Kansans — even the city dwellers — with their jobs, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

We are third in the nation — trailing Texas and Montana — in the number of acres devoted to family farms.

The landscape shapes who we are, Buchanan said. “It is central in understanding who we are. It affects what we do for a living and where we live.”

How the land shapes us

“If I went West, I think I would go to Kansas.”

—Abraham Lincoln

During the 1930s and 1940s, the greatest portion of Kansans lived on farms; then, following World War II, Kansans became more mobile. By the 1960s, the shift had begun in earnest as more and more Kansans moved to larger cities, or out-of-state entirely.

The majority of Kansans are now urban, yet we are still thought of — and think of ourselves — as rural.

“Over half of our population lives in Wichita, Johnson County and Lawrence and Topeka,” said Jim Leiker, professor of history and director of the Kansas Studies Institute at Johnson County Community College. “The image of Kansans of being rural, growing up on a wheat farm and living like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island is a romanticized vision of the land.”

In recent years, there has been a push by some Kansans to get back in touch with the land, with their families’ roots.

“You are seeing an art movement, the prairie renaissance, by artists like Stan Herd (known for his giant earthwork murals made of crop art and best seen from the sky) who are trying to connect their medium through something indigenous,” Leiker said. “It is odd that as Kansans become more urban, they become more obsessed with that sense of rural place.”

And yet, that land affects us daily — urban or not.

“I think the landscape shapes who we are ... it is central in understanding who we are. It affects what we do for a living and where we live,” Buchanan said.

Charles Martin, environmental geography professor at Kansas State University, said he has long observed the differences in how the regions of Kansas affect Kansans.

“The people of western Kansas tend to be more independent,” Martin said. “They get used to doing things by themselves,. The people of the high plains absolutely love the space — the open spaces of western Kansas. They sometimes get claustrophobic or feel closed in in eastern Kansas.”

He’s seen it in his students.

“Did they grow up in Johnson County or Wallace County? They are very different people. I find that western Kansas kids, although they are not as cosmopolitan, tend to be very down-to-earth and honest. If there is something on an exam that they don’t agree with, they will come in and ask you and accept an explanation, rather than sending out a blue e-mail,” Martin said. “Urban kids tend to come in feeling like they are owed something — that they should earn an ‘A’ in class until proven otherwise. I get the sense rural kids do more for themselves. They know how to fend for themselves and more willing to work and earn what they want to get. Urban kids, their work ethic isn’t as good.”

Nurturing the land

In the beginnings of Kansas history, it was the American Indians who may have first experienced what we now call topophilia.

“The Native Americans have always seen themselves as being the caretakers of the Mother Earth — and that includes the land,” said Milton Youngbird Hamilton of Towanda, a descendant of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. “They had great reverence and respect for the land. The non-Indian has not really adapted well with the environment. A lot of the animals, plants and flowers have become extinct. It seems to me when you go anti-nature, you unbalance a lot of things in the natural environment.”

Youngbird Hamilton said he finds the Flint Hills his favorite place in Kansas.

“When you get out of balance, you need to go where it is more natural. I like the rolling hills of the Flint Hills. I go where there aren’t a whole lot of manmade structures. Sure there’s fences, but you can get out there and, in some places, you can’t see the highway. It looks pretty good. It is serene. Quiet. It calms the whole person if you spend time out there.”

Smaller towns were often linked by trails and later railroads and highways.

For the first 75 years of the state’s history, much of the wildlife populations in Kansas changed dramatically.

“We eliminated the bison, the elk, wolves, grizzly bear, deer, wild turkeys, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews and cougars,” said Ron Klataske, director of Audubon of Kansas. “There is a long list of wildlife species that were eliminated in the first 75 years of European settlement in Kansas. In the last 75 years, there has been a lot of progress in bringing much of it back. Some of it, we will never bring back — like the wolves and the grizzlies. And although bison can’t be brought back as a wild species, they are now back in Kansas as a semi-domesticated species; the Carolina parakeet, the Eskimo curlews and the ruffed grouse won’t return.”

But still, Kansas is a place where bald eagles now reside year-round. It is a place that can boast two wetlands of international importance — Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. The only other state in the nation to make such a claim is Florida. Nearly half of all North American shorebirds migrating east of the Rocky Mountains and up to a quarter million waterfowl stop at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira to rest and feed during seasonal migrations.

Annie Wilson grew up in Wichita but has spent the past 33 years living in the Flint Hills. She is a guitarist and vocalist in the musical group Tallgrass Express.

“The prairie makes me optimistic,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of things about this planet that are scary. I read too much and I get too anxious about things, but when I go on walks in the Flint Hills, I cannot but feel good that things are going to be OK.”

Within our boundaries, we have boulders left by ancient glaciers; the desert-like landscape of the Red Hills, sinkholes that can stretch a mile or more.

The chalk badlands along the Smoky Hill River in Logan, Gove and Wallace counties contain some of the richest fossil records of animals that lived in a vast inland sea during the Cretaceous Period, some 80 million years ago. It was a time when mosasaurs and plesiosaurs ruled the seas.

“We are famous for our fossils, but very few people in Kansas know about them, but if you talk to paleontologists and people in museums we are famous all over the world,” said paleontologist Mike Everhart of Derby, adjunct curator of paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.

Allowing the land to claim us

“I love this land and the buffalo and will not part with it.”

—Kiowa Chief Satanta

Topophilia affects people in different ways — spiritually, emotionally and physically.

There are not many places in Kansas Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geological Survey hasn’t been.

He’s seen the tracks of kangaroo rats in the sand dunes by Syracuse and how after a rainstorm the prairie wildflowers can create a glow across the horizon.

“A couple of years ago I was out at the Cimarron National Grasslands on the Point of Rocks, a landmark along the Santa Fe Trail,” Buchanan said. “It was late in the spring and as far as you could see, there was this blossoming of Indian blanket wildflowers. It created this orange haze for as far as you could see. I remember reading accounts of pioneers who had seen that — but I thought, we’ll never see that. But it is possible to experience those things. I challenge anybody to find a more attractive place than where we happened to be that morning in southwestern Kansas … You can’t experience the land driving down the highway at 70 mph with the windows rolled up. It requires you to slow down and allow all of your senses to take it in.”

Jane Koger, a fourth-generation rancher who runs the 4,000-acre Homestead Ranch in Chase County, is one of those people who has been struck more than once by topophilia. She sees herself more as a caretaker and preservationist than landowner.

“Why is the prairie so important? It’s like going into a church and asking why God is so important,” Koger said. “It is one of those things you feel internally. This isn’t just about grazing cattle, it’s about living in a natural area and seeing everything that is out here and being part of it.”

The land allows us to see the cycles of life.

“One of the most surprising things to me is realizing when the birds and the cattle leave the prairie in the fall, how quiet and lonely the prairie actually becomes,” Koger said. “It is still teeming with life but it is not the life you see so easily. I’m learning to live within those cycles. Just when you think you have too much of one thing, you get something else.”

Although she owns the land, Koger says she sees being a rancher more of a job assignment to care for the land.

“Some people get called to church. I got called to a hunk of grass. I operate on this dream — if my great-grandfather, who came here in 1874 and homesteaded, were to come back would he recognize the land?”

And, in that sense, Koger says, the land will be there for future generations.

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