High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – II

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part II

In Etta’s wakefulness, she recalled the three years they had been here on this horrible Kansas prairie. She remembered the moment when the two covered wagons drawn by tired horses had turned off the Santa Fe Trail in northern Lyon County and had gone a quarter of a mile south to this location. Their stone house had been started by a former homesteader. She saw again the thrill of high hope in her mother’s face as they pegged their tent into place.

“George,” she said, and there was a note of finality in her mother’s voice, “this is not much of a place—upland—no trees—but I say here we will make our home. It will not be any harder for us than for the other settlers around here. We are not going to move anymore.”

“I agree with you, Hannah,” said George Chandler, her husband. “Here we will make our home.”

That was in March 1879. How cold the spring had been! How long it had taken to get this half-built house put together! How hard the sod had been when pa tried to plow! How the wind did blow!

How she had hated it all!

No wonder all the families around them were not finding life in Kansas at this time and place easy, but it seemed that tragedy did not follow others like it had her family. She recalled the rattlesnake’s bite on Gene’s leg that first summer and how pa had saved the boy’s life by splitting the leg of her screaming brother and then with his own mouth sucking the wound until no more blood or fluid of any kind came from it. The rattler was a huge one and had seven rattles and a button. They had killed it all right—chopped off its head—but it still wiggled all day long. After that none of them ever fooled with a rattlesnake, because they recognized one whenever they saw it.

The girl shuddered. Her mind would not be quiet and let her sleep. She remembered her ma’s pain when little sister Delphia had come the second spring. Delphia had been a blue baby and had lived only two weeks. She died March 26, 1880. Her little grave had been dug in the northeast corner of the new Bushong cemetery, which had been bought but not yet been laid out.

Ma had dragged all that summer in spite of her continued high hopes and then had worn herself out caring for Charlie, who during haying time had slipped off a load of hay and broken his leg. In spite of all that good Dr. Wright of Americus could do to relieve him, ten-year-old Charlie often cried all night with pain. Even though she was in the family way again, Ma stayed all night by his side trying to ease the suffering when the splintered bone continued to work out through the festering flesh. Pa took his turn, too. He was great for hot poultices. They did seem to ease the pain and drew out those pieces of bone from the leg.

Etta jerked and turned over in her limited space. Little Annie stirred and the girl soothed the babe to quietness. She rubbed her own throbbing head—her hands were cold but they felt good when pressing against her strangely burning eyes. She could not sleep. Her thoughts reverted to that most terrible time of all back in March 1881.

On March 10, Ma went again into that dreadful time of childbirth. The younger children were bundled off to the neighbors. Mrs. Day, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Sanders, homesteaders all, had been so good. When the baby was finally born two days later, it was all right but Ma was so sick that they never even thought to name little sister. Everyone was trying to help Dr. Wright save the mother’s life, but Hannah Priscilla Chandler had indeed made her last earthly move. When the baby girl was five days old and was crying for some milk, the mother closed her eyes, overcome by too much bodily pain, want, and longing.

George Chandler bought a lot in the Bushong cemetery, two miles south of his farm. Hannah, his efficient and helpful wife, was laid in it and the body of little Delphia brought from the corner and laid at her mother’s head. This Kansas mother had died March 17, 1881.

Etta was sixteen years of age then. She was big and strong and knew how to do the homemaking work, so she became the woman of that upland claim. She was naturally an organizer and a commander so things went on about as usual. The baby was named Hannah Priscilla, for the dead mother, but she was called Annie.

Life was not always dull and laden with heavy work. Etta had a beau, too. Even under the bad conditions her love for her father and the children made the days short—and surely much better times were just ahead for all of them.

But doctor bills, funeral expenses, grocery bills, and the need of clothing for all of them nearly drove the heartbroken father mad. When he was a lad, George Chandler, had served in the Hospital Corps of the Northern Army and there he had learned to cook. Though he had tried to raise a crop that summer of 1881, but when autumn came and little grain had been produced on the land that God had intended for pasture, he faced the coming winter with despair. He had to earn some money.

The father talked this over with the older children. With the optimism of youth, Etta, Gene, and Henry agreed with his plan to take a job in an Emporia hotel as cook for the winter. The children all agreed to obey Etta and do just as she said. With many misgivings and secret fears, George Chandler, forty-years-old, left the little stone house on the prairie for a good-paying job in the city, twenty miles away. He hoped he would be able to pay his debts, buy family necessities, and come home the following spring.

Etta took her responsibilities seriously. Like an adult, but sometimes with girlish immaturities, she carried on day-by-day. Every night found her with tired muscles, throbbing head, and pressing problems. How could she manage on the morrow?

(To be continued. . .)

High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – I

The months of slower pace due to COVID have given unexpected gifts. There is the opportunity to slow down and absorb information delivered online and in print. There is time to catch up on long-overdue projects, and time to consider our collective history. There is opportunity to consider what path we must now choose to proceed, and there is a longing to find comfort in memories of our loved ones–parents, grandparents, friends, distant relatives. The following 4-part story is a combination of catching up on overdue projects, as well as longing for the old stories told by my grandmother. Though I don’t remember much about the author of this historical family tale, I am honored to share her rendition of a difficult time in the history of the Flint Hills region that I love.

“High Courage” was written decades ago by my great aunt, Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part I

“I believe I’ll wash.” The slender girl appraised the Kansas sky that January morning in 1882. The blue of the heavens with its few white fleeting cloudlets was a vast dome over that prairie homestead located in northern Lyon County. Seventeen-year-old Etta Viola Chandler whiffed the warm air and turned to the little stone house that was home for herself, five brothers and three sisters.

Like a commanding officer, she marshalled her forces. “Gene, you and Henry get busy right now and get these rocks back in place.” She pointed to the corner of the kitchen where the wall that had been so hastily constructed during the spring of 1879 had already begun to tumble, leaving a large gap of the outer wall of their dwelling.

“Charlie, you and Bert get the team and bring in that jag of hay from the stack in the lower meadow. We cannot expect this good weather to hold this time of year.”

“Leo Nettie, wash the breakfast dishes and keep Annie out of the draft until the boys get that wall mended. I am going to wash.”

“Maisy, you and Lottie bring your buckets and we will get this wash water on to heat. We never have enough clothes until wash day, and then there is never soap, clothes line nor water to half do the job.” She smiled at the girls. “As soon as the water is in the kettle, you two can get ready for school.”

Etta sang softly as she picked up two wooden buckets. The three girls hurried to the well down near the slough and the corrals. The wash water was soon heating over the stove.

By mid-morning, her brothers clumsily filled in the hole in the wall. Situated nearby with the wash tubs, Etta rubbed on the washboard. The air that had been so warm in the early morning was somewhat chilly now. Though the sky was still blue and the sunshine was beautiful, she hurried the boys. “Hurry and get these rocks in place. There is surely going to be a change in the weather.” She lugged her load of wet clothes toward the already full clothesline and spread them on the brown grass.

An hour later as she carried out the last garments, her sleeves rolled to her elbows and her hair wet about her face, an icy blast of wind struck her. A shiver ran through her frame and she hurried more with the spreading of the children’s clothes on the grass. The ragged underclothes and the boys’ pants flapped in the wind from the clothesline. She emptied the dirty suds and rinse water and set the house in order.

The hole in the wall was stopped up and Etta dropped into a chair by the hot stove. She was shaking with a chill. Little Annie, just learning to walk, toddled to her knee. Etta called her sister. “Come and get her, Nettie, I declare I am having a chill.” Her teeth chattered uncontrollably.

The boys came in for their noon meal, stamping cold feet and blowing red fingers. “It sure looks like a storm is coming,” Gene predicted, as they ate their scant meal of cornbread and fried rabbit. Fortunately, they all liked rabbit meat as these little animals were plentiful and easy to catch. Fortunately, too, there was milk to drink.

Etta could not eat. She felt hot and then cold. As the boys sat around after the meal, little Annie fell asleep in her arms and with a reluctant apology, the sick girl dragged herself to the bed in the corner of the room, tucked little Annie under the covers, and collapsed beside the toddler. The others looked in astonishment at each other. “Let’s be quiet and let her sleep,” Leo Nettie said softly. “Land knows she needs the rest.”

Twelve-year-old Leo Nettie washed the dishes and put them on the curtained shelves near the stove. The boys sat on the wide board floor and played mumble peg with their pocket knives. The weather was certainly changing. The wind was coming from the northwest in spasmodic gusts and with it were tiny whiffs of snow.

“We better get those clothes in,” said Gene, the oldest boy, a strapping boy of fifteen. Together they brought in the partially dried wash and piled it on chairs near the fire. Leo Nettie, with an uneasiness she could not define, spread the garments out and soon the room was filled with steam as they dried.

When Etta woke, her head ached. She lay still. The warm bed felt good to her. She saw that the clothes had been brought in and were drying. She spoke her gratitude to the sister and brothers and they beamed with her praise. Soon after four o’clock the school-aged children came home from school. They warmed themselves near the stove. Five-year-old Maisy announced that Mr. Day, the teacher, had said there would be no school the next day if it snowed during the night and the roads were drifted.

The evening chores were attended to by the older boys and then supper of cornbread and rabbit was eaten in silence. Everything seemed wrong when Etta still lay on the bed. The group soon went to bed too. The house was quiet. The wind tore about the little house. Sleet fell relentlessly on the roof. Etta awakened, quietly undressed, and went to bed properly under the covers. But she was uncomfortable—first hot and then cold—among the blankets. She could not sleep.

“My,” she fretted, “I do hope I am not going to be sick and even pa not here to look after the young ones.”

(To be continued. . .)

The State of Education

Have you ever heard of “Hump Day,” Tanna? I expect not. I haven’t even heard that term myself for quite a while. When I was a college student, one of my dear friends cheerfully greeted me every Wednesday saying, “Happy Hump Day!”

The phrase referred to the school week, getting in gear on Monday and slowly rising to a peak of activity by mid-week, Wednesday. After that, the flurry settled down until by Friday afternoon, there was a lull and we prepared to welcome the weekend. Friday became “POETS Day,” the “Pooh On Everything Tomorrow’s Saturday” Day.

But Wednesday was Hump Day. And glancing over the list of assignments my live-in 5th grade grandson faces this Wednesday, it remains so to this day.

One thing we have noticed, as a result of the COVID school shutdown last spring, is the dearth of competence in our grandson. He continues with online schooling, though now under a different teacher at a different grade school—District policy, not necessarily our choice. He is ill-equipped to read and understand instructions for his assigned work. Coupled with unreliable internet connections and this school thing has become an ordeal, frustrating to students, adults in the home, and to teachers as well, I imagine.

In short, his school has failed him to this point.

Our child needs almost constant supervision and he barely keeps up with the assignments that are thrown at him. He’s nurturing the independence he will need in later years, but still needs lots of help with concepts. Help sessions are fraught with resentment and resistance. I would like him to seek help when he needs it. But part of the problem might be he has no clear idea when he needs help. He is that lost.

Other parents of elementary students share similar concerns. What in the world are the schools doing? Why conceal important feedback behind educator-ese? Why keep families in the dark about what their children are doing? Why emphasize the speed student read, when they aren’t gleaning meaning from the words? What difference does it make how fast you read if you don’t understand what you are reading?

I suspect this emphasis on speed is to prepare students for making good marks on some test or other but it baffles me that comprehension has never been stressed. Isn’t that the point of reading?

And math—why complicate simple mathematical processes with cluttered diagrams, tables, and explanations that take the entire live class meeting to demonstrate? Just do the problems. I sense that all the extra gobbledygook complicates things to the point that our one-time little math star is beyond confused. He’s clueless.

All this comes at the expense of omitting enrichment subjects like geography, social studies, and science. It’s a crime to deny the study of science to a little guy who answers, “scientist” to the question, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”

To be fair, his 5th grade teacher includes social studies and science, but his exposure up to this point is so minimal it barely exists. Topics and subjects I recall from the elementary school days of my grown children, or my own school days, are left out entirely. I recall classroom competitions to memorize all 50 states and their capitals—in 5th grade! Health classes in 4th grade featured the different physiological systems and their components in the human body. Yet today, nothing. To what end? What are we doing to the children of today?

It may go back to policy changes during the early days of this century called, “No Child Left Behind.” What it has become, in reality, is that no child is offered quality instruction. Schools madly teach so their students can pass tests—in order to keep basic funding for education. And when our state cuts funding to education even further, there is precious little left to offer our public school students.

That’s another reason I support sending Ken White to Topeka. He’s running on a platform advocating the best education for Kansas kids in these trying times. If that raises taxes, so what? It’s an investment in our future we can’t afford to overlook. Beyond that, Ken suggests we need equitable taxation in which everyone—including the very wealthy—pays their fair share. Public services shouldn’t be dumped onto the shoulders of low-income residents.

When I was young there was a huge effort to bolster public education. In an imagined competition between our country and another on the other side of the planet, we stepped up efforts to increase training in math and science. That was the educational atmosphere I grew up in and I’m horrified at the lax attention such enrichment subjects receive today.

What kind of schools will exist in your time, Tanna? I hope there is  sanity restored to the system, and your friends and neighbors realize the value of quality education for all.

With enduring love,

Your seventh generation grandmother

Voting With the Voiceless

Sometimes it is next to impossible to feel even the slightest optimism. Days like that—like today—come more frequently as we dig ourselves deeper into the vast chasm of no-return. Then, when I least expect it, Tanna, a breath of hope arrives most unexpectedly. I hope you possess a cheerful, optimistic heart, and that you have the fortitude to hold onto the last shred of hope until the end.

Today, we are three weeks away from the most important election of the last hundred years. This is the last day a person could register to vote in the November 3 election. I hope everyone has taken care to get registered to vote. What if some have overlooked this important date?

I keep thinking about the arrogance—the conceit and spitefulness—of so many of today’s powerful executives, insisting on their right to extract every last bit of natural wealth from the planet for their own gain. The tragedy of this is that they hardly need more wealth in their bank accounts, with billions of dollars already there. They just like to throw around their money-backed power, and ridicule the rest of us. Let the future go to hell, as long as they can watch figures accrue in their un-taxed accounts.

It is so important to change the way our government rules the corporations, for the sake of all of us, successive generations, and for all the life forms on the planet. There is a growing movement to secure basic rights for nature in scattered places around the world. Ecuadorians even wrote it into their revised constitution. It’s an uphill battle here in North America, but as Thomas Berry wrote, “We must now understand that our own well-being can be achieved only through the well-being of the entire natural world. . .”

What, exactly is the concept “Rights of Nature?” From the website of Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN: www.therightsofnature.org) it is the recognition and honoring that Nature has the “right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.” Our ecosystems and their elements—including trees, water systems, animals, and the land itself—have rights just as humans do in our judicial system. All life on Earth is deeply connected.

Years ago, I attended several family-oriented seminars designed to help parents discover the values and strengths that give purpose to their family, as well as to individuals. Through the seminars I understood that my life’s purpose lay in writing, since I had been occupied in pursuits to discover, preserve, and creatively express the beauty of the world around me all my life. I also realized that I am most satisfied when I lend aid, support, and encouragement to others, including elements of the wilderness. I seek to gently support the inner greatness of those with little voice.

That would include Nature, and the entire web of systems that all life forms rely on for sustenance. And that, Tanna, is why I’m working like never before to support candidates who are aware of the environmental risks we face, and willing to listen and work for climate solutions that will benefit every one of us.

This election, I start with Ken White, the musician. Not only has he worked as a professional entertainer, he and his wife Robin Macy together manage the Bartlett Arboretum, one of the natural wonders of Kansas, a thriving oasis that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Someone that close to the heartbeat of the earth, with mottos of “Loyal to Local” and “People Over Politics” surely has the determination to act with the future in mind.

In an online rally, Laura Lombard, a candidate for the US House of Representatives from the local District 4 in Kansas, explained her three top priorities. One was to bolster the economy of rural areas. Another was to make sure everyone had access to affordable health care.

And the third priority she mentioned was the climate crisis. As mother to a toddler, she is worried about what the world will be like when her son grows up. With some creative work, some of her concerns can be solved together. New jobs can be those which benefit the local environment.

The League of Conservation Voters and Natural Resources Defense Council endorsed Dr. Barbara Bollier for the US Senate, two more reasons to support Dr. Bollier. It was thrilling to participate in an online rally jointly sponsored by those groups where they highlighted the environmental statements of six Senatorial candidates around the nation. Dr. Bollier was one of those. And after they spoke, Paul Simon picked up his guitar and sang good old songs from an age long ago.

The Joe Biden/Kamala Harris team has a plan to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, at the same time creating millions of new jobs in the alternative energy and environmental fields. Win/win, right?

These candidates in the upcoming election represent what is best for the people, the nation, the land, and the world, not merely what is best for the millionaires who finance campaigns of their opposition. May the peoples’ candidates prevail! In three weeks, we will know.

One of my life values is harmony. I suppose that could coincide with my musical interests and career as a piano technician. Let’s get rid of the dissonance. (Tune that piano.) Let’s get rid of the obstinate governing bodies that do very little beyond argue with each other—tune that government!

Tanna, with my focus on harmony, I abhor confrontation. I shy away from disagreements, even though I hold some very firm beliefs about where we are and where we should go. To post my support of the green candidates at various levels of government was a big leap in my playbook. I usually don’t do things like that. But this year, it’s too important not to take a stand. If we don’t change our direction—NOW—there will be no tomorrows to look forward to. That’s why we posted signs for our candidates at the end of our driveway. And it’s why I have added bumper stickers to my car.

My heart pounds a little harder whenever I leave home. We’ve been pumped so full of mistrust of each other that I would not be surprised to be challenged by some belligerent, bearded, gun-toting white man. But I must do it anyway. The time has come—indeed, is long past—to take a stand. With my own perceived life’s purpose, I must vote for the Earth, for all the trees, and wildlife that have no vote, nor voice. As Thomas Berry pointed out decades ago, and others even long before that, without nature we are nothing.

Day 6: The Leadership of Indigenous People

Today is Monday, Tanna, and this particular Monday is an observed national holiday. Like many things taken for granted when I was a child, there is considerable contention surrounding this second Monday in October.

Long recognized as “Columbus Day,” it celebrates the historic voyage by Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. His destination was the far east and he gambled they would not sail off the edge of the world. And he was right. Earth is spherical. However, it’s much larger than he conjectured. He assumed he’d landed in India, when in reality, he anchored his ship in a cove off a Caribbean Island, the one we recognize today as Cuba.

But, in my school days, we all learned, “Columbus discovered America.”

The irony of this misleading historical fake fact is that he, himself, never set foot anywhere on the North American continent. He gets credit for discovery, however, even though the islands and the continents of the western hemisphere were occupied already by well-established cultures of native people.

Those he met at the end of his voyage must surely be residents of India, he reasoned. And so, though they were already known to each other by many other names, the First Peoples of North America came to be known as Indians.

This misappropriation became ludicrous in my mind the year I actually visited India and met genuine Indians. Since then, I resist the notion to call our indigenous nations by that term. Ojibway, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Kaw, Ponca, Apache, Lakota, Arapahoe, Tlingit, Haida, Hopi, Navajo (to name but a few)—each group formed its own nation with its own economy, culture, and government. The influx of Europeans ignored the autonomy of natives. European arrogance and entitlement have led to centuries of conflict and bloodshed.

Today there is a movement to recognize the dignity of the remaining indigenous populations, not only here, but indigenous people around the world. And that traditional holiday celebrating Columbus is now recognized in many hearts, and a few states and municipalities, as Indigenous People Day.

Our recognition and respect go far beyond one day, though. As the plight of our planet grows ever more dire, indigenous people raise their cry of dissention—and many others join them. Books on the native ways are available. Panels of indigenous leaders offer international online seminars in which the panelists share thoughts, concerns, ideas, and suggestions for moving forward.

I am listening. Perhaps in your day, Tanna, the Columbus celebrations will have retreated to a distant corner, like a demoralized dog, head down and tail between its legs.

Native peoples on every continent lead the way in our infant efforts to bind ourselves intimately with the natural world. Thomas Berry recognized this in his writings. “We have even forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance.” He went on to point out how native Americans revere our wild neighbors through their musical and chanting ceremonies.

“One of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world,” Berry wrote in The Dream of the Earth, “is to call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being. [Native peoples] are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future.”

Tanna, I struggle for words to describe what’s in my heart when Berry refers to native music from the wild places. One panel I experienced during the heat of this COVID summer included indigenous women of all ages, and from varied locations in the western hemisphere. The Ecuadorian woman, Patricia Gualinga, mentioned how the meetings her people hold always start with music, to create harmony, and that all participants—male or female, young or old—are treated with the same respect and consideration. All are equal in their councils.

Strangely, this draws my mind to our District 79 state representative race. Ken White, the man challenging the conservative incumbent, is a musician. He shows up at campaign events with a guitar strapped to his shoulders. And I think to myself, It wouldn’t hurt to bring a little music to ease the tension in our statehouse.

Happy Indigenous People Day, Tanna! I hope that in your time, it is without question or contention the focus of an October holiday. To the leaders of the people so long abused by our national and state policies, I say, “Lead on. It’s your turn now.”

And I truly hope they help us find the way back to a thriving relationship with the natural world.

Pardon me now, as I head off on my own private walk in celebration of Indigenous People Day, an effort publicized online as the Rising Hearts Run/Walk, located anywhere on Turtle Island.

With enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

Day 5: Never Lose Hope

Dear Tanna,

I have limited experience with hospice workers. My mother was on hospice before she died and my dad was deeply grateful for the compassionate assistance the workers brought to their home. This concept of providing dignity to those facing imminent death is fairly recent. There was nothing like that available for me three decades ago when my husband struggled with cancer.

It seems somewhat audacious, maybe even preposterous, to think that those responsible for the decline of our planet’s life systems would dare to consider themselves hospice workers. How could agents of death possibly bring compassion and dignity to the decline of the climate conditions that support all life forms on Earth?

When I am in a down mood, I see humanity as a species that needs to go, in order to save the rest. Nature needs to eliminate her threat and we are the major cause of today’s destruction. Those who care seem to have little influence on the those in leadership positions. We are caught in a system that we cannot seem to change, trapped like animals in a live trap.

As a young widow, years ago, I taught earth science at the local high school when I was struggling to find a new life and purpose. I tried to infuse awareness of the decline of the environment in the teenagers. Considering all of geologic history, today’s situation apparently is not the first time that a life form created mass extinction through its waste products. The waste product for early single-celled life in the oceans was oxygen. Through proliferation, the simple metabolic processes of early life changed the composition of the atmosphere, paving the way for new life to evolve.

Geologically and astronomically speaking, our solar system is roughly halfway through the sun’s expected life. Given a few more billion years, there should be plenty of time for new life to evolve from the scraps left after this climate crisis settles into a new equilibrium. Am I comforted by this thought?

I have mixed feelings about it. When I watch neighbors roar past my Prius on the highway in 4-wheel drive fuel-guzzling pick-ups, or watch Styrofoam cups blow into the tall grasses along the road, or see trash, littered by passing motorists, build up around our small pond at the corner of two paved roads, I think to myself, “Humans are such slobs. Maybe it’s time. Nature is out to rectify our wrongs.” If we view the entire planet as one living organism, we humans, through our collective ignorance and apathy, are a disease to the planet, like its terminal cancer.

Then I talk to cherished friends who suffer anguish at the exploitation of the natural world, or I work with my piano students to help them master skills that will enable them to express themselves through music, or I watch my grandson playing with the baby goats in our front yard, and I am reminded that “We aren’t all bad.”

The eras of geologic history are separated by mass extinctions, as witnessed in the fossil records. PreCambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. Based also on the geologic record, the previous eras were millions of years in duration. We are responsible for the mass extinction we are witnessing now, and it’s happening much more rapidly than any we have evidenced in the rock records. If we compare all of geologic history to a half-mile walk, humans appeared mere inches before the end that represents today. From the first appearance of a human to now encompasses a few seconds on a 24-hour clock that represents Earth’s history.

To disregard and exploit everything on the planet for selfish reasons, with no check on ourselves, empathy for other species, or consideration for future generations, has got to be the biggest crime against this remarkable and fragile speck of a planet in the cosmos. We are guilty of that crime. Our lifestyles trap us in a system that is dooming life as we know it.

Nobody knows what will come of the situation we face today, but I have to wonder how we are any different from those early single cell life forms? One way is this: We know what we’re doing. Science has instruments to measure the health of our planet, and to record its ruin. Yet we seem unable to stop our actions. Assuming that the early life lacked thought processes and their waste contamination was purely accidental and a product of their success, I have to think this is vastly more irresponsible. To know and not to take steps to stop the atmospheric decline surely is an unpardonable sin.

Tanna, with the weight of this responsibility on our shoulders, how can we possibly presume to act as hospice workers in Earth’s decline?

I struggle to remind myself that we humans are as much a part of the universe as the meadowlarks and coyotes and deer and butterflies. And I also remember, through my mother’s experience with hospice, that it’s entirely possible to reverse the diagnosis. Mother was admitted to hospice, not once, but three times before she passed from this life. The first two times, she got better and was released. So hospice doesn’t always carry despair and finality with it. The challenge becomes restoring dignity, and easing the decline. Maybe—maybe—with enough of us working toward a solution, we can drawdown the greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere and restore the climate to one where life as we know it can thrive.

Hope is the other part of hospice. We must never lose hope. That’s why I’m writing these letters to you.

I love nature for the answers it suggests. How do we move towards the light? The prairie suggests, no matter how bad things may look, “Bloom anyway.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that “Earth Laughs in Flowers.”

I don’t laugh often enough, but when I do, it’s wonderful. Laughter is healing, as documented by Norman Cousins when he postponed his predicted demise by embarking on a process of regular daily laughter. Perhaps we should all do what we can to encourage flowers to bloom, to tickle the planet and laugh with nature.

I think it’s unlikely that any one effort of mine will make a difference for the planet. However, added to other efforts, we will make a difference. Maybe individual actions don’t matter much, but they count for something. If we do nothing, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This is absolutely an exciting time to be alive. We are on the edge of tomorrow, of a time when the course of history will be determined by our collective actions. Will we prevail? Will we assist nature to overcome this dire threat?

One thing that I plan to do very soon is vote. I will vote for candidates who are on the record for their commitment to act for the climate. I will vote for the Earth.

In the end, everything that we do matters. Every decision we make, every product we select, and every choice we make to fill our minutes will matter for the future. Through action, hope is born and hope is crucial to redemption. Never forget that. Never lose hope. To do so would cement the terminal diagnosis of the planet.

With enduring love,

Your seventh-generation Grandmother

 

 

 

Day 4: Hot Buttons and Getting Hotter

Dear Tanna,

The top priority in changing the course of our nation for some people is to abolish abortion. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Abortion is not an either/or issue, not simply “yes” or “no.” It’s not black and white. There are many shades of gray. There always are with complicated issues.

For me, the environment is the hot button issue. Exploitation, degradation, and destruction of the natural systems we all rely on for basic necessities are the biggest problems we face. Environmental destruction will destroy us, if we don’t hearken to the urgency. And then it won’t matter if women can govern their own bodies, or if we can shop for the latest fashions, or a new car, or even if we have enough to eat.

It. Won’t. Matter.

My love of the natural world goes back to my childhood. We traveled and camped every chance we had, all over the western states. I hope, Tanna, that you will have access to the amazing redwood forests like I did. I hope you will experience awe as you look over magnificent mountain scenes, canyons, rivers, and oceans of grass. This is truly a remarkable land and I hope we find the ingenuity—and the will—to preserve it far beyond your generation. Like every other child, you deserve the chance to feel wonder at the annual butterfly migrations, to catch your breath when an unexpected wild visitor turns your head, to watch a white-tailed deer chew its cud, to fill your lungs with fresh, clean air in an autumn breeze.

The concern for our wanton destruction and exploitation of nature is not new. It was well documented before I was born. By the time I entered college, there were ecology classes focused on our careless destruction of the natural world, and what that would inevitably mean to every living thing on the planet.

We are some of those living things.

To me, nature is teacher and healer, a holy place where I retreat to seek the divine. Nature can be that for you, also, if you learn how to listen.

I once watched an exhausted moose lunge through shoulder-deep snow and I learned the dangers of choosing an easy path. In a downpour I heard the rain plummet from the heavens and it spoke to me of cycles in life. I watched a family of ducks chase madly from one point to another and back again and I saw human fads and opinions mirror the whimsical parade of a flock of ducks. I watched my best friend waste away in a losing battle with cancer and I understood how the growing demands of humanity sap the vitality of our home planet in a similar fashion. Meadowlarks leapt into the wind so they might gain lift and fly away. And I learned I must face the adversities in my life before I could ever rise above them. A stately and beautiful tree crashed to the ground in tornado-strength straight line winds, and whispered that sometimes our roots will not be able to support us against a barrage of adversity. Messages arrive on the dust of a sunbeam and the wings of the wind.

Long ago, I read books by Thor Heyerdahl. One was titled Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature.  In the narrative of his return to simple life on a remote island, he described the music he found in nature. “There is fine music everywhere in nature between moss-covered stones and foliage. . .The lights, the colors, the sounds, the perfumes, the touch, the shapes were never the same, and were always playing on our minds like a vast orchestra. We could hardly take in more music—and I do not mean the singing of birds and the tinkling of a rivulet: . . .I mean music beyond the eardrums. We have had to create flutes and violins to leave impressions deeper in than the eardrums, where nature used to play.”

The musician inside me revels in the symphony of nature. I have delighted in taking piano students (and a grand piano) to outdoor recitals where every piece they played showed a musical glimpse of nature. Everything we humans have created has its source in nature, one way or another. I cannot find words to describe that inner union of my consciousness with the constant prairie symphony in my backyard. Without nature, I would be nothing.

Nature is not exactly constant. It is, if anything, constantly changing, providing variety in daily life. Even the sky presents many faces and no two are the same. We see a lot of sky out here above the prairie. It is our grandiose landscape. Clouds provide our mountains, the earth propels us forward, and the view changes hourly.

From observing my grandchildren, I realize fresh eyes see things as new and wondrous, no matter how much they have changed in my lifetime. My wish for my grandchildren—times seven generations and more—is that they never lose a sense of wonder. Natural processes continue. Even the Earth’s response to humanity’s bludgeoning of the biosphere is Nature’s way to restore a sort of balance. What will emerge from this process is something I can’t imagine, but will be awesome in its own right. Perhaps your generation, if there is one, Tanna, will be able to answer that question.

In the evolution of homo sapiens, our intellect seems to have surpassed our compassion. We have developed the ability to manipulate the physical world—to the point where we even create earthquakes—but not the will or the heart to care enough to halt in our tracks and find another path, a better path, a path that leads to sustainability and life for future generations.

Currently I am dealing with a sense of profound loss for what I once knew the natural world to be. In some ways, this can be compared to the radical loss a person feels after the death of a spouse and soulmate. The loss of a spouse is a radical loss, tearing a hole in the fabric of your being. You not only have lost a person, a partner, and a friend, you have lost a marriage, a relationship, the shared experiences, the dreams and plans you made together. Everything—Yes EVERYTHING—has changed.

 

What do you do? Widowhood can become a very empty place. In some respects, the changes occurring on Earth are like witnessing the last agonized moments of a beloved soulmate. Many of us are grieving already, to the point where we are paralyzed by hopelessness and inaction.

Grief is not possible without love. And, perhaps, love is not possible without grief. If you never feel sad, lonely, or in despair, you will never appreciate the times you feel ecstatic and joyful. I treasure the joyful memories of a vibrant natural world. The process of working through the sense of loss makes me wonder many things. Are things so far gone that there is no hope? In our final attempts to right the wrongs of humanity toward nature, are we merely playing as hospice workers in a futile attempt to ease that final decline?

“Hospice care is a special kind of care that focuses on the quality of life for those who are experiencing an advanced, life-limiting illness.” How can one person provide this kind of care for an entire dying planet? How can thousands of us? Millions? How can we restore quality to the living systems surrounding us?

That is a huge question. I think the answer begins with hope. And I will tell you more about that tomorrow.

With my enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

Day 3: Of Love and Wind, Two Recurring Themes

Dear Tanna,

Considering the power of love, scattered on the Wind of the Spirit, there was John Lewis, another hero who passed from this life on July 17 this past summer. All the publicity since George Floyd’s murder in late May–the demonstrations against police violence, Black Lives Matter, racism, and white privilege–bring social inequities front and center. With each successive generation, the wounds re-open. We were all reminded of John Lewis’s struggle to grant basic civil rights to all American citizens when he died. Our local library selected his memoir as part of the adult summer reading selection. With a Zoom meeting planned that included Lewis’s co-author Michael D’Orso, a man Lewis claimed was like a brother to him in the book’s introduction, I wanted to participate.

The book itself was daunting, 503 pages of relatively small print. But the metaphor in the prologue hooked me, a description of a wind storm Lewis experienced as a preschool boy. The wind blew so strong it lifted a corner of the shack his sharecropper aunt and uncle lived in. Harboring in the shack with his aunt and fifteen cousins, they held hands and walked from corner to corner, bringing the house down to the ground when the wind began to lift it. That became the metaphor for his life, and provided the title for his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Lewis was a teenager by the time I showed up in the world. I remember the events of the civil rights struggle of the early 60s as a child overhearing her parents discuss the nightly news. It was not until I read this book almost six decades later that I fully realized what had occurred during those years.

The chapters in the memoir flowed, easy to read. It was like sitting with John Lewis over coffee and listening to him tell about his life. And what a life! He personally knew the key players. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

He told of the first time he heard MLK give a sermon on the radio. It was titled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to read King’s words? An online search for his sermons produced a website—www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu—that includes his entire collection of sermons. So I did read “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in the year 2020.

Lewis was a key figure in all the civil rights actions: the restaurant sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, the efforts to safely register black people as voters. His premise was aligned with Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, a non-violent protest. Love your neighbor, even those who beat on you.

Why? We may ask.

Because they are victims of this unjust system too.

Imagine the strength of character needed to love someone who was busting your head open with a wooden club. How could a person manage that?  Lewis shared one of his secrets. You imagine the oppressor as an infant, a precious child of God.

I was struck by the uncanny parallels to today’s social and political climate. Lewis, a genuine and unassuming man, shared lessons he’d learned from MLK. “People who hunger for fame don’t realize that if they’re in the spotlight today, somebody else will be tomorrow. Fame never lasts. The work you do, the things you accomplish—that’s what endures. That’s what really means something.”

Does this remind me of anyone in the spotlight today? Absolutely.

What rights are guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of the late 60s? 1) The right to vote. 2) The right to a fair trial. 3) The right to receive government services.  4) The right to use public facilities.  and 5) The right to a public education.

Sounds pretty basic to me, but for ages, a significant portion of our population was denied these rights. After the legislation, new practices skirting the edges effectively denied the same people basic human dignities others take for granted.

Has this changed in the 200 years separating you and me, Tanna? I desperately hope so. I hope that your generation experiences the blessings of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. Lewis never lost sight of the vision—one people, one family, one house, one nation. As a congressman from Georgia for the last years of his life, he answered to his conscience and worked toward policies that would benefit all people.

The last chapter in his memoir was a summary and a wish. “Onward” described the challenges he faced during the time when he wrote the book—1998—but it could well have been written during this last summer of 2020. The struggle for civil rights, for civility itself to be extended to all citizens in our country, indeed to all of the world’s inhabitants, seems never to end. Each generation must carry on and must learn and appreciate the sacrifices and struggles of the generations before. Slowly we may approach an equitable society, a new global economy that values not only human players, but the finite resources provided by our planet.

John Lewis devoted his entire life to a movement he firmly believed continued decades beyond the demonstrations of the 1960s. “I came to Congress with a legacy to uphold, with a commitment to carry on the spirit, the goals and the principles of nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy.

“We must realize that we are all in this together,” he said. “Not as black or white, Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or ‘non’ Americans. But as human beings. . .The next frontier for America lies in the direction of our spiritual strength as a community. . . It is not just materially or militarily that we must measure our might, but morally. . .”

“It does not profit a nation to gain the world if we must lose our soul—which includes our compassion. . . ”

“The alternative to reaching out is to allow the gaps between us to grow, and this is something we simply cannot afford to do. . . ”

“That sense of caring and sharing that makes us a society and not just a collection of isolated individuals living behind locked doors must never be lost, or it will be the end of us as a nation. . .”

I wonder, Septanna, how healthy is the nation in your day? How healthy is the planet?

John Lewis, a great man, concluded his final chapter with these words, “Talk is fine. Discussion is fine. But we must respond. We must act . . .  As a nation, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house. . .”

Tanna, this is what’s at stake even now, two decades after Lewis published his memoir. This has been a hard chapter for me to write. I have struggled with it for weeks. How do I, an ordinary grandmother living in conservative rural Kansas, attempt to share what this man’s life has planted in my own heart? It’s too important not to try, though. So I offer these thoughts in honor of John Lewis. I desperately hope that he and other notable leaders we lost during the last few months—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,—will lend their essences to our continuing struggle for securing human dignity and basic rights for all.

And, Tanna, I hope that, two hundred years from now, you will realize the results of our efforts.

With enduring hope and love,

Your seventh-generation grandmother

Day 2: The Power of Love

Dear Tanna,

I wonder where and how you live, so far removed from my own reality. Are there crowds around you? Or has the human population declined? Do you live isolated from communities? Or do you live in a town? Or a city? Is there any countryside left?

We live on a small farm, with a picturesque pond in our front yard. A few years ago, our daughter brought half a dozen ducks and they provided passing entertainment through the years. Ducks can be hilarious when you watch them.

But they provided moments of introspection as well. Sometimes a duck will successfully hatch a clutch of eggs and it becomes imperative to herd them into the hen house for their own protection. This world is a big bad place for a baby duck—cats, coyotes, turtles, skunks, opossums, and even duck siblings make survival a real challenge. Hazards await even in a hen house.

Baby ducks are some of the cutest things! But messy. With a capital M. And they grow fast. After incubation, when that first chip appears on the egg shell, you wait and watch with bated breath until the little duck fully emerges. I am astounded at how compactly they curl into that little egg.

But the ducklings don’t always make it to adulthood. One morning I arrived in the hen house to release the fowl for some sunshine in the fenced yard, and found one little duck dead in the corner, smothered by cuddling ducklings during the night. I lifted that limp little body. Recently vibrant, it had peeped to its mother duck, and ran to keep up with her. And now—nothing. The body was the same perfect little miracle, but the spark of life was gone.

Life truly is a mystery. You could have all the right ingredients, a perfect physical specimen, but without that spark, there is nothing. When I held my own newborn daughter, I felt reverence for the spark which filled her perfect little form with life, so recently infused from the great mystery, so close to the Divine. I closed my eyes and breathed in the miracle, a prayer of awe and gratitude swirling in my mind.

I have been reading more than usual these last months, due in part to the slower pace of life brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. One book, Eyes to the Wind, was written by a young man named Ady Barkan during the time he suffered with declining health due to ALS, a dread disease which in my time is a certain death proclamation. In your time, Tanna, I hope this disease has become non-existent, but today it is an incurable descent into neurological and physical hell until only the eyes can be controlled by the spark of life trapped inside the withered body.

Technology has provided remarkable possibilities for someone diagnosed with ALS. Ady described his excruciatingly slow writing process, with a special computer mounted on his wheel chair that tracked his eye pupils to identify letters, one-at-a-time, through infrared light. He finished an amazing book this way.

Tears filled my eyes as I visualized his painstaking process. He was still there. His essence remained vitally alive, trapped in a shrinking world. When the control he exerts over his eyes disappears, the essence of the man will be vitally alive, screaming silently inside his head.

I thought of that duckling and began to wonder if the essence of Ady wouldn’t even still exist after his physical self dies? What will I discover about my own spark of life as I pass from the physical realm?

With more final farewells than I care to count in my own life—family members and friends, including two infant children, my first husband, my parents, grandmothers, fathers-in-law, friends—I ponder their sparks, their essences. Instead of simply being squelched like a candle flame in the breeze, their essences returned to the mysterious invisible divine pool, an ocean of love. They are with me still, swirling and caressing, whispering encouragement as I scratch words across this page.

It’s not a big leap of faith to include my grandmothers and grandfathers back seven generations when our nation was still young. The essences of Charley and Frank, Wiley, Eliza, Alma, John, William, Clarissa, Edwin, Edith, Thomas and even another Ann swirl around me—people I never met but who contributed to my own life and breath. And it’s not such a stretch to think that the coming generations swirl in that ether of love, all the way through seven to you, Septanna. You also are with me as I write today, the mystery and miracle of life to come.

I keep thinking of the miracle of life during these days of vicious campaigning. We get hits several times a week in the postal box or on our phones from groups bent on spreading blatant lies about candidates we favor. I hope my friends and neighbors can see through the propaganda. When one candidate has nothing specific to offer besides lies about the other, that is called negative campaigning. It lacks integrity and makes me angry. Why not explain what you have to offer instead of slander your opponent? Voters should go to the source and seek the “rest of the story.”

Take Dr. Barbara Bollier, for example. I heard her speak. She’s intelligent and compassionate—hardly the extremist the other side claims. Dr. Bollier is a physician whose focus in life is to make things better for people. She wants to heal the ailing government. The opposition calls her an extremist liberal. How they come up with that is beyond me. She recently left the conservative party due to its extremist demands.

They say she wants to take away guns, but she herself grew up hunting with her family. She is not anti-gun. She wants common sense gun control to protect children, and to keep firearms away from psychotic shooters. She wants to save lives. Who can argue with that?

They say she is in favor of late term abortions, when in reality, she voted against an late term extremist abortion bill because it was based on flawed science. It also represented an unconscionable intrusion into the patient/physician relationship by government.

If we acknowledge that every life is unique, does it not follow that no two pregnancies are the same? You can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy for pregnant women. If something goes deadly wrong in an unborn child’s development, there need to be options—legal, safe options, offered with love and compassion to a mother already in anguish. As a woman, physician, and mother herself, Dr. Barbara Bollier understands this. Furthermore, given our ailing atmosphere, chemically ridden food, and poisonous water supply, the chances of severe birth defects increase as the environment degrades. There must be options for desperate, grieving families.

For many voters in today’s world, abortion is a hot-button issue. I suppose we all have them. For me, the climate crisis we face overshadows every other issue. If we cannot arrest the degradation of the living planet, nothing else on the list of issues matters. Dr. Bollier has been endorsed by environmental groups. That matters to me. I want you to have a healthy world in your time, Tanna.

The most powerful force in the universe is Love. We’re surrounded by love, the essence of our ancestors and departed loved ones. And there is a big difference between loving compassion and regulating life through legislation. Dr. Bollier is correct. The government should stay out of medicine and leave it up to trained physicians.

And so, I plan to vote for Dr. Bollier this November because of her common sense, and her compassionate approach to the current issues. I hope she wins.

You are out there, Tanna. I lift my affection on the winds of the Spirit to touch you in the unrealized future domain.

With my enduring affection and best wishes, Your 7th Generation Grandmother.

Letters to the Future: Day 1

October 6, 2020. Four weeks from election day

Dear Child of Tomorrow,

I think of you often. I wonder what your life will be, and what you will look like. What endearing features will light up your chubby face when you smile? Will you have the same button nose I inherited from a beloved grandmother? Maybe curly auburn hair? Or will it be wavy light brown with blond streaks like mine was? Dark eyes that sparkle in evening light? Or eyes the azure of a cloudless summer sky, like my grandmother’s?

Of course, you will be a girl—a compassionate, resilient, brave little girl growing into a nurturing role model among your peers. That is my dream.

But your name? What moniker will your parents bestow upon you?

For two weeks, I have been addressing postal cards and writing notes to people I have never met, nor will ever meet, from a list sent to volunteers around this nation. It is a humongous effort to encourage reluctant citizens to vote in the November 3 election. In just four weeks, we will decide the future course of our nation. Will we turn toward democratic values? Will people be a step closer to governing themselves? Will our elected representatives be willing to seek compromise in demands from extreme viewpoints and meet in the middle for the good of all? Will they respect and honor each and every person, to hear every voice, and cherish every soul?

Or will we be plunged deeper into chaos and despair, cowering in fear and hate, mistrust and suspicion, divided by the antics and ridicule tweeted by our current leadership? For your sake, little one, I hope democracy prevails, and grows stronger in the generations between mine and yours.

What will the world look like seven generations hence? And what name will you be known by? There are so many names on my postal list, delicious names, unique names. There are good old-fashioned names: Erica, Nancy, Vivian. And there are names I’ve never encountered in all my years. Aymee. Nashawnna, Aaliyah. Egma.

I try to imagine these people. What age of woman would Jalyssa be? What ethnicity? What is Dyhalma’s occupation? Does Mirtha have children? If so, what age would the youngsters be? How does Lesharda spend her days? What challenges does Vida face? How about Tahirah? What’s her life like? Does Ilfrid have a supportive spouse? Or an abusive one? What keeps Zhone from voting in many elections?

There are so many names on the list. I take a moment to marvel at the diversity in this country, evident even in a list of registered voters. And I remember, from early ecology studies, how diversity lends stability. We need them all. We need their strengths, their opinions, their concerns. We need them healthy and educated.

Basti and Wysline. Judieky and Yatara. We need all these people to bolster our flailing democracy—for you, sweet girl, seven generations hence.

I will never know the name given to you, so I think of my own. My parents chose simple, traditional names for their three daughters, my three-letter name the simplest of all. The story Mother told about choosing our names was based on a recollection from her girlhood. In her small-town Kansas school, she had a classmate named Euphracine. Poor Euphracine’s name was hardly simple. It was years before she could correctly spell her own moniker, to the mockery of her classmates. Adamant that her own daughters never be similarly ridiculed, Mother bestowed simple names on us, ones we could spell as toddlers. I have always wondered if she expected her girls to be intellectually challenged—me most of all with the name Ann. Three letters. A. N. N. Plain. Ordinary. Simply Ann.

But I have few regrets through the decades of my life, so Ann was okay after all. It combines well with other words and syllables. I will think of you, a great-granddaughter of my unborn great-granddaughter, as Septanna. “Sep” is for the seven generations separating us. “Anna” for the connection to my essence. You will, of course, have many other genetic connections as your ancestors are conceived. But there will be a thread that leads back to me.

With hope that we can pull off the tidal wave of change we need in four weeks, I’ll call you Septanna Hope. Tanna for short sounds good. And I wonder what the world will be in your time. In my family, seven generations span two centuries. Two hundred years from now, will there even be life left on this gem of a planet? Will compassion and responsibility prevail to change our calamitous course?

For your sake, I hope so. And so I write. I write cards to strangers and I connect for a brief moment with 200 people I will never meet, one for each year that separates you and me. I say, “Dear Ruby, Glenice, Marisol, Joyce . . . Dear Laura, Fatemeh, Karen and Casandra, Let’s join together, let’s rise up, let’s vote our future in the Tuesday, November 3 election! For the sake of our children and theirs, we must vote with hope and compassion.”

For your sake, we must prevail, my Dream for a New Day, Septanna Hope, a blip on future’s horizon.

With enduring love from your 7th generation grandmother,

Ann