With the preponderance of plastic items everywhere you turn, it’s a real challenge to figure out how to reduce my use. Take, for instance, the celebratory picnic of grandson’s swim team season two weeks ago. Hotdogs and hamburgers would be furnished, but each family was to bring along “prepackaged” sides to make the meal complete. Prepackaged? I visualized single serving chip bags, plastic containers of fruit or pudding, industrial cookies and brownies, wrapped and sealed in plastic before packaging in paperboard boxes.
How to reduce my family’s plastic contribution?
Here’s what I decided to do. I baked a batch of home-made oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips, and put one cookie each inside a single paper sleeve.
I had found a supply of these online when preparing a promotion of Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File at an old-time crafts festival.
Then I cleaned and sanitized 24 small plastic cups that included plastic lids, which came with the free USDA summer lunches provided during COVID for the grandson. I selected ripe and attractive grapes, chunks of melon, and a bing cherry, and made two dozen fresh fruit cups. I sealed them with the cleaned lids. Okay, I know. This was still in plastic, but at least it was re-used plastic before it was tossed into the trash bins.
This reducing plastic thing is hard. It’s everywhere, and we’re so used to it, we don’t even think about it anymore.
After watching the documentary The Story of Plastic with several friends and neighbors last month, and reading Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, I am convinced we need to move toward a plastic free world sooner, rather than later. Like maybe, yesterday. Or last year.
It’s not going to be easy. Look around. Nearly everything we do, everything we have, everything we shop for at the local stores is–if not made of plastic itself–wrapped up in it, sealed with it, packaged, bottled, bagged in it. We are so used to plastic in our lives, where do we even begin?
Beth Terry has some really good ideas about that. Her book is chock-full of tips, personal stories (mostly from her experiences), and suggestions for alternatives. I highly recommend it for everyone. It’s written so engagingly, that I was trying some of her ideas with each chapter, without waiting to finish the book. For quick starters, she also blogs at https://myplasticfreelife.com/
For instance, take plastic bags. These nuisances are very bad for the environment, totally unnecessary, but so hard to avoid. I am old enough to recall the days before plastic bags when everything was bagged in paper bags. And of course, we were urged to change our habits then to save the trees! What about the days before paper bag convenience? What about a hundred years ago? What, even, do some other countries do today (or at least in the more recent past, before the bag-pushers got to them)?
People once were responsible for providing their own take-out crates, bags, or boxes. And in some places, that custom still exists. Here at home, it seems that every worthy organization offers free re-usable shopping bags. Some are more road-worthy than others, but at least they aren’t hard to find. I have a dozen in my car, ready for toting new purchases. The good thing about cloth bags is that they can be tossed into the laundry and cleaned for reuse. We just have to remember to take a few into the store when we get the week’s provisions.
If you are a little short on bags, Beth Terry offered good ideas for making your own. How many of us have a drawer-full of old t-shirts we’ve collected at various events? I know I do. They serve a purpose for a day or two, and then gradually get buried under other shirts. Try digging out some t-shirts you haven’t worn for years and make them into shopping bags.
Trim the sleeves off, just outside the seams. Trim the neckline to make the top opening bigger. This need not be hemmed, just leave it raw cut.
Turn the shirt inside out and sew two seams across the bottom. Two seams adds strength.
Turn it right-side out, and you’ve got a bag.
If you happen to have a tank top that hasn’t been worn for a long time, it’s even easier. No sleeves to trim! Just double-seam the bottom edge and it’s a ready-made bag.
If you have no sewing machine, just cut a fringe and tie knots along the bottom. For a festive look, add beads, or other bits of things.
You can express yourself with the shirts you choose, and have a Uniquely You collection of reusable shopping bags. Or make some to give away each time you shop.
One other homemade bag suggested in the book is one crocheted out of plarn. I had never heard of plarn, but it’s a thing. Google it and you’ll find all kinds of video instructions on how to make a ball of “plarn” (that is, plastic yarn) from shopping bags. There are detailed instructions on the crocheting process, and even patterns for other items, like bedrolls for homeless people. (Really!) Talk about re-using something. A bedroll would take lots of bags from landfills already overflowing with once-used plastic stuff, or re-purpose hundreds that otherwise might blow into the trees in your hometown or the pond in your park, and might even provide a bit of comfort for those with precious little of that commodity.
My experimental plarn bag, still light-weight, but with the strength of 50 single-use bags:
Show and tell reusable homemade bags at the screening of The Story of Plastic:
Zero Plastic, Step One: Carry (and use!) reusable shopping bags.
Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by a glut of information on a topic, the immensity of a problem or a challenge, that I quite literally don’t know where to begin. Plastic pollution is such a topic. Plastics and me have had a decades-long feud. Though I grew up in the early days of the plastic boom, love for the natural world and wilderness led me to associate plastics with everything cheap and shoddy. The preponderance of the growing available products—from cheap tourist souvenirs to Tupperware (remember the parties??!)—helped me associate the word “plastic” with things that lacked authenticity: cheap imitations, counterfeit, false, fake, superficial, synthetic, and MAN-MADE.
As I moved from my parents’ home, my older sister gave me a set of dinnerware; four each of plates, bowls, and cups—a generous gift to start my adult life. But I was horrified because they were PLASTIC! I’m sure she felt conflicted and confused by my reaction, but the plastic set was returned to the store and traded for a couple pieces of cast iron cookware. (I later settled on a set of ceramic dinnerware.)
Shortly after that, I discovered No More Plastic Jesus by Adam Daniel Finnerty that became a guide book for life. Once again here, plastic meant fake, artificial, and superficial. It has been my lifelong passion to seek genuine things. Some of those are indeed crafted by human hands (take pianos, for example, or the handcrafted furniture in my office made in my father’s woodworking shop), but they use what Nature provides, not what chemists can create by manipulating petroleum into indestructible other stuff.
Having studied a science discipline in my undergraduate curriculum, (geology, a “natural science”) I get testy when people sneer at science and scientists in general. I recall a class I took in preparation for a secondary teaching certificate in the physical sciences. It was called “Science, Technology, and Society” and was a forum to examine ethical questions behind scientific exploitation of Nature’s gifts. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
Chemists are scientists too. Just because we know how to re-form the molecules in petroleum and natural gas into long, indestructible polymers, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discarded plastic products pile up in waste streams and emit the toxins added somewhat secretly by petro-chemical companies to enhance product qualities, clog waterways and swirl in our oceans. It’s becoming clear that even though we humans discovered how to make cheap single-use plastic products, we should not be inundating our planet with the stuff.
Environmental writers around the world note that some plastic products are very beneficial. In the medical field, plastics save lives. In transportation, they help make our vehicles more fuel efficient. On a piano keyboard, plastic saves the lives of elephants whose tusks formerly were used to cover wooden keysticks.
Most of the beneficial plastics are meant to endure for decades. Those we encounter on grocery shopping trips are meant to be thrown away. Single-use plastic products, packaging, and shopping bags have become a huge global problem. And that’s got lots of people riled up, justifiably.
I’ve been reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle, and Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry. In addition, there are numerous blogs addressing plastic pollution with ideas for each of us to make a statement–and a difference–in various ways.
The pictures painted by each of these authors show a global emergency. If we don’t curtail the production and use of single-use disposable plastics before the plastics industry is a century old, there will be more plastic items in the Earth’s oceans than ocean life. No form of animal life –not even humans—will be free from synthetic polymers in the organs of their bodies. (Discover Magazine, “Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear”, Jillian Mock, January 11, 2020)
Plastic pollution is a global crisis and it’s driven by the petro-chemical industry. In my hometown, every year a group of volunteers cleans our beautiful park of plastic trash as an April, Earth Day project. How disheartening to see the confounded stuff return before May 1! Some trash blows in, other items are carelessly littered, still more is “harvested” from appropriate trash receptacles by roaming nocturnal wildlife.
Our homes are filled with the indestructible polymers. With daunting names like low density polyethylene, (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, (PS), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), nylon, or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), these “poly-mers” are found in items from children’s toys to floor coverings, to toothbrushes, to water pipes, to cookware and grocery packaging to nearly everything else.
The Story of Stuff organization has produced a documentary, The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, veritable mountains of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival industry footage beginning in the 1930s, and first-person accounts of the unfolding emergency, the film distills a complex problem that is increasingly affecting the well-being of the planet and its residents.
Locally, we’ve been given a chance to view this highly acclaimed film as part of Marquee’s Green Screen summer film series, Saturday July 24, 7:00 pm in the lobby of the theater. Local residents are invited to come to the screening. There is no admission charge. To view the film’s trailer, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so. Bring questions and ideas about combatting the local glut of plastic trash. Be sure to RSVP on Marquee’s Facebook event page so organizers can plan accordingly. For a five-minute animated condensation of the documentary, see https://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-plastic-animation/
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
George Chandler, his son Gene, and the horse Ned went doggedly forward and when the man felt sleepy in spite of himself, he knew he must act. He stopped the horse and slid out of the saddle. He could hardly support himself and clung to the stirrup. The horse dropped his head to the snow and snorted furry icicles from his nostrils. The man pulled the chilled boy into the saddle and carefully wrapped the blanket about his cold feet and legs. He removed the long wool scarf from his own neck and wound it round and round the head and shoulders of his son. He slapped his hands against his chest and stomped up and down until he felt renewed circulation of blood in his veins and his feet did not feel so much like frozen lumps.
When he felt somewhat restored, he gave Ned a slap on the rump and grasped the stirrup firmly. They proceeded on their way. The wind remained bitter and fierce. The cold grew more intense. George thought it must be after midnight. He was sure they were still several miles from home.
He gave himself up to thought. He believed in prayer and he had to have some help right now. He asked God for strength and endurance. He prayed for the son in the saddle and for the precious daughter who had been so faithful during these months when he had been forced to be away from home. As he prayed, he was strengthened. He felt reassured that they would reach home.
Gene seemed to be sleep on the horse. George’s thoughts drifted. He remembered himself as a mere lad in the Army of the Republic. He recalled the joyful day he married Hannah Priscilla Crabtree. He remembered the home life in Missouri and the glowing reports of cheap land in Kansas. These reports had fired both his and his wife’s imagination, so he had purchased their present home from a local land agent whom he had trusted implicitly. They had loaded their belongings in the two big wagons. With the crated chickens fastened underneath the wagon beds, and the boys driving the cows and extra horses, they came west from Kansas City on the great trail.
The Chandlers reached their destination in northern Lyon County, Kansas a week later. No one would ever know his bitter disappointment when he had first seen the treeless, poor upland farm that he had bargained for. He had not known there was so much pasture in all the world. He had dreamed of a farm in the bend of a creek, but the creek turned out to be a gully that passed through his land as a raging torrent after a big rain, a dry slough the remainder of the time.
The horse dragged on. George staggered as he clung to Ned. His arms ached. With thoughts of the family that waited for him, he poured his last ounce of determination into his efforts. He resolutely lifted one foot after the other, glad that Gene was quiet.
The night was clearing enough that he recognized the little cemetery in the whiteness. Ned must have come this far west to avoid some very deep snow drifts. The horse was doing fine to know so much even it if did make the way a mile longer.
Thoughts continued like a rushing stream that would not be stopped. The Chandlers had worked at making a home on that upland claim. And then—oh dear God—there had been Delphia, the blue baby. Disconnected scraps of memories filled his laboring mind. “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.” Preachers always said those words in burial services.
With cold misgivings he asked himself, “Is there more than that in life?” Hannah was taken when he had needed her so badly. Was she better off than he this terrible night? The harrowing experience of moving little Delphia’s body from the corner to the place at the head of her mother haunted him. It was noon on a warm May day when the little disinterred coffin rested on the green grass. His helpers stood around while he obeyed an impulse to open the lid to peek at his darling child again. In the first instant as they all looked the baby form was there in its original angelic beauty. With the impact of warm air, the little form crumbled into a tiny mound of ashes.
Shuddering, George forced his mind back to his present surroundings. “I must be awfully cold to let myself think in this way,” he thought. “I will not doubt. The word says the spirit shall return to God who gave it. God help me,” he prayed, “to be able to say, even tonight, The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Aloud he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. I know that God giveth His children strength.”
At his voice, Gene mumbled “What did you say, Pa?”
The father answered, “We will get home. We are almost there.”
It was about three o’clock in the morning when the horse stopped at the stone house. The man gave a shout and dragged the nearly frozen boy from the saddle. The door flew open and Henry, followed by the tall neighbor boy, rushed out and half carried them into light and warmth. Charlie, the lame boy, limped away with old Ned, and while the people in the house worked over the man and the boy, restoring them with a tub of snow, Charlie fed and rubbed the animal that had brought his father and brother home safely home.
When only partially recovered from his night’s experience, the man whose sandy hair had turned white during the last twelve hours, turned to the bedside of his sick daughter.
As he stroked her hair, she spoke her last words, “I knew you would come, Pa.”
The father, with spasms of pain crossing and re-crossing his fine face, held the hand that so confidently had been placed in his. He realized his efforts to save this beloved daughter had been in vain.
As dawn broke over the windswept hillside, Etta Viola Chandler died. George gathered as many of his children as he could clasp into his arms. They clung to him or to each other as he bowed his head in submission and whispered so all could hear, “Thy will be done.”
That was the morning of January 19, 1882. The place was a quarter of a mile south of the original Santa Fe Trail that wended its way across northern Lyon County, Kansas. The Old Santa Fe Trail was the way thousands of people followed west in the 1800s. With their heads, hearts, and hands they literally created a democracy the likes of which is not found anywhere else on our earth.
Because of the bitter cold, Etta Viola Chandler, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, could not be buried in the little Bushong Cemetery beside her mother until January 24, 1882.
Notes about Mabel Chandler Harris, the author of this historical narrative, and the setting of the story.
Mabel was born to George Chandler and his second wife, Carrie, in 1890. She was one of eight children of this second marriage. The children in her “High Courage” story were mostly grown when Mabel was a child, but she must have heard this family story and her heart went out to their struggles.
Mabel married Loren Scott Harris, the older brother of my grandfather Charley Harris, on June 7, 1915. They had one child, Florence Ethel, born December 22, 1927, who was a favorite cousin of my father, Wallace. He called Florence by the nickname Pete.
Pete moved to Wichita during her adult years and shared this “High Courage” story with her dear friend and tax accountant. When Wallace moved to Cowley County from Lyon County, he also hired Pete’s accountant friend to handle his taxes, and I followed suit. During one of my annual tax meetings, she presented me with a copy of Mabel’s story about the blizzard of 1882.
Loren and Mabel lived in Dunlap, Kansas, just up the road from the Harris family homestead on the Neosho River where my grandfather and father lived. Mabel had the distinguished honor to become the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in the entire state of Kansas. She performed wedding ceremonies, and funerals, for many rural folks, including the Harris family.
The settler’s town named in the story, Bushong, Kansas, is today little more than a few neighborly homes on the paved county road due north of Americus, Kansas. To put more perspective on the horseback journey of Gene and his father on Ned the trusty horse, Bushong is a good 20 miles from the heart of Emporia. The stone cabin where Etta waited would have been even further. Gene and Ned traveled more than 40 miles in that storm, 20 of them on the return trip with George, in the dark, facing into the wind. That blows my mind. Teenage Gene indeed showed great courage, as well as a deep love for his sister and the rest of the family.
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
In the dead of winter when the weather was at its worst, Etta Viola Chandler was lying in her bed, sick. She knew that she was very hot, and that she was very sick. She thought of her mother who had always known what to do under any circumstances. She lifted her arms pleadingly out in the room and sobbed. “Oh, ma, I need you so much.” She continued to toss, finally sleeping fitfully.
After a long, long time, morning came. Gene peeked in from the bedroom and noticed her feverish face. “You need the doctor?”
Etta answered the question he had blurted out. Yes, she must have a doctor. Henry declared he would be glad to make the trip to Americus. As soon as he had eaten, he saddled his favorite horse and went for their good friend, Dr. Wright. Gene went out in the bitter cold to do the chores, paying special attention to all the livestock under his care, just as his father always did. Leo Nettie ironed the clothes and the children all cared for little Annie, who was unusually fretful. Before noon a kind neighbor came in to help. Henry had stopped at the Sanders place on his way to Americus. Mrs. Sanders, too, was alarmed at the serious condition of the sick girl on the bed.
Soon other neighbors brought food. Their presence provided comfort for the anxious children. Early in the afternoon, Dr. Wright arrived and with gruff frankness told them that Etta was a very sick girl. “She has pneumonia,” he said. “I’ll do all I can for her, but her father must get here as soon as possible.” He provided medicine, carefully giving the directions, and reluctantly left the house. Henry stood close to the stove to warm up after his trip to Americus.
At the window, Gene noticed the snow piling up. The cold wind blew through cracks in the stone wall. On the bed, Etta was conscious of Gene’s dismay. Her sympathy was aroused but she knew their father would want to be home under the circumstances. And she needed her Pa. She sat up in her bed and in her old way, she marshalled her forces.
“Gene,” she said, “you will have to go for Pa. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to send you out in the storm. But you have to go. Ride Ned. He is the strongest horse on the place and you and Pa can both ride him back. Leo Nettie, keep the fire burning hard. Don’t let the house get cold. And Henry, eat some dinner and then see that the chickens and stock are well cared for, because this night will be hard on them.
“Bert, you and Charlie, get in plenty of fuel and water. Lottie, you see that the littler ones are kept happy so they won’t bother Leo-Nettie who has so much to look after.”
She sank back into the covers and turned again to face Gene. She almost whispered, “Tell Pa not to worry but to come as quick as he can. You take the heavy blanket off the bed to wrap up in—oh, Gene, I wish you did not need to go.”
She turned to the others in the room. “Thank you, Mrs. Sanders, and thank everyone for coming.” Her eyes swept the circle of faces and lingered on the tall neighbor lad who stood with her brothers. “I’ll be all right when Pa gets here,” she ended confidently. She laid back on her pillow.
Silently each one attended to his appointed task. The tall neighbor boy went out with Gene to see that everything was as good as possible for the dangerous trip to Emporia. Beside the cold, visibility would be poor and there would be many drifts on the road. It was already little more than a path.
Gene was well-wrapped. With his back to the wind and the big horse willing he made steady progress. Yet it was well after dark when the chilled and hungry boy finally reached the hotel in Emporia. George Chandler greeted his son’s announcement with consternation. He felt a premonition of impending disaster.
The hotel owner was understanding, but obdurate. “The supper must be served,” he said. “The house is full of guests, and anyway, it will be much better to wait until morning. No one can hope to make a trip to Bushong and beyond on a night like this.”
At his father’s side, Gene remembered Etta’s words, “Tell Pa not to worry but to come as soon as he can.” Gene said, “Pa, it’s bad but let me feed Ned so he can rest a bit and then let us be going. Etta wants you.”
While the horse ate and rested, Gene warmed by the oven door and had a good supper. The anxious father served the evening meal before he could prepare for the trip home in the face of one of Kansas’ worst blizzards. He knew they would be facing directly into the storm as they headed northwest into open country.
At first, both Gene and his Pa rode Ned but the horse was not as fresh as he had been six hours earlier, nor as willing to face the needle-sharp sleet that cut their faces. The animal was urged on by the worried man with the reins. The boy dug his face into his Father’s protecting back but his feet and legs soon became numb and he sobbed soft whimpering sobs that cut into the heart of the father. George tried to comfort the lad with kind encouragement, but fear had assailed him too. He had lost his bearings. He was not sure he was guiding the horse in the right direction.
“I will have to trust the horse and God,” he told himself. “I do not know where we are.” He fastened the reins around the pommel of the saddle, giving the horse his head. The animal, seeming to sense the urgency of the man’s knees, struggled on through the drifts around them. George fretted and worried for fear that they were not going right, until he was reassured by the lights and recognizable streets of Americus. He knew then that Ned would get them home if only the two humans could endure the low temperatures of the night.
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
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?
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.
“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.”
Today is Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Happy 250th birth anniversary to Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the world’s musical geniuses. I have tried to share some amazing works of this creative master with my piano students through the year. Thanks to the generosity of Carl Martin, some of us attended the symphony in February featuring a guest pianist performing Beethoven’s piano concertos. Each of the students has explored some of Beethoven’s work this fall. We took turns watching a family video called Beethoven Lives Upstairs.
What could have been an occasion for a great musical party is somewhat dampened due to the COVID virus situation that keeps everyone distant. But, Happy Birthday anyway, to a revered composer.
I try to imagine the world when he was born in 1770. That was just a few years before American revolutionaries declared independence from England. As a child in Germany, he could hardly have been aware of the struggle across the sea. But I have no doubt there existed notable unrest in the colonies the year Beethoven was born. In just six short years a new nation would begin, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that we are all equal. It was a grand experiment—government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Nearly 250 years later, on this day of celebrating the birth of Beethoven, I have to wonder if our country will actually make it another 6 years. The tumultuous last few years leave us as divided as we were when Abraham Lincoln’s priority was to preserve the union. Divisions are less neat this time around, with every city, county, and state in a struggle to retain a representative government for all its varied people.
We have witnessed the erosion of our constitutional principles, mainstream disregard for the voting rights of all citizens, militant objections to election results, and a seditious attempt by many elected officials to overturn the results of our recent election—to deny the voice of the people in the voting process.
While it’s gratifying to know that the electoral college fulfilled its role in confirming the election of the Biden/Harris team, there’s no denying that our new administration will face obstacles no previous incoming team has faced. Ever. In the last 244 years.
Lord, help them.
Not only is this nation deeply divided, we also face dire situations never before seen in the history of humans on Earth. We have desperate climate refugees fleeing homelands that have become unlivable, while at the same time the world’s wealthiest businessmen call for accelerating the depletion of Earth’s available resources in a blatant attempt to exploit nature’s blessings to benefit those wealthy few. We have unjust policies in regards to resource distribution, and disrespect for the limitations of the planet.
The human population on Earth approaches 8 billion people. If every single person were to consume goods and resources at the level seen in North America, we would exhaust five whole planets. Clearly this cannot continue. We only have one planet. The struggle for basic necessities is reaching extreme levels, and this doesn’t take into account other living beings that call Earth home. In the year 2020, we witness continued selfishness and ignorance in the refusal to recognize a planet-wide crisis identified by trained scientists around the world.
There is every bit as much unrest in 2020 as there was in the colonies in 1770. Maybe even more. And I wonder: What kind of celebration, if any, will we face in 6 years? Is our country, a nation founded on democratic principles of government by the people, even going to exist in 2026?
Unless we stop the militias, stop the abuse of our chosen government officials and public servants, stop exploiting the planet’s natural systems, and begin to show a willingness to listen to others and respect their needs, it seems unlikely that we will survive.
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.
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.