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Listening to Heart-Speech

Sometimes our hearts tell us things.

When we lived in town we had a neighbor who would put her hand up to the right side of her face, like a blinder, whenever she left her house. One day I asked her why. She pointed to the new buildings in the ravine at the end of our street. "Those houses--I can't bear to see them," she said. "My children used to play there. It was all woods. We had picnics--"

Her voice broke, and she didn't finish her sentence.

But her meaning was clear:

We bond with landscape just as we do with people, and the breaking of those bonds hurts just as much.

But growth is the one thing our modern capitalist society cannot do without. When housing-starts fall off, the economy is in trouble. When people stop buying consumer items, the economy is in trouble. Expansion, constant expansion, is what we need. Therefore, we are trained to suppress stabs of grief such as my neighbor felt. "Well, that's progress," we are supposed to say, resignedly, when a highway, shopping mall, or subdivision replaces the greenspace we had loved.

But our hearts keep talking.

Enter writers, whose job it is to hear heart-speech and then express it through their own creations.

Drought: We Can Learn from Job

Out here on McDowell Creek there was a beautiful snowfall a few days ago, rain the next day, a cloudburst last night, and now fog today. While runoff is gathering in puddles, our hope is growing: Maybe it won't be a drought year after all.

"A drought has a long tail," my neighbor told me back in 2012, the summer without rainfall. "We're not out of it yet," he told me when the rains came that fall.

He was so right. Even though we had some good rains in 2013 and above average snows this February, we have also had, just about every day for at least three years now--wind.

In preparation for leasing our pastures to a cow-calf operation, we checked our ponds. We were shocked! Our black lab Deci walked right across pools that not too long ago we couldn't reach the bottom of, not even with a canoe paddle stretched straight down. Our prospective renters were people we wanted to work with, but we had to tell them no. Our ponds were just too low.

In fact, all of our water sources--seeps, springs, McDowell Creek itself--are looking puny. The likely culprit--that constant wind. It must be causing evaporation that's greater than whatever amount of precipitation we receive. Things just keep getting dryer and dryer.

So we might be in for it again this year. We dread the thought of lack of water--what it does to soils, plants, animals, and people.

But if it is another dry year we have to recognize that it's part of the package of living on the tall grass prairie.

You don't get the one without the other.

The Creek Field is alive with strange powers!

Our Creek Field is 30 acres of cropground, bordered on three sides by McDowell Creek. In March, we seeded it back to native, a first step on the long journey of restoring bottomland prairie.

The first prairie restorationists were martyrs: they spent weeks on their hands and knees weeding their precious plots. But through experience they learned that "succession" would do much of the work for them. Succession is a natural progression from annuals to perennials, nature's way of healing the "wound" of open ground. Annuals germinate quickly, blossom, and set seed, holding the soil while perennials inconspicuously build up their roots. It can take years, but annuals are the warm-up act: they will make their bows and exit when the perennials take the stage.

I was therefore not worried when in late spring the first tiny seedlings to emerge were annual weeds--beggars' tick, prickly lettuce, hedge parsley, ragweed, horseweed, foxtail. I knew these raggedy, prickly plants had a role to play. But built into my preconception of succession was the idea that the beginning was inferior to the end. I thought I had to endure an unattractive first stage in order to get to some place better. Little did I know that while the land was healing itself, I would be healing my own lack of understanding!

This July has been the month of turkey vulture nestlings.

In late May I noticed that every time I approached the Guest House, a vulture would fly up from the sunken patio. Was there a carcass nearby? In a cubby hole under the walkway to the front door, I found a different explanation. Lying on the gravel, amidst last-year's blown-in leaves, were two giant eggs, white with tan splotches. I had seen vultures going in and out of abandoned barns, and I had assumed that they nested up high, closer to where they soar, perhaps in the rafters or the hay loft. A little research enlightened me: Vultures nest in enclosed spaces, so yes, they do use old buildings, but also hollow logs, caves, burrows under overhangs, holes in trees. The nook under the walkway definitely fit their specs.

I was alarmed by what else I learned: When the eggs hatched, the carrion-eating parents would regurgitate food for the young, leading to noticeable aromas. This would not be a quick process, either, as the nestlings would take two to three months to fledge!

Uh-oh. Eco-tourists use our Guest House to reconnect with nature. We'd be offering them nature all right, nature with a capital N. Still, how could we justify killing only to avoid the aroma of what was already dead? We, the proprietors of a wildlife refuge, were not about to destroy a nest--or lose the opportunity to observe it closely. So first, a quick announcement on the web site: The Guest House is currently unavailable for rental. Next, a trailcam, pointed at the cubby.

So began my involvement with Family Vulture. Through trailcam videos, I learned that both parents brooded the eggs and that mice, songbirds, woodrats, and squirrels could approach the nest with impunity. But when a possum ambled into the cubby, it was a different story. The adult fluffed up and glared, and the possum, being a possum, didn't notice at first--but when it finally dawned on him what was in front of him, he backed out fast! Ditto for a raccoon, who developed a sudden interest in another location once he got a load of the vulture's stare. But one night when both parents were gone, the possum came back. I assumed that that was it--the next generation would have naked tails, not naked heads--and it was all because the parents were off gallivanting when they should have been protecting the eggs. But I was wrong. The possum nosed the eggs myopically and then began grubbing in the leaf litter, where he found something interesting, pulled it up, and munched it slowly. Then he turned around three times (what was that about?), and waddled off. I breathed a sigh of relief. Threat averted, but how? I had read that vultures use projectile vomiting as a defense against predators--not to disgust them but to distract them with an easier meal. Now I wondered if the adults had left some tidbits near the eggs for that same purpose. My criticism of the parents changed to admiration.

But at the end of June, while I was at a family reunion in Wisconsin, my husband called to tell me that the eggs were no more. My heart sank. I had visions of the possum finally claiming the prize. But then Ron laughed and said the eggs were gone because they had been replaced by two fluffy chicks! He sent me photos, and I saw the cubby now graced by what looked like two balls of white cotton stuck onto big black beaks.

Since returning to Kansas, I have watched the cotton balls grow into chicken-sized birds whose feet aren't made for walking, as the youngsters lurch and teeter and stumble wherever they go. They are still covered in fluffy white down, and when left alone they huddle in the back of the alcove, like giant snowballs. But when Mom or Pop shows up, they spring to life. They jump up and down and flap their undersized wings, looking a little like penguins as they stand up tall to reach their parent's bill. The adult puts his or her mandibles around the nestling's head and then brings up predigested food. Not every item on the menu makes it into the little gullet; it's that spillage that accumulates and becomes the source of stench. However, when the parents are away, the nestlings turn the leftovers into snacks and even allay their hunger by eating the food stuck to their nestmate's chest and back. The smell thus goes as well as comes, thanks to the little odor-eaters.

Indeed, the chicks' destiny is to transform the loathsome into the benign. The pathogens that flourish in putrid flesh are killed by a vulture's digestive tract. Sacred in some ancient cultures, vultures certainly live up to their genus name Cathartes, the purifiers.

It's true that while working in the guest house I sometimes have to close the windows and turn on an air cleaner. When that happens I find myself counting the days until September or October when we can bring in the powerwashers. But in the meantime, it's not bad to be reminded that nature, which renews our spirits, is not all gorgeous sunsets and blooming flowers. In fact, "renewal" depends for its meaning on something old, past it, done for. Carrion being fed to growing chicks reminds us that all stories are connected, and that when one thing is too far gone, another is just getting started.

Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places animals way down the hierarchy, but we do just the opposite. "Angels," we think to ourselves or maybe whisper to each other--because sometimes that's the only word for the creatures that fill our world with love.

I should say right out that I am a lifelong member of this group. So it should not be surprising that I have been musing this spring about two special animals, one absent, one present.

The Absent One is our beautiful dog Snobie. My husband first saw her when she was a tiny puppy, wandering all by herself on the busy streets of Mission, South Dakota. He took her in and took her to a veterinarian, who told him she was only 4 weeks old--too young to be separated from her mother and littermates and therefore doomed to be psychologically stunted. He said she would never adapt to human beings.

How wrong he was! She grew easily into a loving and well-mannered member of our household. Here at Bird Runner, she was my constant companion. Throughout all of her 14 years, she shared a contagious delight in life. No matter how many troubles accumulated in our human world, Snobie could make us feel that this very moment in this very place was perfection itself--exactly as it was meant to be.

Now the hole in my heart has her shape exactly. I can't ask another pet to take her place. It wouldn't be fair, as I'm afraid I would blame another dog for not being her. I miss her as much today as the day she died, two years ago.

But now alongside this loss has grown up a new attachment--not to a creature who greets me eagerly or who follows me everywhere--but to someone who avoids me as much as possible and has her own agenda, quite apart from mine. This is a young female coyote who shows up repeatedly on our trail cameras. She is delicate and energetic, with a tail that narrows at the top, like a pony tail. After several daytime clips revealed her russet color, I started thinking of her as "Miss Red."

Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places animals way down the hierarchy, but we do just the opposite. "Angels," we think to ourselves or maybe whisper to each other--because sometimes that's the only word for the creatures that fill our world with love.

I should say right out that I am a lifelong member of this group. So it should not be surprising that I have been musing this spring about two special animals, one absent, one present.

The Absent One is our beautiful dog Snobie. My husband first saw her when she was a tiny puppy, wandering all by herself on the busy streets of Mission, South Dakota. He took her in and took her to a veterinarian, who told him she was only 4 weeks old--too young to be separated from her mother and littermates and therefore doomed to be psychologically stunted. He said she would never adapt to human beings.

How wrong he was! She grew easily into a loving and well-mannered member of our household. Here at Bird Runner, she was my constant companion. Throughout all of her 14 years, she shared a contagious delight in life. No matter how many troubles accumulated in our human world, Snobie could make us feel that this very moment in this very place was perfection itself--exactly as it was meant to be.

Now the hole in my heart has her shape exactly. I can't ask another pet to take her place. It wouldn't be fair, as I'm afraid I would blame another dog for not being her. I miss her as much today as the day she died, two years ago.

But now alongside this loss has grown up a new attachment--not to a creature who greets me eagerly or who follows me everywhere--but to someone who avoids me as much as possible and has her own agenda, quite apart from mine. This is a young female coyote who shows up repeatedly on our trail cameras. She is delicate and energetic, with a tail that narrows at the top, like a pony tail. After several daytime clips revealed her russet color, I started thinking of her as "Miss Red."

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. The conflict currently raging in Logan County over the compulsory poisoning of prairie dogs and the reintroduction of the Black-footed Ferret has a rich context.

In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, argued for a "land ethic" that would expand our definition of "community" to include soil, water, plants, and animals. Such an ethic, he wrote, would "change the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." He knew as he wrote that he was up against an opposing view, as evidenced by the soil erosion, water pollution, and plant-and-animal extinctions that were increasing, not decreasing, in his day. Nevertheless, he did everything he could to replace human self-centeredness with a morality sensitive to the rights of non-human creatures to exist and (in some areas) to exist in their natural state.

Leopold's embattled view was nothing new. The newspapers from the early days of Kansas are full of protests on behalf of wildlife. In 1872, the Hutchinson News

We Need a Healthy GOP!

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We need a strong Republican Party!

Our democracy works best when rival parties are fountains of vigorous new ideas and when--to change metaphors--they serve as watchdogs for each other. No party has a monopoly on the truth or on corruption, either. We need more checks and balances, not fewer!

But if it is to return to health, the national Republican Party needs to shed some toxins. It needs to take a page from the book of its many local elected officials who never got into the national craziness in the first place.

But the national party is another story. Craziness is a polite term for what it got into.

The worst poison in the national Republican Party is its long-standing "Southern Strategy," developed in 1968 after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts guaranteed southern Blacks the right to vote. The strategy involved inviting segregationist Southerners to leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans. In return, the once-honorable party of Dwight David Eisenhower adopted the old segregationist practice of race-baiting. This strategy meant writing off the Black vote--but as Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips told the New York Times in 1970, the Republicans didn't want the Black vote; they wanted the votes of racist whites. Phillips said, "From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that....The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."

Well, that's where the votes were.

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - I have been puzzled by the new Republican Party -- not the party of my father or grandfather, not the party of excellent local public servants such as Tom Moxley, Ben Bennett, Roger Reitz, Jeff Longbine, Rebecca Bossemeyer, or Florence Whitebread -- but the extreme right-wing party of Paul Ryan, Sam Brownback, and many members of the Tea Party. Their views seem illogical. After unregulated financial dealings brought down our economy in 2008, why make a fetish of the free market? Why talk as if everything government does is bad, despite obvious counter-examples (clean water, enforceable contracts) ? And why paste labels on Americans of modest means, when they clearly don't deserve it? Why call them the "47%" who "will never take responsibility or care for their lives," as Romney did at a private fundraiser, or the "30%" who are "Takers, not Makers," as Ryan did before a conservative group?

In search of a better understanding, I decided to learn more about the philosophy behind this trend. For years Paul Ryan has cited Ayn Rand as the thinker that inspired him to get into politics; he asks his staff to read her works. So off to the library I went and came home with a copy of The Fountainhead. I read all 700 pages of it. And lo and behold, there it was, in this novel written in the 1930s and published in 1943, a philosophical justification for the apparently counter-intuitive positions of today's right wing.

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We Americans are a can-do people, surrounded by technological wonders that allow us to detach ourselves from nature. Here I am writing this in air-conditioned comfort while outside the thermometer tops 100. I have already lived longer than most people did before the Industrial Revolution, and I am pain-free because a surgically implanted titanium brace keeps my lumbar discs 4 and 5 in line. My longevity - and my mobility - are owing to technological success.

Still, our problem-solving culture can have a down side, and that is a certain coldness to people experiencing tragedy. We are "worshipers in the church of the machine," writes historian Loren Baritz about American culture. But machines have no feelings -- they know nothing of guilt, heartbreak, loss. When people face terrible suffering there is no deep well of American cultural wisdom for them to draw upon. People do find houses of worship that suit their needs, but even these islands of spirituality are influenced by the larger society. Often neither the sufferers nor those around them know what to say or do.

I was forced to think about this cultural helplessness recently when in a short period of time two terrible things happened to acquaintances. One was the suicide of a teenaged child; the other, the accidental drowning of a guest at a pool party.

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