Why I’m piping up for Kansas history, and our future

August 2, 2021 3:33 am

We’re at the hinge that opens and closes history with the future in a more palpable way than we have been for some time, writes Lori Brack. And like the bird gangs around her house, she plans to find joy in not piping down. (Lori Brack for Kansas Reflector)

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Two bird gangs live around my house. Maybe three. One gang specializes in diving at cats and humans from trees and power lines. One gang hangs around and pecks on the garage door and then like kids in trouble, soars away close to the ground when someone goes out to see what the matter could be. The other gang is pretty chill. All year round, it hoo-hoos from trees to remind me of growing up in a house where their progenitors also hoo-hooed from trees.

They love living here. They have their territories, habits, tricks and troubles.

So how can I love living in Kansas? This summer I understand that I want to love it — that I moved alone to a small town where I know almost no one, a town situated in hills that my eyes imagine as little sisters to the northern New Mexico hills I love easily and from afar.

But Kansas beats me up — humidity and mosquitoes, loud pickup trucks, convenience store pizzas in a food desert, stupid cold winter nights when furnace runoff freezes into shapes that keep me up all night checking to make sure there’s no blockage, no carbon monoxide danger.

And Kansans disappoint me. They vote stupid and when you meet them in person out here in the west, they don’t speak or act particularly stupid. Some of them carry, in special leather pouches on their belts, pairs of pliers and know how to use them to pull a nail out of a boot, fix a piece of fence, replace a shower head. Some have big ideas and without a lot of rigamarole get after it and create museums or music festivals or murals. But I notice they also don’t do the work to help others care about what they’ve made. It’s this Kansas laissez-faire agreement we seem to have with each other — you do you and I’ll do me and let’s not talk about it. In fact, let’s not acknowledge it — anything different, out of the ordinary — at all. Is this liberating or a dismissal?

We’re at the hinge that opens and closes history with the future in a more palpable way than we have been for some time. In a little over a year, we’ve gone from parents — mostly mothers — forced to teach their children at home, to parents — mostly mothers — suddenly understanding the difficulties of educating young people and a newfound respect for the labor of educators. Then, from a rotten center of that exhausted esteem, have emerged legislators telling teachers what and how they should be teaching, a new skirmish in what some think of as culture wars.

On July 5, a friend who attended the same Kansas high school and college I did was standing in my kitchen. The date is important if you think about it, the day after paroxysms of imitation gunfire, the stink and trash of fireworks all over the streets. He said, “Why didn’t we learn that the biggest socialist newspaper in the country was published in Kansas?”

Along with other kernels of Kansas’s past — our abolitionist and feminist roots — we pushed aside our radical idealistic history as if it had the same stench of the racism and violence we also purged from memory and curriculum.

So, here’s me taking a pair of pliers and pulling this old nail out: We let ourselves forget that The Appeal to Reason, our nation’s most important 20th century socialist newspaper, was published in Girard. Its editors in 1914 asked readers to contribute a dollar to the Farmers’ Fighting Fund so the paper could send 25-cent subscriptions to four farmers. They believed that farmers’ “freedom and independence — their environment — gives them a great perspective.” 

As the number of farmers has dwindled, perhaps, so has the great perspective. I’m pretty sure we need better reading material than TV has provided, wrapped up as we are in listening to (and electing) people who don’t share our endeavor, our geography, or our interests.  I’m making a commitment to the future that this moment pivots upon: I will read more history, seek its broadest and most inclusive interpretation and, like the bird gangs, find joy in not piping down.

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Lori Brack
Lori Brack

Lori Brack is the author of "A Case for the Dead Letter Detective" (2021) and "Museum Made of Breath" (2018). In 2010, her poetic script for "Farmer’s Dream," a work of performance art based in Kansas agricultural history and labor by Ernesto Pujol, was published as "A Fine Place to See the Sky." The script is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1918 Kansas farming journals. Brack worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center and as a college and community writing instructor. Most recently, she directed a foundation-funded artist development project in Salina. She moved to Lucas last fall where she lives two blocks from the Garden of Eden and 14 miles straight south of the geodetic center of the continent.