|The Old Barn|
The house faced north, and this is looking east, down what was once the driveway. There was fencing on both sides of the barn. There was a stock tank and gates and horses, people and cattle. There was a well curb to the right in the foreground where my father planted a wild grapevine he found along the river. By the time I arrived on the planet it had overspread the trellis above the well, making a cool, fragrant place to sit in the shade. There is the haymow where my Uncle Superman had a mad scientist laboratory full of pickled snakes, frogs and all manner of gruesome creatures one year. It was the sanctuary where, as often as I possibly could, I would spend time brushing Lady, my father's horse, talking to her and hugging her big coppery neck. If I could not ride, I would climb onto her back and lay against her neck, content to be in the presence of a being I loved with all of my child's heart and soul.
In recently remembering my parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncles and the ordinary lives we shared here, a round of happy memories arose, coloring my dreams for several nights. The dearest times of our lives come and go, disappearing in the inexorable force of time. We understand no one lives forever but we have no way to change the impermanence of literally everything. Those days and most of those people have been washed far from me by time and life and death. I look back on those green and golden days with a full heart.
The farmstead was halfway up the hillside from a river bottom bend in the Little Walnut River. Atop the hill were the fading scars of buffalo wallows. There was a strong spring a bit further down the hill that ran fresh, cold water continually. And on the high bank of the river, my uncle found dozens of arrowheads and other stone tools, evidence that human beings had appreciated the fresh water spring for centuries before a single European ancestor set foot on the shores of Turtle Island. No one really knows who the first humans were to camp beside the river, or hunt the big game, or fish the water that even in my day still contained freshwater mussels twice as big as a man's hand - fresh water eels - perch and catfish. And, like me, how many hundreds of generations of children gratefully swam just above the shallows during the long, hot days of summer?
I do not know what tribes owned the area that became Butler County. One source mentions the Kansa. Another historical reference speaks of about twenty different Plains tribes gathering in the general vicinity for trade around the time the land was ceded. The final ceding of land came from the Osage, I believe. All I know for certain is that countless generations of people loved the bend of that river as much I did - as much as my whole family loved that place.
Reminiscing about my grandparent's farm, I considered the hours my grandfather poured into his crops and land - the maintenance of fences and pastures and ponds - the tending of his cattle. It was his life's work and the way he and Grandma provided for their family. Every human being alive upon this planet - from the early tribes who could not conceive of the concept of owning the land - to the poorest man struggling in the streets of any one of the enormous modern cities - intimately knows the landscape and all that moves on it. We love the place we call home, no matter how humble - no matter how grand - no matter how paved over it may be. The earth herself returns our love - our attention and our intention. And when the human beings depart, the heart goes out of well loved land.
The tribes who once loved that spring and the small unremarkable river lived from the bounty of the land, though that nomadic life was no easier than any other life. The immigrants who built the old house and barn and set the first fences around the bounty of the tall grass, breaking out the bottoms for corn, loved that place, too. The man who has that land now dug out the spring to make a moat around his house. It seems sacrilegious but someone before my family had built a concrete curb around the spring. The spring persists to this day and as yet has not been contaminated by fracking - though surely it is only a matter of time.
The immigrants, in just over a hundred years extirpated the buffalo, wolves, mountain lions, antelope and deer from Kansas. Now in the second century since white settlement, I would not swim nor eat fish caught in the river today. Each time I have returned to the Little Walnut, the water is a noxious brownish green, often with dirty foam. It is different than simply being muddy. It is poisoned.
The people who came before left arrowheads and boiling stones, Quivera knives and spear points in the soil of that river bottom. The new people have left fences and old stone foundations and a horrible mix of chemicals and abuse. Perhaps there will be a gradual balancing of the number of human beings then the burden on the earth will lessen. Nature will cover the scars, cleanse the water and soil. Our harmful marks upon the face of the planet will be swept away as surely as tall grass growing where this old barn once stood. When I stop to consider it - the history and the sweep of time - I am once more struck by the indecipherable riddle of what exactly is the meaning and purpose of life on this planet - and will anyone ever solve it.