Thursday, April 15, 2010

Kansas Free Press

Sarah first sent me the link to the Kansas Free Press which is part of a nation-wide citizen journalism movement that seems to function, without any sense of irony, as a spontaneous platform for the democratic party.

However, there is some diversity to the group, a couple cranky old farmers, a gaggle of enthusiastic women's rights college students, and even the blowhards are genial enough.

I read this article today, a mini-essay on dreaming about Africa while reading Conrad and others as a child and then finally visiting the Dark Continent decades later:

I joined a group that flew into Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and then traveled out into the wilderness to Amboseli National Park. Arriving at our designated lodge, weary from many hours traveling, I dumped my luggage in the cottage that was provided for me and then stepped out to take in my first real look at Africa. I found myself grappling with a vague sense of incongruity between the idea that I was in Africa, the most exotic, remote place I had ever visited, and a feeling that it was familiar. I puzzled on this and then it came to me.

It was the smells that created the sense of nostalgia, arousing deeply buried memories as only the sense of smell can. As I stood taking in my first view of the high plains of Kenya I realized that the memories evoked by the smells in the air were memories of Kansas. Gradually I sorted out its elements one by one. The grass beneath my feet was a tough, gnarly species, and was identical to the grass in my yard where I grew up in Topeka. We called it Bermuda grass. I had long since forgotten about it and it was the last thing I expected to encounter in Kenya. As I looked out over the plains and saw zebra and buffalo, I realized that I also smelled them, and that their smells were remarkably close to the smells of the horses and cattle on my grandfather's farm in Silver Lake. It was a strange little epiphany, a cosmic joke that I shared with no one as I stood on the plains of Kenya, thinking I was so far from home, and yet feeling so close to the land of my origins, where I spent the first 25 years of my life: Kansas.

The Greek God Hermes, the messenger of the gods was also known as the trickster. I felt as if he had given me a playful smack on the head as I realized what a great affinity the high plains of Kenya had with the plains of Kansas where I grew up. I had traveled to what I felt was the most remote place in my life and found that it felt a lot like home. At that moment I revisited my childhood self, the little boy gazing with wonder at maps of remote places. And I realized that when I played as a boy at Shunganunga Creek and imagined myself to be in Africa, I had been closer than I ever knew.

Unexamined here is the key difference. How much Africa has of itself that Kansas has lost.

An interesting though unintentional commentary can be found in another article on the site, written by an amateur historian specializing in Indians. Many, many native Kansan animals, so much of our grassland Africa-ness, bears, big cats, otters, buffalo, wolves, beaver were killed off entirely or nearly in the first couple decades of statehood.

"I had designed to spend the winter hunting, but now found myself an Indian trader," Mead wrote. Although the Kanzas brought him their wolf-skins for trade, Mead and his partners also gathered their own wolves.

"We found it also a very profitable business killing the big gray wolves which lived with the buffalo and travelled with them, and also the coyotes."

"Our method of killing wolves was to shoot down two or three old bull buffaloes in different places....We would let the buffalo lie one night in order to attract the wolves. The next night, just before dusk, we would go and scatter poisoned bait about the carcasses, each bait containing about one thirtieth part of a dram of strychnine."

Mead and his men gathered the wolf pelts by the score the next day. One morning they found and skinned 82 dead wolves. The wolf carcasses were left where they had fallen, attracting thousands of ravens which "in eating their stomachs and intestines would also eat the partially digested baits. This would kill them, and the prairie about the carcasses would soon be dotted with the glossy, shining bodies of defunct ravens, with an occasional bald eagle among them."

"The buffalo were killed by the bullets of the hunters, the wolves were killed with strychnine for their furs, and the ravens died from eating the poisoned carcasses of both, so that they all became practically extinct at about the same time," reflected Mead.

As the market for wolf pelts remained strong, strychnine sales boomed. Westport Indian trader William Bernard recalled that from the late 1850s on "an unusual article of trade was in great demand, namely, strychnine, and it was imported and sold in wholesale quantities to hunters who pursued wolves for their pelts.

Council Grove merchant William Shamleffer reminisced that a trader "should have on hand in his store a supply of everything from Bibles to whisky and strychnine."

The effect of ingesting strychnine on the wolves was recorded by a "Western Territories Correspondent" of the New York World:

"...the released strychnine takes hold on the wolf's vitals, and then there is music... He will next stand up on his hind legs and walk about and dance, but it all does no good. His shrieks and cries of pain are terrible to hear, and about the last thing he does is to turn two or three somersaults in the air and fall dead. The strychnine kills them every time."

James R. Mead never wrote about the cries of the death-thrashing wolves he had poisoned, but the veteran wolf-killer remembered their calls as beguiling:

"...the most soul-stirring music I ever heard was the clear deep bass voice of a big gray wolf on a clear cold winter night rolling out over the ice-covered prairie. It would commence on a high note and then run down the scale to the bottom, soon to be answered by his companions from every hill and canon for miles around." Addressing a meeting of the Kansas State Historical Society in December 1904, Mead rhapsodized about "the hills and plains of Kansas, God's great park, surpassing anything art or wealth of man has made. To me their primeval condition was the most beautiful and interesting of all the earth."

A few months later a wolf sighting was reported in Kansas. It was the last one.

I intended to end this post with a clip from the movie Dead Man of Gary Farmer as Nobody saying "Stupid fucking white man." But can't find it on the interwebs, so I'm including a Neil Young video from the movie instead.

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