Posted here are samples from the column, which was published in the Emporia Gazette from 2009 to 2011 and won a Kansas Press Association Award of Excellence in 2011 for column writing.
White Birch and Bluestem
The final GREEN STATE column, published in the Emporia Gazette August 6, 2011
My portrait of Jane Koger, a fourth-generation rancher in Chase County, Kansas, who lives off-grid and practices an ecosystem approach to cattle ranching.
In case you’re wondering why you haven’t seen this column in a few weeks, the writer has pulled up stakes and is drafting this farewell from a shady spot in her new back yard in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It’s good to be back in my hometown, but I’ll miss Kansas. And I’ll miss you.
There’s plenty of time to reminisce as I unwrap the dishes and glassware that my friends so lovingly helped me pack, and to fantasize about making my first bee line “up north” to reconnect with the lakes, pine forests and stands of slender white birch that shaped my love of nature as a child.
Maybe the forests will draw forth the same comfort of familiarity my grandfather sensed when he reached Upper Michigan as a teenager after leaving Sweden for steady work clearing a swath for the railroad. In an old photo, he’s holding a clarinet as he stands with five other lumberjacks, each carrying an instrument, lined up behind a four-foot crosscut saw that lies in the snow. How, I wonder, did the wildlife take to the sprightly yet melancholic polska tunes that wandered through the woods at night?
But before I make that northern trek, I turn to my notes from my last outing for this column, a long-awaited visit to Jane Koger’s ranch in Chase County—a place I had heard much about and already admired, a self-sustaining model of how the sun and prairie wind can be enough, more than enough, to keep the lights on and the water running hot when you want it.
In early June I rode out with three young women who are also fans of Jane’s off-the-grid setup and “ecosystem approach” to ranching. Jane, who obviously never tires of giving small tours like this, greeted us warmly and explained the construction of the haybale walls and pointed out the post beams and metalwork all recycled from an old barn.
Each room contains charming architectural details such as a round, Hobbit-like living room window that opens onto a spectacular view of the hills and tall ceilings that create an airiness to echo the spacious, undulating landscape outside.
Like the looping, interconnected systems of the Earth, everything at the ranch is designed to serve more than one function: the household water from the sink, bathtub and washer flows into a room-sized greenhouse where it nourishes plants and is filtered before exiting into the wild. The toilet creates compost and a small amount of clear, filtered moisture. The sun shines onto roof panels that feed the enormous battery store and run all the lights and appliances. And the wind, which kept up a constant hale that afternoon, spun the turbine blades atop the 80-foot tower to feed more power into the self-contained energy grid.
The fullest evidence of the wind came not from the windmill or our flapping clothes, but the muscular hovering of the barn swallows. Even the chickens eyed them from the door of their coop, staying clear of the gusts that blew up dust and seeds. I must return on a calmer day to spend more time with the hens to confirm that they are truly “the happiest chickens in Kansas,” as the ranch’s website boasts. How does a chicken show she’s cheerful? Discovering that alone is worth another trip.
Thank you, Jane, for the open invitation, for all of it.
Thank you, Chris Walker, for the opportunity to write and publish in the Gazette. And thank you, readers, for your kind words about a story or two when we crossed paths at Granada Coffee or in the grocery aisle. They went a long, long way.
I miss Chase County. I carry it, though, in ways I may not recognize but that others may see in my face from time to time, perhaps a deeper level of expression carved out by gazing at the shifting afternoon light on a rocky bank of Munkers Creek, or at the Flint Hills in any of their incarnations . . . as a shapely blanket of emerald green or stony heath covered in a froth of ice.
As Kansas’ beloved son William Stafford observed, “Once you cross a land like that / you own your face more: what the light / struck told a self . . .”
Thank you, gentle seas of bluestem and all the other sentient beings I have known in Kansas, for allowing me to share a few years with you beneath that tall, blue light.
Article published October 1, 2010, in the Emporia Gazette:
Ferrets Win In Kansas Court
The black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, was protected in a Kansas district court last week. (Photo: Audubon of Kansas)
They’re endangered, they’re vital to the prairie ecosystem—and they just beat the rap.
Last week a district court judge in Wichita issued a judgment that will protect the Kansas habitat of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America.
The state judge ruled against Logan County, which sought to exterminate the prairie dog population on a private 10,000-acre ranch. Poisoning off the prairie dogs, which are the favorite prey of the black-footed ferret population that was reintroduced to the ranch in 2007, would have been a death sentence to the ferrets.
Ninety-eight percent of the prairie dog population of the Great Plains has been wiped out, and the remaining two percent are still subject to the “kill them all” statute put into play in 1901, when a pre-conservation mindset saw the near extermination of the state’s whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys, bison, pronghorn elk and prairie dogs.
A handful of Kansas ranchers are committed to bringing black-footed ferrets back from the brink of extinction, including the owners of the Logan County ranch involved in last week’s court action. Working with a coalition of groups including Audubon of Kansas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), ranchers Larry and Betty Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt reintroduced 14 black-footed ferrets onto their property three years ago. Another 10 were released into the adjoining Smoky Valley Ranch Preserve.
Home of the largest prairie dog complex in Kansas, the Haverfield-Barnhardt ranchland is ferret paradise.
The ranchers’ legal battles started in 2008 when they refused to allow Logan County exterminators to poison the prairie dogs on their property. A district judge recognized that the FSW had defined the ranch as a promising site for reintroduction of black-footed ferrets and slapped the county with a restraining order.
Logan County tried to repeal that ruling, but on September 20 Judge Jack Lively ruled that the restraining order would stand. The Haverfield-Barnhardt ranch and the 90-foot vegetative boundary that surrounds it are permanently off-limits to poisoning.
The prairie dogs are safe, at least from the county. They still have to contend with black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, burrowing owls, coyotes, ferruginous hawks and swift foxes, but Haverfield likes it that way.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “It’s nature’s way.” A healthy population of predators, combined with Haverfield’s method of frequently rotating his cattle’s grazing areas, has solved the problem of prairie dogs destroying wide patches of grassland on his ranch.
Randy Rathbun, the lawyer who represented the Haverfields, said the case was a matter of a federal law superseding state law. “The Endangered Species Act is the most broad legislation that any nation has ever passed to focus on endangered species,” he said, “and we had one of the most endangered mammals in the country. I didn’t see any way that a century-old statute was going to trump the Endangered Species Act.”
Logan County’s aggressive stance on exterminating Haverfield’s property represents the “kill-them-all” prairie dog sentiment held by many ranchers. “The reason they were so intent on doing this treatment themselves,” said Rathbun, “is that they then try to charge this client back.” The county wanted to conduct multiple exterminations so that the bills would pile up and make the issue too expensive for the ranchers to pursue further, he explained.
On top of constant pressure from the county, the Haverfields were sued by their neighbors, who claimed prairie dogs emigrated from their ranch. (The Haverfields, with help from Audubon of Kansas, have installed a fencing system that makes that impossible.) A judge threw out those suits.
“We don’t see very many people anywhere in the country who will withstand as much hostility as Larry Haverfield has, especially from the county,” said Audubon of Kansas executive director Ron Klataske.
I asked 74-year-old Haverfield where he and his fellow rancher Barnhardt get the strength to fight such prickly battles.
“It just happens Gordon and I are the same age,” he said. “When you’re that age, my feeling is, why not try to do the right thing? When you’re younger you have peer pressure and all that, but I don’t really feel that much at this point.”
Larry Haverfield, conservation hero. May we all grow so wise.