The Murky Middle

This column was published Sunday, June 2, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Nature takes its course in Kansas. Winter snow provides needed moisture for a dormant wheat crop. In the summer, the wind blows hot and dry out of the south, the combines roar to life and we swell with pride, deep in the heart of the Breadbasket of the World, carbs be damned.

We tamed the wild prairie, our forebears busted the sod and our middle-of-the-country work ethic, independent-minded, neighbor-helping-neighbor agrarian culture was immortalized.

Along the way, we came to appreciate the occasional extreme blizzard or ice storm. They only occurred once every generation. After all, it’s good for the crops and a healthy agricultural economy anchored stability and predictability.

As goes the farmer, so goes the Kansas county seat.

Somewhere along the four-lane freeway with wide shoulders made possible by a healthy ag sector, the winter blizzards and ice storms came deeper and more often. The spring and summer storms morphed from an occasional outlier from sunshine and good weather, to the norm. High over Kansas, warm air rose and collided with cold air aloft. Not just once or twice a month.

Every. Single. Day.

We were not alone. The average temperature on the planet rose. The depth of our caring enough about it to warrant action ebbed and flowed, depending on political consensus (or lack thereof), awareness and motivation.

My sense is this subject is culturally generational. I recycle and have planted my share of trees, but the chances of me trading in the Ford Escape for a Prius are slim and none, and Slim just left town, dodging tornadoes. Ford’s bringing back the Bronco in ’20 and I want one. Yeah, I said it. Solving this problem may get easier after we selfish Boomers finally ease on down the road.

If climate change means more damage caused by more thunderstorms, tornadoes, snow and ice, we will need more financial and human resources. Full-time, year-round municipal pothole patrol. At what point do local governing boards begin to think about allowing for a hotter planet in their budgeting process? When does the increased allocation for climate change-related remediation become commonplace, like public safety and fire prevention?

Less ozone, more outlay.

Judging from the bond issues and sales tax hikes being mulled in City Halls across Kansas, clearly not this year. I suspect that until as a society we evolve into a new normal to pay for potholes and flood cleanup, bond issues and creeping sales taxes are little more than band-aids.

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Probably about the time we started busting sod, we mere mortals bought into this notion that we can tame nature. A few generations later, downtown Manhattan was inundated by a flood in 1951 and our answer was to build Tuttle Creek Lake. Nature will take a man-made course.

Sometime before the autumnal equinox, the flow of the bottleneck of the ever-wider Missouri River at Waverly will likely rise to a point where a consensus decision deep within the bowels of the Army Corps of Engineers bureaucracy will become imminent. The Tuttle floodgates will open, the Big Blue will get bigger, and much of the upper east side of Manhattan, Kansas will be deluged. Neighbors will help neighbors.

Fall will come. Seven home football games mark the beginning of the Second Post-Snyder Period. If you live out of town, please come to them all. Spend money. You can’t have too many Win the Dang Day hoodies and throw blankets. Order Peanut Butter Pretzel Blondie Sundaes all around after dinner at LABCO. Fill your tank before you leave town.

I wonder if future historians, a few generations into the My God This Planet is Hot Epoch, will look back, scratch their heads and contemplate why we didn’t do more. They may question why, collectively, we bounced around so much.

We’re caught in the murky middle, seemingly without clarity or direction. Why was the most environmentally aware president in my lifetime succeeded by the least? Toyota will sell more Priuses to drivers motivated to make a difference. I’ll still covet the new Bronco. Ford would not bring it back if they didn’t have a pretty good sense there were still a lot of people just like me.

Maybe those future historians will determine that as people moved around, as the number of farmers dwindled and farms got larger, our middle-of-the-country work ethic, independent-minded, neighbor-helping-neighbor agrarian culture evolved over the generations from reality, to a feel-good message, to a fading, distant memory.

And that while living in the midst of the change and witnessing the evolution all around us, we struggled.