• Mike Matson

The Gift of Awareness

This column was published December 24, 2021 in the Manhattan Mercury.


“We’re supposed to get more wind on Friday.” The wrinkles in the old woman’s face seemed to reflect more worry than age.

We were on opposite sides of a gasoline pump earlier this week in Rooks County, one of four ravaged in the Four County Fire.

She didn’t know me from Adam, just a fellow Kansan out of gas, sharing the same physical space, fossil fuel and uneasiness about the weather. A fellow Kansan who grew up believing small talk with a stranger is not a threat, it’s polite.

I took a day to run some in-person errands for my Mom in Plainville, the community where she grew up. On the Interstate, the downed billboards, bent highway signs and mangled outbuildings started in Junction City and stretched all the way to Hays. I lost track and stopped counting somewhere in the 40s.

Scorched Earth in northern Ellis and southern Rooks Counties on either side of U.S. 183 between Hays and Plainville. Just over the horizon to the northeast lies death, cattle carcass burial pits, homes burnt to the foundation, lives disrupted and all the attendant sadness and despair.

Osborne County, Kansas, December 15, 2021. (Justin Frye)

As recently as a generation ago, within this century, the specter of drought was so out of the ordinary, so scary, that we formed government task forces, investigated the notion of cloud seeding, talked about building pipelines from the Missouri River to western Kansas.

With every passing year during that generation, more dry weather. Ten years ago, I recall a biologist with whom I was driving across Kansas past miles of trees and pastureland, exclaiming this is all fuel for the inevitable wildfire. It was hard to fathom back then.

Like many in Manhattan, our neighborhood is built into a Flint Hill. I gaze at the belt of trees behind my neighbors to the north, less than 50 yards from my front door and worry about fuel for the inevitable fire. Then I look at the fire hydrant in the northwest corner of my front yard. When the smoke clears from the west, I literally and figuratively breathe a little easier.

Then, I think of friends and others who live in the Four Counties and the 101 others, on farms and ranches, with no fire hydrants in their front yard.

It’s hard to separate economics from emotion. This week, a cattle producer struggled to compare losing livestock to a fire with losing a crop to drought. They’re both living organisms, nurtured and cultivated. Plants don’t have lungs that fill with smoke or a heart that stops beating. Plants can’t run for their lives until they reach a barbed wire fence. Plants can’t feel fear.

Plants do have nutrients, which help feed the livestock. How do you turn surviving cattle out on grass, when the grass has been destroyed?

Clearly this is not a Christmas rah-rah column, though good will toward men remains abundant in the aftermath of the Four County Fire.

When I see the worry on an old woman’s face at a gas pump in my mother’s hometown, smell the smoke residue on my hands that a full week later still clings to the fuel pump nozzles and every other surface in the Four Counties, Kansas feels somehow… strange.

Kansas weather has a beat, a comfort level, a rhythm that seems ingrained in our bloodstream.

Spring winds and summer thunderstorms are normal. Tornadoes from May through September are normal. Ice and blizzards in the winter are expected.

Naming wildfires in Kansas feels new and different. Starbuck. Anderson Creek. Four County.

December hurricanes are foreign.