In the summer of 2003 I waded through mud, chased snakes, caught butterflies and got my hands dirty while reporting a series of stories for The Wichita Eagle called “Hidden Kansas.” The stories changed my life, startled me, stirred deep emotions –and made me feel more alive to this day.
You can do a version of this yourself – make yourself feel more alive. Even if you don’t write a story series.
I’ve been thinking about Hidden Kansas since I lost my job last month. I need to tap into that wonderful vibe again. Why? Because in my anxious search for a new livelihood, I can already see that I’m feeding anxieties too much—and sacrificing what’s more vital. I’m no longer paying happy enough attention to life-giving scenes and natural art flourishing just outside my door. I’m not trying to write a sermon here about how we all need to stop and smell the flowers. But … what’s the point of having a job if you aren’t living life around it?
For the Hidden Kansas series, I hung out for days — or sometimes weeks, off and on — with scientists and naturalists based in Kansas. With geo-archaeologist Rolfe Mandel, I hunted Paleo Indian spear points made ten thousand years ago by Native American ancestors who hunted elephants and wild camels in Kansas. I hunted and caught (non-venomous) snakes with naturalist Joseph T. Collins. I collected 87-million-year-old shark teeth from the Gove County chalk beds in western Kansas with paleontologist Mike Everhart.
The premise of the series was to take my readers to little worlds and fabulous places just outside their doors – places most people almost always ignore.
Do most of us even glance at a river as we roll at 60 miles per hour across a bridge? No. But for Hidden Kansas, I rode a boat for miles, up and down the Arkansas River, with outdoorsman Kirk Woods, who taught me that water doesn’t just flow – it rolls and unfolds downstream, in a slow but predictable pattern, which is why rivers always have bends.
If you learn to read the water flow like Woods, you can know where the shallow parts and the deep parts (and where the fishing holes are), even while looking at the opaque surface of a muddy river. You can know, if you have Woods’ practiced eye, why it is that that beavers build their little homes on one part of that unfolding stream, and not others. You know that there is a glorious way that the water flow sculpts the landscape over eons of time, and how it creates patterns that thousands of species of fish and birds and mammals and plants pay close attention to.
Once you see those patterns, and learn to read them, you can never roll over a bridge on a river and ignore it. In those few seconds of crossing, you can see at a glance an entire intricate world playing out the circle of life just under the bridge railings.
Native Americans used to live this way because they had to. They could glance at a prairie full of thousands of plants and know which ones to pluck to feed their children. The parched and thirsty hunters and gatherers of those ancient Native American bands could glance at a flock of birds in a dry prairie, and know, from the flight pattern, that the birds were headed to a waterhole, and that if they followed the direction the birds were flying, they’d probably find that waterhole, too. And in doing this, they did more than keep themselves and their children alive with protein and starches. By closely watching other living things, they became more alert and alive themselves.
Years after Hidden Kansas got published, about five years ago, I began riding a bicycle in the morning. At first I did this only for exercise. And at first, I took my cell phone along only in case I crashed the bike and needed to call for help.
But one day, while rolling through Chisholm Creek Park and its hundreds of acres of natural prairie in northeast Wichita, I saw a bumble-bee gathering food in the flower of a musk thistle. I got off the bike and photographed the bee.
That eventually led me to taking thousands of photographs, inside Chisholm and elsewhere, of flowers, and tree buds, and sunrises, and wild deer. An iPhone 6 has a fabulous camera, and includes photo editing tools that I then began to use to crop and tone my photos. I’d sometimes spend five minutes and shoot hundreds of frames of one flower with a one honeybee working inside it.
I’d post many of these photos on my Facebook page. And naturalist friends like Jim Mason or Everhart would post comments, teaching me what species of bee or butterfly I’d shot that morning.
I learned how to be a photographer.
And I learned how not to sleep while living.
The original idea for Hidden Kansas came indirectly from my father, who died young more than 20 years before I took up the series. Dad was a farmer, and sometimes a kind of philosopher whose throne was either a milking stool or a hay bale or a tractor seat, depending on what task he might be doing when the philosophy occurred to him.
It was Dad who took us shark-tooth hunting in Kansas. And it was him, sitting on a milk stool, who said that the ground beneath our feet was filled with the bones and the stories of millions of creatures and millions of stories that had come before us.
He also said that most people sleep-walk through most of their lives. They become preoccupied with mundane thoughts. They ignore most of what they see around them on any given day.
I didn’t want to live like that. I need to quit moping about losing my job, and go for a bike ride this afternoon.
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