Nebraska Feed

Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

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Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.


Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

Between the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to CanadaBetween the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to Canada by Alan Wilkinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in 2016 while in Red Cloud, Nebraska intrigued by how an Englishman might perceive the Great Plains.

The book has some interesting moments, but there is not a lot of depth of exploration of terrain, culture, or people. In fact, the author keeps complaining that he doesn't have the time to do that.

The best chapters are near the end. He is better acquainted with Nebraska, for instance, and so writes well about it. The chapters on the Dakotas are good. The earlier chapters less so.

The chapter on Oklahoma was the worst. I felt he spent no effort on trying to understand western Oklahoma but was rather in a hurry to get through the state. He traveled along the westernmost roads in the state, but I too have traveled those roads and know that while bleak there are also interesting discoveries worthy of richer exploration than what is given here.

But I'm glad to add another title to my abiding interest in better understanding the history, culture, and geography of the Plains.

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It Was Glorious

And then it was total and the small crowd gathered on the village green exclaimed in wonder and our son looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

Plan A was hatched long ago--to go to Kearney for the weekend and visit our friend Tarae.  But this spring we finally got around to booking, there were no open hotel rooms.

Plan B was to head south from Omaha with friends to one of the small towns.  Weeks ago I had researched and presented a variety of options.  Then the weather forecasts got worse and worse for southeastern Nebraska.

We met for brunch on Saturday and made our plans.  We'd head west from Wahoo on highway 92 in order to get past the clouds.  We'd stay north, hoping to avoid much of the traffic.  St. Paul would be our planned destination, though we might stop elsewhere or keep traveling depending on the conditions.  We'd pack a picnic and just drive.

On Saturday we learned that Michael's dad was driving up from Oklahoma City and might try to meet us somewhere, though he ended up watching it in a small town in Missouri.  My sister and her family were coming from Shawnee with plans for St. Joseph, Missouri.  On Sunday, when they were halfway to St. Joe they decided the weather forecast there was too risky and made a last minute change of plans for Grand Island, where they somehow found a hotel room.  The turned northwest and spent the entire day driving.  Yesterday we were only thirty miles apart but never saw one another.

"Let's leave early," John said.  "We'll be over at 7 a.m."  So we awoke at six and finished the packing we had begun the night before.  We ended up running late and didn't depart till shortly after 8.  The traffic heading west from Omaha was constant, but not too bad.  There was a long line of cars on 92 but all going the speed limit or faster.  At every major highway a few would turn south.

As we drove we enjoyed mostly clear skies, but could see the massive cloud cover to the south over the path of totality.  Toward the north was crisp and clear.  Every time we stopped for a potty break the convenience stores were packed with other eclipse travelers, including people from all over.

When we got to St. Paul Sebastian played on the playground at the city park while we discussed whether to stop there or continue south west.  I wanted to stay because it was a good, big park where Sebastian could enjoy himself. But I was outvoted.  We continued on to Dannebrog, Nebraska's Danish capital.

Eclipse

On the small village green we spread our picnic blanket beside the gazebo.  About forty people were gathered there, mostly locals but a handful of folks from across the country.  The Danish Bakery across the street was open.  The firehouse had opened their restrooms to the public.  Children played and dogs sniffed each other and photographers set up tripods.

Most folks were quiet, eating lunch, chatting with family and friends, and occasionally stepping out of the shade of the trees to look up at the sun and moon with their eclipse glasses.  Eventually the crescents formed through the shade of the trees and everyone began to marvel.

The temperature began to drop, the light was similar to dusk, the cicadas began to make their evening noise.  Someone exclaimed they could see Mercury, and we all looked in that direction.  Everyone began to quiet down and get in their perfect spot.  Sebastian sat in my lap.

Then, totality, and the small crowd exclaimed their wonder.  Sebastian looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

What glory.  The solar flares and the corona.  What glory.

Then our puppy pooped and before some girls who were running around stepped in it, I grabbed a poop bag and collected it.  Humble action in the midst of glory.

And then the moment passed.  And we eventually returned to our picnic chairs.  There was a hushed awe and joy to the crowd. Eventually groups began to pack up and leave, and we waited till the moon had completed its journey over the son, resting in the wonder before beginning our return trip.

Everyone else in my car napped as we drove home.  At Osceola the traffic was bumper-to-bumper.  I worried that we'd be hours getting home if it stayed like this, but it opened up again after Shelby.  At every highway intersection some headed north and others from the south joined our line. 

It bottled up again at Wahoo because of an accident.  Then at Yutan it took us 30 minutes to go 5 miles, so I decided to try a detour and headed north on dirt roads to the next highway, which was fortunately completely free of traffic.  We crossed the Platte at Valley and got home around six p.m.

What a joyful, beautiful day.


Great Plains Geology

Great Plains Geology (Discover the Great Plains)Great Plains Geology by R.F. Diffendal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this enjoyable book in the bookstore at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the panhandle of Nebraska while on our recent vacation. That night during my insomnia I began it and have been snatching bits and pieces since.

After helpful introductory chapters, the bulk of the book is a series of descriptions of prominent sites throughout the plains. This makes it a good travel guide as well. A handful of those sites we had seen on our trip.

The three most interesting things I learned reading the book--

1) The Black Hills was a single dome uplifted at the time of the Rocky Mountains uplift and then weathered down to create the peaks and valleys.

2) At Scottsbluff National Monument is not an uplift. The "original" floor of the plains was the top of the bluff. The plain lying far below is in fact erosion from the Platte River. The author said to stand atop the bluff and realize the unimaginable amount of sediment that has been washed down river and ultimately to the Gulf. Maybe Louisiana was made from Nebraska?

3) The Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico and Texas are ancient coral reefs. Carlsbad Caverns is the remnant of those reefs.

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Japanese & Boystown

I enjoyed learning this chapter of Omaha's history in this morning's paper.  Father Flanagan of Boystown helped hundreds of Japanese leave internment camps and come live on the farm here in Omaha.  Flanagan objected to the internment.  

“I see no disaster threatening us because of any particular race, creed or color,” Flanagan said around this time. “But I do see danger for all in an ideology which discriminates against anyone politically or economically because he or she was born into the ‘wrong’ race, has skin of the ‘wrong’ color or worships at the ‘wrong’ altar.”

Another example of Flanagan's Christian perspective:

Flanagan wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Okura’s case: “Either these people are guilty of subversive activities ... or they are not. If not — they are trying to be decent American citizens.”

Okura eventually was allowed to go to Boys Town and helped more than 200 more detainees leave the internment camps.


The Pipeline: Public Reason, Affection, and Stewardship

Today I watched a fascinating exercise in public reason--the Nebraska Public Service Commission receiving more than seven hours of public testimony about the proposed Nebraska route for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

First, some background. It is activists in Nebraska who largely killed the pipeline twice before. First, when it might have been approved by the Obama administration, Nebraska was the hold up, as there was no approved route here.  At the time even some of the GOP political leadership of the state opposed the original proposed route.  A special session of the legislature was held, new laws were created, and cases were adjudicated in court.  When Obama did finally rule against it, it was again after years of activist leadership by Nebraskans.  These same folk have now returned to oppose it again with President Trump having reignited the fight.

At the current moment there is no approved route in Nebraska and so the Public Service Commission must approve a route.  The purpose of today's public hearing was to receive public testimony on Trans-Canada's application.

In Nebraska the opposition isn't quite what people outside the state expect--it is a bipartisan coalition that includes environmental activists but also conservative ranchers who oppose their land being taken through eminent domain by a foreign company.  This latter point has always for me been the clear public reason the pipeline should be killed.  

Nebraska is an agricultural state and has never before really had to wrestle with the fossil fuel industry, so this experience has been eye-opening for the people.  Nebraska sits atop the Ogallala aquifer, which provides fresh water for five states.  But here it comes within a few feet of the surface, and in the Sandhills in particular it can bubble to the surface.  The Sandhills are a unique and fragile ecosystem which sustains the state's agriculture, is on the route of many endangered migrating bird species, and is deeply beloved in the state for its beauty.

Keystone already has an earlier pipeline which runs through the state further east, away from the aquifer and the Sandhills.  It has always been a puzzle that Trans-Canada didn't simply build the new pipeline where they already have an easement.

So today's hearing reminded us of many of those issues and more.  Proponents, which were far outnumbered by opponents, spoke primarily about job creation, though many studies have indicated that the short-term construction jobs will have a minor economic impact upon the state.  Nevertheless, the union construction workers who testified, spoke compelling of the importance of those jobs for their livelihoods and their families.  They spoke of the skill with which they build, the pride they take in their work, and the concerns they have as Nebraskans for the land and its well-being.

Opponent testimony varied across a wide-range of points-of-view and represented the vast geographical spread of the state.  Some spoke against the bullying and manipulative practices of Trans-Canada.  Many spoke of the bad deal offered landowners in Trans-Canada's easement.  Some said that if there was going to be a pipeline, then put it in the route where the first pipeline is.  Many spoke about the dirty tar sands and the potential ecological disaster from the pipeline leaking.  Some spoke about climate change and the need to invest in renewable energy instead.  Many worried what would happen decades or more from now when the pipeline is no longer needed and neither the law nor the easements require Trans-Canada to attempt to reclaim the land. People spoke of Nebraska agriculture, the beauty of the landscape, Native American cultural sites along the route, negative economic impacts, and more. 

In fact, so many reasons were given for being opposed that it was difficult to imagine that the opposition won't outweigh the support.  

And the people speaking presented all walks of life, but with a heavy preponderance of rural folk, particularly farmers and ranchers.  (This left me puzzling over the post-election analysis of the rural-urban divide, analysis I've always thought too trite and not reflective of life here in the heartland).

I was fascinated watching this democratic process and this effort at public reason.  Here were competing points-of-view.  Some arguments were more persuasive than others, some more compelling than others.  I learned a lot, including from the proponents.

Also, the speakers who became passionately angry and even sometimes mean in what they said (and frankly this was usually opponents) did not serve themselves well.  And too many speakers reiterated points already made, some times many times before.  But many speakers gave very well reasoned, well researched, and well presented persuasive arguments as to why the pipeline doesn't serve the public interest of Nebraskans.  

I was speaker number 119.  I didn't get a chance to speak till after 4 p.m. and wasn't sure I would as I didn't want to cover ground someone else had already talked about.  But no one had spoken of the issue from the perspective of the Christian faith, so I did.  I was surprised by the absence of clergy, particularly from my denomination, which has long opposed the pipeline.  I stated that our stewardship of nature is among the first commands God gave us and that if we are to fulfill our moral and religious obligations then we should reject the pipeline.

Most compelling for me were the ranchers and farmers whose land would be seized in eminent domain who opposed the pipeline.  Many are living on land that has been in their families since it was homesteaded in the 19th century.  Many hope the land will remain in their family for a century or more to come.  When they spoke of their land it was with deep affection (which reminded me of Wendell Berry) and an abiding sense of responsibility that goes by the old word stewardship.  They spoke of the fragility of the Sandhills soil and how their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers learned that once it was improperly disturbed it could not be restored to its former self.

Most powerful were the landowners who broke down weeping.  Usually men.  One could barely speak of how his family is afraid of losing their land.  They have had to mortgage it and they worry that the pipeline will destroy what makes it special.  Early in the day a rancher who had to be in his eighties was the first to cry, weeping as he spoke of his love and responsibility for his family land and his deep fear that his land will be seized and ruined.

So, an overwhelming and diverse group of Nebraskans testifying that this pipeline isn't in the public interest.  Many good and compelling rational arguments.  And the heartbreaking pleas of the farmers and ranchers who love the water and land God has given into their stewardship.  What the Public Service Commission should do is quite clear.


“We felt like no one was listening.”

A very good article in the Omaha World-Herald explores why the small town of DeWitt, Nebraska, an area that has traditionally leaned more Democratic than the rest of the state, went for Trump 2-1.  Also revealed are the complex reactions to his first month in office, including worried thoughts from some who voted for him.

I also found this section revealing:

Yet like a lot of people in DeWitt, Kracke said he was totally turned off by politics. And news.

“I don’t watch TV, I don’t read newspapers. If it has anything to do with politics, on Facebook, I don’t even look at it. If you email me something on politics, I will not read it,” Kracke said.

Instead, he prefers the company of his barbershop quartet and his cattle.

“That’s what keeps me sane,” he said. “Life is too short to be arguing with people.”

That’s also how Gibbs feels. The CEO of Waldo Genetics, a storied hog operation founded by her great-grandfather, said she treasures relationships in her local community. And as a self-described “nonpolitical person,” she laments the harsh debates. If only people could hash out their political differences politely, she said, they might come to understand opposing points of view.

I generally aim to be a well-informed person and to read much about politics and current affairs, including differing perspectives.  I'm bothered by people who pride themselves in being uninformed but still taking strong positions.