Nebraska Feed

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.


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.

The Gem

Despite my disappointment in the Saunders County Historical Museum they possessed one gem which fascinated me--a parka.

The parka was owned by Fred Hirsch from Yutan.  He served in the Spanish-American War and this was his military parka.  But Fred did something interesting with his parka--he drew pictures on it.  Pictures of what he saw in old Havana.  A fascinating piece of folk art.  Here are some photos.



Poor Signal

Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

The words of Tennyson popped into my head today as I pondered the Confederate flag I saw flying in the village of Ithaca, Nebraska. I'm always puzzled by Confederate flags in states which fought to save the Union. No question that the person flying such a flag intends to be offensively, in-your-face a white supremacist, right? Part of me would be curious to interview such a person and ask them about their choices. But I don't think I have the temperament for it.

I thought of Tennyson because the poem is from Ulysses about the aged hero who was King of Ithaca. Surely the person flying this flag was violating something essential about the character of a town that would name itself Ithaca. Ithacans should not be afraid of a new world, right?

But, there are these great lines also from the close of the poem that maybe register something of the rebel impulse?

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ithaca (Nebraska that is) clearly has seen better times. There isn't even a railroad track where it appears one once was. It's even a mile off the minor state highway that runs by it.

Earlier in the afternoon I had been driving west on Highway 92 and there were a number of small anti-abortion billboards in pastures along the roadway. These dot the heartland, of course. They've always puzzled me. That person I'd definitely like to interview, not on their views of abortion, but why they erect such a sign and have they ever considered that such signs might be emotionally harmful to people? That such signs strike me as unkind and uncompassionate. How would they react to hearing that from someone?

One of the times I was stopped today in a line of cars at a construction zone an apparatus used for center pivot irrigation was pointed toward me in such a way that it appeared momentarily like the skeletal remains of a prehistoric lizard.

I was getting a poor cell phone signal most of the day. After having gotten the airbag recall finally taken care of on the Corolla and done some shopping, I decided for an afternoon jaunt to Saunders County west of Omaha. The landscape could be in a Cather novel or the Nebraska locations Stephen King uses.

I wasn't quite west enough for the landscapes in Ted Kooser's poetry, but I was in an area of German, Swedish, and Czech settlement. Wahoo has a very large Catholic Church and a tiny, aged Congregational Church.

I'd never been to Wahoo. Like many smaller Nebraska towns it surprises you with how well it is doing. Surprises because coming from Oklahoma many smaller towns show little signs of economic activity. Those do exist here, though. Ithaca, being a prime example.


Wahoo, however, has a grand and gorgeous county courthouse—as many counties in the Plains do. Well-appointed and well-maintained Victorian homes lined the streets near the busy business district where the banks were still in buildings that look like banks. I was surprised by a vast area of large, ugly, and new suburban style developments south of town. Despite their ugliness, a sign of some economic activity.

The Saunders County Historical Museum was a disappointment. I have a weird fascination with county and small town historical museums. I particularly recommend the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte, Nebraska, the Old Greer County Museum and Hall of Fame in Mangum, Oklahoma, and the National Route 66 and Old Town Museum complex in Elk City, Oklahoma. The latter, in its agricultural and blacksmith display has an excellent exhibit on wrenches. Michael uses this statement often to make fun of me. It is not that I have an abiding fascination with wrenches. I was unaware until seeing that exhibit that I could enjoy them.

Most such museums have a series of outbuildings—a one room school house, a settler's cabin, an old church. The ones in Saunders County were padlocked, making for a rather disappointing museum.

All such museums are also works of love and civic pride by mostly elderly people. The time, care, and affection are evident. Saunders County does have some notable hometown kids to highlight—Oscar-winning producer Daryl Zanuck, Nobel-prize winning geneticist George Beadle, Hall of Fame baseball player Sam Crawford, and Pulitzer-prize winning composer Howard Hanson. A Zanuck Oscar is even on display.

I was surprised that there was no David Letterman Home Office display.

What did not disappoint was lunch at the Wigwam Café. I had to order the unique "Grilled Cheeseburger Stacker" described on the menu as "1/3 pound burger sandwiched between two creamy grilled cheese sandwiches." I also couldn't resist a piece of the beautiful looking and quite delicious tasting banana cream pie.

In 2004 after the disastrous election—disastrous for the country and for LGBT people—I decided to drive to Oklahoma City from Dallas for Thanksgiving on the highway going through small towns instead of on the interstate. I did so because I was puzzled by my own people who had shocked me by their votes. I grew up a small town Oklahoma boy (I joke with Michael, quoting Marie Osmond, "I'm a little bit country"). I had even been a Republican for quite a while, so I didn't understand how I could see the world so differently than my own people did. And I was puzzled where the kindness, the fairness, the basic decency valued by those people had gone.

Unfortunately I had no major epiphanies on that drive. I did, however, see the decline of those small towns and wondered if they were struggling to hold fast to a world that no longer existed instead of embracing the new.

Something similar appeared to be happening on my drive today through Saunders County. Something similar seems to have happened in England yesterday.

As I drove west on Highway 92 this morning into a rich rural landscape dotted with anti-abortion signs and center pivot irrigation apparatus, I was listening to NPR and an interview with Don DeLillo speaking on the City Arts and Lectures noon forum from the Commonwealth Club of California. He had been introduced as a novelist who captures the paranoia of contemporary life.

Reading White Noise in Joe Hall's freshman English class at Oklahoma Baptist University had, in some way, awakened me from my dogmatic slumber and introduced me to postmodernism. Maybe something happened to me in 1992 to make me different, make me more likely to follow the call of the mythical Ithacan king.

Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

For today, as in 2004, I had lost my connection.

Hoka Hey


I stood there admiring the eagle feather that Black Elk gave to John Neihardt.  The feather had belonged to Black Elk's father.  Then I noticed that the display also included Black Elk's coup stick, which surprised and amazed me.


I was at the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.  John Neihardt had been Nebraska's poet laureate, the author Black Elk Speaks, the Cycle of the West, and more.  Ever since I'd read the first six years ago I had planned to eventually get to Bancroft and the center and so part of my sabbatical is catching up on some of those things I've long planned to do.

When I read Black Elk Speaks I was struck by the power and authenticity of Black Elk's vision and have incorporated it into my own writing and preaching.  While on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years ago, I visited Black Elk's cabin.

The great Lakota holy man had spoken his vision to Neihardt who then wrote it down and shared it with the world.  The Neihardt center is Bancroft has preserved Neihardt's writing study, a garden he designed according to the Lakota image of the sacred hoop, and encourages the furtherance of Neihardt's and Black Elk's legacies.

I was the only visitor at the center while I was there.  Amy, the director, welcomed me with "Let me turn all the lights on for you."  Then she asked if I wanted coffee.  For the next hour or so we carried on a great conversation about Neihardt and Black Elk.  She said that there are quite a few ministers who come in or call, and some are writing about Black Elk.  I had told her about my "Theology of the Plains" project.  She said, "I think quite a few people would be interested in that."

I bought a number of book I had yet read and received a free tote bag.

In the morning I had driven US-75 north from Florence through rich farm country.  After Bancroft I headed northwest to Pender, then continued east to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation and then to Winnebago on the Winnebago reservation.  The development in the latter was striking.  I toured the sculpture garden which represents the various clans of the Ho-Chunk nation.



From Winnebago I headed south along the scenic route that is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail toward Macy, which is part of the Omaha reservation.  Three years ago our church had planted trees at the Omaha Care Senior Center as part of our denomination's Mission 4/1 Earth.  I was pleased to see that the trees are thriving.


I stopped in Decatur for lunch at a place church member Bob Vassell had recommended, but they had quit serving lunch fifteen minutes before.  I crossed the Missouri and headed south along Interstate-29, exiting at Missouri Valley in order to visit Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Okay, I should have gotten there a long time ago.  But often in our early years here it was flooded or recovering from flooding.  The visitor's center contains a remarkable display.  In the 1960's a sunken steamboat, the Bertrand, was excavated and what was discovered was that the mud had preserved the cargo from 1865.  Much of that, commercial goods and the possessions of travelers, is now on beautiful display.  According to the informational cards, some items are the only surviving ones in the world.


The refuge was beautiful on this mild, sunny day.  Birds were playing and singing.  I saw a deer while walking the trails.  I've been meaning to get there some spring during the waterfowl migrations and must resolve to do so in 2017.

Hoka Hey is Lakota for "Let's go!"

My Antonia

My Ántonia My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though I had read some Willa Cather well before the opportunity to move to Nebraska presented itself to us, and though I've been consistently reading Nebraska literature since we've moved here (Neihardt, Sandoz, Aldrich, Kooser, etc.), I had in fact never read My Antonia. I decided that was one thing I'd settle during the sabbatical.

But, I have to say, I didn't care for the book as much as I did O Pioneers (and I still think Death Comes for the Archbishop to be her greatest novel). Cather beautifully describes the plains and life upon it, but this particular time I wasn't as captivated by either her characters or her narrative structure for the book.

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