I hadn’t been to Kansas in 25 years, since my then-girlfriend’s ’72 Dodge Dart broke down at 2 AM square in the middle of our transcontinental journey to San Diego. The dash went dark, the engine quit, and the car silently rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the Interstate. I opened the hood and was greeted by flames, which I somehow managed to blow out, probably with the help of the ever-present midwest winds which were howling that night. They had to wake up a State Trooper to rescue us. Twenty five years later, the winds still howl as I remember them.
I’ve heard friends and colleagues who prefer the coasts and their cities refer to the midwest derogatorily as “flyover country,” knowing it only as the patchwork of farmland seen from 37,000 feet, dotted with enormous, colorful circles created by center-pivot irrigation systems. But stopping here long enough to breathe the air, feel the wind, and meet the next-generation of Kansans gave me a far more meaningful and rich perspective about this special place.
Macksville, Kansas is not far from the geographic center of the lower 48, about a 2.5 hour drive from the nearest major airport in Witchita, an unlikely place for a marine biologist to be barreling down the highway, sipping coffee, and mentally preparing to talk about the oceans. I passed miles and miles of farmland and just a handful of gas stations and restaurants along the way. When my GPS announced my arrival, I was greeted by a windswept sign, a small, timeless community of modest homes and winter fields bearing the remnants of the past fall’s crops, swaying with the constant wind.
I received a warm greeting from High School principal, Rusty Wrinkle, and he took me to the classroom of science teacher, Carrie Newdigger, who had invited me to speak. Carrie is no ordinary science teacher. She has made it possible for her students to compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl and this year, the National Science Bowl. And last year Carrie came to Washington, DC to be honored. The White House awarded her as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for 2007. Awardees are selected from mathematics and science teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and were in the Nation’s capitol from April 28 – May 3, 2008, to receive the award and participate in a variety of educational and celebratory events. Like several others would that day, Carrie welcomed me to the “middle of nowhere.” Another teacher asked me why I came to Macksville — after all, there are bigger schools in the cities. I replied, “That’s the point, bringing this kind of program to places where the students wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.”
Leg 3: Macksville, Kansas
My first talk of the day would be to the grade school which occupied the northern half of the building complex. Grade School Principal Laura Davis warmly welcomed me and I began to set up in the library for a group of roughly 100 students. The childrens’ clothing spoke to the agricultural focus of the region, as I spotted “John Deer” and other such logos adorning their t-shirts. Though half of the students had never seen the ocean, I was impressed to see how many regularly watched National Geographic, Discovery, and other nature shows — especially Deadliest Catch (if you consider that a nature show) — and held intense interest in the oceans, and the questions came rapid-fire: “What’s your favorite shark?” “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you underwater?” “Have you ever been attacked by a shark?”
OK, so perhaps they’ve slightly overdosed on Shark Week, but it gave us a chance to talk about sharks, their bad rap, and how they really have more to fear from us than we do of them — we’ve eliminated nearly 90 percent of the large predatory fish from the oceans — including sharks — over the past 50 years. I told them the story about my days teaching a Girl Scout program at Seacamp in the Florida Keys, which I described in a recent post. On the first day of class I told the terrified girls that we’d be swimming with the (small) sharks in our holding pond on the last day of class a week later. And I remember well that last day of class when the girls were having so much fun swimming with the sharks that I couldn’t get them out. The Macksville students were fascinated that sharks weren’t necessarily something to fear, but to appreciate.
I was treated to my first real school lunch since high school. And it was my favorite — cheeseburgers — served on the same plastic green tray I remembered from so long ago, with little depressions to hold the baked beans, french fries, and dessert. As the cafeteria transformed into an auditorium, I set up once again and this time addressed the entire high school student body — all 100 of them. Like the morning group, half of these students had never seen an ocean before. I was pleased to see lots of the faculty and staff sit in, along with a reporter from the nearby St. John newspaper. Afterwards I told Rusty how impressed I was with the great behavior of the students in both sessions, a feat not easily achieved.
I wasn’t done yet. Carrie invited me back to her classroom to talk with her small group of students preparing for the upcoming Science Bowl, who stayed after school for our chat. What was supposed to be a coaching session for the students became an education for me. I’m grateful to students, Tyler, Justin, Luke and Hannah for sharing their thoughts, dreams and experiences with me. Hannah and Tyler are interested in pursuing science careers relating to animals. Hannah is interested in feedlot nutrition issues. Tyler lives on a farm where they raise cattle, and has enjoyed his travel to livestock shows in Colorado and elsewhere where he’s learned a lot about the field, including genetic selection. He also indicated that he just enjoys listening to all the accents at such events. Justin is seriously entertaining the thought of pursuing a law degree.
The students were shocked to hear me quote a statistic from the book, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, which indicates that the average American child spends less than four minutes a day outside in unstructured activities. These students spend hours upon hours outside and love every minute of it. When not involved in farming activities, they’re fishing, hunting and trapping. Tyler talked about how hunting bobcat in Kansas can be lucrative. The furs are sold in Canada and Russia where they’re made into coats. Justin talked about his fishing experiences, though the nearest water bodies are quite some distance. We talked about the possibility of bringing next-generation aquaculture to Kansas and how it might fit well within a community that already knows how to farm.
Our chat ventured into some political areas, like global warming. They asked me pretty directly if I believed global warming was real. I explained that I had been working on the issue since the late 80s, and even back then the vast majority of scientists concurred that human activity was changing our climate. The real “debate” is centered on how much and how fast our climate is changing, which makes setting policies quite challenging. They seemed to accept my perspective, but did take the opportunity to express their concerns about carbon taxes being levied on cattle. To them it seemed absurd to tax cow “emissions.” As ruminants, cattle do “emit” a significant amount of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. “What about deer? Are they going to tax deer?” asked Justin. Yes, I can definitely see Justin as an attorney. And yes, I can see the bumper stickers, “Vote NO on the Fart Tax”
We moved from global warming to weather, and I suddenly realized I was visiting one of the communities that had been devastated by one of the strongest and most dramatic tornado events ever recorded. An immense tornado nearly two miles wide and measuring EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale virtually wiped Greensburg, Kansas from the map shortly before 10 PM on May 4, 2007. Eleven people were killed and more than 50 others were injured. It was one of 22 tornadoes that touched down in southern and central Kansas from the same thunderstorm complex. Macksville, just 25 miles to the northeast of Greensburg, was pummelled by the storm, and the homes and farms of all of the students, and their teacher, had been damaged. Thankfully, Macksville was spared the death toll of Greensburg, but a Macksville police officer was killed responding to the emergency. The students directed me to a spot a few miles south of the center of town where I could still clearly see the unmistakable mark of this unforgiving storm. I saw a small home recently rebuilt among a chaotic tangle of dead trees and branches, their tranquility against the setting sun belying what was an unimaginable fury that evening in May. Tyler, an enthusiastic videographer, put together this thoughtful video (below) that commemorates the event while also expressing their small community’s resiliance.
Video by Tyler, a Macksville High School Student
On my way back to Washington, I peered out of the tiny window at the plains and fields of Kansas far below and I thought about one of my messages to the students: That 40 percent of the continental U.S. drains to the Gulf of Mexico, that even here in the middle of Kansas, smack in the middle of the country, they are connected to the oceans. But I also thought about the messages from the students to me: That though they jokingly refer to themselves as the “middle of nowhere,” it is in fact not “nowhere” or “flyover country” at all — it’s a special somewhere that they call home and care deeply about. And they care very much about their future; many of the students I spoke to weren’t in any hurry to move away. They were, however, eager to explore beyond Kansas. When students were raising their hands indicating that they had never seen the oceans, I asked how many of them wanted to see the oceans. All of the hands remained outstretched, high in the air.