Grim realities of Kansas generations past collide with climate crisis facing us all today
When I was growing up, I remember my parents heading off to visit the graves of family members at this time of year, taking flowers to set alongside headstones. I usually chose not to go with them, seeing it as something relevant to older folks, but not to me.
Now I wish I would have gone along, so I could have heard their stories about who these people were and how we were related.
Recently, a niece from California came to visit, wanting to connect with our ancestry here. I took her to a small rural cemetery on a quiet, remote hilltop where she and I and my brother walked among tombstones bearing the names of our forebears.
We reflected on their lives and what little we knew about most of them. My parents and grandparents are buried elsewhere, so these markers related to prior generations — those who migrated here from eastern Kentucky in the 1850s.
I shared what I had learned about my great, great grandfather, William Marion Walter, who came west as a young man, first taking a job hauling freight on a wagon train to Santa Fe, passing through Council Grove during the year in which the Hays House began operation — 1857.
Returning to the area two years later, he acquired some fertile bottomland along a stream and started a farm. Like others who had recently settled there, he was moving to land where the Kanza and other indigenous peoples had long roamed prior to being relocated to reservations. It was a time of transition.
He married Nancy Magdilla “Dilla” Burton, a large, stout woman whose family had also come from Kentucky as part of a large group of families that migrated together as the nation tumbled toward civil war. They were married in Lawrence in December 1863, four months after Quantrill’s raiders passed through destroying homes and businesses and killing more than 150 residents.
At that point, it must have seemed as though they were living on the edge of civilization as W.M. Walter was officially designated postmaster of Far West, Kansas.
They gave birth to a daughter, Ethel Trinvilla, who grew up to marry William Marion Kendall, my father’s grandfather, for whom he was named. He was born in Douglas County in May 1861, just a few months after Kansas gained statehood.
Not long ago, while exploring W.M. Kendall’s birthplace in Willow Springs Township, I came across a few headstones in a tiny, unkempt cemetery hidden from public view. One name stood out: Neri Walter. Could we be related? I wondered why he had died so young — only 34 years old.
With the help of a local archivist, I learned he rode off with other members of the Kansas Militia to repel a large Confederate contingent led by Gen. Sterling Price moving south along the Missouri border in October of 1864.
Gov. Thomas Carney, the second governor of Kansas, made it clear the stakes were high as he issued his proclamation calling out the militia:
“The State is in peril! Price and his rebel hosts threaten it with invasion. Kansas must be ready to hurl them back at any cost. The necessity is urgent.”
Neri Walter rode off from Willow Springs with two other volunteers — the Ulrich brothers — who returned leading his horse with his body draped over it. As I found out, we were indeed related. He was an uncle of mine, W.M. Walter’s older brother, and one of almost 8500 Kansas volunteers who were killed in the Civil War.
It was a turbulent time here in “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s and ‘60s, when my family’s Kansas roots were set. But something even more consequential was starting to take shape around the world at about that time — the Industrial Revolution.
As coal-burning steam engines brought more settlers down the rivers and onto the prairies, it was the beginning of industrialization that would transform the world.
On our farms, horses and mules were eventually replaced by larger and larger tractors with fewer and fewer people needed to operate them. More people congregated in cities and suburbs as we became more dependent upon fossil fuels to power our lifestyles.
This pattern was replicated in societies all around the globe, and now we find ourselves facing a grim reality and a daunting challenge.
“World is on brink of catastrophic warming” declared the recent headline.
It referenced a report issued by the United Nations through its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC issued its first assessment of global climate trends in 1988. This is its sixth.
A few key observations from the report: human activities have caused the temperature at the Earth’s surface to warm significantly (about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) since industrial activities began accelerating in the 1850s; with further warming, climate change risks will become increasingly complex and difficult to manage; heat waves and droughts are projected to become more frequent.
The World Meteorological Organization has just released a similar assessment, noting that the average temperature on this planet over the next five years will make it the warmest five-year period ever recorded.
The IPCC report warns of a “rapidly closing window of opportunity” to stabilize the situation, with major consequences for the future: “the choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”
Chuck Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University, has served on the IPCC and knows how it operates. He was a lead author for the chapter on agriculture in two of the reports and was active on the panel when it shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.
“We’re not developing new science,” Rice says regarding his work with the IPCC, “but reviewing the science and synthesizing it to look at how agriculture and forestry could help mitigate climate change.”
Through his own research, he helps farmers and ranchers adapt to changing conditions while studying how plants can play a larger role in pulling carbon out of the air and storing it underground, thereby reducing the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The understanding we have about the ways our climate is changing also comes from scientists such as Leigh Stearns, a professor of geology at the University of Kansas who has conducted fieldwork on the glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica as well as in Alaska and the Himalayas.
Stearns has been engaged with research in Greenland since 2005, when she began charting the movements of a particular glacier for her dissertation. She has become quite familiar with the complex nature of the changes taking place with that glacier as well as with the massive ice sheet that covers the continent.
“When I started, Greenland in particular was kind of in balance with its climate,” she said in a recent interview. “It was losing mass, but not quite as quickly as today. And that has really shifted in the past 20 years. It’s really been accelerating its mass loss.”
Sea levels around the globe will continue to rise for the next few decades, even if no more greenhouse gases were added to the atmosphere. This has significant implications for coastal communities and island nations, but what impact is it having on Kansas? We’re a long way from the coasts.
Warming waters in the oceans and warmer atmospheric conditions contribute to the intensification of storm systems and affect the jet stream, the high-level air currents that have direct effects on our weather patterns. In Kansas, we are likely to experience more intense storms, along with the flooding that results, as well as more prolonged droughts.
“We don’t need a magic bullet to solve the problems that we’re facing now,” Stearns contends. “We just need to act on some of the ideas that have been proposed for a really long time, in terms of our infrastructure and energy use, and that will start moving the needle.”
My niece is now back in California, where she and her family must deal with the smoke and ashes of forest fires, as well as with atmospheric rivers that bring floods and falling trees. Here in Kansas, an ongoing drought is severely affecting many of our farmers and ranchers along with the rural communities that depend upon them.
In a relatively short span of time — just four generations, in my case, since my great, great grandfather arrived here, Kansas faces an escalating threat that imperils the entire planet. As it was when W.M. Walter settled down to farm, we’re in the midst of a transition. This one, however, will shape the lives of the next 400 generations or more.
Echoing the words of Governor Carney in 1864, “the necessity is urgent” that we respond in thoughtful, intelligent ways that lessen the suffering and death that will otherwise result from a hotter planet.
Do you think we are up to the challenge? Can we quit acting like another Civil War is about to break out in this country and address the most pressing issue we face?
That may be worth contemplating on this weekend, when we pause to remember and honor those who have gone before. Just take a moment to think about those who are yet to come and what we’re leaving them.
Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.