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Archive for Monday, October 15, 2007

Talk of harnessing wind stirs schoolyard memories

October 15, 2007

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Nancy Jackson, who leads the Climate and Energy Project for the Land Institute, had taken the podium to speak a few minutes before it happened.

I had driven out to Salina to attend the Prairie Festival - thinking it a good way to spend the last weekend of September. The prairie was beautiful, the sun intense, the wind gusting to 40 mph. I guess Salina is just far enough west to get a taste of that awesome Western Kansas wind. We sat in the institute's big barn with its packed dirt floor and rough board sides with light filtering in between the slats. The barn was open to the north and south, so there was nothing to stop the wind except some bleachers holding an overflow crowd.

Nancy Jackson had just made the point that by far the very best energy resource - and the cheapest - was efficiency and conservation. And she had told us how the institute was working with cities and towns, businesses and residential customers, to improve efficiency and conserve in little ways that added up to big energy savings. And then she launched into her next topic. "We have here in Kansas," she said with excitement, throwing her arms out wide, "one of the biggest untapped sources of energy - wind power." Just as she uttered those words, a mighty gust of wind swept through the barn, scattering her papers, knocking over a stacked bunch of folding chairs and throwing dust into our faces.

You couldn't plan a thing like that. The crowd broke out into spontaneous applause. It was a Sunday morning, and it seemed to me that God had just spoken.

After that, I listened with my ears, but my mind was far away. I was remembering growing up in Western Kansas and going to a one-room country school.

During the 1950s, brisk, gritty wind was our daily fare. Whipping you. Harassing you. Stinging you. You learned to clutch your schoolbooks close to your belly and keep your elbows in so the wind had nothing to grab. The wind most days was so strong that you got used to either leaning into it or bracing your back against it as you walked. In fact, on those few occasions when the wind didn't blow, you felt you would fall over backward, because you had become so used to leaning into the wind.

Kids can adjust to anything. Whether a grimy street in Dublin, an alleyway on the Near South Side of Chicago or a Western Kansas country schoolyard in the middle of a dust storm, there is always a way to rise above it. That's because children carry a spark inside their souls that can transform their whole world into a fantastical playground.

We hunted buffalo on our schoolyard and loathed the moment the schoolbell rang to bring us in from the hunt after recess. I'm not sure, but it might have even been my idea when I watched a huge, lopsided tumbleweed blow across the yard one day - I noticed that the loping shape of its journey down the length of the schoolyard looked exactly like a running buffalo. Once I'd pointed that out to the boys, the game took shape.

We each searched the barbed wire fence that ran along the south side of the schoolyard for a perfect tumbleweed buffalo. It needed to be oblong so it kind of lunged while it rolled, yet round enough that it would tumble as fast as we could run. A good "buffalo" was hard to find, so you didn't want to lose it. Then you had to create a spear - a straight branch from a willow tree about 3 or 4 feet long would do - and whittle the end to a sharp point, sharp enough that it would stick into the ground when you threw it.

Then on the windiest days, which in 1955 tended to be every day, we would retrieve our buffaloes from the fence where we had stored them, then holding our tumbleweeds tightly, we would line up at the south fence, spaced about 10 feet apart. There was a gentle slope down to the northern boundary of the schoolyard. When the oldest boy shouted "go," we'd release our tumbleweed buffaloes, count to 10 to give them a decent head start, then chase after them, spear in hand. Then, if we could keep up, we'd throw the spear into the tumbleweed, pinning it to the ground, or at least wounding the beast so its run was slowed by the spear sticking in it, impeding its tumble.

Now 50 years later, it's still windy in Western Kansas. Yet, somewhere near where I grew up, they are talking about burning coal instead of harnessing our wind. I find it incomprehensible that in the year 2007, with global warming puffing at our door and fossil fuels shriveling beneath our feet, anyone - much less practical, sensible Western Kansans - would let themselves be talked into a coalburning plant.

Let's harness that Western Kansas wind that bites us in the backside and stings us in the face. Let's put that extraordinary resource to the task, just like our settler forefathers did. Windmills : OK, they look awkward; they spoil the scenic view of feedlots and milo crops. It's true. But then any Lawrencian with a north-facing window can attest to how those gray puffs emitted by our coal-burning electricity plant can also spoil a view.

I call on you, Mr. Brembry - man of the hour, I call on all you legislative leaders, and I call on you, Mr. Neufeld from Ingalls and Mr. Holmes of Libera l - think about our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Return to the practical, no-nonsense, straight-thinking, straight-talking Western Kansas character I love so much.

- Elizabeth Black is a writer living in Lawrence. A southwest Kansas native who attended Kansas University, she recently returned to Lawrence after living in Chicago and then on the East Coast for more than 30 years.

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