a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I am floating a mile west of the dam, trying to quiet my mind. I keep my ears below the surface of the water and pull my thoughts inward: I tell myself there is no undercurrent below me, no croaking catfish the size of dinosaurs, no water-buried mysteries reaching up to grab my leg. Slow, deep breath. This is silly. I open my eyes. The towering cottonwood trees along the bank shimmer in the moonlight.
This close to the hydropower plant, the river is often as still as glass. It flows underneath, but here on top it is like a lake. I hold onto a clump of spikerush and focus my gaze on the depth of stars above. I feel suspended, my body-self not claimed by earth or sky, but held in place by the forces of both. I picture the shovelnose sturgeon scraping the bottom below me, mudwater propelled through their mouth and pushed out their gills, their whisker barbels seeing their way in the dark around old tree trunks, antique washing machines, so many tires that were meant to preserve the integrity of the riverbanks but slid to the center, as all things do.
This is the Kansas River, the longest prairie river in the world. People who live near it call it the Kaw, a nod to the Kanza peoples who lived at its confluence and hunted across these grasslands. The magnetic pull of the river’s immense watershed is within my arms. I imagine it this way, anyway—gravity gathering all of the water runoff and debris to this central artery. Water and debris—dead plants, ag chemicals, dog and cow shit, motor oil, anything that we drop within the 53,000 square miles around us. The watershed cleanses the land. It’s a lot of work carrying what me and this river are trying to hold during this dark night.
* * *
I bought an illustrated book, Kansas Fishes, and delight in the joy ichthyologists bring to naming these creatures. Descriptive, memorable names that break my heart a little bit: the pugnose minnow, the Iowa darter, the central stoneroller. Many are endangered or have been extirpated from this region. My heart loosens at the thought of them unable to survive in our waste, the dregs of economic prosperity as we build our lives on the lie of linearity. As we live our lives with disregard to cycles, to connections. This river life could be better—purified, clean, home to schools of hornyhead chubs cheering us in their skittish surprise, their goofy names: “We’re hornyhead chubs!”
We ask this river to carry everything: Our economy and industry, our curiosity, our history, our sins and secrets. Our bodies and boats and buoys. We want the river to flow, but to also stay within its banks. We want to use the soil clear to the river’s edge. The river is not allowed to bloat and spill over. We sandbag and work hard to keep its water out of our farmland and our homes. We want the river to behave predictably, according to our desires, against rules we know are set by a greater power.
* * *
Prairie grasslands are significant for their wide spaces empty of trees. But tall cottonwoods celebrate water on the prairie, gathering at the banks of rivers and streams, bursting up from low areas and springs like a cheerleader, like a hype man: “Here! Water! I found it for you!” As I paddle the Kaw, the cottonwoods flank me the entire way. The prairie is a different vibe along the river: shaded, quiet. Great blue herons glide along the banks, their long naked legs and knobby knees trailing straight behind them. They stop and eye me silently.
This summer, I am learning to find the channel. I paddle my discount kayak back and forth across the breadth of the river to stay in the continual, meandering flow that remains as constant as possible. Sandbars form in the water and wait patiently to ground my boat. When I beach myself, my first reaction is to use my paddle to push off, but instead the blade sinks into the soft sand. Then I dramatically lunge my body from the waist, back and forth to move the kayak inches forward or backward. This sometimes works. Sometimes I sink deeper into the sand.
Beaching myself on a sandbar is such a lazy metaphor, but here we are. It is best to save some dignity and just get out of my kayak. This is not easy in running water. It takes a fortitude of the thighs and a graceful choreography that is not me. My heavy body and challenged muscles and torn and unrepaired knee fight me. Often I will free the boat and fall back into it, only to have my added weight ground me again, but in a few more inches of water.
But when I find the channel, bliss! Is this not the goal of all of our days, to flow in all that we do, mind and body? On the river, in creative work, on the basketball court. Flow is good. To achieve flow, I must achieve the channel. Connect with it.
Channel water does not flow linearly. I follow my friend, a trained river guide, and she can see what I don’t: how the water ripples certain ways over sandbars and gnarled, submerged trees. We paddle to the north side, and then immediately work our way to the south edge. Then back over again, and finally a short bit quietly, smoothly down the middle. My kayak is a cheaper-end model; it does the job but even in the calm waters I must continue to paddle just to keep the nose facing forward. I’m earning my flow. My shoulder muscles burn.
As fatigue sets in, I nurture my envy of channel-instinct. I envision the shovelnose sturgeon gliding easily along the riverbed under us, their long faces Hoovering midges and mayflies as they go. I know they have their problems, that this river is not an easy one to live in. But they know the channel. The true course of this river is their home.
Shovelnose sturgeons are a hardy fish, but they too are declining in numbers. Dams are the primary culprit, but so is overfishing. Their roe is sold as caviar, although they are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. It takes a female seven years to reach sexual maturity, and even then she will only spawn once every few years. A clear channel upstream, deep water, and high turbulence are necessary factors for successful mating. All factors that are threatened. I ruminate on the sturgeon and take a new appreciation of my tired arms paddling above. Envy is a low emotion. I cast it away from us as we continue downstream.
* * *
I’m pulled to the Kaw this summer like never before. Work and misplaced ambition have disconnected me from myself, this land, my home. When the pandemic began, I was already bruised, depressed, and anxious. Losing my job gave me a clarity I desperately needed: these dark feelings were not the battle scars of hard work. They were the markers of a life off of its natural course.
My teenage daughter and I started walking along the river in the evenings. Something to do. We collected driftwood and shared it with fellow hikers along the trail. We met families also collecting driftwood and compared our finds from a distance. I read Jim Harrison’s The Theory and Practice of Rivers and felt a correction flow within me. I would no longer work to be someone I am not, contorting my body into clothes I hate, or smile through conversations about misunderstood billionaires and the good they do for the world.
And so I decided: if all of this land comes to the river, then I will too. My summer is kayaking, swimming, camping, reading, exploring, and hiking this life-vein of our watershed. It is time to be humbled by the sandbars. To delight in the flow of the channel. To send gratitude down to the shovelnose sturgeon, that funny-faced beauty, for giving life, for being the steward of this center of everything.
* * *
This past February during an odd 60-degree Saturday, I loaded my kayak and gear and went to the river. Frisbee golfers were playing along the river park with their dogs and microbrews, all of us infected with a false spring fever. The warm air was joyful. With a jaunt in my stride, I carried my boat down the ramp, smiling at two Labradors chasing each other along the lower bank, mouths agape. A smaller, scruffier dog ran higher up near the parking lot, barking at top volume, feeling the freedom of being outside.
It was not until I set my kayak down that I discovered my rookie mistake: the river was frozen. My brain paused a beat to comprehend this. Frozen water, in this warm sunshine on this open-sky day. Then I remembered the frigid temperatures earlier in the week. The nights had been in the teens, the morning commute in the low 20s. I had worn my heaviest coat just three days earlier. Of course the river is frozen. It remembers better than we do.
River memory. I think more on what this river holds. Like all American rivers, the social history of the Kaw is grim. Near where I stood dumbfounded at the melting ice, a sign commemorates the murder of three Black men who were hanged from the bridge in 1882. Isaac King, George Robertson, and Peter Vinegar had defended Peter’s 14-year-old daughter from sexual assault by a white man. The man was later found dead in the river. A mob of over 100 white men pulled King, Robertson, and Vinegar from the jail, placed ropes around their necks, and threw them over the bridge one by one, where they hung through the night and into the next day. The white-owned newspaper bragged about the event, called it vigilante justice. Margaret Vinegar, Peter’s 14-year-old daughter, barely escaped the mob, but she died in prison from tuberculosis six years later.
The men were buried in a potter’s field at Oak Hill Cemetery, unmarked. As the local remembrance activities began to organize nearly 140 years later, the story of the lynching was a surprise to many. Racial terror did not happen here, in Kansas, the “Free State” established by Massachusetts abolitionists. This was not the South. Yet when the truth set in, we still corrupted the narrative. We said the lynching was “forgotten to history.” Later we were corrected again: the trauma of King, Robertson, and Vinegar’s murders lived in the homes of Black residents over all these decades, in stories shared from generation to generation. Details of the story faded over time, but the trauma echoed through families. There were parts of town to be avoided, or a knowing respect paid to the potter’s field. Behavior baked into the community’s culture so deeply as to not be seen.
There is other quiet damage here in the water. This is beef and farm country—wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans—and the watershed carries nitrogen, phosphorus, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as plowed topsoil, to the Kaw. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), loosely called feedlots, impair waterways because of their concentration of waste. PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called “forever chemicals” because of their slow breakdown in the river, flow here. Today, PFAS are also in our bodies, so pervasive is their forever-ness, and in this way again the river and I feel the same.
“Don’t drink it,” a young ecologist said to me as our canoes coasted near one another. We had been chatting about our love of the water, the beauty of the river, the incredible night and day we were spending with other women who had dedicated their careers to learning and saving this prairie watershed. Her warning—“don’t drink it”—came like a mantra, almost flat and unfelt. I could tell she ended many conversations about the Kaw with that blithe but firm warning. My place of peace and healing is also damaged, in need of care.
* * *
When I am on the water, sometimes I think about the one river baptism I attended during my late childhood. I was raised in a Pentecostal home: speaking in tongues, Jericho marches, and tambourines were Sunday night rotation. Hours-long alter calls that saved the souls of our damaged and hurt flock. I left the church decades ago, another essay entirely, but looking back it was a somatic engagement with faith. Physical and exuberant.
In my church, we did baptism in the sanctuary, in a large jacuzzi-like tub behind the pulpit. Baptism by full submersion was our sacrament to cleanse sins from the body. I was full of complex emotions as I stood shaking in the water. Our minister was a fiery sort, dramatic and kind. “Your old self will be buried with Jesus. You will rise from this water like Christ!” He squeezed my nose and plunged me backward. I was a teenager, and my baptism was spontaneous. My faith had begun to slip and erode; this was likely an attempt to feel rekindled. Yet here I was in a large tub filled with tap water that went down the drain and through the municipal wastewater system.
Once my sins made it to the river, they had been properly treated, I guess; sanitized and swept away like dishwater. But my aunt’s congregation in southern Missouri was a little more wild, more old-fashioned, and by living closer to history, they were also closer to the seasons and the earth. Their services had an emotional vitality that was frightening. The river baptism I attended was a strange and beautiful experience, full of loud hollering and old diction, a cleansing of sin and rebirth of self in the flowing water. Locusts buzzed and green was everywhere: in the trees, along the wild bank, on the woody brush that pulled at our skirt hems. As the pastor prayed and dunked his believers, their sins were carried by the watershed to be something other than us, something strong enough to carve granite and gentle enough to hold ducklings. The river could carry our deep screwups and dilute them to a grain of sand.
I am no longer of this faith; I left the church at 18 and would not talk about it for years. Eventually a spiritualism began flickering in me again, one common to all of us who are drawn outdoors. A connected knowingness among the trees and grasses, a delight and wonder in unexpected encounters with an indigo bunting or wild tom turkey on the hiking trail. I wonder if I would have stayed connected to the church of my youth if my baptism had been in a river, rather than the bathtub of a prosperity gospel in the outer suburbs. If I had emerged clean, my old self sloughed away, my new holy self emerged from this element of earth, held and celebrated anew by the women waiting with towels ankle-deep at the bank, their voices rejoicing. I wonder if my religion had maintained its sense of awe of nature, held a sacred appreciation of the natural world, if I would have stayed, grown into an adult who could still connect with it. But what I experienced in my church was a taming of the heart that goes against everything I see around me.
* * *
Religion has been wielded by industry and governments for centuries as an excuse to tame the natural world. Rivers and prairies might be the biggest victims of this. European settlers plowed the Great Plains beyond recognition, and whole agencies work to divert and move rivers. I am not so naïve as to say none of this needs to be done, to some degree. But it could be done better. Like me, the prairie and this Kansas River watershed are in need of nurture and healing.
Given a natural existence, rivers can and do self-purify. This requires the right balance of natural elements like oxygen, the right pace of movement, the right bacteria, and time. A large dose of time. Floodplains around our river need to be reclaimed and dams removed. Imagining change on this scale seems impossible. But when the hornyhead chubs and pugnose minnow are gone, we will lose our ability to repurify—not in the sense of the river repurifying, but in our own culture. We cannot apologize when there are no pugnose minnows present to flourish again, to take back their place in the tributary.
I despair, but yet, affirming change does happen.
Near the sign that commemorates the deaths of King, Robertson, and Vinegar sits a small pocket park with In’zhúje’waxóbe, a massive, 28-ton Siouxan quartzite boulder. It was moved to Lawrence in 1929 and a plaque was drilled into it to commemorate white settlers from the New England Emigrant Aid Society. They had moved here from Massachusetts in 1854 to make Kansas a state free of slavery.
In’zhúje’waxóbe (pronounced EE(n) ZHOO-jay wah-HO-bay) is a sacred item of prayer for the Kaw Nation. For millennia it lived miles upstream at the confluence of Shunganunga Creek and the Kansas River. History was “forgotten” until, generations later, members of the Kaw Nation reminded the community. They had not forgotten. Today In’zhúje’waxóbe is in the process of being rematriated to the Kaw Nation. There has been no controversy.
This is good news and has been embraced by everyone I know. We should right past wrongs. But as I float in the water, I wonder if sins are ever corrected within our lifetimes. The people who stole In’zhúje’waxóbe are all gone now. The mob who killed King, Robertson, and Vinegar never paid for their murder. If this river re-purifies, it will not be in my lifetime. I float and worry. Corrections come too late. What can I do with my healed self, with my relationship with this river? I float and ask: what does the river need from me?
I watch the sun set and turn the river gold against the darkening sky. A tenderness comes over me that I can only describe as love. I want to call it a one-ness, that the river and I are the same. That seems arrogant, and overwhelming. It is too much, too big and deep and complex. But I do love this river, this expansive channel that gives and holds water and accepts all. Love for the lost souls who surely remain within its depths, and their families who persevere through mysterious loss. Love for men like Peter Vinegar and his daughter Margaret, who should have never known the horrors they faced. Love for the Kanza who believe in an enduring sacredness and fight for what was taken.
This is a sentimental reaction, and I’ll own it. I have learned and experienced the hard act of love, for people and pets, for place and community. If there had been more love to counter the white supremacy that hung men off bridges in 1882, and to counter the equally toxic supremacy to bury the history for 140 years, we would be better citizens today. If there had been love in the board rooms and planning meetings of industry, our children would not be born with forever chemicals in their bloodstreams.
Love acknowledged that In’zhúje’waxóbe did not belong to this town. This is good news. I reflect on this shimmer of hope as I send love out to the darts and shiners and chubs. And so much love for the silly-faced, channel-gliding shovelnose sturgeon. My guide. They have no idea the emotion and grief they carried from me these past three years.
Leslie VonHolten writes about the connections between prairie spaces and culture. She is a 2022 Tallgrass Artist Residency fellow and book commentator on High Plains Public Radio. Her recent essays have been published in The New Territory and Literary Landscapes. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.