Karen Madorin

Prairie Tayles writer

Community: Hays, KS

A sixth generation Kansan, Karen Madorin cherishes the prairie in a way only one who has left a beloved homeland and returned can.  A writer, amateur photographer, and former teacher, Karen loves finding fossils from the ancient inland seas as well as learning about modern pioneers who harvest Kansas wind.  Her Prairie Ramblings essays celebrate living the good life on the High Plains.

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Imagine a time traveling pilgrim joined your family’s Thanksgiving celebration this year. After you got over the surprise of finding in individual wearing a tall hat, short pants, stockings, funny looking shoes, and possibly carrying an antique weapon in your dining room, you’d have to wonder about the differences between 1622 and 2014. Questions might include what this visitor thought about modern homes, holiday foods, and current pastimes to celebrate a national holiday that ties contemporary Americans to one of the first English settlements in the new world.

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The search for gold compelled Spanish Conquistador Cornado to venture into what is now Kansas. Ironically, he found gold more valuable than the metal he hoped to find. Unfortunately, he didn’t recognize the importance of the gold dust he found covering his boots and leggings as he rode and walked through the tall and short grasses of Quivira.

Prairie Tayles: More Than A Thorn

Nov 3, 2017
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As I mulled writing about devil’s claw plants for this column, my thoughts skittered across a dozen bunny trails. So, hang with me. Folks who grow up on the plains frequently re-purpose seemingly unrelated items into functional uses. Stephen Ambrose noted this ability in his book Band of Brothers. He praised the ingenuity of American farm boys who welded metal to fronts and undercarriages of tanks and other military vehicles, permitting them to plow open centuries-old hedgerows. Their problem-solving saved lives and permitted the U.S. front to advance across Europe.

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Archeological training teaches students to look for human-altered landscapes. This includes out of the ordinary coloration, unusual shapes or formations that don’t match surroundings, or obvious construction such as cliff dwellings. Southwest Colorado’s sagebrush plain schools the eye to distinguish differing hues of greenery indicating soil disturbances or recognize mounds with donut-like collapsed centers. In western Kansas, students of vanished cultures work harder to identify signs of earlier occupation.

Ida Waugh

As daylight wanes and nights grow longer, neighborhood kids return to classrooms. While much of these kiddoes’ work involves the three R’s combined with social studies, science, technology, art, and music, don’t forget all-important recess. Seeing little ones walking to school made me wonder if youngsters still love to jump rope as much as I did when I headed to school, pig-tails bouncing and dressed in plaid dirndls and black and white saddle oxfords.

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If you ask youngsters to name a wizard, they’ll immediately offer Harry Potter’s name. I have news for Harry fans. The real wizard lives in Wyoming, and he wears a cowboy hat. His wand happens to be a paintbrush. This is all true—I and other artists worked with him for a week to improve our use of light and shadow in our paintings.

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As a teacher, I encourage students to incorporate sensory detail into their narratives and essays. If Mother Nature were in my classroom this fall, I’d have to give her an A+ for her efforts. She’s hammered one detail after another into golden perfection from the sights, scents, to sounds of autumn.

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Despite the hot temperatures that scorched yards and fields up until a few days ago, autumn is in the air. One reason for that involves behaviors of birds and insects. 

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Wallace Stegner suggests specific landscapes speak to a person’s heart, and he’s right. Many have a favorite place that roots the spirit. Plants have a similar effect, and that preference is genetic at my house. Mom and I love clematis blossoms. We can’t grow too many or take enough photos of those blooming in our flowerbeds.

We’ve found we can cultivate them in western Kansas if we tenderly nurture them. That says volumes because this plant succumbs easily to heat and drought, natural elements of Kansas summers.

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One of the best parts about grandchildren is seeing the world through their lens. Our youngest, a just turned one-year-old, visited recently. While her mom, dad, and gramps were organizing furniture and hunting gear, she and I wandered to the nearby park. Swings and slide held her interest for a while, but she most enjoyed toddling around, spying, and collecting last autumn’s sycamore balls. Due to the dry winter, most of them were still solid. In short time, she’d filled both tiny hands and the crooks of her elbows with tawny treasure.

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Even though I clerked, waitressed, mowed, and lifeguarded to earn my way through college, I had only one career-- an English teacher. My husband’s path was similar. He worked first as a fish culturist for Wildlife and Parks, but when a game warden position opened, he applied and served in that field until he retired. Imagine learning during the last few years I taught that students currently graduating can expect to have 25 different occupations throughout their professional lives. How do you prepare youngsters for that?

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Right now, Kansans who live anywhere near Wakeeney can only shake heads and wring hands. As they survey profound destruction wreaked upon homes and farms by gust-driven ice missiles the size of baseballs, they reveal the tenacity of prairie residents. They don’t lament, “Woe is me.” Instead, they count their blessings.

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Does anyone else wonder what highway workers charged with stopping one lane of traffic during road construction think about as they stand in the elements and flip their signs from stop to slow eight to twelve hours a day? Whenever possible, I visit with these souls who brave extreme temperatures and irate drivers to see how their jobs compare to my inside work.

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Daily temperatures may still top the century mark during the next thirty days, but soon they’ll start dropping. Knowing old Man Winter has already packed his bags and bought his ticket to Kansas compels me to google long-term weather forecasts each year. The irony is that I’ve done this long enough to realize weather prognosticators have worse batting averages than losing baseball teams. To prepare better for changing seasons, I also consider what meteorological prophets who rely on folk wisdom have to say.

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Rapid care in the golden hour after an accident or major health issue such as a stroke or heart attack offers hope to patients and their loved ones. For those who live in remote areas, time between the moment a cardiac incident or traumatic injury occurs and treatment begins depends on how swiftly emergency services arrive. For most of us living on the high plains, this means we depend on neighbor volunteers during crises.

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Learning more about how our ancestors lived fascinates me so I’m always up for any adventure that involves the past. A favorite place to explore old times is nearby Cottonwood Ranch at Studley, Kansas. First, the architecture is interesting. Even better, are its stories. The curator and his support team have skillfully preserved this English-style sheep ranch and its history. Fortunately, the original owner kept meticulous records that open windows into his world. In addition, the caretaker is a great storyteller for those inclined to listen. 

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Add a bucket, crank, rock salt, ice, canister, milk, cream, vanilla, sugar, eggs, and arm strong power to take any summer celebration over the top. As a kid, I loved arriving at a gathering where men sat or knelt circled around a good size wooden or plastic bucket and each took a turn cranking a long metal handle. Oftentimes, a child perched atop the bucket to stabilize the turning device. I knew when I saw this, it didn’t mean the guys were just telling good stories. It meant we’d soon be eating homemade ice cream.

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Most families keep their black sheep a deep, dark secret. Following this unwritten code in the late 1880s and early 90s, Eva Whipple, sister of the notorious Daltons, didn’t announce to fellow residents of Meade, Kansas, that her brothers robbed banks for a living. However, a hidden tunnel between her house and nearby barn supports the theory her outlaw relations secretly visited her.

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Social media users, join local photography sites to see what’s going on around the state. You won’t be sorry. Right now, a slew of oriole pictures: Baltimore, Bullock, and orchard,  fill scroll bars daily. Based on what I’m seeing, these pretty birds are everywhere. I love the captures of these saucy black and orange birds and reading photographers’ posts.

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Before my students read a section of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s travel journal about his exploration of Texas, I had them write directions from their house to a nearby destination. It sounded like a simple assignment until I add these qualifiers. They couldn’t use man-made landmarks or addresses in their instructions, nor could they use vehicles or GPS systems. They were limited to foot travel, and they needed to depend on the sun and stars for directions.

Country kid fun

May 19, 2017
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Warm weather always reminds me that country kids know how to have fun. An eight-year old from the Denver area made me think about this when he entertained me with adventures he enjoyed at a trampoline and arcade business near his home. After he detailed hours of good times performing tricks and challenging friends, I wondered what my grandkids would remember about their country childhoods. Thank goodness, I spied two teens playing a crazy game of either hide-n- seek or paint ball war in between lined up hay bales along Highway 24.

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Something’s been eating my strawberries. Yes, the luscious berries that we planted two springs ago and carefully nurtured so we’d have fresh fruit over our ice cream and cake or sliced to sweeten a fresh spinach salad. Since they first began blooming in May, I’ve harvested about 15 scarlet bursts of flavor that hip hop on my taste buds. Last week, I went to pick some for supper and discovered I’m not the only one that likes this spring treat.

Troglodyte Miscue

May 5, 2017
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Kids love to find words that get under the skin of siblings or enemies. This term gains power due scatological or other socially inappropriate connotations. For me, the word troglodyte, meaning knuckle-scraping Neanderthal, carried great import.. What could be more insulting?

Imagine my surprise to discover a word I secretly called my worst enemies was part of the scientific name of one of my favorite birds, the house wren.

First day at the park

Apr 24, 2017
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After months of wearing long pants, heavy sweaters over flannel shirts, and clunky shoes, folks are enjoying the chance to leave jackets behind and head to the park. It’s like a spring cleaning for the spirit as everyone goes down a slide, swings, or teeter totters in order to wipe away winter’s cobwebs and staleness.

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“But--I didn’t start it,” are words parents and teachers hear regularly. Over decades, I’ve learned that seeing one kid hit another doesn’t mean that child began the fuss. Usually he or she is answering another youngster’s actions. The bad news is I saw what I saw, so I have guide that person back to acceptable behavior at home or in a classroom. A lesson I try to teach is that reacting often draws unwanted attention. 

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Combine past information with storytelling and you get history, which both entertains and offers examples of actions that improve lives. Kansas has experienced thousands of years of learning how to set up functional communities. At least 155 years of those include practice establishing permanent towns operated by local and state governments.

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Youngsters nowadays have tough choices when it comes to playing. For those of us who are living our second half of a century, the p word meant wandering outdoors to look for trees to climb, finding neighbor kids willing to put together a newly invented street game, or digging up some dirt suitable to build forts or create giant war zones for green plastic army men.

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Due to medical appointments and grandkid visits, I’ve spent several days driving across central and western Kansas the last few weeks. During that travel time, gusting north winds have shaken and tossed my silver Toyota like a terrier shaking a rat, leaving me to hope that spring weather lore is more than a wishful thought. Now that the beginning of the month is here and I have a few more journeys to make, that old saying about March, “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” appeals to me.

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Kevin Costner’s character Ray in the movie Field of Dreams listened to a mysterious voice telling him, “If you build it, they will come.” Against others’ advice, he sacrificed a cornfield to construct a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa farm country. If you’ve watched this film, you know the end of the story. Shoeless Joe Jackson, members of the banned 1919 Black Sox team, and others show up to play some spirited games.

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Miners may have headed to the mountains hoping to discover gold nuggets and tiny gilt grains in streams and veins of rock. Unlike those adventuresome characters, we’ve stayed home on the prairie and discovered treasure in our Kansas garden after experimenting with new crops. One such Eureka moment arrived in the form of beta-carotene, vitamin A rich sweet potatoes.

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