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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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.

Mud blessings

Feb 18, 2017
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Chinese philosophers are on to something with their Yin and Yang concepts. Light balances dark, silence/noise, joy/sorrow, and in our case, mud offsets dust.

Yes, mud. Icky, gooey, sticky mud. Like cat hair, it latches onto anything it touches, finding its way from roads, yards, and pastures onto shoes and pant legs and into homes. It finds its way into the oddest places—a speckle stuck to a grocery sack, a chunk dropped by the door, a smear on a purse.

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When I talk to friends who love to live in cities, they often wonder what we do for fun in our rural setting.  Even my former students who live in a nearby small town frequently asked, “Don’t you get bored in the country?  All you have to do is watch grass grow.” Anyone who reads my essays knows I don’t get bored even though we don’t have any neon lights or busy city streets lined with businesses that cater to people who just want to have fun.

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Weather forecasters have a miserable job. On one hand, they predict impending catastrophic weather and save lives. Think of residents if Oklahoma who made it to shelter before devastating F5 tornadoes bore down on their neighborhoods and businesses. On the other, these predictions are often wrong. A  cell fritzes out, leaving the audience to compare yesterday’s hero to the boy who cried wolf. It’s a dilemma.

Quilted treasures

Jan 28, 2017

I’d be the first to tell you I’m not a quilter and unlikely to become one unless catastrophe requires me to recycle old clothing remnants into blankets to warm me or my loved ones in the cold of winter. While I don’t have patience to construct such intricate coverlets, I admire those who do. When our youngest daughter learned to quilt in a high school sewing class, I was thrilled she’d continue a family tradition that has waned since my great-grandmother last sorted through her ragbag to come up with pieces to create a lovely blue and red star heirloom that my mother treasures.

Creatures of habit

Jan 7, 2017

The other day, I watched our Jack Russell fidget impatiently by the bedroom door, waiting for someone to let him into the hallway. Directly behind him was an alternate path that led through the bath to the living area on the other side of the house. Because he’s in a new home, he never considered exiting via this route. After I released him from his self-imposed trap, I began thinking about how I, too, am a creature of habit locked into boundaries established only my mind.

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Mother Nature does a fantastic job of cleaning up after herself. Humans could learn a trick or ten from the efficient way natural processes clean water, recycle plants into humus, and tidy up dead critters lying on roadways. For each specific job, creatures abound to make sure nothing stinky lies around too long. Two of my favorite helpers include the roadkill eradication team: magpies and turkey vultures. 

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Few baby boomers can flip through old photo albums without finding black and white pictures featuring themselves, siblings, and cousins as youngsters. They often show off cowboy hats with stampede strings tied tight under their chins, fuzzy chaps, and belts holding plastic six shooters that fired red ribbons of firecracker-scented caps. Not many escaped that ache to ride the range on a stick horse or to rope sad-faced pups and kittens. Watching Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Lone Ranger on those two-channel TVs fueled dreams and guided neighborhood shootouts.

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Despite the fact I had a flu shot the minute the doctor made them available, one of those germs invaded, took up residence in my ears, lungs, and sinuses, and has hung around with his buddies far too long. I’ve taken antibiotics and added a few homeopathic treatments to see if I can send this invader packing. Some of my self-care, which includes slathering Vicks on my feet and wearing cotton socks to bed, has offered comfort but not a cure. Several sympathetic friends recommended taking elderberry elixir, and one provided a bottle of his homebrew. When I looked up elderberries, it appears science agrees that syrups made from this native fruit have successfully evicted this nasty attacker and its accompanying symptoms.

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