A River Runs Through It

Matt Wycoff

What’s the matter with Kansas?
(Exhibition Catalogue) June, 2005

The Kansas River stretches 170 miles from Junction City, Kansas to Kansas City where it meets the Missouri River and continues east across Missouri towards the Mississippi. It is the state’s only natural access to the eastern half of the country. The river, while often low on water, is rife with symbolism. I recently canoed the entire length of the river and was mindful of that symbolism in looking for both continuity and distinction between this region and the rest of the country.

Other than the plains, the Kansas River is the most substantial geographic feature in Kansas. The river captures well over 50 percent of the state’s population in the ten counties that border it. The Kansas River Basin’s drainage area is larger than Iowa. The basin covers around 60,000 square miles, draining water from Eastern Colorado, Southern Nebraska and most of Northern Kansas. The area has been thought of at points in its history as both un-farmable desert wasteland and the crucial agricultural engine of the country. The river’s alluvial plain is the only major source of drinking water in Kansas, and it begins just east of the geographic center of the United States.

The river has a sordid environmental history marred first by industrial degradation and currently by agricultural pollution from fecal coliform bacteria running off hog and cow farms. An environmental law was passed in 2001 by the Kansas Legislature to protect livestock manufactures from the high cost of keeping the water clean, which repealed the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, and has resulted in the river becoming among the most polluted in the country. The social history of the area is marked by a bitter struggle over slavery — white settlers voted against slavery, not because of humanitarian concern for slaves, but because they hated blacks — and contempt for the native American populations that stood in the way of western expansion. The region’s formation is one of the clearest examples of the effects of manifest destiny in this country and it remains an area willing to advance industry, nationalism and consumerism while sacrificing aesthetics, fostering racial hatred and willfully ignoring environmental consequences.

Because the coasts were so prominent during the radical cultural upheavals between the end of WWII and 1970, the Midwest arrived to the rampant consumerism of the 80’s and 90’s primed by its similarities to pre-war expansion values. Not only did the Midwest miss out on the 60’s counter culture, it’s missed out on the anti-globalization movement as well. Despite anti-globalization’s lack of focus, cohesion and potential for real change, the Midwest is dangerously unaware of its existence due to the movement’s seclusion to the sympathetic coastal populations. The Midwestern cultural vacuum is so severe, disaffected youths are still milling around Kansan malls and movie theatres as if Kurt Cobain had just uttered the words, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

This isolation, of course, is not all encompassing, yet the delayed arrival of contemporary ideas to the Midwest has left just enough space between periods of social change to torque these histories into new and sometimes deeply uninformed expression. The Kansas River and the history of its larger geographic area mirrors the history of the country — its struggles with industry, environment and the heavy handed politics involved in exploiting the weak and less organized. But its distance from, and lack of concern for, the larger cultural shifts in this country and the world have given birth to a unique social isolation, global oblivion, bootstrap politics and the mutated grandson of manifest destiny. Sometimes it seems as if no one is watching, and more than likely they’re not.

The river itself has long been replaced by I-70 as the main connective tissue between Kansas and the rest of the country, but the irony of the state’s only natural outlet laying in ruin still holds considerable significance. The Midwest is crucial to the rest of the country in terms of agricultural production, but by and large it is culturally ignored. The strangest twist in the story is that Midwestern conservatism is now the national political majority, and is changing the face of international relations and with it the course of the world. It is troubling that the beliefs and culture of an area so deeply affecting the national countenance are so overlooked.

The Kansas River is a sanctuary for the marginal. The river is home to naturalists, environmentalists, and boating enthusiasts that make recreation on the river a political statement as well as a practical form of enjoyment. Their effort is characteristic of contemporary protest – well intending but slightly pathetic in the face such a dominant adversary. It is home to endangered species like the whooping crane, peregrine falcon, and sturgeon chub that have been ignored into desperate situations. Large populations of homeless men and women live along, bathe in and survive on fish from its waters using the rivers isolation as protection from a society that has criminalized poverty. With a few exceptions the river it-self is a social pariah in many of the cities it helped to create, as sprawling suburbs and the interstate system made the river obsolete. The river lends itself to a kind of outlaw culture. Camping on its broad sandy, often tire strewn, banks or emerging from overpasses in small towns to by beer or water left me embracing that isolation, if for nothing more than good company.

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