On one mid-afternoon, a woman paused in the supermarket parking lot to declare that the weather was perfectly splendid ‒ the kind of day, she said, that makes Kansas special: Sun out, no clouds, a slow puff of breeze, temperature in the mid- 70s. The kind of day that inspires hymns.
That was in March. A few days later we were back inside with the furnace blowing away. Since then, the climate has been up and down, warm, cold, hot, mild, cold, and you-name-it.
Until lately, the only constant had been drought. In the five months since mid-October, we’d received less than half an inch of rain and no measurable snowfall. Along flinty back roads, trees and tall weeds gleamed with dust that held fast even in the wind, the leaves and branches shiny, as if covered in frost.
In April, it rained at last. Our little gauge recorded 2.2 inches that month, coming in overnight showers each week, five episodes in all.
Recently overnight on May 19, we recorded 3⁄4-inch. Ten days earlier we’d had three-eighths.
Fine, quenching showers at last. And yet in Kansas there is this looming thought, particularly among elders, that it might not rain again for a long time.
At the same time, others are pulled by a fear that it just might rain again and again as it did at the end of July in 2013. We had 141⁄2 inches that month, most of it on the 25th and 29th, two 200-year flood events in five days, the equivalent of 9.2 trillion gallons of water flowing through the community. Nearly 200 homes were flooded. There were injuries, trauma, great loss, but no one was killed.
We can hope for rain, but not too much. Even in such a slight prayer, we are careful to mark it with humility and def- erence. We have learned to measure our hope.
When came to their surroundings, even their lives, the weather inspired the Calvin ‒ or the Luther, or Wesley ‒ in Kansas settlers. Fortune could turn swiftly. Too much confi- dence or certainty, or even joy, seemed always at risk of dis- appointment. This was ingrained over generations, and was most pronounced in their relationship with nature.
Kansas enjoys months of fine weather, but it rarely happens over a long stretch. Delight is more cumulative than consecu- tive; the good days don’t flow on over the weeks as they do in, say, southern California, or the Carolina coasts, or the low mountains in southern Colorado. Good weather doesn’t flow in Kansas, it hiccups.
Near the end of one summer some time ago in Olathe, where I was editing the newspaper, a group of us had settled in at a table for lunch. Discussion quickly turned to the recent months of mild weather, frequent gentle rains, and tempera- tures, even through August and Labor Day, mostly in the mid- to high-80s. A delightful summer, we agreed ‒ almost.
A local jeweler, known for his amiable scowling, held out. “A terrible summer,” he snapped. “Never got hot enough to grow good tomatoes.”
The late Peter Macdonald, a Scotsman who headed the Harris Newspaper Group for many years, was given to cau- tion whenever anyone expressed unbridled joy or boundless optimism. It was his Presbyterian-Calvinist upbringing. And he’d come from the northern Southern Uplands between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where most good fortune seemed tied to a gloomy mortgage, due at any time.
“It’s a glorious day, Peter,” we would say.
“Aye,” he’d nod, “but we’ll pay for it.”
Any stretch of splendid days out of doors, or of perfectly
timed rainfall, only confirms that there is little cadence and less continuity to Kansas weather. We live with it cautiously, as though it were a cranky old aunt, but one with a generous will.
We are at one with this weather, aware of its power, its indifference, its capacity to thrill and capability to demolish. The weather here is like family; we may be unnerved at times, but we couldn’t do without it.