The verve of nerve

I mentioned her name already, but this chapter is devoted to Jane Beedle Koger. She won’t like this, but I know she doesn’t carry grudges so I don’t care. I first met Jane in 1995, Ans and I driving a Ford Explorer with Texas plates and she coming from the opposite direction on the dirt road in a battered Jeep Wrangler with IMNXTC on its license plate — I’m in ecstasy. First thing we thought, “Wow, that’s a good one.” First thing she thought, “What are those bloody Texans doing driving to my ranch?” Jane doesn’t think much of Texans.

We stopped, talked, and after we had explained we were Dutch, not Texans, we were invited to stay in the bunkhouse on her Homestead Ranch. We stayed for a week then moved into an old little house on the property where Jane’s grandfather Roy Beedle was a prominent pasture man, in Bazaar twenty-five miles north of her ranch complex. The little house was dark brown on the inside and to avoid claustrophobia we drove to the then newly opened Walmart in Emporia, bought a few rolls of cheap wallpaper and push-pinned these all over the place, with the white backside becoming front and the ugly flowery design facing the walls. That felt much better. We started working on the Homestead Ranch, were put on tractors; we enjoyed cutting hay, and raking it and baling it, then transporting the bales from the pastures to the ranch, even if this took long hot days because the job had to be done before the thunderstorm arrived. Ans and I loved the work, loved the prairie, and loved Jane. Ans still does, I still do. Jane is one of the main reasons why starting November 2009 we returned to Chase County, Kansas.

Jane is not the average Kansas cattle rancher. For, as you may have noticed already, she is a woman. Also because she is a lesbian woman. These facts together made it, thirty years ago when she started ranching at age 25, crystal clear to most male ranchers and macho cowboys in the Flint Hills that she would fail. Soon. Some of these men still shake their heads and predict that she will not succeed even if it is thirty years later and Jane has proven to run one of the most efficient cow and calf operations in all of Kansas. Funny things, males.

I am quoting William Least Heat-Moon’s conversation with Jane as written down in ‘PrairyErth’: “Agricultural knowledge doesn’t pass on a Y chromosome – it’s learned behavior, and if a cowboy can learn to work cattle, anybody can. I mean, his idea is, ‘If it don’t fit, get a goddam hammer.’ When a woman is around animals, her nurturing instinct comes out.” Jane knows that any cowboy who didn’t scorn such talk would be ridiculed. She can see no reason for rodeos that only perpetuate adolescent male myths about cowboys and encourage a moronic masculine desire for dominance over dumb animals. “Some of these guys are so bright they can’t even see when they’re running a pasture calf to death.”

In my eyes, Jane can never fail no matter what she does. She is an excellent and by nature patient teacher and she taught me, the city boy who had such a hard time understanding why the heck in the winter grasses turn yellow and brown, everything I now know about the earth, its flora, its fauna, the seasons, the weather, and more — not to mention haying, repairing barb wire fences, bottle-feeding orphan and reject calves, and branding. The only thing I refused to learn was castrating the young and handsome steers without a bullish future — that, in my opinion, is a woman’s job. And when I was on the tractor haying, and after producing 996 perfect square bales a darn front wheel collapsed, I screamed, “Jaaaaane!” and when she didn’t hear me because she was twenty miles away I hiked in the heat all the way to the nearest phone and called her, and an hour or so later she would show up and this less than 5′ high woman would, magically, get huge rocks under the axle of this heavy piece of equipment in preparation of the replacement of the broken wheel. And, that one day in a different pasture when the hay got stuck in the round bailer and I couldn’t get it out of its dark dungeon, I screamed, “Jaaaaane,” and hiked to the nearest phone and she came out and just fixed the problem with the verve of nerve. And I watched her doing this with admiring, adoring eyes. I never pretend I can solve serious problems, I just call Jane. I call her ‘La Patrona’.

Jane Koger also opened my eyes to what farmers and ranchers have to go through. I know these are clichés, but clichés are clichés for a reason. The long hours. The heat. The sweat. The hurting backs. The cold — because in the winter you have to feed the cattle out on the prairie even if the wind chill drops the temperature to minus 20 Fahrenheit or worse. The unpredictability of the external circumstances and its effects on the family income and life in general. I learned to see what makes a good rancher, a smart farmer. Nowadays, I recognize from a mile’s distance if someone takes good care of his machinery, or not, just by looking at the squareness, or the roundness, of the bales of hay in the pastures. There is more I learned from Jane. About prairie politics, about sustainable agriculture, about the land needing respect, everything. After Ans and I had left Kansas in 1995, Jane described me in a newsletter as her “boy of summer.” I was the first man she had allowed to live and work on her ranch. So how can I not love Jane?

By now you may suspect that I am a little subjective when talking about Jane Koger. Therefore I will switch again to quoting (in Italics) from the chapter dedicated to Jane in the book ‘PrairyErth’ — the book I had read when still living in the Netherlands and which four years later brought me to Kansas in the first place. Its author, William Least Heat-Moon, who also wrote the enormously successful ‘Blue Highways’, created a serious document, “a deep map” of Chase County, and I guarantee you, you can fully trust his objectivity.

I know that Jane isn’t thinking much of her statements from when she was young, but I re-read them more than once and find many of them still worth digesting. “You know, I’m really a lot mellower now,” she says, and she is. I see, for instance on a day in last April when Jane burned the prairie, how with smart tact and a strong sense of humor she carefully, patiently, maneuvers amongst the men. Still, I find it a little disappointing, if not disturbing, to witness how one or two of the neighboring ranch managers she has to coordinate things with deal with “the little woman.” Funny thing, machismo. Haven’t these guys learned anything? I decide they still deserve the less mellow sayings from the time Least Heat-Moon first interviewed Jane the hell raiser.

I know that, because we’re not as strong as men, we don’t have to be as dumb, so instead of muscle we use a come-along to pull a calf from the uterus. Gears and ratchets and hydraulics are great equalizers.”

Jane grew up in the Flint Hills, one of the daughters of a banker son of big time ranchers, a Yale graduate. When Jane went off to the first of several colleges, she vowed never to return to Kansas. She never graduated, although she did earn her pilot’s license. But the Flint Hills held her even after eight years. She returned.

By now, I’ve learned that I can’t get the land to do what I want it to do. Mostly I have to follow what it wants to do, so it’s my responsibility to learn how the prairie lives. If the land wants fire, I give it a match. I’m a manager, that’s all, and basically what I am is a bug manager — what I’m really interested in is my cows’ digestion, and that’s a result of microorganisms in soil and water and stomachs. Basically, this is a bug ranch. Don’t thank a rancher for your steak, thank bugs.”

Some local residents from old settler families were a little upset by Jane starting her ranching business also because it occupied much of the historic Thurman area in the county’s south-eastern corner, then already a ghost settlement. Yet most of them found consolation in the fact that she had kin ties to early Thurman settlers. Ezra Beedle was her maternal great-grandfather — and Jane’s ranch includes the Little Cedar Creek farm that was purchased by Ezra Beedle in 1882. Jane was not handed a silver spoon. She committed to a quarter-of-a-million debt to the bank when she was twenty-five. Later, after years of hard work, she bought her grandmother’s house in Bazaar (on the same property where Ans and I wallpapered the little house). Since then, she has reassembled a lot of old family land. “When I’d proved a few things, my father contributed some more land.” She attended a stockmen’s school in Texas, took a rancher’s short course at Kansas State (“My family calls it a short rancher’s course”) and she read.” A lot. Enough to also become a speaker about ecology, the grasses of the Midwest, breeding healthy beef cattle, solar and wind energy, whatnot, at many colleges and meetings, as well as a board member of a national environmental group. Jane started ‘Prairie Women Retreat’ on her own ranch, to give city women a chance to experience the prairie, the earth, ranch animals, ranching. She started ‘Symphony on the Prairie’, now ‘Symphony in the Flint Hills’ and in its sixth year and an independent foundation with its own staff and with six-, seven-thousand people sitting in the grass miles away from civilization and enjoying the prairie and the music, and each June concert selling out within two hours after the box office opens. She started the Republic of Grass I mentioned before. From its start, she supported Pioneer Bluffs Foundation, the restoration of the beautiful 1859 Matfield Green ranch, and was its board’s president. She started the CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, in Matfield Green. Once a week in the winter months, she teaches “money management,” with local ranchers who may get or already have gotten into heavy debt in her audience, which proves that, by now, there are also ranchers who do respect her for being the accomplished business woman and devoted community member she is. And she still ranches, of course. On 6,000 acres of tallgrass prairie in south-eastern Chase County.

“Maggots are an integral part of my world where I have dead animals and disease. I need all kinds of decay — my business depends on it. My crop is really grass, and cattle are just the means to harvest and package it.”

By the way, Jane is the one who told me that it is easier for lesbians to settle and get accepted in the Flint Hills cattle community than for vegetarians. When I told you this previously, I did not know yet what I learned since, which is that in the late 1920s in the good old USSR “Uncle Joe” Stalin used the word “vegetarian” to distinguish between the fainthearted revolutionists, the ones he’d have to have killed later, and the real ones, the “red meat eaters” who did not abandon Lenin when the going got a bit sticky. Stalin’s bodyguard once said, “Browbeating vegetarians is what I do to work up an appetite.” Not that this is very relevant, but anyway, FYI …

“I used to be pretty single-minded about cattle, but my focus has expanded,” said Jane in a recent presentation. “Now we have 125 cows in my cow herd and lease pastures for 100 head of cows and 700 head of steers. But I can also tell you that we tallied 560 birds in our spring survey and have at least 57 different species of butterflies on the ranch.” As she has begun looking at the prairie from a point of view of living things in general, it has been amazing to her just how much life is out in those pastures besides “quarter pounders on the hoof.” She sees it as her job to be the steward of this ecosystem. “We, who make our living from the prairie, must become her most fervent protectors.”

Jane is practicing “the ethics of enough.” The new house Jane built away from the ranch complex sits far out on the prairie and is surrounded by literally endless views. Jane built off the grid, with wind and solar energy and the use of a compost toilet. “Off the grid has come to mean more than living without dependence on local infrastructure like electricity, water or sewer. The term has expanded to imply a way of thinking and not just thinking, but acting outside the mainstream, of shifting emphasis from profitability to sustainability, from consumerism to stewardship, and of living with a keener consciousness of the planet’s dwindling resources. Philosopher Mortimer Adler is credited with coining the term ‘the ethics of enough’, a philosophy that underpins the way I live, work and play in my Republic of Grass. By definition, abundance is an ample quantity. This does not mean, as it has come to imply in our culture, an unlimited supply. In other words, abundance is enough, not more than enough. Clarifying the definition of abundance provides a jumping-off point for beginning to intentionally align want more closely with need, which is Adler’s simple maxim for practicing the ethics of enough,” says Jane.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music … a chorus of meadowlarks and dickcissels, peepers and bullfrogs, the timpani of a thunderstorm and a Kansas breeze through the cottonwood leaves and other wild music. People will come to understand this, people will come here.” Ans and I came, left, returned, left, then returned, this time to stay.

Somewhere I read, “People are geography. Only people give character to nature.” Yep.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, June 2010


William Least Heat-Moon’s ‘PrairyErth’ (Houghton Mifflin, Boston,1991) lovingly details Chase County’s 744 square miles and less than 3,000 souls, “till it looms as large as the universe while remaining as intimate as a village.”

Photo by Mike Blair, 2005.