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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Gurley

Backstory: Meeting "Nick"

The other day, as I stretched out to take a nap, the wheels of memory started to turn of their own accord. I dozed and watched like a spectator of someone else’s story. Milestones of my life passed by. Connections which I’d only been subconsciously aware were buried in the evolving chapters of The Griefmaker. As I dozed, they emerged like a developing photo.

After I got divorced and was wandering adrift I met someone who showed me another way of negotiating the maze of life. Nick grew up in a semi-rural town outside of Kansas City. He had a different perspective, a different set of experiences from me and my conventional Kansas City friends. Nick and his two brothers had inherited a 4,000 acre ranch in southern Kansas from their grandfather, who’d won it in a poker game. The ranch had been known as “The Gladfelter,” after an early owner. The Gladfelter had been worth a million dollars in the roaring 1920s, but lost most of its value in the Depression. When it came into the hands of Nick and his brothers it was a wilderness of native prairie and hardwood forest, teeming with wildlife. Nick invited me to the Gladfelter for a hunting trip. I spent a weekend with him and some friends. We stayed in a trailer and drove around the vast ranch in a four-wheel drive International Harvester truck, checking out numerous ponds for ducks, scoping for deer.

That weekend, Nick introduced me to the Tall Grass Prairie. I had no idea of the majesty of this miracle of nature. The Tall Grass Prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America and it had now almost disappeared due to unfortunate farming practices. I’d never seen or heard of these grasses that could reach eight feet in height and send their roots down 18 feet in search of moisture. It was an environment you could disappear into. It wrapped around you. Within its cover, you felt transported from the civilized, developed world. It was a theater fit for meditation and self-renewal.

Nick wasn’t some mystical nature boy, but he was in love with the prairie. He introduced me to the varieties of native grass: Big and Little Blue Stem, Side Oats Gramma, Switch Grass and Indian Grass. He took me mushroom hunting and taught me how to adjust my eyesight to the wooded shadows where the gnomish mushrooms hid and to suppress the impulses of greed that inspire the shy, precious fungi to disappear.

Nick was an avid bird watcher. As we roamed the Gladfelter, he identified birds for me – killdeer that feigned broken wings to protect their nests and bull bats that swooped down from heights, emitting the strange “booms” made by their wings when they pulled from a dive. We encountered marsh-dwelling bitterns, also known as “shitepokes,” due to their habit of “lightening their load” when flushed, and woodcocks, also known as “timberdoodles” for their erratic, corkscrew flight. From Nick I learned the instinct to always look up to see what might be flying in the sky – soaring hawks, migrating geese, and once a flock of sandhill cranes like a flight of pterodactyls. One night we crouched in a field while hundreds of mallards descended and landed around us, quacking and chuckling, unaware or unconcerned by our presence. I would never have experienced these things if not for Nick’s enthusiastic guidance.

That visit to the Gladfelter had a significant impact on my life and future. I got an education there that college hadn’t given me. There was something liberating in this a new perspective. It opened a world apart from the preoccupations I’d grown up with, the cookie-cutter lives I and my friends had been assigned. Nick was what people call an “influencer” today. We loved to get a call from him. It meant adventure was in store. He organized canoe trips on wild rivers in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, always showing off his woodland skills, like Nessmuk or Thoreau without the pious sermonizing.

Nick had another side. He was an instinctive entrepreneur. He went into business with a wildcat oil company and drilled oil wells on the Gladfelter. He flew a small plane from Kansas City and landed on a grass runway to facilitate his management of the ranch. Having gotten wind of a plan to create a large reservoir that would take in the Gladfelter, he hired a bulldozer operator to clear the trees and plant crops, which increased the value of the property immensely. When the government condemned the land, Nick and his brothers became millionaires at a time when a million dollars was big money.

I was disappointed in Nick. I regretted the loss of the magical refuge. And I thought

he’d had traded a priceless treasure for dollars. It didn’t occur to me that he was going to lose the Gladfelter to the reservoir regardless and that Nick had only used his smarts to maximize the outtake. And I didn’t foresee that he and I would repeat the same deed down the road.

With the Gladfelter money, Nick embarked on a life of ostentatious spending. He drove a Mercedes, bought a home in Kansas City’s ritziest neighborhood, an island getaway in Minnesota, a home in Florida. These purchases all turned out to be good investments. They soared in value and Nick appeared to have the Midas touch – until his world came crashing down.

With the Gladfelter gone, Nick began is own search for a new vocation. He tried to become a stockbroker, but was unsuccessful due to his innate, maverick honesty: He couldn’t help pointing out the downside risks of every stock he recommended. Consequently, he made few sales. He had better luck speculating in real estate and made a number of home runs buying and selling vacant land.

With a small down payment, he and I bought 20 acres from a man who still farmed with a horse drawn plow. The property was on the outskirts of Kansas City in a neighborhood that was in its infancy as a spot for warehouses. By coincidence, the 20 acres had a small patch of virgin native grass. It was a miniature Gladlfelter. Prairie fans sometimes called to ask permission to explore the tiny spot. Nick and I made payments over 20 years and sold for a nice profit. Thus I’d participated in a transaction I’d criticized him for.

One day, driving aimlessly in the country, I saw a for sale sign on a piece of farmland. From the road, I could see ducks landing on a large pond. I made a phone call and met the owner. Gene had acquired thousands of acres of Kansas farmland during an inflationary period where people believed that the price of commodities could only go up and that “they weren’t making any more land.” When the inevitable downturn hit, Gene had to liquidate. With the money from the sale of the 20 acres, my wife and I bought the farm. Like Nick, Gene was a passionate champion of the prairie. He’d restored native grass on most of the land he owned long before prairie restoration had become a fad. Thus we’d acquired another Gladfelter talisman. A Kansas University botanist found over 150 different kinds of native grasses and forbs on our new farm.

Upland plovers, a prairie bird, were common sights on the farm. Across the road was a flock of prairie chickens.

My wife and I built a small cabin on the property and spent weekend evenings there while our little daughter browsed around the pond, catching tadpoles, picking wild strawberries, getting her own early education in prairie lore. Years later, she was camping with her husband and little kids in California when she closed a creaking gate. The sound struck her memory chords: it was the same sound she’d grown up with when we closed the gate of our prairie farm.

When my wife and I bought her siblings’ share in a farm her parents had owned, the cost of maintaining both farms was too much, so we sold the cabin farm. The purchaser was none other than Nick. It seemed like a “full circle” sort of thing.

The farm we acquired was a wasteland of thistles and thorny hedge trees. The dominant grass was fescue, a grass that’s hostile to wildlife. There were no birds, no rabbits, hardly even any insects on the property. Susan and I embarked on a prairie restoration plan under the government’s Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (W.H.I.P.)

After we planted native grass, flocks of black birds arrived to devour the seeds. I remember firing my shotgun in a futile attempt to drive them away. Soon after planting, a delicate fern-like plant appeared. I asked the government agent what it was. “Ragweed,” he said. By midsummer, the farm was covered with a crop of six-foot-tall ragweed and I thought we’d made a terrible mistake. But almost at once, quail appeared and by the next year, the native grass prevailed. The ragweed all but disappeared. Today, we have a flourishing prairie and abundant wildlife. It seemed like a triumph until the university botanist told us that it would take 500 years to approximate what the prairie used to be.

After buying our cabin farm, Nick got caught in the same kind of downturn that had hit Gene. He died on the farm I’d sold him from a gunshot wound under ambiguous circumstances. Nick and I had been meeting Wednesday afternoons, putting pen-raised quail out to train our hunting dogs. The Wednesday before he died, he had a tape of Homer’s Odyssey on the dashboard of his car. I mentioned this at the funeral. I thought it gave an insight into Nick’s frame of mind during his last days. The Odyssey is an example of “nostos,” the homecoming theme in Greek literature. The best spin I could put on Nick’s death was that he was “coming home.” The title of Part II in The Griefmaker is “Coming Home.”

Around that time, a large stand of native grass outside of Lawrence, Kansas became enmeshed in a public controversy. The owner wanted to develop it. Conservationists wanted to preserve it. To head off opposition, the owner plowed it and earned the wrath of public scorn. That episode had no personal biographical relevance for me, but it furnished a piece of the puzzle for my Griefmaker project.

All these disparate facts came together one way or another without my explicit awareness of their mysterious connections and found their way into my novel. Its original titles was The Ploughman, but my publisher, Maureen Carroll, judiciously suggested The Griefmaker, the name of an early owner of the thousand acre prairie that’s at the heart of the novel. In this way, the Gladfelter was reborn as “The Griefmaker.”

When I woke up from my nap, I felt like I’d walked blindfolded along an unknown path that was also somehow familiar. I felt as if I’d discovered at least a whisper of coherence in the fragments of my life…Sometimes, when I’m out walking, I talk out loud to myself in a voice that seems like Nick’s, pointing out some plant I hadn’t noticed before, the casting of a predatory bird or the track of some animal on its prowling rounds. And I sense he’s out there walking with me, that in some way he’s “come home.”

By the way, Nick’s wife had set me up on a blind date with Susan, my wife for over forty years.

George Gurley

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