Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blight on the land

Something is missing in the new Kansas 150 stamp.

I’m trying to not be snarky about my adopted state, but in the gush of emotions surrounding the state’s sesquicentennial, somebody’s got to stay focused on the basics. And the basics are these: the stamp is boring. And it’s missing something.

The real question might be whether the missing element was intentional or simply artistic license. Anyone up for a conspiracy theory?

For now I’ll give the artist the benefit of the doubt. And, honestly, the stamp isn’t really that boring. The artist, Dean Mitchell, did a creditable job of melding the past with the future, at least where it comes to wind energy, with his depiction of a windmill superimposed over a vista of golden wheat fields and a gaggle of stately wind generators. All the usual elements are in place, including the sun-kissed azure sky, old technology and new, wide open prairie, the iconic amber waves of grain. 

In fact, if the state had asked my opinion about what to include in a sesquicentennial stamp I might have chosen the selfsame items. Sure, in the interests of truth in advertising I’d have added a plague of grasshoppers or clouds of eye gnats, something to represent the scourge of bugs that infest this place. I would have blurred the horizon to represent summer’s cloying humidity, and inserted a coal-black supercell to characterize the impending assassination of the arts in Kansas, if our newly elected governor has his way. Sort of a last hurrah. 

My opinion, however, was not solicited. It might have been mere oversight on the state’s part, not a deliberate snub but attributable to the inevitable contingencies spawned by understaffing. As you can see, my inherent generosity and willingness to retain an open mind without resorting to personal attacks, petty ridicule or harsh criticism, however richly deserving, instills within me a purity of vision possible only to one whose origins lie elsewhere. Future petitions for accurate portrayals of the great state of Kansas should be made not to native sons and daughters whose forbearers labored so diligently to tame the wild prairie and bring civilization to the Great American Desert, but to non-natives who retain a clear-eyed sense of appreciation for the inestimable qualities and, yes, the unfortunate foibles of their new homeland. Blinders are best suited for racehorses.

In so doing, a more accurate representation of the state would come forth. Take, for instance, the new official visitors guide, with its special section on “Kansas 150.” (Not “150th anniversary,” or “sesquicentennial,” a word few can spell and fewer can say, but a truncated, eviscerated bastardization.) The cover shows a trio of visitors standing knee-deep in prairie grasses, the distance receding into blue hills and the sky bluer still. A bucolic vision of a pristine place to be sure, but what the travel bureau purposely left out was a small detail called chiggers. Very small, almost microscopic, but astronomically abundant, and, even as the photographer’s shutter snapped, hungrily sucking the blood of the visitors. 

In a small box in the lower right corner is the state’s motto writ large: “Kansas—as big as you think.” If speaking of insects, unimaginably big. Why not change it to “Kansas—bring your Deet!”

But I digress. 

Contemplating the stamp from an outsider’s perspective is a troublesome exercise in objectivity. I’m honest enough to think advertising should have a foundation of truth with only a kiss of embellishment, and realistic enough to know that too much of one and not enough of the other can be disastrous. And I understand that the artist was dealing with space constraints, a palette the size of a postage stamp. There’s only so much he could include, however vital. But couldn’t he have added contrails webbing the unclouded heavens, in a nod toward our state’s reputation as “flyover country”? Or, perhaps in one corner, a small pancake to represent the unfounded but pestilential belief that Kansas is “flat as a pancake”? But no, that could be mistaken for a cow pie.

It’s a slippery slope indeed trying to configure an inclusive but minimalist snapshot of what Kansas is all about. Keeping it rural is unquestionably the most critical component, but including the state’s motto, ad astra per aspera, would at least provide a warning that nothing comes easily here. If you want it, you’re going to have to work damn hard for it, and even then there’s no guarantee of success. And maybe that’s the true meaning of Kansas—the unending difficulties we endure when we follow our vision, and the supreme reward for our perseverance. 

I can’t imagine trying to squeeze that onto a stamp. And yet I balk at windmills and wind generators as the iconic merger of the past and the future. They’re too pat, too clever, too easy a representation. For as I drive around the state I see windmills here and there, and most are broken and some are not, and occasionally I come upon a cluster of wind generators, but they’re a rarity. Cellular towers, however, are anything but rare.

Not long ago, I was commissioned to photograph a sweeping, oh-give-me-a-home, Willa Cather panorama without any sign of man’s influence. “You’re not allergic to Photoshop, are you?” I asked. 

For it was patently impossible. On any horizon, in any direction, one sees a dozen towers, and more appear daily, spreading like a toxic virus. Intrusive, ugly, lethal to migrating birds, they’re a blight upon our land, and we seem powerless to hinder their progress. 

Their absence in the Kansas 150 stamp was telling. Perhaps even diabolical. A true rendering of the state’s technological future should have included thousands of cellular towers, an amassed army of needle-tipped monoliths glowing with their own incandent fire, the very stars to which we aspire eclipsed and subsumed behind their smoldering radiance. We’ve sacrificed the finite prairie on the altar of communication and now must pay the price. But happy birthday anyway, Kansas! For a short while longer we’ll blissfully hide behind windmills and oceans of golden wheat, or sunflowers or unclouded skies, content in the illusion that our innocence remains undefiled, that our vistas are unsullied, that there is time to reverse course and demand a worthier future. 


little apple tally said...

At least there isn't a buffalo... reference the quarter! While the buffalo ranchers would disagree, seems to me that animal doesn't appear to show us as modern. Wind farm over buffalo feedlot any day I say!

Tom Parker said...

Funny you should say that. I had one lady tell me the artist was an idiot for not including bison! Another friend said he wished the artist would have included a Kansas farmer loudly declaiming against socialism while simultaneously accepting farm subsidy payments. Pity the artist against such artistic merit.

shoreacres said...

Well, I started out all excited and by the time I got to the end I thought... uh...

But because I have it, I'll tell you. I discovered a treasure not long ago. I thought I'd gotten rid of all of my dad's stamps - he died in 1981 and had probably 300 pounds of crammed-full catalogs. But I found three mint sheet files full of stamps, from about 1945-1975.

The stamps are beautiful. I thought I'd get rid of them, but by the time I got done looking, I was just amazed. They're nothing like today's stamps - they're works of art. And yes, one of othe treasures is a full sheet of three cent stamps from 1954, commemorating the Kansas Territory Centennial.

Aren't they cool?!

Suzanne said...

Imagine my surprise when I returned home after taking photos of the very tiny and lonely cemetery in Kings, Illinois, only to find when a cell tower in the distance when I was processing the photograph in Photoshop. Well, that cell tower rankled me to the core and I promptly took it out. Magic.... I call it blight-be-gone. I guess it's not exactly a truthful image but I'm not a journalist!

Tom Parker said...

They're beyond cool—they're works of art. Lovely! I'd frame them and hang them on the wall they're so nice.
As for the "uh" you alluded to, well, I'm getting cranky seeing cell towers everywhere I look. I swear I see a new one every morning when I go to work. How many do we need? When is enough enough? *&&^%$#%&*(*!

Tom Parker said...

Suzanne -- Photoshop to the rescue! If only reality were that simple... A few politicians would go missing pretty damn fast!

Carol said...

This stamp is one of eight issued about Kansas over the years, I'm told. I have no recollection of the others. Perhaps, taken together, they'd say more about our state.

I think of Kansas skies, changing from minute to minute. Even one sky shot could never do Kansas justice.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- You're right, it would take a montage of sky photos to do it justice and to provide a seasonal overview. Right now I'm thoroughly enjoying these cloudless blue skies because that means it isn't snowing.