Some millions of years ago, the last drops of the great inland sea bathing the Kansas plains succumbed to the sun, leaving behind a record in fossils of shells and mussels and clams.
That is, if you believe all those science textbooks, which Joseph Smith most certainly does not. An avid fossil collector, Smith has read them all, starting with the first book he ever owned, "Journey Through the Fossils of Kansas."
Still, he's concluded the earth can't be more than 6,000 years old, judging by the one textbook he trusts completely: the Bible. So the sea must have been here far more recently, maybe sometime around Noah's flood.
And if someone should come up with "proof" that the fossils are older, well, what would that really "prove" except God's mysterious ways?
"The God that created the earth also created the fossils," Smith said. "And he can put them anywhere he wants to."
Smith and his wife Bonnie, both 54, rejoiced at the Kansas school board's August decision to wipe out most mentions of evolution from state science standards. And they know what people in cities like Washington think of people like them: that they are ignorant country bumpkins, examples of the "long, sad history of American anti-intellectualism" that make decent people "cringe in embarrassment," as Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a Time magazine essay on the school board decision.
The words sting, but everything about the Smiths' life comforts them that they aren't the backwoods stereotype that Gould imagines. Joe, a chemical engineer, has master's degrees in chemistry and environmental engineering. Bonnie is a teacher with a college degree. They live in a nice suburban house near Olathe, south of Kansas City, with a picture of Neil Armstrong's lunar landing, hanging in the living room just above Joe's prized telescope.
When urbane Americans heard about the Kansas school board decision, they dismissed it as the last gasp of a familiar evangelical type from the 1940s: poor, rural and uneducated. In fact, many neo-creationists resemble the Smiths: college-educated, upwardly mobile, living in prosperous suburbs of America's fastest-growing cities.
Evangelicals today are an almost exact cross section of America: 42 percent live in suburbs, and more than a third are college-educated and earn more than $50,000 a year.
Life in upscale suburbia hasn't eroded their faith, as many sociologists predicted it would. Instead, it's produced a kind of culture shock, often hardening their beliefs. These days, religious epiphanies are sparked by what was supposed to cure them: too much "progress" in schools, too many malls and too much politics.
Joe Smith began his life split between science and God. Every day after school, he and his brother rode their bikes to the local limestone quarry to dig up fossils and look them up in their guidebooks. Joe knew what he read in those books didn't agree with what he learned in Sunday school. But back then it didn't much matter. His parents went to church, like most families, but not more than most.
At 14, at a vacation Bible school, Smith accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But those were just words, evangelical jargon he didn't really comprehend until after Vietnam. Soldiering had scraped up bad habits -- drinking and smoking -- and when he returned to Kansas, Smith suddenly found himself with an 11-month-old baby he'd seen only once, no job, and a terror he wouldn't know where he fit in. "That's when I made a choice," he recalled.
"Evolution is just somebody's nice theory and doesn't impact my life," he said. "But if you become a Christian and believe in God's creation that changes everything, everything in your daily life."
Believe that, Bonnie Smith explained, and it means that modern life is not a pointless progression from school to work to a pile of ashes. It means somebody loves you, watches over you, picks out a mission for you and for the rest of his creatures. It means, simply, that you have a reason to get out of bed every morning.
Like many neo-creationists, Joe Smith considers himself a scientist, and he defends his position on what he sees as scientific grounds. Evolutionists can't prove fossils are 4 million years old, he said, the way Copernicus and Kepler proved the earth revolves around the sun. And carbon dating isn't accurate, he argued.
Smith also has seen the photos of a dinosaur track in Texas with a human footprint inside it -- proof, he believes, that dinosaurs and human beings lived at the same time. He accepts that evolutionists can show mutations and abnormalities within a species, but maintains they cannot prove that one species mutates into another.
"You prove yours and we'll prove ours," he said. "In the end it comes down to who do you trust. We know who wrote the Bible. Now compare him to whoever wrote this or that scientific paper."
Bonnie Smith faced her own moment of truth around last Christmas. For 16 years she had taught grade school at Black Bob Elementary. But in 1996 she switched to junior high school, and "everything went downhill from there."
With these older students, she could no longer avoid "what was loud and clear in the textbook." She had to tell them that the earth was billions of years old, and that they were descended from apes. So last year, just months before the school board voted to remove evolution from the state curriculum, she quit.
Now she teaches at Westminster Academy, one of many Christian schools that have sprouted up in Olathe over the last 10 years. The school is only slightly more structured than home schooling, with about four students per class and no plans to grow much.
Westminster is proud of its love for science. The school was built in a remote field in part because it came with a science lab -- a pond teeming with insects and plant life that students can study. They learn to observe and classify plants, animals and physical phenomena. Most important, though, they learn who created them.
Now, if her kids ask what a rainbow is, Smith will tell them about prisms and fractured light. But she will also tell them that a rainbow is God's promise, first sent as a sign to Noah, never to flood the earth again.
Talk of evolution is discouraged at the school. One book in the library, called "Discovering Life on Earth," contains a neon orange warning: "Teachers Beware: This book contains evolutionary statements. Use material carefully." In another book about great scientists, the section on Charles Darwin is ripped out.
Why creationism should resonate so strongly in Bonnie Smith's life she can't quite put words to. For that kind of eloquence she counts on the pastor at her regular evangelical church, who took a break from a recent sermon to share his views.
"Creationism," said the Rev. Terry Glidden, leaning halfway over his desk, "is everything. If we take that away then we're left with a chance-filled life, a meaningless existence."
An intense evangelical preacher who rarely blinks, Glidden explained that the Bible predicts evolutionists, in Romans Chapter 1:
"Professing to be wise, they became fools. . . . For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator."
It also predicts God's vengeance on them. "For this reason, God gave them over to degrading passions," he read. "Men abandoned their natural function and burned in their desire toward one another."
That, Glidden said, is where Kansas and the rest of America are today, loosed from God. The glaring proof is at the corner store.
"Just last week, I saw two homosexual men at the supermarket," Glidden said. "The supermarket! In broad daylight! That's what you get when you worship the creation and not the creator."
Bonnie Smith nodded vigorously. "That's what I'm trying to say," she said. "That's why I don't want to teach it."
Bonnie knows a bit about meaningless existence, although in her life it plays out more subtly. She used to see it at work, for example. In her last years at public school, she began to see kids and their parents coming unmoored. If she tried to discipline a kid, the parents would bristle. "Parents are so defensive and at the same time uninvolved," she recalled. "They were so Type A, like they wanted nothing but success for their kids."
The Smiths suspect this emptiness has something to do with the booming income of Johnson County. When Joe was young, Olathe was a typical farm town; some nights you went to the drive-in movies or square dance clubs, but mostly you stayed home. His family traveled once a year to Kansas City to buy clothes at Sears.
Then about 30 years ago, Highway 35 was built, and you could make it to the city in less than an hour. Suddenly Joe's once rural hometown turned into a bedroom suburb. A new type moved in -- transient, middle management, running the regional branch of a major company, with a wife who worked, too.
"They don't have time to care about their kids," Bonnie said. "They live in a nice house with two cars and kids wearing Guess jeans, and it takes two working parents to maintain that standard of living."
Olathe is growing too fast for Joe and Bonnie Smith; it has no room to preserve anything from its past. Driving through the center of town, they can point out where things used to be: There on the corner was an old white farmhouse, less than a year ago. Now it's a McDonald's Playland.
The Smiths have carved out a refuge from the constant change, a new house in a quiet neighborhood of Stilwell, one suburb away from Olathe. Like many of their neighbors -- a home-schooler, a survivalist -- the Smiths, in trying to stand still, are creating a new reality.
Out back, Bonnie has room for what she calls a "farmette" -- a miniature version of her grandfather's farm. The barn and fields hold a donkey, two goats, some chickens and her pride -- two rare twin horses, born on Memorial Day.
"These two babies are God's miracle," she says, stroking their velvety chestnut fuzz. And lovely they are, with almost identical heads shaped like delicate vases, and spindly back legs that buck at the slightest noise.
Every night, Bonnie comes out here under the stars to feed her twins and let go of the day. Some nights, she said, the sky seems so big and remote that she thinks, "Maybe this is a Star Trek type thing, maybe we are just some point on a tiny atom inside some other thing."
But then she remembers another night, many years ago, when she was in college and working in Topeka, and drove home across the Kansas Avenue bridge. Fifteen minutes later, she took off her coat, turned on the TV, and saw the news that the bridge had collapsed, tossing several cars into the river, and drowning the drivers.
"When I look back I know God was there," she said. "And he was telling me, there's a reason for me to be here, even if only he knows the reason."