Thursday, June 13, 2013

Walk into America: Smoky Hill River

(Several years ago I went strolling in various parts of the country for National Geographic Traveler, accompanied by people who knew their terrains well: Big Cypress swamp, a frozen lake in Maine, Anastasi ruins in New Mexico and other interesting places including the Kansas beloved by one of the most interesting and dedicated environmentalists in America.)

     "I don't like the looks of that," says Wes Jackson, of a large, black, fast-moving, amoeba-shaped cloud on the southeastern outskirts of Salina, in the center of Kansas. A dozen twisters have touched down in this part of the state in the last 24 hours, killing ten people and demolishing at least one town, and more are predicted. The idea of a tornado as a possible hiking companion has gotten my attention, too. But the cloud moves on, the rain stops, and Wes ties on his slicker and sets out through the biological complexity that is the American Great Plains.
     The rare moisture has glazed the prairie grass and turned the burr oak leaves a fluorescent green. It has also transformed the Smoky Hill River into a torrent. "This is a true Great Plains river," Wes points out, with pride. 'Tart of the Kansas River watershed, it doesn't rise in the Rocky Mountains, and so is more vulnerable to global warming" because it doesn't receive the benefit of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains 450 miles to the west. "The Smoky," as it's known locally, will eventually wind up in another flatlands river, the Missouri.
     For now, it runs through the roughly 600 acres owned by the Land Institute, a nonprofit Wes founded 30 years ago in an attempt to restore the natural prairie and by experimentation develop a strain of perennial wheat as an alternative to traditional agriculture. He believes such self-renewing plants can one day replace annuals designed in recent times for maximum production, those heavily fertilized monocultures that have proven unsustainable, depleting groundwater, sending soil airborne, and contributing to the decline of both plant and human communities.
Wes looks more like a heavy-set farmer in hiking boots than a respected maverick scientist, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1992, and one of 18 people Life magazine predicted would most affect history as "important Americans of the 20th century."
     "We can't do better than nature," Wes is saying. "Period. If we accept that idea, it will prevent hubris and our treating everything as if it were expendable"-not just water from the steadily diminishing Ogallala Aquifer but also the national forests, even coal and oil poured into power plants and internal combustion engines. It's a familiar litany in America today, and a real concern, but for the moment the view is gorgeous.
     The distant floodplain on the far side of the Smoky is a carpet of unadulterated chlorophyll. Rolling hills on this side are studded with runty oaks and elms long adapted to this land. There are poppy mallow, blue-eyed grass, cat's claw, and prairie parsley, all of it obviously dear to this unconventional scientist. "It is possible," he wrote in his book Becoming Native to This Place, "to love a small acreage in Kansas as much as John Muir loved the entire Sierra Nevada."

     He hopes to turn what is now a rural ramble into a formal hiking trail forming a ten-mile loop connecting Salina with the countryside and enticing schoolchildren to walk it and learn about its plants, terrain, and history. Build it, and they will come. "We have to get people out into the country, particularly young people, to show them a little ruggedness and introduce them to the real world." He pauses on the edge of a 25-acre stretch of prairie in the process of being reclaimed. "I don't think this was ever plowed," an important distinction because long-intact root systems both hold the soil and retain the cellular makeup needed for renewal.
     Displayed on the wall of the greenhouse back at the institute is what appears to be a large mass of hair, but is in fact the sixfoot-long roots of a clump of prairie grass. The grass was grown inside a tube here to demonstrate its dense, tough life support system, a testament to the plant's hardiness and a problem for early settlers. When first plowing this land, in the mid-19th century, pioneers spoke of a twanging sound as the steel blade ripped through the roots, "a storm of wild music."
     Honey locust trees, an invasive species, have all been removed in the field, though a single osage orange tree still stands like a sentinel. The invasive brush will be burned off to allow native grass underneath it to regenerate, a natural process older than history. Pointing to a stand of burr oaks, Wes asks, "Why are the limbs on this one low, and on that one high? Same answer: fire. Fire has always been a factor in the renewal of this land, and this has to be explained to kids. We have to get them involved in prairie restoration, to understand that the biggest compliment they can pay the prairie is to restore it."
      His vision includes an ecologically concerned community where the houses are powered with wind machines-"we're the Persian Gulf of wind"-and the streets named for great scientists, so that their accomplishments would become familiar to young people. Crops would be grown down on the floodplain, and much of the work done by hand. If this sounds like a vestpocket eco-topia, well, it would be.
Wes has written about some abandoned acreage he bought on the far side of Salina: "I have imagined this as a place that could grow bison for meat...where photovoltaic panels could be assembled at the old booster station, where the school could become a gathering place that would be a partial answer to the mall."
     Typical of the idealistic approach that earned him a reputation for integrity and perseverance, this hiking trail is, too, an ancillary attempt to change peoples' perceptions. By providing visitors with a kind of functioning prairie diorama through which they can stroll, taking in plains phenomena from wild blue indigo to the tracks of US. cavalry wagons that passed through on their way west, the institute can help them learn, as I am doing.
     We cross a little ravine. "This was once filled with trash. The old farmer who owned it just left everything where he dropped it." After he died, $70,000 from his estate had to be paid to clear away all the trash and abandoned equipment. The Land Institute purchased the property, and now the water in the creek runs clear.
The next ridge supports yucca, a stalky reminder that this is arid country, and prickly pear cactus. "Imagine bringing seventh graders here and showing them a map, then drawing lines to show that this is on the far edges of both the Rocky Mountains' rain shadow and the Gulf of Mexico's moisture patterns." This explains the presence of prickly pear, which requires aridity to exist "And all this phlox is really good news," he adds enthusiastically, of a recently reestablished colony of the native perennial.
     Gathered on the hillside ahead of us are dark, vaguely ominous silhouettes: a dozen big bison, watching. "Their tails are up. That's a good sign, but make sure you keep a tree between you and them. Don't try to climb it, though," the little prairie oaks being too frail to support us.
     One of the bison cows is preoccupied with a drawn-out process of giving birth, and we pass safely by. Wes points to the eroded ruts that he believes were left by the U.S. cavalry prior to 1869. "They could have been coming from Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri to Fort Riley and Fort Hayes. Or they could have been heading for Council Grove, on the Santa Fe Trail. It was around here that General Custer shot his wife's horse while trying to kill a bison."

     We end up on the Wauhob Prairie, named for the person from whom Wes bought the land. Across Water Well Road from the institute, and only two and a half miles east of Sauna's Ninth Street, it has a parking lot where walkers can leave their cars before setting off on the roughly four-mile roundtrip, and a wooden bench for resting when they get back. Wes says with conviction, "This place will help people imagine how we're going to have to live in the future," for, after all, he has staked his career on it "The kids will understand, with explaining, that a real economy must feature recycling, and run on sunlight and wind."
     Lightning strikes far out to the west After a few seconds the reverberating crash rolls over us. "The unplowed prairie," says Wes, ignoring the rain, "holds answers to questions we've never asked."

Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  


No comments:

Post a Comment