Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Boundaries redrawn and refreshed

Late afternoon, Friday. A sudden chill whispers the air as if a door somewhere opened onto a winter place, and the day’s warmth lapses into lengthening shadows flowing eastward like a rising tide. The midwinter sun hangs low in the western sky, weak and ineffectual but warm enough for my purposes. Warm enough, too, for a cardinal, who suddenly belts out a rollicking song from across the road.

It’s the conclusion of the workweek, more or less, and the unseasonable temperature has given me a hankering for beer and barbecue. I set the portable grill on the picnic table, dump in charcoal, douse with starter fluid, apply a match. Flames lick the air. The cardinal runs through his vast repertoire.

This is early February? I hear the slurry whistles of bluebirds, the nasal intonations of nuthatches, the hammering of woodpeckers, the full-blown convocations of finches. Closing my eyes, I pick up a few more distant species: collared-dove, chickadee, junco. The greasy stench of lighter fluid burns my nose. When I open my eyes I’m looking south at a ridge rising into an azure sky. It’s not the same ridge that was there yesterday.

I’m talking metaphorically, of course. It still runs parallel to the river in a mostly east-west direction with a slight decline to the south where the Big Blue swings toward its confluence with the Kaw River. To my right the crest drops down into a broad valley where Juganine Creek is born. Trees and thickets furze the ravines but the summit is grassy with pale limestone outcrops showing through like bleached bones. The ridge has changed little but my perception of it has undergone a metamorphosis, brought about by a surprising twist to what should have been a routine meeting on tourism.

Bob Cole, director of the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation, was the guest speaker, and his topic was on the recently released study entitled “Experiential Tourism Strategy for the Kansas Flint Hills.” It falls in line with Marci Penner’s “explorer tourism” approach with the addition of a more unpronounceable adjective. I’m not sure what Mr. Cole said during the meeting because I was busy staring at a map that came with the handouts.

It showed eastern Kansas from Salina to Lawrence and Nebraska to Oklahoma, with the center portion heavily shaded in green. The lighter green depicted the heart of the Flint Hills, bounded roughly by the Kansas River in the north and the open prairies below El Dorado in the south. What interested me most was the darker shading, which extended from the Oklahoma border almost to the Nebraska line.

Look on a state map and you’ll find it color-coded to the eleven distinct geologic areas, such as the high plains in the west, the Cherokee lowlands in the extreme southeast, or the narrow finger of the Chautauqua Hills near Independence. The glaciated region covers the upper northeast section of the state, and is represented by gently rounded hills carved from the polar ice sheets that once covered them. This is where Blue Rapids lies.

So I’d always been told. For years I’d been blissfully ignorant of this and thought this place to be along the northern fringe of the Flint Hills, a region encompassing the last remaining expanse of tallgrass prairie in America. The Flint Hills carries with it a sort of romance, a magical quality that sets it apart; the glaciated region does not. When I was apprised of my error I became nearly inconsolate and have secretly resented the exclusion ever since.

But the new map, published by the Kansas Geological Survey, boosted the Flint Hills ecoregion nearly to the junction of the Little and Big Blue rivers. Beyond that point are large tracts of nearly pristine tallgrass prairie. Below it are the Flint Hills proper—and the southern half of Blue Rapids.

Once Mr. Cole relinquished the podium and the group split up into work sessions, my wife and I bowed out. I could barely sit still and needed to get home. The night was starless with cloudcover, the ridge invisible, but the very air seemed changed. I couldn’t say how, only that it was, and my place in it, too.

And now, a day later, perhaps the birds sense it, too. They sing with the lust of springtime and pull me out, so that I grab a chair, a book and a cup of coffee and sit for a spell while watching my steak. My eyes are continually pulled to the ridge, but this is only natural. Our eyes are naturally drawn to high places. I trace the gullies and thickets and recall my steps in days past, and imagine the view of our little town nestled in a bend in the river.

An almost delirious joy suffuses me. I feel vindicated somehow. And once dinner is finished and the dishes washed and put away, I step outside one last time into an evening gone soft and dark. A thin reddish streak marks the horizon, and the first stars are popping out. The church bells intone a hymn and fall silent.

As I stand there, a familiar whistling sound comes to me, and I look up to see a ragged flock of goldeneyes winging their way south. They pass over the house and the fields and the railroad tracks and lift to clear the ridge and vanish into the gloom, dragging the sound of their wings with them, and in their wake night descends on these, oh yes, these Flint Hills.

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