Turkey hunting the Great Interior Seaway. Six hundred miles wide, maybe, splitting the Rockies from eastern highlands. Now wheat and pasture. It’s too early for wheat, and they’re burning the pasture this time of year, the way people have here for ten thousand years, to urge on the growth of grass. They burn right up to the interstate.
Last summer I sat on the high plains at dawn looking at a barbed wire fence I couldn’t legally cross until hunting season, in September. I’d figured in this Last Best Streams project there’d be places tough to access, tied up in private hands, but it’d never occurred to me there’d be public lands I couldn’t access without a gun in hand. So I waited ‘til spring, and bought an out of state license.
I hit the Flint Hills at dusk and kept driving, crashing at a state park just off the highway around ten. The wind blows in Kansas at 10 o’clock at night. The wind blows all night. It blows in the morning, too.
I went to bed with the red blinking lights in the distance. Woke up to the black masses of oil derricks in bare fields. They call this flyover country; I’d wager it changes as fast as anywhere else. They’ve been harnessing wind since they broke the prairie. The folks riding horses and working cattle are putting up solar collectors and wind turbines that’ll feed power to Denver and Dallas and beyond.
It’s hard to get romantic about prairie streams, most of the time. Most of the time they’re ditchy, they’re muddy, they’re home to unromantic species with ungainly names like catfish and carp and sucker. Sometimes in this part of the world they’re downright toxic, alkali from running along an ancient seafloor. But often prairie streams are ugly because of the way we treat them- they flood, so we straighten them. They’re ditchy because we treat them like ditches. They’re muddy because we treat them like sewers.
Three deer pass, a doe and her twins. Mother knows I’m there, but doesn’t know what I am. It’s just beginning to get light, and I’m some foreign lump stuck tight to a cedar tree. There are a few wood ducks in the river, two drakes, and another standing on a cottonwood limb maybe sixty feet up. Inspecting a hole, a possible nest. I’ve never seen them doing that.
Give a prairie stream a little consideration, a little room to bend and curl, and they can be pretty. Up in the breaks, were country’s too rough and soil’s too thin to plow, prairie streams aren’t so much an inconvenience. I find a tributary, a brook emanating from a spring behind an old homestead, and a single turkey track. The water is clear and there’s cress at the margins, the stones are angular, chalky. I wonder how cold it is but I don’t taste it, between the cows and the beavers and the salt. I sit among soft grass and flowers at the base of an immense, multi-trunked cottonwood, a tree at its base the size of a room, and cluck with a mouth call.
I’m not sitting long before a red head emerges from the brush sixty yards down the brook. Then a second. One is taking the easy way, through the grass, the smarter one threads through buckbrush and stumps. One gobbles and struts and is pushed out of the way by his companion, who then adopts the same posture. They alternate, each one-upping the other like some frat boy in a bar, another ten yards toward me. Then another ten.
I let them come as close as I could. Wanted the experience as long as I could. Inhabiting a world where language fails entirely. Sitting in the same feeling that set people painting cave walls thirty thousand years ago. That birthed song and stories and gods. Crafted language which can only describe the sense imperfectly.
There’s just nothing like being there.