SENSES OF PLACE
Riley County, Mid-May, Mid-Day, Mid-Kansas
By Elizabeth Schultz
An indeterminate day, shifting clouds across the sky, we felt it could go either way, toward rain or into full sun, as we headed out with Jerry Jost, Kansas Land Trust director, to view several Land Trust holdings in Riley County. Driving West out of Lawrence, beyond Topeka, beyond the fields where native grasses had been plowed under and fescue planted for grazing cattle, going through Manhattan, now we were out deep, into the Flint Hills onto a rough two-track. The weather had not yet made up its mind, and the earth here undulated as it unrolled toward the far horizon. Going off road, we followed a two-track, faintly visible in the lush grass, through sumac and dogwood. Guided by a lively pair of Eastern flycatchers, we came to a stop on a raised plateau beneath a lone red elm. The tree, hunkered down beneath a now grey sky, marked the high point of Charlie Griffin and Denise Wyrick’s Kansas Land Trust easement. In full leaf, the lone elm seemed to revel in the winds at this height, tilting outward toward the gullies and groves of dense greenery—bur oaks, ash, hackberry, hickory—of the forest which camouflaged the wandering creek below us.
The slopes moving down to the creek, having been burned just a few weeks before, were dense, young green. Everywhere, they were dotted, on the one hand, with rugged limestone rocks which endure all weathers and, on the other, with delicate yellow and blue indigo blossoms, just beginning to open. Standing with the red elm on this high vantage point, just as I started pivoting to register the particular features of this spot, the clouds gave way to soft rain. It diffused the horizon, and with the particularities of plants erased, the stones, shining with rain, revealed a pattern of parallel ledges, circling the hill. Wet now and with the vibrant colors of the indigo, verbena, and yarrow suggesting coral reefs, this was the gleaming bottom of an ancient sea. Charlie pointed across his green fields to distant ridges where the dark cedars edged neighboring property, signifying that the land had not been burned this spring. On one of the distant green slopes of his land, he noted, badgers had once had a den. Probably, he said, coyotes claimed it now.
As quickly as it had come on, the rain now abated, leaving shifting clouds, and we watched Jerry set up his drone, which would scan the valleys, slopes, and hillsides of the Griffin-Wyrick easement. It lifted up easily and flew out over the land, a strange bird on a strangely rectangular course among the three turkey vultures who were careening over these deep valleys and rugged slopes. Charlie told us, as we waited for the drone’s return, that he loved being on this land, “learning the year’s timing,” listening to its “big heart beat.” He reveled in the fact that the Kansas Land Trust would keep this lovely land “in perpetuity.” After the drone had gently returned to Jerry’s feet, we retraced our road, going briefly to visit with Charlie and Denise and the pack of llamas, dogs, and chickens they tend in a grove of trees near the nineteenth-century limestone farmhouse where they live as had the previous owners of this mystical land.
We went on, driving past the Haines and Kunze Kansas Land Trust easements, noting the difference between these lands where cedars had been burned and neighboring properties where cedar and other woody plants had been allowed to grow willy-nilly, turning prairies into woodlands. Those landscapes, such as the Haines and Kunze easements, rolled out before us like sea-green oceans on a wind-free day. Here were supreme examples of Kansas’ distinctive environmental feature: the Sea of Grass. Native grasses and flowers flourished on these lands, and I imagined that here herds of bison might have flowed unimpeded.
After lunch near Tuttle Creek, under a now cloudless sky, we meandered home along back roads, through farmlands, the Flint Hills and the sweeping prairie behind us. The sign for Pillsbury Crossing, ignored on previous excursions into Riley County, drew us in for a closer look. At a turning along a two-track road into dense woods, we discovered “one of the best kept secrets in Kansas,” “one of the eight wonders of Kansas geography.” Here, a creek bends and flows over a curving, sixty-foot-wide limestone ledge, crocheting a waterfall of white lace along the ledge’s rim. Immense limestone blocks, toppled from above the waterfall, lie like a fallen city in the stream below. Shoes off, we dawdle, walking in the shallow water across the ledge, hopping from one dry stone surface to another, watching the water cascading in patterns into the pool below. Although early settlers once crossed the creek here with horses and loaded wagons, in the warmth of this afternoon, young people are now lounging on the bank in bathing suits and lazing about in the water. With wet feet, I return to our car, reminded that every ocean has its exotic atolls, that the most familiar landscapes hold surprises.