COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - I think a term useful for rediscovering the sacred in the Kansas landscape is liminality. The liminal is related to a sensory threshold that, like all boundaries, both separates and joins worlds. Liminal places in the Kansas landscape are present, interstices amidst the monoculture fields and development grids. These places can still be found because the land and water, up to a point, are resilient, as are our minds and bodies. From way back all of us, humans and more-than-humans, are wired up for liminal experiences.
Now I'm going to go a bit autobiographical on you. In 2009, I floated the Nepaholla River (aka Solomon River) in a canoe from the Waconda Lake Dam to the Nepaholla's mouth at the Smoky Hill River near the Solomon, a small town located between Salina and Abilene. The trip, actually a series of trips, starting in May and concluding in mid-November, covered 172.4 river miles. Here's what I want to share with you:
- During the hundred hours or so I was on the water I saw a total of six people: four solitary fishermen, one wood-cutter, and one farmer checking his irrigation equipment.
- In June, sections of the Nepaholla smelled like the shelves of herbicide products in Wal-Mart.
- There are seven log jams -- I think I am the only person in the world who knows this -- between Waconda Lake and the Smoky Hill River, including three encountered on the last day. Getting the canoe and myself over and around these blockades required physical strength, dexterity and stamina, qualities your author is not abundantly endowed with. I'm reasonably certain that no surveillance devices recorded my frequent vile oaths uttered while surmounting these formidable obstacles. For that I am grateful. And I would like it officially recognized that I never tipped over into the Nepaholla.
- On some of those days I was joined by a companion, Tom, a friend since childhood. He sat in the rear of the canoe and I sat in front. Tom is a story-teller, regaling me hour after hour. He also is hard of hearing. I am rigid of spine and cannot swivel. So it was that this pair of canoeing codgers, garrulous to the extreme, his chattered narratives punctuated by my bellowed acknowledgments, left in our wake a shattered Nepaholla tranquility.
- A river-wise friend said this about the Nepaholla: "There's a uniqueness there, it's just a mind-flip. You don't know it until you've experienced it."
- And that's it, finally. The Nepaholla, hyper-engineered by government technocrats, a sewer for agri-business, and all but ignored by its human neighbors, is a wonderful, transformative, liminal place. It renews and rejuvenates, in Steven Abram's words, "one's felt awareness of the world."
Let me end this by sprinkling a little Nepaholla holy water on you:
Tree-cordoned and serpentine in a rectilinear landscape, twisting low and subversive, a world unto itself, Nepaholla dreaming.
Male wood ducks, beyond Disney gaudiness, the females skillful injury fakers, the skittish bank-hugging chicks, hours of entertainment.
Cottonwoods towering high above the outer bends, below amidst the roots a network of holes, beaver dens.
Banks covered by thousands of mock cucumber domes, vibrant and massive, vines taper down to the river's edge, herds of mammoths come to drink.
The chocolate milk water full of churning sediment, bugs scrawl the surface, turtles bask on rocks, a sudden canoe-shuddering scrape, didn't see it coming.
Severed duck's head on a rock, black head, blue bill, yellow eyes, blood-stained feathers, a Nepaholla murder mystery.
"Always check the catfish's stomach," says Tom. "Purple stomachs mean ripe mulberries, your bait of the day."
A sharp bend, massive sandstone cliff on right bank, hemispheres pock its smooth, high, stolid walls. Below in the streambed, one after another, they fall out of the sky, hit with a thud and writhe, a bison jump.
Sun glints off of water-skimmed paddle, somewhere in the timber an owl, "whhoooaaah!!!" Millions of poison hemlock blooms infiltrate the air acrid. Wakanda Springs upstream, Big Red Rock downstream; right here-and now, canoe prow creases the water, Nepaholla dreaming.
Journey complete, he's muddy, tired, and hungry. Lady at Solomon bar says only place to eat is Bushes, today they're serving sausage submarine sandwiches with sauerkraut, advises going light on the sauerkraut.