A belted kingfisher perches on a telephone line at 31st and Haskell, oblivious to all the important messages passing beneath him on the wire. His own language will never be understood by us, though fishermen consider him a brother.
From his post the dapper stunt pilot with headfeathers slicked back sallies forth, buzzes the marsh and with a rasping cry lets the chirping frogs know he's on patrol.
The telephone wire marks a boundary between two worlds. Houses, shops and human affairs to the north; to the south the Baker Wetlands, a patch of wilderness instructively placed at the point where the town begins to blur into the country.
I never pass that spot without experiencing an adolescent rush of escape and liberation. I have seen convoys of coots paddling in the roadside sloughs, geese building nests on top of muskrat mounds, herons stalking the shallows, roosting egrets like scraps of white cloth caught in the branches of the black trees.
Few sights are more haunting than a flight of mallards with wings set wheeling above the wetlands in the yellow glow of a November twilight or giant Canadians falling like leaves, tilting in the air to slow their descent. If you're lucky you can see the mythic kingfisher dive, hit the water and come up with dinner in his bill. All this is not more than 100 feet from the road.
A ragged, unkempt place, covered with decaying trees and a film of muck, the wetlands would offend a greenskeeper's eye. Many a real estate developer has probably driven past visualizing malls, office buildings and muttered, "What a waste." The human impulse would be to drain and pave it or to pour chemicals into the stagnant water, straighten the channels, cut down the dead trees, give someone a paddleboat concession, maybe construct a giant slide.
But the marsh is an intricate system of plant and animal niches that only appears disordered to us. It's certainly not a wasteland to the creatures who inhabit it. And who wants to live in a world where everything is four-square, fenced and neatly trimmed?
When Wallace Stevens placed his famous jar in Tennessee, it tamed the "slovenly wilderness" and "took dominion everywhere." The jar stands for art and the human obsession with order. But nature provides an alternate to that aesthetic.
"Glory be to God for dappled things," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, for "all things counter, original, spare, strange." Mountains, deserts and wetlands express a different kind of order, harmony and perfection than Michelangelo's David or Brunelleschi's dome. Some Native American artists insert a flaw into their designs as a signature and a charm against hubris. In their view only the landscape is perfect.
The Baker Wetlands is a reminder that we share the land with other creatures, that human agendas aren't the only ones that count and that the conquest of nature can entail a loss. It provides a refuge for the eye from the sprawl of roof tops and bill boards, from the manicured lawns of suburbia, uniform pastures and single crop fields.
Unfortunately, the wetlands has become a battleground, a bone of conflict between proponents of the South Lawrence Trafficway (designed to bisect it), members of the Haskell Indian Nations University (who believe that the land is sacred and is the burial place of unknown numbers of Native Americans), the Wetlands Preservation Organization and others. Arguments and emotions erupt, political knives are sharpened. Even a plan to move water pipes from the wetlands has been challenged. And even the defenders of the wetlands sound self-serving and possessive at times. Another kind of bird the roseate, puff-chested human ego struts its stuff.
The wetlands is a source of life and inspiration. It should be recognized as something special, a local treasure. Who will speak for it? Shall we forfeit Eden once again?
This summer's drought made wetlands a misnomer. The receding waters seemed to symbolize vanishing wildlife habitat and the unslakeable thirst of human beings. The herons and the egrets hunched around the shrinking pools of water might have been convicts waiting for their last meal.
George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.