Wild discoveries

Author links people, place in 'Douglas County' book

A bunch of trees, some tangled underbrush and a breeding ground for poison ivy.

That’s sometimes how I see my wooded backyard – nice scenery that could give me an itchy rash.

Ken Lassman has a different take.

My picture is accurate, he might concede, but incomplete.

Among the chaos, he identifies an Osage orange tree. Then another, and another. They seem to be forming a loose line – probably the remnants of a thorny hedgerow that separated prairie properties more than a century ago.

And this is a wildflower, he says, pointing toward foliage I had written off as a weed. It gets white, drooping blooms in the spring.

I guess I missed this year’s show.

Lassman, however, doesn’t seem to miss a thing. Perhaps that’s because he’s been looking his entire life.

He’s not a biologist – just an avid observer who grew up on a Lawrence farm and took some science courses in college.

It makes sense, he says, that people have become detached from natural seasons and cycles. Our lives are dictated by calendar days and street addresses and legal boundaries – artificial grids placed on top of an environment that began functioning billions of years before we claimed and named it.

Lassman’s new book, “Wild Douglas County” (Mammoth Publishing, $19.95), attempts to reconnect people with the land. Part field guide, part nature essay, it urges readers to get out and experience the county’s place in the larger bioregion by using its seasonal charts, predicted flora and fauna sightings, and prairie resources.

“One of the things that I’m hoping is that those invisible ecosytems become more visible in people’s lives so they can make room for them in the future,” says Lassman, a self-taught naturalist with degrees in anthropology and occupational therapy from Kansas University. “We have a lot of choices in the coming years about the way that Douglas County will look.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of species of plants and animals that share this piece of the Earth with us, and if we get rid of them without paying any attention, then we start having to do the jobs they were doing. They do it for free, and it costs a lot of money for us to do it.”

No substitute

In wetlands, for instance, plants pull excess pollutants from water, pre-filtering it to make it easier to treat for drinking and other uses. Landscapes planted in perennials erode less, buffering water pollution caused by run-off and keeping the soil fertile. Insects pollinate the crops that help feed us.

Eliminating any of these systems disturbs the Earth’s natural balance, Lassman says. Not to mention that learning more about them can be endlessly fascinating.

“Some of these cycles and some of these plant and animal associations that are living underneath our noses invisibly have been going on since the last Ice Age. There’s a real sense of continuity and history,” Lassman says. “People go halfway around the world to see the pyramids, and this stuff has been going on longer than that.”

Still, “Wild Douglas County” isn’t a glossy coffee-table book, brimming with eye-catching color photographs. Lassman intentionally went the no-frills route so people wouldn’t be tempted to use it as a substitute for getting outside.

It’s not necessarily designed to be read chronologically, but rather to be used as a reference. You can open to the section that corresponds with when you’re reading, such as the appropriate week in the Seasons of the Kaw chapter. You also can dig into the book based on where you’re reading, by referring to sections on water, woodland and prairie.

Although Lassman employs scientific classifications such as bioregions and watersheds to describe the county, he provides in-depth explanations of the terms in conversational language that’s easy to understand. He also gives lots of suggestions for experiences that will help you connect to the principles.

For example, he urges you to follow the slope of your yard to the nearest creek and then follow that until it flows into the Kansas, Wakarusa or Marais des Cygnes rivers. Then you can keep a nature journal over the course of a year, collecting weekly information about your creek’s watershed – its boundaries, what lives and grows there, and how it changes over time – using notes, sketches, photographs, even audio and video recordings.

‘Heart of conservation’

“Ken’s a guy who thinks so deeply into place, both physically and emotionally and spiritually, that this is beyond field guide,” says Kelly Barth, a Lawrence environmentalist and co-owner of The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St. “It’s certainly factual, but there is a level of love and concern and appreciation that doesn’t say field guide.”

Love might be just the right word. Lassman, 52, works as an occupational therapist at the Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka. He also has a wife and three kids. Yet gathering and sharing an intimate knowledge of the local environment has been one of his spare-time passions through the years.

In 1985, he authored a booklet called “Seasons and Cycles: Rhythms of Life in the Kansas River Basin” that charts, in a circular format, the area’s seasonal progressions. It includes details such as when certain animals come out of hibernation and when to expect cicada songs. (Those charts, now out of print, are included as an appendix in “Wild Douglas County.”)

More recently, Lassman has spun those observations into a daily Kaw Valley almanac fixed near the drive-through window at Z’s Divine Espresso, 1800 E. 23rd St. Posted a week at a time, the entries describe what seasonal signs commuters can expect to see on their way to and from work.

“They say people really enjoy it,” Lassman says. “They really have expressed appreciation for having that kind of connection.”

Lassman’s emphasis on linking people with place leads Kelly Kindscher, a scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, to consider the author a fellow bioregionalist.

“He’s speaking about connecting the larger ecology with a sense of place,” Kindscher says

“I think a lot of his message is to encourage people to learn to see by being keenly aware of where they live, and that enriches our lives. The more you know about your own yard, the more you appreciate it – and that’s kind of at the heart of conservation.”

Making sense

This time of year, Lassman says we should be looking for asters coming into bloom and a continuing display from sunflowers and goldenrod. A lot of migratory waterfowl are entering the area and, although numbers are down, there are monarch butterflies to be found as well.

Soon the prairie grasses will put on their spectacular annual show, signaling the peak of autumn by turning shades of red, copper and purple.

Lassman will be out in the middle of it all. He hopes you’ll be there, too, getting in tune with what’s wild around you.

“If you didn’t understand the rules of basketball, it would just be noise and you’d wonder what all the hubbub was about. If you understand the rules, it suddenly makes a lot of sense and it’s very interesting and exciting,” Lassman says.

“It’s the same with the landscape that we live in. It’s just this green blur that you drive through until it starts making sense.”