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Stream of Conscience is a thriller that portrays the delicate balance between agricultural production and environmental protection set against the backdrop of a stream restoration. Patterns of human behavior, shaped by past experience, merge with landscape evolution to illustrate the corresponding process of achieving equilibrium and growth. Steadfast rural values, viewed through a family mired in grief, guilt, and greed, struggle against the influence of society's evolving environmental ethic. Stream of Conscience follows the twists and turns of family deceptions and lies to ultimately find the truth as the stream restoration project moves into full swing.
Luke emerged from the stream with a shiver. Insulated waders and a hooded sweatshirt were no match for the dropping temperature and blustery wind. To compound matters, it was nearly dark, and a quarter-mile of undulating ridges and furrows separated Luke from his truck. Scanning the fallow land, he recognized the historic meander pattern of the stream before it had been straightened for agricultural production. He followed the gentle depression snaking through the field toward a crescent patch of dormant vegetation. The swaying thicket of dogwood, willow, and cottonwood provided a rare glimpse of the historic stream channel, but studying the oxbow could wait another day.
Luke instinctively crouched at the sudden crack overhead, but only the wind assailed him as he glanced at the waving branches. Another crack, and soil splattered on his right leg. Precious seconds passed before he realized it was a bullet. Diving into the thicket, he glanced off a stump that punched the wind out of him. What was happening? Deer season? Luke couldn't remember since he didn't hunt. He cursed for not thinking of the possibility earlier. Fear turned to terror. Were the shots meant for him? Did someone view him as a trespasser? Worse yet, was someone stalking him? Luke crawled toward the refuge of a large, uprooted burr oak. He slithered under the trunk and faded into a mass of tangled branches.
During his career as a landscape architect with the Kansas Department of Natural Resources, Luke's field experience defied his physical limits. He'd encountered various ways of testing his boundaries, but never gunfire. His challenge had been to restore stream corridors obliterated for economic development. In return, token tax dollars for conservation programs placed Band-Aids on mutilated natural resources for the benefit of the public eye. Two decades of mounting frustration with bureaucracy spawned Luke's dream. Stream Resource Design, a fledgling one-person firm, specialized in designing and constructing stream restoration projects. Free from the shackles of bureaucracy, Luke could pursue his vision of balancing natural resource protection and economic production. Most clients were interested in streambank stabilization, a Band-Aid applied to a symptom of poor watershed management. Rarely were clients interested in stream restoration, which reconstructed its appropriate width, depth, profile, and meander pattern.
Luke had jumped at the refreshing challenge when contacted to restore a half mile of stream. "Great Plains Arboretum would like to enlist your services," board member Meredith Kraus had explained on the phone yesterday. "The Arboretum has the opportunity to purchase adjoining property with a half-mile of channelized stream. We'd like to explore the feasibility of a stream restoration project. How do we begin?" The arboretum was located in the small community of Holbrook in northeast Kansas, only an hour drive from Luke's rural home near Topeka.
The first task of a stream restoration project was to conduct a site analysis. For Luke, the "toothpick survey" was a cursory ritual that provided an overview of the site. Normally a casual stroll armed with an ample supply of toothpicks, the survey disclosed a past for diligent stewards to interpret. Even property lines articulated the diverse, often polarized, land ethic of man. Stream restoration plans explored visual solutions to span human differences and provide a blueprint for unifying dissected ecosystems.
Luke checked his watch. Fifteen minutes had passed. Was it long enough to venture from his refuge? Was someone waiting to finish the job when he emerged? Luke considered the options. Hiding increased his odds, but guaranteed hypothermia. Using the cloudy, windy night as an ally, he devised a plan. Rather than backtrack, he would crawl through the oxbow and exit the opposite side. He might reach his truck parked on the county road, providing he didn't stumble into his assailant.
Luke wiggled out of his woody sanctuary. Crawling in rhythm with the wind, he inched forward, pausing between gusts for foreign sounds. The dense thicket faded into a gentle swale. Sensing no immediate threat, he raised to a crouch and slid into the remnant stream channel. Solid footing beneath a carpet of leaves turned to muck. Luke inched across the channel, avoiding noise and maintaining his balance. Safely across, he listened for his assailant. Only the blustery wind urged him forward.
Luke crawled to the edge of the oxbow. Despite stinging hands, he distinguished a fallen branch he could use for self-defense. Canny evasion transformed to rage for battle. How could someone be so careless with a firearm? Why would someone shoot at him? Luke emerged from the oxbow, fortified to confront the unknown.
Reprieve from attack turned to sluggish content, sprinkled with confusion as hypothermia subdued Luke as he wobbled across the field. The boundless black night swallowed him as he dropped to his knees. Two small orbs dancing across the field added to the confusion. Struggling to prop himself with the tree branch, Luke toppled to the ground as a humming engine grew louder. Panic and confusion turned to resigned tranquility as a door creaked open.
The voice sounded familiar. Focusing on the kneeling figure, Luke recognized Brock Evans, wildlife biologist with the Kansas Department of Natural Resources.
"Let's get you into the truck," Brock said.
Luke wobbled toward the truck and climbed into the seat as a blast of heat consumed him.
"Warming up?" Brock asked. The tall, husky, thirty-year-old wildlife biologist dwarfed the cab of his compact pickup. His intimidating stature was accented with a full beard, which flashed a broad grin.
"I think so," Luke said, wincing as fire pulsated through his extremities. "How did you know where to find me?"
"I called around sundown and listened to the message on your machine. Working with you for ten years, I knew you finished field work early in winter. Figured I'd better check on you."
"Wish I would have quit earlier. I don't know which was worse, being a target or nearly freezing."
"Yeah. Somebody shot at me by the oxbow."
"Nah. Probably a stray bullet from a deer hunter."
"Brown chest waders against a gray thicket at dusk is not a good combination for a stroll during deer season."
Brock was right. Not wearing an orange vest or cap could have cost Luke his life.
"Want to go back for your truck tomorrow morning, providing you're thawed?"
"Can't accomplish much otherwise. Would you have a couple hours to help with the stream survey while we're there?"
"I can squeeze it in if we leave by seven. Are you going to be okay tonight?" Brock asked as he turned in the winding gravel drive leading to Luke's cabin.
"Yeah, after a long, hot soak," Luke said, sliding out of the truck. "Thanks for the helping hand."
"See if you can stay out of trouble long enough to get a good night's sleep," Brock said with a grin.
Luke stood on the porch a moment, relishing the still winter night before opening the front door. Reject, his sheltie-spaniel mix from the animal shelter, greeted him with a bobbed, wagging tail. Luke added two oak logs to the wood stove, slipped out of his clothes, and sank into a tub of hot water.
He'd developed a special kinship with the animal after his wife left. He'd adjusted to living alone, but still mourned the loss. To fill the void, his work spilled further into the night. A growing awareness of his mortality and irrelevance also compelled him to forge a legacy. Perhaps it was a spiritual connection; striving to build a better world or at least preserve it for future generations. Warmed from a long soak, Luke plopped in a recliner. He gazed at the stove door, lulled by the orange flames dancing behind the tiny glass portal. The crackling logs and steady whirl of the ceiling fan ushered him into a deep sleep.
The next morning, Luke gathered his gear as Brock pulled into the drive.
"What's the background on the site we're surveying?" Brock asked.
"Great Plains Arboretum wants to acquire adjoining property and restore a channelized segment of stream for a public education project. They also want to demonstrate how riparian buffers and grass filters protect water quality from sediment, nutrients, and pesticides while sustaining economic production."
"That'll establish a lot of wildlife habitat, too," Brock added. "Who's the landowner?"
"A fellow named Calvin Weaver. He's the agricultural extension agent for the county. Guess he doesn't farm the property. He leases it to Vaughn Langley, who's farmed the land for a couple of decades."
"When was the stream channelized?"
"From the aerial photos, I'd say twenty or thirty years ago."
Stream channelization eliminated the natural meander of a stream by constructing a straight channel. A channelized stream, coupled with the removal of streamside vegetation, facilitated economic production by providing a straight line, ideal for crop production or urban development. Aerial photos that showed land use and stream change over decades provided a pictorial tool for assessing sites.
The glowing horizon transformed to a fiery ball, illuminating the landscape. Historically, a sea of tallgrass prairie, agricultural fields, and grasslands formed an earth-tone quilt draped over the rolling hills, stitched with threads of remnant riparian areas.
Brock turned into a gravel drive and bounced across the field toward the stream. Luke glanced at the farmstead he'd barely noticed last night. The two-story limestone house with curling shingles was surrounded by frost-nipped weeds. Two small limestone outbuildings and a barn were clustered with a dull, gray windmill. The farmstead was an enduring symbol of the pioneer spirit that had settled the prairie. Farmsteads constructed of native limestone in the 1800s still dotted the Kansas landscape. Some were empty shells from the past; others were vibrant with life.
The first task of the stream survey was to obtain a cross-section, a measurement taken perpendicular to the flow of water from one side of the streambank to the other. Normally cross-sections were taken through a riffle, a segment of the stream characterized by shallow, fast-moving water. Channelization had changed the stream into a straight, uniform channel, without pools, riffles, and meanders. Brock assembled the total station, a survey instrument used to obtain elevation readings, while Luke maneuvered into his chest waders and slid into the stream with a survey rod. He sank in several inches of silt. Squishing across the stream, he paused to collect a data point at significant changes in streambed elevation. The undulating streambed of silt and sand molded around his feet with every step. Stream depth varied from waist to chest-high, with a few holes topping his waders. Luke lumbered across the stream after completing the cross-section and climbed to the top of the bank. The shimmering blanket of frost covering the ground faded as the calm, sunny morning promised a mild winter day.
Luke watched the flatbed pickup turn from the county road and lumber across the field. A weathered face, topped with a western hat, stared from the windshield of the truck, which was armed with a mounted rifle in the back window. A small, wiry man with gray hair and a beard emerged from the truck with a scowl.
"Hello," Luke said, extending his hand. The weathered face glanced at Brock, keeping both hands in his jean pockets. "I'm Luke McAllister, and this is Brock Evans."
"Name's Langley. Vaughn Langley. What're you fellas up to?"
"We're surveying the stream for a restoration project," Luke explained.
"That so. What're you gonna do, stabilize the eroding banks?" Vaughn said. "Been losin' several feet the last few years."
"Great Plains Arboretum would like to restore the historic channel and riparian area by planting a buffer and grass filter strip."
"What the hell is a riparian area?" Vaughn said.
"A riparian area is the transitional ecosystem between upland and aquatic ecosystems," Luke said, "that's influenced by hydrology, soil, and vegetation. Do you own land around here?"
"No, I'm the tenant that's been workin' this land for over twenty years. Calvin know about this? He hasn't said nothin' to me about it."
"Mr. Weaver and the arboretum have had preliminary discussions about the project. If the arboretum board members can agree on a price with him, I'd expect the project to begin this spring."
"What about my lease? Won't be the same amount of land to farm with those buffers and filters and whatever else you're plannin' to do."
"That's true, but it's also hard to farm soil at the bottom of a stream channel," Luke said, taking a toothpick from his pocket and putting it in his mouth. "Maybe the arboretum will work with you on the lease, since they want to demonstrate you can balance production with environmental protection."
"What're we protecting anyway, some critter nobody's ever heard of?" Vaughn said, standing with hands on hips.
"Water quality, by filtering sediment, nutrients, and pesticides before they reach the stream," Luke said, his arms crossed and the toothpick rolling in his mouth.
"Still seems to me all that's needed is to stabilize the banks. I'm gonna talk to Calvin and see 'bout gettin' this nonsense stopped," Vaughn said as he climbed into his truck and drove away.
"Good thing he's the tenant, not the landowner," Brock said. "I don't think he's convinced of the merits of stream and riparian area management."
"Lifelong habits are hard to break," Luke replied. "Thirty years ago, government programs encouraged producers to farm every square foot of their property to maximize production, including the removal of vegetation next to streams. Now we're telling them to plant grass filters and riparian buffers. I'm sure it's confusing."
With 98 percent of the land in Kansas privately owned, rural landowners traditionally held the belief, "It's my land, and I'll do what I want." The pioneer spirit that settled the prairie relied on rugged individualism to forge a new life; one that was harsh, but simple. Survival meant securing food, water, shelter, and safety. Subsequent generations faced their own challenges as an agrarian society evolved into an urban, industrialized nation, giving birth to a new challenge: providing food while ensuring clean water. Life wasn't as harsh for modern producers, but social, economic, and regulatory factors threatened their livelihood and way of life. Unlike previous generations, living outside the influence of urban society had disappeared for agricultural producers. Water resource management no longer allowed any segment of society to operate in a vacuum. Poor water quality protection practices impacted other people, whether it involved erosion from urban development, excessive application of lawn chemicals, cropping to the edge of a streambank, or overwintering cattle in riparian areas.
"Guess we better finish the survey so you can get out of here," Luke added.
The second task of the survey was to obtain the longitudinal profile, a measurement performed parallel to the flow of water. Profiles measured stream slope, an essential ingredient in restoring stream channels. Luke stepped into the stream with the survey rod and collected data points at significant changes in streambed elevation.
He scanned the eroding streambank, a snapshot of geologic time, as he sloshed downstream. A gravel layer, the remnant of the old streambed, abruptly ended with a pile of woody debris embedded in the streambank. The soil profile, normally composed of distinguishable layers of sediment, was oddly uniform. Luke always kept a vigilant eye for cultural resources, normally an arrowhead or shard, but the partially exposed skull staring from the pile of woody debris startled him.
"Could be the remains of a Native American from the Kansa tribe. According to the aerial photo, we're in an area that's eroded back into the historic stream channel," Brock said. "The Kansa differed from other Great Plains tribes by burying their dead in excavated streambanks. One thing's for sure," he added with a grin, "your stream survey is going to take more than a day. Better give the sheriff a call."
Excerpted from Stream of Conscience by Rick Davis Copyright © 2009 by Rick Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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