David Cogswell | August 11, 2015 4:49 PM ET
Shunganunga: Greetings from the American Outback
When I told an old friend that I was going back to our hometown of Topeka, she said, “It must be a real comedown for you to go back to Kansas after all your adventures.”
But actually no, I told her. My adventures have increased my appreciation of the land where I grew up. It’s nurturing to return to the soil from which I sprung forth.
I can’t put my finger on the sensation. What is it that your body recognizes at your place of origin that stirs your deepest memories? The smell of the air? The feel of the earth beneath your feet? It’s deeply nostalgic. I can’t define it. But I can feel it. Those familiar smells and sensations trigger memories from my very earliest experiences. It’s magical.
Every place is different. Every ecosystem has a different combination of plants, insects, birds, animals, hills, valleys, rivers, weather. Every place smells a little different, feels a little different, looks different. There are surely many sensations we are not fully conscious of that nonetheless affect the way we feel in a certain place.
Topeka, Kansas, is where I spent my formative years. The place where a person grows from a baby to an adult looms largely in one’s life no matter how far from it you go. No matter how much you may think you have left it behind, you never really do. And when you are back again on that soil, you feel primordial sensations that connect you with your root.
At the Edge of the Wilderness
When my family moved to Seabrook Avenue and 26th Street, our block was the last one in the city’s southwestern expansion. Across 26th Street from our house was one more row of houses and beyond that was open land sloping gradually upward to the great Burnett’s Mound, the Indian burial ground that loomed high over the Kaw River Valley and Topeka.
Only about a block from my house the pavement ended and beyond that it was only dirt roads. Perhaps a quarter of a mile beyond the last row of houses was the Shunganunga Creek, which was a strip of the great wilderness flowing, snaking and dividing throughout Topeka, creating winding paths of creek flows.
The Shunganunga divided a couple of times within the Topeka city limits, with both branches at the dividing points carrying the name in two directions. So Topeka has at least three separate forks of the Shunganunga running through the town, meandering all around.
And then there are other branches coming off the Shunga that have different names: Deer Creek and Butcher Creek. And there are uncounted little run-off streams that probably only have names on county surveyor maps.
The effect of this is that you run into the Shunga and its tributaries all over Topeka. No matter where you go, which way you drive or walk through town, you periodically encounter the Shunganunga or one of its tributaries.
The ecological reality created by the presence of the Shunganunga creek system as it wanders throughout Topeka is a preserved ancestral ecosystem. The city has grown around the creek, and there are many bridges over it in different parts of town. In some parts within the city limits, the Shunganunga runs through land that is essentially open land. But whoever controls the land around the creek, the land right around the creek is always virtually untouched.
There are parks and developments that have been built up quite close to the creek, but there is always an area just surrounding the creek that is still virgin woods.
This was the wilderness that my friends and I played in when we were growing up. In the summer the creek area was like the jungles in our imaginations from the adventure books and movies we knew. It was the place we lived out all our wilderness fantasies.
In summers we spent many hours at the creek. People built swings using a rope tied to the limb of a tree and kids would spend hours swinging to the other side of the creek, dropping from different ledges on the creek bank or in trees.
There were never any adults there. An adult at the creek would be unheard of, unimagined. It was a kids’ world, a primitive, Lord-of-the-Flies world inhabited only by kids, ruled by the kids’ own version of the Law of the Jungle.
In the harsh Kansas winter, the creek would freeze over, the area would be blanketed in snow. Then it was a different kind of adventure. Instead of Tarzan or Huck Finn, it was Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.”
The word “Shunganunga” comes from an Indian word meaning a race course. The snaking creek is said to be a remnant of the last ice age when a glacier over Canada’s Hudson Bay piled up so high and squashed out so broadly that it carved strange patterns into the earth as far south as Kansas.
As the glacier advanced and changed its shape, it would block the water flows and the streams would wind around seeking the path of least resistance and creating new paths for themselves. Hence the winding Shunganunga and its offshoots.
When I was a kid I loved the Shunganunga in the most native sense. I enjoyed being at the creek. Today after traveling widely and experiencing many wilderness areas where people go to get away from civilization and experience nature, I realize that what they are seeking now was something I had then.
Leaving it All Behind
As I grew up, beyond the days of fantasy and adventure, and started training my eyes on the concerns of adulthood, my dominant feeling about Kansas was how far it was from all the places on earth I wanted to go. It was landlocked, at a great distance from all the coasts and all the great coastal cities I had learned about from books, movies, magazines, records and TV. It was a great distance from places longed to see, where things were happening. Nothing was happening in Kansas, I felt. Everything was happening everywhere else.
But that was when I was approaching that time of life when one connects with the wider world, goes out into the world and makes one’s way. In the earlier years, before the awareness of all those great places had taken hold, the environment of Topeka was my world and it was sufficient. During childhood the imagination can take you everywhere in the world even if your body is located in Topeka, Kansas.
It is only now, after I have seen many of the places I wanted to see that I can clearly see and truly appreciate the land I grew up in. I appreciate it now more than I could have then.
Maybe as a function of age, I increasingly see the artifacts of civilization as fragile and temporary against the backdrop of enduring and eternally renewing nature. As I drive through Topeka, some of the landmarks of my youth, such as the house I grew up in, are still there. But many of them have been wiped off the map and replaced by something different.
The landscape has changed some. Trees that were tiny when I was young are big, mature trees now. But despite the constant transformation and evolution of nature, there is an underlying constancy. The area around Shunganunga Creek was and is still a wilderness area.
The landscape and the natural environment underneath the buildings is much more constant. I can walk down to the Shunganunga and it is very much the same as it always was. How I love it! It was and still is a slice of wilderness running through the city and suburbs.
When I visited Topeka this time I had to go to the Shunganunga. It seemed to beckon me. Or perhaps my memories propelled me to see it again, to experience the place at which I spent so much of my early life.
Although the parks, walkways and residential developments around it have changed, once you approach the Shunganunga you reach a point where civilization ends and you are back in the wilderness. Even though it is only a slice of wilderness, within that slice it is much as it has been for centuries.
The water is usually a bit brown, though in some places and at certain times it can be quite clear. It’s a rich ecosystem that supports a lot of life: bugs of course, crawdads, snakes, frogs, toads, rabbits and birds. Lots of dense plant life cluster around the creek.
Between 26th and 28th streets, the Shunganunga crosses Gage Boulevard. Around that point is a broad open area of land. On the Google maps of the area, the streets just end and there is a big blank space. Within that area is a woodland restoration by the Kansas Native Plant Society.
That undeveloped patch, which is a quite large chunk of land deep inside the city limits, is designated as an area that preserves the ancestral forest of the region. But in effect, the Shunganunga has already done that. Because of the Shunganunga, that strip of wilderness winding through the city has maintained its basic character in spite of development all around it.
When you step through the trees and brush that line the creek, you step into the little ecosystem of the creek. The trees shelter it from the world outside, the civilized world, and it remains a little secluded strip of primordial Kansas.
More by David Cogswell
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Airlines & Airports
Airlines & Airports
Hotel & Resort
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship