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City Oasis

Reverie and renewal in the wildlands of the city

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I have come here an hour before twilight fades from the sky and collects in the spring-fed beaver ponds. It is six days into the new year, and I am two weeks too late. Lyn Akers, morning voice of KRCC, who had eased me into the day for 10 years, loved this marsh, the Tejon wetlands, and I have been meaning to check it out for some time. It's a rare natural gem, tucked into a bend of Fountain Creek, sandwiched between Lyn's Mill Street neighborhood and Interstate-25.

I met Lyn when she engineered some spoken-word recordings for me, just before she got sick with cancer again last spring. I felt honored when she told me that, in recovery from surgery, the words from my essays went 'round her mind in a soothing loop. On her way to hospice, she asked the driver to take the long way, a wide circuit around Colorado Springs, and I like to imagine that Lyn went by the marsh and thought of the many lives there continuing, fed by the spring water in this little oasis in the city.

Traffic stands still on I-25 this afternoon, and Lyn's last ride is over. It's too late to present her with a tape of a new essay, as I had planned. I'm here anyway, hoping to hear some echo of her presence, but the place is quiet.

Quiet of her, that is. As I walk the creek trail, leaving the no-tell motels of South Nevada Avenue behind me, I hear many voices: the trickle of water escaping beaver dams to join the creek; the clack-ack-ack-acking call of a belted kingfisher; the out-of-season, spring calls of red-winged blackbirds in cattail thickets; and the revving motors of people fleeing the stalled freeway to try their luck on South Tejon Street.

Willow trunks, bigger around than I am, speak to me of very ambitious beavers. Every tree still standing wears a heavy gray girdle, painted up to beaver height--somebody in Parks and Recreation does not want these trees felled. Others lie perpendicular to their gnawed stumps, and the long sections of stripped bark must have provided many a meal.

Scattered 40-ounce malt liquor bottles and empty liters of McCormick vodka tell the story of liquid meals. Heading upstream toward the ponds and marsh, I find the detritus of homeless human lives. Abandoned boots. Derelict Wal-Mart shopping carts in drunken attitudes in the creek. In the cottonwood flats above the ponds, old campsites, fire pits, plastic bags, torn-up coats and pieces of nylon tarp tangle the weeds.

All up and down the creek, the signs proclaim, "No Camping," "No Loitering," "Get Lost," but vagrants gravitate to open spaces. Any place the vegetation is not clipped back, anywhere not too well-lighted, provides a haven for those who have no place to go. Lyn worried about the impact of the coming homeless complex to her neighborhood. More drinking camps and more human feces, she prophesied. She did not want the marsh to become a latrine.

High traffic makes urban natural areas prone to ecological degradation, and wetlands have particular importance. Though they compose only one percent of Colorado's land mass, wetlands nurture the majority of its wildlife. Marshes like this one boast the greatest biodiversity of all Colorado ecosystems. Because its springs insulate it against seasonal water fluctuations and give its waters a constant year-round temperature, the Tejon marsh plays an especially vital role for area wildlife. On cold winter nights when everything else freezes, the ponds here brim with waterfowl.

The willows and thickets of cattail, sedge and marsh grass also encourage wildlife. Little ponds--like those in Monument Valley Park--dot Colorado Springs, but sterile lawns surround them, providing no habitat. The thistly looking teasels growing here look like worthless weeds, but are bursting with goldfinch-nourishing seeds.

After so much pavement and landscaping, it looks good too. I love to let my eyes relax and rest on the winter khakis of the cattails, the red and orange-tipped willows--all the subtle browns and the unkempt textures of nature gone to seed.

On the bank above the big pond, after my walk, I sit and survey the scene. Darkness falls above Cheyenne Mountain, and below, bright halogen illuminates a hundred acres of cars in Motor City. On the traffic-jammed freeway, people burn gas and go nowhere. Near the big beaver lodge, a couple of Canada Geese tip up, tails to the sky, long necks reaching something good on the bottom. A few ducks paddle around them to glean at the surface, sieving the water with their bills. Diving and bobbing back up again, a single coot makes its meal as well, stubby white bill floating in the twilight.

It's a place I'm happy to have found, and I'll be back, though I sense barely a trace of Lyn here. I'd only just met her, but it didn't seem so after all those years of hearing her voice. Still, it's marvelous how casually people can influence each other, the way Lyn directed me here to the marsh. I silently thank her and head homeward again when I hear the clear-throated rhythm of Canada Geese.

They drop in over the ponds, 28 of them, and then pull up, circling again, almost colliding with a flock of ducks that changes directions like water pouring into a stronger current, falls in with the geese for a moment, breaking out again as both geese and ducks complete their circles and splash into the pond.

Another flock of ducks comes in from upstream, drops in above the pond, circles, and lands; then two more from downstream and another from up. The sky is suddenly hatching ducks all at once and everywhere. They bomb in fast, wings tipping crazily, dropping to the pond in frantic, graceful, impossible descents. As the sky grows more dark, all the more brightly shines the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and all the more magically the ducks seem to materialize from nowhere.

My neck hurts, and I hardly breathe, but I gasp as they keep dropping out of the sky, like spirits materializing in perfect grace, like spirits descending to ... And there my simile eludes me, for each newly arrived flock splashes not into some heavenly ideal, but into a raucous society. Male mallards drone their thin, low waaack-waaack-waaaack; widgeons peep and whistle; there are wet, rushing sounds of quarrels and chases; and the female mallards give their ever-scolding, quaack-qua-qua-qua-quack-quack!

These spirits have descended, of course, to earth. From their sublime moments of beauty in my perception, they splash into the pond, reality, life. This may not be all there is, but still it is. Planets, moon, and stars glow brightly; pond water ripples with ducks, and the sky--dark now--still spawns threesomes and foursomes of crazily descending, wing-whistling ducks.

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