Every last day of every month since August when I wrote my last blog entry, I made a vow on my morning walk to write a “state of the prairie” piece. It never happened—life got in the way. But this 31st day of October, Halloween for kids and Reformation Day for some Protestants, I will do just that. I didn’t have to decorate the house or have goodies ready because here out in the country no one comes down the long drive just for a little piece of candy. There are more fertile grounds.
However the earth was intensely fertile this year. After our late burn during the first week in May, the lakeside of the field came back stronger than ever. The big bluestem and Indian grass, which have mellowed into golden brown, are taller than our heads and their roots reach even farther beneath the surface. This week a hard frost accented each stem and shoot in the field, bounded by still colorful trees in the distance. I especially liked the sparkling switch grass, which is sure to amaze me all winter.
The bright flowers have gone to seed, each in their unique way. I’m thankful for the milkweed in its many iterations that remain showy all year long. The fallen leaves in the woods are dry and crunchy, while the monster trees still hold some at their heights. The abundance of our cultivated garden has been cooked or stored. We see fewer critters around but they leave their scat on the warm driveway. Our faithful companions, the swan family, are still with us as they teach the young ones to fly. We never know when we will hear the last swish of their elegant wings as they leave us for the winter.
The other day, we gave a talk in a series called, “Tending God’s Garden.” I had to admit to the audienthat mostly God tends us in this prairie garden. Now, as we face November, the hardest month to love in climates like Michigan we still count on being tended even though death blankets the earth and the promise of resurrection seems like a “pie in the sky” kind of idea. But new life comes this way—it is part of the plan. Even the skeletons of plants and the ice on Flat Iron Lake assured us that seedtime and harvest and bluegills will come again!
The raspberry patch gets lots of attention from me this time of year while I wait impatiently for our late berries to ripen. Because the garden is in the middle of our fields of wildflowers, new plants like butterfly weed and milkweed often try to establish themselves inside the garden fence. When I found a thriving colony of purple asters among the berry bushes, I decided they had to go. They are shallow rooted and easy to pull. The next day, in the gap where the asters had been, I spotted an amazing spider web, the early morning dew marking each strand of the intricate web. Next day the web was still there but now occupied by the largest spider I had ever seen. I ran for the camera but could have taken my time because Ms. Spider stayed in the same place for three days until high winds tore down her delicate scaffolding. I tried to find out more about this beautiful creature that instilled panic and wonder in me by its sheer size. So far I know no more than what I can see. Ironically, I caught a review on NPR of a new book about “Charlotte’s Web,” and its creator, E.B. White. The host even played parts of the audio version of this classic read by the author, with his charming Eastern accent. I have not watched spiders in a barn like he did—only in the open. But like White, I feel the urge to spin a story about this handsome creature, which is now safely housed in iPhoto, where her likeness is frozen in time to inspire me but where her bite cannot harm me .
Are these the two that survived?
You know how I worry over the swan babies—a great deal more than about goslings. Perhaps some of them were also snatched by a snapping turtle; like the one that ate two of the four cygnets. After their Memorial Day holiday cruse around the lake, the swan family went into hiding for many days. I could spot some white patches from a distance in their usual habitat but as I got closer the ground sloped making it level with the tail end of Flat Iron Lake, I could not longer see them through the reeds. I hoped against hope that all the little ones survived.
But finally, they showed them selves again in full view of our windows. I grabbed the binoculars so as to account for the cygnets. No matter what angle I viewed, I could see only one bright white one between the parents. My heart sank. Three gone, just like that? Finally I spotted a darker body almost camouflaged by the ripples and shade on the lake. Two survived—a male and a female. My disappointment at losing some turned to a celebration that at least two remained. Convinced that they are big enough now to elude their predators, I rest easy—hoping to enjoy watching the little family for the rest of the season. They must stay on the lake until the babies learn to fly from their parents, usually late September, which is a sight to behold.
I also spot many places in the yard and along the road where the snapping turtles have laid their eggs. The eggs are now broken and strewn close to the indented soft earth. Another kind of predator ate the potential offspring of a predator. I suppose I should cry over them as well—but today I don’t mind if there are going to be fewer snapping turtles laying in wait for the baby swans. How do we decide which life is more important?
Our first sighting
Two day old cygnets
Our resident swan pair was nesting on the tail of Flat Iron Lake, in plain view from the path next to the woods. Since the trees were not yet leafed out, it was easy to spot them even from the driveway. Because of last year’s experience (see 9/17/2010, Swan's Song), I worried over them when the abundant rain caused the water level to rise, and the nest looked swamped. I worried when I witnessed Mr. Swan fighting off a goose that strayed into the territory. I worried that the babies were late to hatch and might not hatch at all.
A family outing
But the day after the world was supposed to come to an end, we made a routine stop and there they were! New life: four babies easily visible from the soggy shore. Immediately I began to pray for but worry about their survival, especially when I saw the parents eating green algae. I remembered the year that one baby listed in the water and finally died because his little digestive system could not process the course food. Now I worry that the hungry snapping turtle is hovering nearby ready to drag away a baby for supper.
Today was the first time we saw them outside the cove: the family of six out enjoying a warm (90 degree) Memorial Day. I kept counting the babies, just to be sure. They circled the perimeter of the lake, ending near our dock. The camera and I rush down the hill for a rare close-up. Mr. Swan saw me as danger and moved his family to a safe distance, while I snapped away. It looks like there is one boy baby (slightly darker) and three girls.
I suppose the one-week-old babies are not yet out of danger but I worry less. We long for the companionship of swans from early spring’s nesting to fall when the babies learn to fly and leave us again. Praise God! The cycle of life continues.
Prairie Burn, 2011
We did not burn any section of the prairie last year so since the beginning of April we have waited for the snow to melt, the rain to dry, and the wind to slow down. I worried that a few warm days would bring too much young growth and it would be too late to burn the expanse. This year the most unusual and spectacular event of the year was slow in coming. We put notices of a coming burn in all the mailboxes of neighbors nearby. The professional burners were on the ready but nature was not cooperating. The township fire department will not give permission to burn unless all the conditions are right. So we make our best guess but then wait for the last minute message, “It’s a go!”
Many friends have mentioned that they would really love to watch a burn. I have emails and telephone numbers handy to send out the alert as soon as we know the day. But even then, the precise time is never known until the burn crew, dressed in bright yellow suits and protective headgear, begin to torch the perimeter. Then even the slightly soggy grasses, mostly bent low to the ground catch fire quickly and the flames spread under the watchful eye of the pros. The fire laps into the air sending huge towers of billowing smoke upward. In moments the “thatch” gives itself to fire and then smolders into ash. In less than a half hour, nearly nine acres of last year’s prairie grasses blacken the earth on one side of the driveway.
We had a commitment away from our home on the 4th of May. When we got the word that the burn was on, I knew one of us had to go and one stay at home. I got the short straw. I hoped against hope that the burners would start late and I’d get to see some of it. They did start later than planned but when I drove in, I saw no fire, only the burners retreating and huge dust devils swirling the ash upward. The ground was black and hot underfoot. As beautiful as the burn is to behold, the residue is hard to look at. For the next three weeks I’ll look over that part of the land with sadness. And then, as if by magic the black will, like a chameleon, turn green, fertilized by fire.
A few days after the burn that I missed, a group of kids came for a day to explore the land. They were full of questions. “Why?” “We learned this from the Indians. They knew that their crops grew better after a wildfire so they decided to start burning small plots. Now we know that ash is natural fertilizer, which draws the sunlight to the earth and encourages growth. The native plants with their long roots survive the burn, but the shallow-rooted invasives plants die back. By burning only one section at a time, all the little critters can scurry away from the heat to new habitats.” The kids all want to watch a burn some day. So do I. Maybe next year!
Jake loves snow!
Even before our eleven-year-old black lab hears thunder, he looks for a place to hide. He lives in our kitchen where we have a wood floor so if he isn’t there when we come in the back door—we panic, “Where’s Jake?” Several times lately we have found him in the basement—hiding in open view. We scold and call him back to his designated place. His black tail hanging between his legs shows his contrition. But just wait for the next hard rain or loud clap of thunder, and he’ll defy his life-long training and head for the basement.
We know how he “thinks.” At least five years ago during a daytime tornado warning, Fritz took him to the safest place in basement. They huddled together until the storm abated. When similar conditions come, he knows what to do: seek shelter away from windows in the center of the basement. It used to be only thunder, but now he’ll take any windy, rainy excuse. If one of us is in the kitchen he will lean in, without a hair-space between us. He wants to be as close as possible in times of danger.
Yesterday was Good Friday. I was hoping that I’d see the clouds lifting about noon just as they did when Jesus was crucified and he said, “It is finished.” I remember several Good Fridays past when that happened; reminding me in a very visual way that resurrection always follows Good Friday. But this year that picture did not come.
We all got scared when yet another storm came in late evening, with thunder and lightning surrounding us. Jake inched up to Fritz’s chair on the carpet and wasn’t scolded. Because the storm still raged at bedtime, we put a towel over the window in the place the dog sleeps and after much patting and reassurance, closed the door. I draw a line about dogs in bed.
I was reminded of a meditation I wrote long ago as part of a series on “clouds,” using Exodus 19:16 – On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountains and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.
It told of another black lab, Cygnus, who was so terrified at thunder he once jumped from the back deck, through a window into my son’s bathroom and huddled in the bathtub. It also mentioned my then two year-old granddaughter, who during a storm hid under her Mom’s skirt and declared, “I don’t like funder!”
The storms are supposed to be over. Jake and those of us who hate “funder” or other frightening parts of life or the sadness of Good Friday—have the assurance that we’ll soon see the Easter glory we have all been waiting for.
Spring, 2011 is having a hard time coming this year. A few early signs before high winds, hail and even snow dampen our enthusiasm. But one sign that comes, rain or shine, is the sounds. Quiet walks during the winter have given way to a chorus of bird calls each morning and frog songs all night.
Hearing is believing.
A passage from April, in All Nature Sings: A Spiritual Journey of Place:
Already the finches are sprouting their yellow feathers—dapple green isn’t going to attract the ladies. Oh, the calls all those birds make this time of year. It’s downright noisy early in the morning, as male and female try to attract each other from the treetops.
The redwing blackbirds call with a clear, pure sound. I hear the scratchy caw of the sandhill crane long before I see their long, flexible necks waving above last year’s grasses.
Yesterday one sandhill called and another answered from somewhere across the tail of the lake. I imagine she had found a place to call home and wanted him to join her. Many birds fill the air with sound but move too fast for me to identify. In April I always wish I knew more about birds and their habits. But this much I know: They have survived the winter and have come out singing!
Icy chicken-wire fence
March doesn’t seem so mad this morning as it prepares to leave. The thick ice that covered every surface for days has melted. The tops of the trees were the last to shed their coating. As we returned from Cleveland a few days ago, we knew exactly when we reentered the ice-zone: the setting sun amplified the glisten-topped black stalks of trees. At home ice continued clinging to all the dried vegetation and coating the chicken-wire fence surrounding the garden. Five days after the Ice Storm of 2011, during cold but sunny days the treetops still sparkled. On the final frosty morning, little ice crystals caught the sunlight making for a star-studded field.
I’m as eager as the next guy for spring but this finale to winter could not have been lovelier. The hearty switch grass that bowed so low under ice has risen again. Its toothpick thin stalks stand tall and straight. The compass plant can’t get up but joins the thatch on the ground while its roots are already preparing to produce this year’s giant stalk with it turning yellow head. I’ll miss March!
Jake posing in summer by the compass plant.
THE ICE STORM OF 2011
If my driveway pilgrimage is like other spiritual quests, March resembles the “slough of despond.” Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, I’m discouraged; I can’t rise above the misery of the harsh weather and pervading deadness all around. Walking or just peering from my upstairs window at the flattened earth with its aging snow piles under sky of sullen grey, I share the lifeless aura of nature. “Rejoice in the day,” I tell myself, but my longing for a renewed Earth overwhelms me. Earlier on in the season, deep in a Midwest winter, I have no such angst—things are supposed to be that way. But in pre-spring (as my Dad once said, “We’re rational animals—but not very”), I let nature’s gloom creep inside my psyche. I dare speculate that “This is my Father’s World,” with its cheery line “he shines in all that’s fair,” wasn’t written in March in Michigan.
(written in 2008 in All Nature Sings: March, page 61)
COMPASS PLANT - 3 DAYS AFTER ICE STORM
Snow capped wildflowers
Before the beauties of winter give way to spring’s slow unfolding, I want to sing their praises. Twice this February we have witnessed snowfalls in which the snow fell lightly on every surface available. Light but sticky, clinging to the upside of branches, dried grass and flowers, fences, wires, signs and roof contours. Nothing was left untouched—unaccented. The drooping rung of a fence line, the cracked tree lying on the ground, the pens of livestock and the outlines of last year’s gardens demanded my attention on the ride to town. How much I miss when houses and stands of trees have no such highlighting and they meld into sameness. With their snowy capes I see the usual as extraordinary.
On my early morning walk with the dog, I notice how close the woods have become. A visual artist would know that white accents bring objects into sharper focus giving the illusion that they are closer than they are. But my art is with words. How do I explain this phenomenon in my memoir class for mature writers? Detail, detail, detail. Every shred of detail paints a picture for the reader; without it the scene is unremarkable, something easily overlooked. Sometimes I say, “Color your story so that it comes alive.” I go so far as to urge--put cloths on your characters, even if you don’t remember what they wore that day. Just like the woods I pass each morning, full of indistinct tree trunks and branches, until the snow reminds me of all their curves and contours--nouns and verbs and their modifiers can reveal so much more than a general category of things or motions.
Right now the landscape is pretty still. The delicate white pines that I see from my window sway in a light breeze. A few stalks of last year’s grasses poke through the covering of snow. Most of those snowy accents have disappeared but the memory of the things they helped me see, remains. That will hold me until those first spring beauties and jack-in-the-pulpit push up in the woods, the fattening buds change the size of branches and the soil brings forth colorful, moving grasses and flowers, all vying for my attention.