This morning I watched them flying around the perimeter of Flat Iron Lake, just like they have for many years while teaching their young ones to fly. Just the sight of the swan pair this summer saddens me—they were empty nesters before they even got started this year. My neighbor Pam says she saw four little ones in early spring and then they were gone. How do parents spend their time when there are no more youngsters to nurture? Pam is anticipating that very thing now that her son is a high school senior. We speculate if waterfowl parents have emotions like our own. Could they share our sadness over loss whether early in life or when our children grow up and fly the proverbial coup? We’ll never know, but it is easy to transfer our own emotions on to them, especially when they fly around the lake over and over with no children following behind.
All summer I wanted to get a close up picture of the swans but they seldom hang around the dock and I never paddle out near them, and for good reason. Ages ago, Fritz and I were canoeing in the spring along a lazy river. It was my first canoe ride but with him pulling most of the weight things were going pretty well. Until we came too close to a swan’s nest. We didn’t notice the male swam guarding the nesting area until it was too late. He flew up and dove at Fritz whose arms were moving the paddles energetically. In trying to protect himself against the bird’s powerful wings Fritz raised his arms, tipping the canoe along with the lunch and me. I’m no swimmer but I flailed around—until I saw my grinning husband while standing nearby, only waist-deep! So I stay on shore, not trusting the magnificent birds even though they look ever so peaceful bobbing around on the lake.
Early one morning, I spotted them among the lily pads. I almost tiptoed up to the house to get the camera, knowing that this was my chance. They were still languishing nearby when I returned—my presence didn’t seem to bother them at all. But—I’m not the best photographer so I shot dozens with the hope that one would turn out. I was totally blown away. One looked like they posed just for me!
And then today as they were doing their fly around, I had the camera because I was trying to capture a shot of the native grasses in the early morning light. One swan suddenly flew up over the trees and traveled overhead. Perhaps he was trying to reassure me that life goes on even after inevitable transitions and losses. Thanks, feathered friends, for being there for me.
Swan in flight
For the last few years, the farmers in Kenya and Uganda have told us sad stories of crop uncertainty. The term “farmer” includes most folks because they grow local in what we might call kitchen gardens, to meet their own needs. Located on the equator as they are, daylight and night are as regular as their clock and seasons vary only by slight temperature changes, alternating in a regular pattern between the rainy and dry season. Watching the weather closely, people planted their crops just before the rain was expected to get its full effect. But now, the seasons are scrambled, rain unpredictable and uncertainly reigns: longer dry spells, harder rains, precious seeds lost, larders empty. In the bush country there is no supermarket to supplement what you cannot grow. Bartering goods between neighbors stops when they have nothing to exchange. People who live close to the land will suffer the most by climatic changes.
I also live close to the land. My husband and I “grow local” and harvest enough to feed ourselves and many more. But my body will not suffer if our crops fail. But this fall my heart aches for the flowers that are already gone. In a small way, I share the uncertainty of change. For ten years I have watched the rhythms of the fields and took comfort in their predictability. I wrote my book, All Nature Sings, in 2008 and verified the changes by months in 2009. Now we are living in the summer of 2010 and both the timing of plants and blooms as well as their life cycle is greatly altered. In the light of climate change, the summer Botany research student did a geo-map of flowers and their timing to compare to the two preceding years. He concluded that blooms appeared about three weeks early this year. My own cursory research on the subject is aided by iPhoto on my Mac, which dates each photograph.
My sense of timing has been violated this year. In years past the tall grasses have always appeared among blooming wildflowers—this year most flowers have already dropped their petals and gone to seed. The prairie coneflower died early, which somehow affected their seed production. My husband remark the other night that the goldfinch that usually flit through the prairie all fall, have left us. I look almost longingly for the invasive purple vetch that always draped itself over other stalks until the cold weather came. Blooms that greeted me earlier and earlier this year, should have been a clue—this year defies prediction.
Today, I notice another oddity: as the milkweed pods are drying and cracking open in one place, new plants are sprouting elsewhere. Along the perimeter I’ve seen lone black-eyed Susans and single coreopsis. They are mixed up too; maybe they think it is spring.
Uncertainty is unsettling. My little waves of angst in the face of change helps me to imagine the total upheaval of people in Pakistan fleeing their flooded fields and to feel the pain of African farmers. I never realized how changes in climate could affect your psyche. I thought I knew the moods and manners of this land; I rested in the solace of anticipation of the next beautiful sights unfolding. All that changed this year. Would I be prepared if floods or drought or pestilence overtook us and remove more than beauty—our very livelihood? With every twinge of uncertainty, I pray for those who speculate no more but face the daily challenges of change.
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(imagine two columns side by side--material, spiritual)
Written in 2001
Indian grass, big bluestem and vervain
August is abundance—in the garden as well as on the prairie: more red raspberries than we can give away and tomatoes loading down the vines. Fortunately both of them are bright red—bright enough for me to see easily. The prairie too is full with big bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass that are taller and denser than we’ve ever seen. Even with huge roots below ground, the grasses are so thick that they need each other, side by side, in order to stand up straight. But on the swath of driveway running through the prairie, the grasses have nothing to lean on so they begin to arch over on the road. Driving through it is like coming through flapping leather strips in a car wash with the water turned off. Night entry is especially spooky—a tunnel of tall stalks barely big enough to drive through.
Finally we agreed something had to be done. But what? If you drive a mower along the side the tires will crush the wildflowers. Weed-whacking a quarter of a mile makes my husband’s arms ache, just thinking about it. So we devised a new plan: put a portable generator in the trailer behind the old golf cart, attach a hedge trimmer to the power and drive by slowly. Only one problem: the trimmer needed to be no more than a foot off the ground. So I drove while Fritz, kneeling held the clipper off the side of the floorboard. We stopped often to relieve his aching biceps and knees and my driving foot, suspended in the air because his feet were in the way. Do you get the picture? The long drive, which always brings me so much pleasure on my walks to the mailbox, suddenly felt like the enemy. Fortunately the cloudy sky mercifully kept us somewhat shaded.
We tried a similar method to rake the long cut grasses but finally reverted to the old fashioned method—raking by hand. While he retraced our path to tidy up the job with the weed-whacker, I dragged the “thatch” into big piles for later pick up. But after four hours we were too exhausted to pick up the piles and dispose of them, so we decided that manana was good enough for us.
It was hotter the next day as we filled trailer after trailer full to overflowing with the now dried grass. I’m sure there were enough long stems to thatch several roofs—if only such roofs were common here. Talk about abundance—just one foot on either side of drive way yielded all that straw--perhaps only one-one-thousandth of the growth on the whole 17 acres. I think ahead to April when all those stalks, matted to the ground from snow cover, will disappear in the annual burn to make natural fertilizer for the next abundant August on this tall grass prairie.