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Ruins on the Prairie (Part I)

March 10, 2017

Larry and I sat at his table deciding what we should do this morning. With the warm weather, we were eager to go canoeing but the temperatures had fallen precipitously yesterday afternoon; it was nine degrees this morning so canoeing was out of the question. However, even though it was well below freezing, there was no longer safe ice to walk on. Larry said, “I’d like to show you some restored prairie and prairie that had little disturbance, mostly just grazing. There’s a lot of grass at the first. And I want to show you where we’ve been cutting cedars and getting ready to burn.”

“Alright, sounds good.”

Once we decided on what we’d do this morning we headed out. We took Hank with us. It was before 8:00 am when we left Larry’s. Driving along Highway 84, we stopped just before the bridge. Larry spotted a pair of trumpeter swans in the alcove, just to the right of the channel on McCarthy. They had their heads tucked down, perhaps resting and trying to keep warm. Larry put down his window for us to look at them but then I got out of the truck and crossed the road for a slightly closer view. As I drew near to the edge of the road, they both lifted their heads, assessing me, turning their heads this way and that way without moving their bodies at all. Their heads were a rusty color. Their sleek necks and elegant bodies were glowing white. It was hard to tell if they were sitting on ice or in a tiny patch of open water. Indeed it was hard to distinguish what was open water or a thin layer of ice but the lake was definitely a patchwork of both. The water level was high. I walked back across the road and got back into the truck so we could continue.

We weren’t on 84 for long before we turned on to Pritchard’s, a meandering gravel road, taking in the prairie on either side. On the right was a restored prairie which looked like it was mostly little bluestem, and was flat. On the left the prairie was more diverse and rolled in dunes. Then on the right was a big clump of trees, the road curved about. Then it opened up again. This was Nature Conservancy (TNC) property. We pulled into a little drive way and parked the truck; except for people working for the TNC or DNR, there were no vehicles allowed. A row of pines, actually many rows planted together shaded the driveway and out into the prairie a ways. As we walked in the shadow of the fantastic pines, I asked Larry, “What kind of pines are these again?” I knew I should know but at that moment I was drawing a blank.

“They’re red pines,” replied Larry.

“Oh. Their bark isn’t as red as the ones up north.”

“It’s because of the different growing conditions and soil types.”

It was so cold, the northwest wind was relentless, and walking in the shadow only made it worse. To our right, just beyond the shadow’s reach and glowing in the morning sun was a gentle rolling hill with many trees, not completely covered but far more than just a few, I just loved the amber color and texture of the little bluestem, though it was a bit hard to walk through with the sand beneath it. We turned a bit and walked southwest ward, toward the hill. We rounded a knoll jutting out and sat down in the sunshine, the hill protected us on the north and west so we were out of the wind. Larry said, “That’s better isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Though the temperature was still a single digit, being out of the wind and bathed by sunshine, it barely felt cold anymore; in fact it was almost felt pleasant. I probably could have leaned back and shut my eyes and maybe not quite fall asleep but close. Several oak trees studded the knoll on the north side. The west knoll was mainly empty of trees. Of course Hank didn’t stop for a rest, he ran around checking everything out.

It was a very short rest, in five minutes we were up and walking again. There were remainders on the hill side of cedar trees that had grown here but that were cut down by the TNC a few years ago, now just skeletal remains bleached white. Leaves from the oak trees littered the ground, nestling into the grass. We’d come far enough away from our pocket between the knolls that we were back in the chilling wind. We turned southwestward, climbing a slight incline around the end of the knoll. On higher ground, completely out in the open the wind really hit us. The prairie before us looked desolate. Other than the cedars here and there, everything was a variation of gray and brown. Even the short scrubby sumac, though brilliant in autumn, lent to the feeling of it being desolate with its bare gray branches reaching out every which way, gnawed on by deer. The golden patches of little bluestem growing here and there offered the only bright, vibrant color. We veered southward and into a stand of trees encroaching on the prairie. It was a little warmer in the trees; they slowed the wind and yet didn’t block out the sunlight that came filtering through. We walked in a fire break, about as wide as a car; it had been mowed and cleared, and any trees that had been growing in it had been cut down close to the ground and removed.

Soon the trees opened up onto a little clearing which was walled in by trees on all sides. To the south, I could just make out a splash of blue through the trees, the lake on the edge of the rolling prairie. Larry turned east, I followed. We walked through another stand of trees and in moments came out in another clearing. This stretch of prairie was bigger but still mostly fenced in by trees.  A fire break, where the grass had been mowed, ran right down the middle of it. Little bluestem mingled with other grasses in tangled masses. A lot of the grass was lying down, flattened probably from the weight of the snow. We cut a diagonal path across the tangled, matted prairie grass. Larry found a deer bone in the grass, it looked like it was a joint bone. I paused to look at it for a moment and had to nearly run to catch up with Larry again. Before I caught up to Larry, I saw a deer leg sticking out of a hole. It was the hoof sticking up out of the grass that first caught my attention. I called to Larry, “There’s a deer leg sticking out of a hole.” He came back to where I stood, curious about it. We studied it together for a moment, without pulling it out, before we continued walking. This patch of prairie had a lot of mullein plants growing in it. The plants were taller than me and the way the dried seed heads branched off the stalk made me think of cactus plants. They also seemed to be almost sentient beings. We walked through them and around a line of trees to another open area that had been a homestead, now it was mostly in ruins, which I found very intriguing. I’ve always found ruins fascinating. I suppose I’m drawn by curiosity, what story do they have to tell? Who lived there and how did they live? What kind of life did they lead? What happened to them? Why were these structures allowed to deteriorate into ruins? Sometimes these questions flood my mind along with a feeling of sadness, some structures seem too interesting to be left to decay, though perhaps it has a sad story to tell. Larry enjoys ruins because he likes to see how quickly nature will take back what belonged to it in the first place. The first structure we saw and inspected was probably the least damaged of them all. It was made of wood. At first I thought it was a shed or barn of sorts for perhaps pigs or chickens. It was narrow and long. Larry walked up along side of it to look at it more closely. I walked up to the end of it to look in the window. There were two doors on either side of it, gaping holes pouring in sunlight, and a rectangle window in the other end. The floor was made of wooden planks. There were a few old tires and an old lawn chair inside it. In the middle by the open doors, the floor had started to rot away.

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