Spring on the Prairie
May 4, 2018
We turned off of Highway 84 on to a very small, minimum maintenance road, actually to say ‘road’ paints the wrong picture, it’s nothing more than a bumpy driveway, and even ‘driveway’ seems a generous description, barely big enough for Larry’s truck. A farm was on our left. The little road went into a grove of trees, privately owned land on either side. The road plunged down a sketchy slope – I’m not sure a vehicle without four wheel drive could have made it. The lane was a tight squeeze. We continued to jostle along the road, over small branches and down and up out of ruts. The lane was sand, not gravel or black top or even dirt, sand. Not far after the plunge, the landscape opened up on the right. Prairie, gently rolling, dotted with trees. Trees flanked our left, most were quite scraggly looking. The truck climbed up a gentle slope. The trees on our left gave way. A parking area was designated by green, mowed grass and a couple of wooden fences. A windmill loomed on our left. Larry parked the truck.
The windmill stood as a sentry over the prairie, standing watch over the past and the present. The presence of the windmill made me thoughtful. This had been a farmstead, the Lamey family homestead. I chatted with Gene a couple of times but regret I hadn’t started the conversations years before, perhaps I would have a clearer picture of his family’s history here. No time to linger and ponder though, I had to keep up with Larry; we had another mission for today’s walk.
Larry and I decided to walk on the prairie this morning instead of canoeing because I wanted, needed, to see the spring flowers, particularly pasque flowers while they’re in bloom. I keep missing the passing of seasons of the prairie – especially the various wildflowers in bloom. And right now, the pasque flowers were blooming.
We began our walk at 7:15 am. It had rained the previous evening, and the prairie was still wet. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. A train whistled in the distance. Birds twittered around us. The prairie grass rustled against our feet. Larry talked about the prairie as we walked. We found our first flower blooming. “Prairie buttercup,” Larry identified the plant. It has a long, round, stocky, green stem, long narrow leaves,and small yellow petals. The center of the petals was green. Each plant had a few stems with several blossoms. Water droplets clung to the plants and the blades of grass, adding beauty to each plant. The prairie buttercup plants grew in clusters together. I paused to photograph them. Larry continued to walk. Bird song filled the air, excited over the arrival of spring. I only took a couple of photos before ambling on. I had to walk fast to catch up with Larry. We paused to look at a sedge plant – its flower petals long. We continued walking and found another patch of buttercups peeking through the tangle of matted grass. Again, I paused to take a couple of photos. I found a violet plant not yet in bloom. We continued onward, each step a noisy ruckus in the dried, dead grass of last year.
Larry spotted the first pasque flower and drew my attention to it.
“They look like fairies!” They’re the perfect first flower to bloom in spring – ethereal and ephemeral. Their satin petals seemed almost to glow. They reminded me of jellyfish. Pasque flowers are otherworldly. I circled around the first patch of blooms. I was elated – I had wanted to see these for many years but kept missing them. Now, here they were before me; lovely and elegant. The photos I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the experience of seeing them.
“Beat up by the rain. Pretty though. They do have a lot of blossoms this year. Many times they don’t,” remarked Larry. He added, “Must have been a good growing year last year for them.” Birds twittered around us.
“Yeah.” I took several photos. “I think they’re extra pretty because they seem random and are in a cluster. They’re not sprinkled everywhere.”
“I know it. I know it. Makes them more precious.”
“Yeah.” Like the buttercups, they peeked up through the grass.
“Good seeing them,” added Larry.
I enjoyed being serenaded by birds as we chatted and while we walked. We’d pause for a couple of minutes taking in the first cluster of pasque flowers. Larry turned away first and I followed after him. Hank, the black lab, wasn’t as interested in the flowers. – We hadn’t walked very far before we stopped at the next flowering plant. “Looks like some kind of cinquefoil,” observed Larry. The blossoms weren’t yet blooming but they seemed on the verge of doing so. We continued walking for another minute. “More pasque flowers.” I bent down to take a couple of photos.
Larry pointed out another plant, “Rose hyssop.” We’d halted our walking. Larry spoke again, “Got old dug ways in here, you know, what we walked in on. And a road through here. Find an old photograph and look for the road.”
“OK.” As Larry spoke, sandhill cranes were calling. A group of cedars dotted the little bit of prairie in front of us; about ten trees. The little bluestem was golden, patches of green carpet between each individual clump.
“Meadowlark,” observed Larry. Robins, redwing black birds, chickadees, and song sparrows also filled the morning with song. We continued walking, the grass rustled and crinkled against our feet. Birds sang continuously, merry it was finally spring. Again we paused, this time admiring some sedge plants. “I find these sedges as cute as can be,” remarked Larry. The beads of water droplets, still clinging to the grass was beautiful.
“Aleesha says sedges are hard to identify.”
“They are difficult but…” Larry trailed off.
“Another good photograph, that little white flower.” A Lyre-leaved rock cress.
Meanwhile, Hank was trotting about, too quickly to enjoy flowers, instead searching for sticks. “Leave it to Hank to find a stick,” I laughed. We’d barely continued our walk before we again paused, just long enough to photograph another cluster of buttercups. Hank whimpered, wanting to play instead of just walk. Onward we went.
“That’s a lot of pasque flowers,” observed Larry.
“Oh wow!” It was a jackpot. Their white, silvery satin blossoms dotted a slope, among clumps of bluestem. We halted so I could photograph them. So beautiful. I knelt down for a better perspective. The leaves, stems, and even petals were covered in fine, white hairs like hoar frost. A blaze of yellow stamens stood in the middle of the petals. Water droplets clung to them, beads on a wedding gown. I walked around them, knelt down, took a photo, and stood, walked around again looking at them from different and better angles. A train whistle sounded in the distance. Birds sang. Hank whimpered and whined, not at all interested in flowers but wanting a stick thrown for him. Larry finally caved and threw a stick, “Go get it Hank! Get it!” He took off. I laughed at his energy and eagerness. A patch of sumac grew on a slope, miniature trees, arms reaching up, waiting to be clothed. Our fifteen minutes of walking took us up and down grassy sand dunes. We’d paused on top of a tall dune looking down into a valley. The little bluestem on the opposite dune were golden tongues of flame licking at the slope. Gopher mounds dotted the opposite incline, like a bumpy skin rash. “You can see the importance in the different aspect up here. Shadow. Captures a little bit more snow. Shaded, you know. By the time the sun gets up here. Creates a little microclimate.”
“I wonder how the woody stuff gets in. Aspen drifts from the bluffs and along the river. You get plum, the stone, you know, travels pretty good. Kind of the first ones here. Then you get these oaks. How do they keep going? Oak wilt on some of them. There’s a meadowlark.” It was the golden hour of morning, the whole slope glowed gold in the morning sun. We continued walking. I marveled at the power of the sun to turn everything it touched, at 7:30 am in May, to gold. I listened to the joyful birds – grateful spring was at last here. Down one dune, up another, it was tricky walking in the sandy soil. I heard a sandhill crane in the distance.
“Did I tell you I picked up a dead snake off the road?”
“Had a pit tag. Called Anne to bring up the database – she kept it – one she’d followed for a couple of years.”
“Ah, like a friend.”
“It’s hard when it’s one that had been pit tagged.”
We paused our walking. “Oh, that’s pretty!” A buttercup plant, blossoms open, was bathed in golden sunlight. There was a cluster of the plants.
“With the sun on it.”
“Sun and water droplets.”
We continued walking. Birds sang all around us. “Oh, look there’s a pasque flower.”
“Ah, little pasque flower, look at you there. Free you from that grass.” Larry spoke tenderly and affectionately as if he was talking to an animal or a child. Once the flower was freed we continued walking, until we paused at another pasque flower, perfectly washed in sunshine. There were several clusters of them, all perfectly steeped in flaxen sunshine. I walked around them to capture the best angle of light. Walked a few steps to photograph another, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, walked a few more steps to a different plant, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, repeat. I repeated the process several times, with an intermission of standing to capture several clusters together. Each plant was awe-inspiring and all the more so in the honey light. A few buttercup plants grew near the pasque flowers. It was like finding fairy rings sprinkled among amber little bluestem. only they didn’t form rings. The birds sang on. I had to walk to be on the right side of them so I wasn’t casting a shadow on them. Somewhere in the distance swans warmed up their trumpets, a great wild sound; though their call sounded more wooden than brass. We continued on our way. “There’s something. A little violet.”
Larry came over, “Let me see.” He squatted down, “Sure doesn’t look like a bird’s foot. Huh.” Perhaps it was a prairie violet instead. “Look at these mounded, velvety moss.”
“Moss is cool looking.” I knelt down to get a closer look at the moss and photograph it, and then I stood taking in the rolling prairie. We continued our stroll. A post from surveys stuck in the ground, interrupting the flowing prairie. I paused again at a patch of violets, either bird’s foot or prairie. The blossoms were a pale purple. Larry didn’t stop, and after taking a few photos, I walked fast to catch up with him. He paused at a short tree. I came up beside him. “Little tree. It was nibbled on by the deer and it’s a poor place for it to grow.” Its leaves were just starting to burst out of their buds. A cedar tree grew underneath it. Again sandhill cranes called in the distance. Song birds continued to chirp and twitter. “Good choice to come out here this morning,” remarked Larry. We continued onward.
“Whoa, that looks cool!” Fungus, moss, or lichen organism, I’m not sure which. I paused to photograph it. Across the way was a wall of trees encroaching on the prairie. We heard another train. Larry played with Hank. I was enjoying the bird song and the opportunity to walk on the prairie. Hank searched for a stick. A couple minutes later, “Here’s some British soldiers,” I said.
“You think they are British soldiers?”
“I think so.”
“They look like it, but it doesn’t seem like the right place for them.”
I saw a mint plant. There was a patch of open sand. We’d continued walking after taking a close look at the British soldiers. Lyre-leaved rock cress caught my eye along with several buttercup plants. I paused to photograph them, and then followed after Larry.
“This afternoon would be a good snake day,” observed Larry.
“Oh yeah.” I wished I could stay or return in the afternoon in hopes of seeing a snake. We walked up and down and back up dunes. Climbing uphill can be challenging enough, but it was quite difficult and tiring to walk up sand dunes, the sand isn’t stable; our feet slipped and slid as we climbed. Standing on top of a dune, we paused to look out over the sand prairie. It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is, and yet it is only a small fraction of what it used to be. Larry was also enjoying the bird song, “Quite the repertoire.” We continued walking. Larry reached down and picked some leaves and put them under his nose to smell them, and then he put them under my nose.
“It smells almost like a mint crossed with lavender,” I noted.
“Smells more minty.”
“Mmm, yup.” While Larry smelled the mint, I was studying a couple other plants. A sedge plant looked like a shooting star. Pussy toes, white fungus-like plants, almost looked like something from under the sea. “More pasque flowers,” I reveled in their beauty. We strolled onward. A couple of minutes later, “This is bluestem, right?” I asked.
This area of prairie was a patchwork of grass, moss and wildflowers – awe-inspiring. We continued walking. “Imagine trying to find cows out here with all the dips,” I said, thinking about the challenge.
Larry held a plant up to my eye, “Here’s an eyelash for you.”
I laughed softly then asked, “What is that?”
“Grama grass. Eyelash. Do you want to take a picture?”
“Mmhmm.” I took a photo of it and we continued to walk. Birds sang. We paused again.
“This is mountain mint. I think. Well it might be dotted mint.”
“Mmm, smells good.”
“Dotted mint.” We resumed walking. We didn’t get very far before halting again so Larry could talk about the prairie. “See, most of this good prairie is, you know, clumpy. Primarily little bluestem. Some big grass, either Indian grass or big bluestem. But mostly the small stuff. There’s some beech grass along the top up there that are bit taller. But most of it is short. If you look at a lot of restoration stuff, there’s a lot of big stuff in there…when we harvest, get a lot of big grass or the spores are there and we restore it.”
We continued walking, rustling grass. “Pasque flowers. Good bloom.”
“Yeah.” I paused to photograph interesting dried plants.
A little further ahead, Larry halted. “Something went on here. Got washed rock, small rock, and sorted. And a big rock too. So what do you think?”
“I don’t know. Something happened.” I squatted down to photograph it and walked around them. “The big stones almost look like they’re in a circle. And those little rocks come out to here a little bit.”
“Here’s a…,” began Larry
“…piece of wood,” we both said simultaneously.
“Huh,” said Larry.
“Doesn’t look like the kind of rock…”
“They’re hauled in from somewhere,” puzzled Larry.
“Yeah, but they don’t quite look like building rock.”
“No. But something happened, something went on here.” We walked around the area, taking it in, puzzling over it. “Go back in the photographs and try to find this spot and keep going back to find a structure or a road, the history.”
“Yeah.” I thought it sounded like a lot of work to try to find photos and then that location – seemed impossible – and I didn’t even know where the spot is.
“This would have been a nice spot!”
“Yeah.” We began walking again. I listened to birds singing as we walked, took in the vastness of the prairie. It began to cloud up, but light fluffy clouds. We walked through a sea of little bluestem, past occasional mullein plants. We’d come upon a wooded area, pushed through low hanging branches, scratching at our coats, ducking to avoid being clothes lined or hit in the head. I felt thankful to be wearing a coat. A pesky bird seemed to be yelling at us.
Halted among the trees, “This is what happens, starts getting woody. Doesn’t burn well. …Pines. Took out the last of the pines. There’s these little oaks. We burn them. Can’t kill them…I should really come in here, cut ’em, treat the stumps,” explained Larry.
The bird continued to squawk. We went onward, ducking under branches, pushing others aside, trying to squeeze through. And the bird squawked on. I was growing weary from the vigorous walk but enjoyed it. We paused again.
“Now we cross that line, more degraded part of the restoration. It’s getting sorted out…” We continued walking, falling into silence other than our feet rustling the grass. The birds kept up the conversation. Only a minute passed before I found another object of interest and paused.
“Oh.” I squatted down to take a better look at a turkey egg. Bigger than a chicken egg, white with brown specks. A part was missing, a doorway for the poult, baby turkey to climb out of. An ant crawled on it, near the gaping hole. A tiny slug investigated it, moving in slow motion, well actually perhaps not even moving. It lay on top of an assortment of oak leaves. Green grass grew up through the leaves and dead grass. I wondered about the turkey family. Where was it? Was there just the one egg that hatched? Is the young turkey still alive? We continued walking, up another incline, and down. Up again, down again. The dunes in this area weren’t quite as dramatic, the upward climb not quite as much of a challenge. Sometimes the grass sounded deafening beneath our feet and against our clothing. We were approaching the windmill again, though it was still several yards away. We paused one more time.
“Cool season grasses. Lot of quack grass.” Walked a few more steps, stopped. “I speculate this area had livestock and this was wintering or feeding area. Nutrients are higher which makes prairie restoration tougher.” This area was certainly less appealing. We continued walking, up the small slope to the windmill and truck, sad our morning adventure was nearly over. We hadn’t made a circle but a loop of some sort.
Larry unlocked the truck doors. I opened up the passenger side to put away my camera. He pointed to the mailbox. “Probably a registry. You can sign it, say you were here. Pasqueflowers in bloom.”
“OK.” I went and signed the registry, dated it, recorded some of what we heard and saw, the beauty of the day. I got into the truck, Larry and Hank were already in and waiting. We bounced along, back down the narrow, sandy lane to the highway. Before we were ready to leave the prairie, Larry took us down Pritchard’s road and pulled into the landing, then turned the truck around after a glimpse of Goose Lake.
Back by the bridge, Larry stopped the truck. A couple of guys had a motorboat out on McCarthy Lake and were fishing. Larry was pissed and threw out a string of profanity to describe the guys.
“Are they allowed to be in there?” I asked.
“No, they’re not supposed to be out there.” Motorboats are quite disruptive to the delicate ecosystem of the marsh. And I’m not sure there is a large enough fish population for fishing to occur without being detrimental. But at least if you’re going to fish out there, take a canoe. The trees on the marsh were still naked. And the aquatic vegetation hadn’t yet taken off in growth. Spring was certainly late this year.
Larry and I left the prairie. As always, I was sad to leave, never quite ready to go. Who knows how long it’d be before the next time I could escape the farm and visit again. There’s never enough time to do all the exploring I want to.