Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ransacking the Hills

South Dakota.  The Black Hills.  One phrase that comes to my mind when I think of that beautiful  landscape is “picked over.”

The Black Hills have been picked over by miners, loggers, gem hunters, rock thieves, bikers, hikers – and me.  Over two million visitors a year swarm over the hills.  European Americans began flocking to the area from the mid-19th century onward in search of gold and timber. 

Now tourists visit Mt Rushmore, Sturgis, Wind Cave, Flintstone Village, and any number of resorts, campsites, and festivals.

All of them are looking for adventure or seeking to escape it all.  I’m yet another exploiter in a long line that has grabbed what she wants from the hills and left the scratches and marks behind to prove it.

Maybe it’s the mood I’m in, but the time seems right for a little self-scrutiny and assessment of my vacation time in the hills.  Maybe the task I’ve just been performing encourages me to refer to myself in unflattering ways, for I’ve been scanning my teaching evaluations and marveling at the range of not-very-creative names that a few of my younger students call me.   Amongst the positive evaluations are distracting epithets that are nestled like tiny rabbit pellets in a field of broken quartz.   I am everything from “hippie” to “bitch.”  And, dear reader, I am “old.”  Old as the hills.

A budding stress headache forces me outside for a walk in the neighborhood.   Impressions of my most recent trip to South Dakota snag in my mind.  The scent of the mulch that workers are spreading at a multi-million dollar home on Fargo’s historic 8th Street reminds me vaguely of the pines for which the Black Hills are named.

Rand and I camp each year in the Black Hills in a tent that grows more decrepit each season.  This year, the tent flap’s zipper separated when I thought I’d quickly nip out to pee before a huge storm hit.  The scent of waterlogged ponderosa, the alarming stillness following a crack of thunder and simultaneous lightning, and the ensuing sheets of rain cascading into the floor of the tent made me one bedraggled old hippie bitch at 3 a.m.

It’s always Sturgis rally week when we head to the hills, because the land we camp on is available to us when the owners head out for their annual bike week vacation.   Above the dusty plain and away from Sturgis, it’s easy to feel blessed:  the air is clean, mosquitoes are few, and the food in camp is abundant and good.

But we’re also riding on the coattails of all those who have come before us and taken what they’ve wanted from the hills.

I am part of the population that ransacks the hills.  I visit for a short while, and then I leave.  I tell myself that I am not as bad as the humans that have exploited the Black Hills and left it scarred with stumps, holes in the earth that gape like wounds, piles of bottles and rotting tin cans, and heaps of machinery that was useful decades ago.  Slash heaps and acres of wood ridden with pine beetle dot the landscape.

 Taker.  That’s a name that would apply to me.  I do take things from the hills.  Small things.  Dried teasel heads to decorate my Christmas tree.  Ponderosa pine cones to pile in a trug.  Pieces of quartz I stuff in my pockets to later work into my rock garden.  

A seed pod from a flower that would never sprout in Fargo, ND.

Hundreds of photos that make me seem like a well-traveled middle-aged (not “old”!) person interested in beauty and adventure.  Taker.

It is foolish to think that I am exempt from our tendencies to take, use, and then minimize the consequences of our contact with the land.  We “escape” into the hills on 4-wheelers and engage in a lot of turf tearing, even though we keep to designated trails and observe “pack it in, pack it out” rules.

We offer sage opinions on environmental degradation from wheelers that snort and gouge up the logging trails far above the fray.  It’s easy to look down on the record masses of bikers below and think that we are not as environmentally problematic as they are because we are fewer, or to look over at a mountaintop cropped bald by the big mining operations and say that we aren’t as exploitative as that.  Our impress on the land is comparatively minimal, although there are plenty who would call us menaces and vermin simply because we ride 4-wheelers.  More names.

Home now and with a new year of classes starting tomorrow, in my mind I’m lying in the soggy tent under the pines in the picked-over Black Hills, staring up at the moth battering at the tent’s apex, and wondering how to account for and explain the contradictions, ironies, and slant truths.   

I’ve always thought of myself as relatively benign, but it’s easy to see a long string of unflattering monikers unfolding in my wake.  What name shall I assign myself?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Invasives in the Garden

The other day one of my students showed up to our Independent Study meeting with a unique bookmark:  a grass plant, long roots and all, that he had pulled from his vegetable garden. 

As Dan weeded his garden, this grass reminded him of the extraordinary length of the roots of native perennial prairie plants and how they hold the soil and reach deeper than many shallow-rooted non-native annual plants for scarce water resources.  Whether this grass plant was native or not didn’t matter for the moment; what did matter was that its tenacity and water-reaching habits could show his tender radishes a thing or two about survival.  It also made him think about which kinds of plants can survive prairie conditions unaided and which kinds need an assist.

I’ve been tending to my own non-native plants and know exactly which ones would be growing in my city yard should this property be abandoned for 100 years.  In particular, I think of “Bela Lugosi,” the deep wine-colored daylily of my mother’s that I brought from her garden to mine in Fargo. 

After she died, I dug up many of her flowers to make a living legacy in my own yard.  Some plants didn’t survive the first winter, but Bela Lugosi persists and, like the celluloid heroes that Ray Davies (my favorite Kink) admires, will “never really die.” 

Bela is not “liable to turn and bite,” but is here to stay quietly and bloom where planted.  So is the tough perennial grass that stowed away entwined in Bela’s fleshy tubers, cheerfully going from Michigan to North Dakota soil without missing a beat.  My mother called it “Johnson grass” (Sorghum halepense) and cursed its long runner roots.  Johnson grass is a Mediterranean import, first sowed by Colonel William Johnson on his Alabama plantation in 1840.  Thanks a bunch, Bill.

Every year I feel down through the healthy strapping leaves of the daylily and grub out the stubborn thin ropes of Johnson grass (is it really Johnson grass? Or was that my mother’s catch-all for any weedy grass?).  I hope that I pull with the right tension and at the right angle in order to yank out several inches of roots.  No matter how many times I repeat this process, the grass returns every year.

“Get rid of that daylily,” said the landscaper that was digging a new flowerbed with organic curves to beautify my backyard.  He regarded Bela and its clasping partner as miscreants that would forever wreak havoc.  He was aghast that I wanted him to divide Bela, clean the tubers, and ensconce the doublets in his masterwork.  When I promised that I would never blame him or his landscape design business for any blades of grass in the garden, he reluctantly cut the vampire in two and put the halves to sleep in the soft black dirt.

Sure enough, the grass returns every spring, wrapped tight around the Drac’s subterranean heart.  The pint-sized crimson-purple lily blooms shyly and profusely, and every year I remember how my mother and I would stroll through her garden in the evening, drinks in hand, as she said, “Now there’s ‘Miss Lindgard,’ and ‘Bright Eyes,’ and tiny ‘Bitsy’; ‘Alma Potschke’ will be just lovely in a few weeks – and look, ‘Bela Lugosi’ will bloom any day now.”  It always seemed appropriate that a seductive little vampire cozied up to a bevvy of beauties.

I doubt throwing Bela Lugosi away would have solved the grass problem.  It seems oddly fitting that the grass and the daylily run their course together.  Both are tough as old boots and built to take a beating.  Bela is a far cry, however, from Hemerocallis fulva (often referred to as Ditch lily or Outhouse lily) which is often seen along the sides of rural roads, but its roots are identical in that they hold soil in place and prevent erosion.  

Those bright drifts of the semi-wild orange lilies floating in seas of tall grasses often mark the sites of old homesteads that are long gone.   Back in the 1790s many settlers brought the now ubiquitous orange flower to adorn their gardens and provide a touch of domestication for their new homes in a strange land.

Neither Hemerocallis “Bela Lugosi” nor Sorghum halepense is a native plant, nor are they prairie plants.  Bela is a Johnny-come-lately, a mere babe hybridized in 1995.  Still, in fantasy it is interesting to ponder their individual fates should they both be abandoned on a lonely 19th century farmstead.  We already know that Johnson grass would run roughshod, crowding native prairie plants, swarming over and under the land and into cultivated fields with its greedy, snaking, rhizomatous roots.  It is one of the most noxious weeds in the world. 

About Bela, we also know enough to say how he would perform.  He isn’t much of a vampire (unlike the Johnson grass), and he would never succeed the way that Hemerocallis fulva has.  Still, in true daylily fashion, he would put up a fight, his plump tuberous roots trying to make the most of scarce water.  His refined genes, however, would place him a far distant second to his common orange cousin, and he’d never achieve so grand a testament to his will to endure as “Outhouse Lily.” 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Words and Birds

I enjoy reading with birds around me.  A book in hand and a bird nearby make my day.  I love it when the shy birds come out after a noisy crowd of people has left the area and only I remain there.

At times, both reading and writing are troublesome for me.  I’ve always suspected that I have a mild form of dyslexia.  Words blur and resolve into their opposites; phrases stubbornly repeat but don’t settle into complete sentences; sometimes the stutter-stop action of words flickering on my brain but leading nowhere forces me to put books down altogether.  Writing is fraught with difficulty, too.  Organization is a perennial problem.  Sometimes my hands even type the wrong words, which always astonishes me.

A colleague of mine once masterfully intoned to me that he could read x number of words per minute and thus could calculate how long it would take him to complete a reading assignment.  Inwardly, my unruly mind boggled at this, atoms scattering like a cloud of starlings that had suddenly lost its trademark direction and cohesion.  Outwardly, I mustered the all-purpose (if vacuous) smile-and-nod.  How could he be so disciplined?  Did he really read at the same rate under any condition?  Even when I read what I call “study books” for my classes, my reading speed and trajectory vary wildly.  Who reads Annie Dillard at the same pace as a freshman textbook on argumentative structures?

X number of words per minute.  That phrase has caught in this sieve of a mind.  My reading pace is never constant.  The only constants are the presences of books and birds, and of time’s winged chariot hurrying on.  Most places I visit promise the possibility of seeing birds, sitting with them, and reading a book, even if I am inside a building and looking out.

The best times are when I sit until the birds grow comfortable with my presence.  I read on my patio, and they eat seed at the feeders or splash in the puddles left by the storms or pull fat worms from the lawn. 

On a farm, a nesting phoebe let me pull a lawn chair within spitting distance so that I could read while she incubated her eggs.  We both sat motionless, eyes turned toward each other, blinking in the nexus of our described spaces.

Perhaps reading with birds helps to calm the mind’s processing of words, and letters look less like moody winged seraphs taking off and more like clear signifiers winged with serifs.  Of course, reading is suspended when I meet the phoebe’s eye or watch a chickadee flitting in the bushes near where I sit. 

I go back and forth between book and bird.  Reading resumes when I spare the phoebe from my gaze or let the chickadee regard me as part of the patio.  Then they tolerate even the turn of pages or a shift in my position.

I both relish and distrust analogies about birds and reading, yet I often like to try them out.  In my own writing I worry that they will seem clever, as if I delight more in the analogy than the birds that prompted them or am using the birds for my own self-conscious enjoyment.

While I read, my mind flutters and skitters along like skirmishes of small birds along the shore of a pond, picking something up here and there, never for very long.  Occasionally, with a real page-turner, it kites along on one of those long skirling rides that the peregrine takes down the face of the sky.  Chain reading from one book to another echoes the way I train my binoculars trained on first this bird and then that at a slough teeming with mixed flocks during migration.  Books pile up on the floor around me, like the birds and their noisy entwined colloquy. 

 I long for the purposeful, light, and unerring maneuverability of a Cooper’s hawk, and wish to read down each last word in the order it was intended, much the way the raptor unflinchingly pursues the hapless finch through tangles and thickets.  I wish I could write as neatly, gracefully, and solidly as a hummingbird constructing her nest.  Lacking the efficiency and tidiness of either, I enjoy their proximity and, as is the wont of the human creature, fancy another's traits as my own.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stealing the Wrens

I’ve wanted to steal the wrens from my neighbors for a long time. The elderly couple does not live next door anymore, but have moved away to be close to their children.  I am happy for their good fortune in family but sad for my loss of their presence.  I always coveted their wrens, the way they trilled from deep in the ivy hedge, or scolded from atop the rose trellis, or popped in and out of the little birdhouse attached to the garage while Ellen weeded her flower garden.  

The neighbors two doors down have had wrens, too, which jauntily preach from atop a swinging birdhouse that hung from a pole.

It was a student in my Ecocriticism class last fall who emboldened me to change my ways and hang birdhouses in my yard.  In deep winter, he brought to class a wood duck box that he had made as part of his final project.  From a dingy classroom in the frozen north, he anticipated spring and summer and was full of hope that a wood duck family would set up shop along his stretch of the Red River. 

I’d already taken steps toward making my yard friendly for birds.  I set out birdbaths and planted shrubs and trees where the previous owners had, perversely, taken them all out.  But I’d stopped short of putting out birdseed, because my neighborhood is overrun with cats, including a swanky-looking Siamese that everyone has nicknamed “Killer” even though his real name is “Buzz.”

After my student presented his wood duck box to the class, I picked up a wren box and placed it out to weather the lean days of winter.  The no-frills plain box swung in the harsh winter wind and held steady with a load of snow on its rooftop.  

Dreams of stealing the neighbor’s wrens motivated my mid-February purchase of an “eco-friendly” wren box from Jeffers Pet.  

And at the height of wren anticipation in mid-May I impulsively bought a deluxe wren “log cabin” with a fancy skeleton key perch from a vendor at a bird festival.  The trio of boxes hangs above the flower garden by the garage.

In late May the male wren appeared, his bell-bright warble a dead give-away to his elfin return.  He fussed and prattled from the overgrown shrub by the three-season porch.  I stuffed a decrepit wren box in the heart of the shrub and fastened it tight with a fuzzy green pipecleaner.  He didn’t like it. 

I went away for a week, convinced that I had failed to entice the wrens.  When I returned, I dropped my bags in the front hallway, opened the windows, and sank into the couch.  A steady spree of burbling and bubbling emanated from the yard, and a male wren was showing his mate the three nest boxes by the garage.  In and out of each box she went, the male chattering all the while from atop the shepherd’s crook. 

I don’t know if the wrens have positively selected one of my boxes or if my boxes are merely a few among many that the male has chosen for his lady to inspect.  The male struggled to get a large twig into the no-frills box yesterday, and a quick peek reveals quite a nest pad cushioning its cavity.  This morning the yard is filled with the wrens’ cascading watery notes.  That’s more than my student can say about his wood duck box.  Last I heard, his wood ducks were merely “in the vicinity,” but his class project sits empty.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Lately I find myself rather like Thoreau, surveying all the farms (for I live in farm country) and appraising their assets while daydreaming of living in the country.  I drive slowly along the dirt roads, making offers, retracting them, testing the soil, pondering the foundations of the houses, orchestrating deals and undertaking renovations in my imagination.  

A glance in the rearview mirror sobers me up: the zigzagging tire tracks of my car would suggest to anyone that I am driving drunk or at the very least impaired.  Which, in a certain sense, I suppose I am:  impaired by imagination, impaired by nostalgia for a vanishing land.  Old abandoned farmsteads capture my fancy.  I muse: which place shall it be? what house seems ideal? if I woke up in the morning here, what would it be like?  These places just need a little TLC and duct tape to make them viable.

I do not wish to farm.  Indeed, if I see crops on or near the abandoned farmhouse, I quickly as possible return that land in my imagination to pre-ag days of prairie or mixed prairie plantings—grasses, reeds, scrubby bushes and twisty stunted trees.  “My” land would need to promise habitat for inhabitants other than me.  Ideally, the territory would be mixed: gnarly oak forest for the deer, a pond, slough, or pothole with reedy marsh full of cattails for the ducks, geese, and songbirds, and open savannah for the harriers to hunt and perform their sky dances.  An ecotone is exactly what I’d like.  An ecotone is a border zone, an area where two distinct habitats butt up against each other.  The grassland brushes up against the forest, and a marshy pond acts as a great resource for animals of both woodland and prairie zones.  The biological diversity of this transitional zone is great, greater than that found in either woodland or prairie on its own.

I particularly adore the Northern Harrier, a hawk I would never have noticed had I not moved to the Red River Valley some 19 years ago.  Even then my prejudice against the flat aspect of the land prevented me from noticing the harrier until nearly 13 years later.  And until the last month, I did not know what to do next with my growing interest in this fascinating hawk.  October found me in the basement digging through a box of my late father’s books.  Way always leads on to way when one sorts through books and after finding the book I came for my hands lit on a copy of Irish Nocturnes by  essayist Chris Arthur from Northern Ireland.  I started to read Arthur’s essays that morning, fascinated with his meditations about the corncrake and the kingfisher, and mesmerized by his handling of memory and time.  As I read his words I asked if could write more carefully about birds, too.  Could I pursue the harrier not only with a camera but also with words? And as way leads on to way, reading books led me to internet research about the harrier and yet another writer from Northern Ireland, Don Scott, and his fabulous monographs on the hen harrier. 

The harrier in Ireland is a rare creature, rather like the fabled unicorn.  Many people have never seen it.  Scott’s scientific research in The Hen Harrier -- In the Shadow of Slemish highlights the threats to harriers in County Antrim, N. Ireland:  merciless persecution by humans, overgrazing by sheep, loss of marshland and moorland due to agricultural practices, peat cutting, and wind turbines.  My own photographs reveal comparative practices in the United States that threaten our harriers.  Here are only a few of the potential threats to harriers and harrier territory:

Wind turbines, while generating energy, often kill birds who cannot see the white blades against a white sky:

Grazing from farm animals disrupts land that the ground-nesting harriers require:

Pumping water out of marshlands drains territory that the harriers require for nesting and hunting:

Cutting down and burning shelter belts decreases biodiversity in harrier country:

Burning sloughs to increase available cropland decreases biodiversity and reduces nesting and hunting territory:

Burning cattails near a slough to gain 20 feet of cropland takes away ever-diminishing requirements for a bio-diverse community:

The very ecotone zone that fuels my fantasies and fosters biological diversity is under threat.  In the upper Midwest, it sometimes seems that it would suit folks fine if the entire territory were put into endless agricultural fields relieved only by massive oil fields.  Damn the badlands, the prairie potholes, and the few stands of trees and shelterbelts left over from CCC days.  Flatten the land out; eliminate ecotones; banish diversity; view the land as only a commodity.

While harrier numbers in America are still high, they are on the decline due to habitat loss as a result of human activity.  The threats to harriers are equally threats to us all.  Way will lead onto way as my harrier watch changes under the influence of the work of two very different writers from N. Ireland.  I will write more carefully in the future, and I will continue shopping like Thoreau -- the only kind of shopping I intend to do on Black Friday in America.