Another Day, Another @#&%$*#* Moral Dilemma!

Okay, I like to feed the birds. Is that so wrong? Does everything have to be a #^$%@&*moral dilemma? I like to watch the little feathered critters. It lowers my blood pressure to see the juncos hop around in the snow on their absurdly short legs. It tickles me to watch the red-bellied woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker squabble over suet cake. It brightens the cold winter days to see a tree full of cardinals and hear the chirp of the wren.

Goldfinches brighten any day

Juncos in the Snow

A Tree Full of Color – Cardinals

 

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow Waits for his Turn

A Hairy Woodpecker Dismantles the Suet Cake

A Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Takes a Rare Rest

If It’s Cold and Snowy Enough Even the Pheasants will Deign to Dine with Us

A Mourning Dove Samples the Seed

A Barn Swallow – Not a Seed Eater but an Occasional Visitor

I spend a considerable sum of money every year on sunflower seeds, corn, thistle, and suet. I build feeders, I fill feeders, and I fix the damage inflicted by the raccoons and possums. I have reconciled myself to a certain amount of inconvenience from them. I actually watched a raccoon stand on his hind legs, tilt my hummingbird feeder, and pour its syrupy contents into his mouth like drinking a bottle of pop.

Leave some for the Birds

A Prehensile Tail Comes in Handy

I am not averse to feeding the possums, either. As the only marsupials in North America (In fact, almost the only ones outside of Australia) they are an interesting little novelty and we are lucky to get to see them. I can spare a few sunflower seeds for them.

The moral dilemma comes with another mammalian species which has started “using” my tender-heartedness for it’s own evil purposes. These are not merely mess-makers. They are cold-blooded killers.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old proverb “Love me, love my dog.” It means, according to the Oxford Dictionary “If you love someone, you must accept everything about them, even their faults or weaknesses.” Well, I love my wife and I love my daughters. I would even love their dog, if they had one. The proverb I have trouble with is “Love me, love my cat.”

I noticed a pile of feathers near the sidewalk, the other day and realized, to my distress, that one of my daughters’ outdoor cats had slaughtered (my emphasis) one of my beloved chickadees. Despite being well fed (to the tune of hundreds of dollars per year) these cats are carnivores and frequently kill local mice, voles, shrews, moles, baby rabbits, and even, once, a rat. I don’t, philosophically, have a problem with this. I know how the world works. I’ve seen The Lion King.

What I don’t appreciate is being an accomplice. I looked out the window this morning and saw our local Simba, a black and white cat named Poe (after Edgar Allan Poe. The female’s name is Lenore, of course.) Poe was crouched in the foliage of my clematis and stalking birds as they landed to eat at the feeder. I pounded on the window and shouted like a lunatic. I don’t know if it’s technically possible for a cat to smirk, but I swear to you, Poe looked up at me from his hiding spot and smirked. I ran outside and drove the little bugger away. He skulked off to the cover of the cedar tree but within minutes was back again, this time with a Harris Sparrow in his evil jaws.

The Killer

 

 

According to a 2013 scientific study published in the journal Nature Communications free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds per year. That’s billion, with a B. The researchers also estimate that cats kill 6.9-20.7 billion small mammals. Most people are sanguine with that if the 20.7 billion are beady-eyed, grain-eating, plague-ridden rats. What about 20.7 billion baby bunnies? Now it’s a genocide, right?

I can’t stop Poe and I’m not sure I possess the moral high ground here, anyway. I eat meat and I have been known to trap and kill mice and rats around the farm. Is killing a mouse morally defensible but not killing a Cardinal? What about a mole? What about a baby bunny? Why?

All I know is that I like birds. I like birds and I like feeding them and I didn’t want to make a whole god-damned thing out of this. It’s bad enough that I have to think about the fair-trade status of my coffee. I didn’t know feeding the birds would be a moral conundrum. Now I’ve got to decide; stop feeding the birds or kill some cats. It’s the circle of life, you know; cats, rats, bunnies, cardinals, they’re all the same, right?

 

Oh, come on! You know I’m not gonna kill the damn cats. A man can dream, though, can’t he?

by: Dustin Joy

The Boy in the Picture

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The Boy (there is not really a ten foot trout jumping up the waterfall.) My boy added that.

On the wall of my bedroom is a picture. It was given to me by my Mother who took it, had it enlarged, and had it framed. It is on the wall where I see it first thing in the morning when I swing my feet to the floor and stand up.

The picture is of a boy. The boy sits on a rock looking at a waterfall. Because I know a bit of the history of the picture I know that the rock and the waterfall and the boy are in Yellowstone National Park. The boy faces away, always, with his back turned to the camera. He is pensive, silent. It is clear to me that he doesn’t know about the camera. He is oblivious to everything around him but the waterfall. Waterfalls can do that.

The boy is a teenager. He is thin and gangly but not slouchy. He sits up straight (as his mother undoubtedly told him to) because he is a good boy. He is a good boy and he is a smart boy but his clothing reveals that he is not a “cool” boy. Here in the middle of a forest in the middle of a national park in the middle of the Summer he is wearing a button down shirt and blue jeans. His “cool” brother is undoubtedly clad in shorts and a t-shirt.

The boy sits on the rock watching the water flow down through the canyon and he holds his jacket folded in his lap. He is calm, you might say serene. He seems at ease here in a way that he is not anywhere else. Being here in nature, watching the simple, eternal cycle of water evaporating up and running back down gives him a respite from the ceaseless barrage of teenage thoughts and the endless interior monolog in his head. Here on this rock he can forget about the compulsion to behave and to do well and to study hard and to achieve great things. In this place he can stop the flow of hormone-driven nonsense that colors his view of the world and the other people in it; girls, jocks, bullies, teachers, adults. I think the boy on the rock, in that moment, wishes he could stop the relentless flow of time and sit there, if not forever, then at least a little bit longer.

I wake up every morning and I look at the boy sitting on the rock. There are times I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could tell him a few things that I know about the world but he doesn’t. I wish I could make his life easier. What would I tell him? I would tell him that a lot of the things he worries about just aren’t going to matter in a few years. I would tell him that some of the people in his life that he trusts or admires will let him down or hurt him. I would tell him what moves to make and perhaps what moves not to make in this great chess game called life. I would like to save him some grief. I would like to help him find more joy.

Mostly I would like to offer him some valuable knowledge that he will otherwise acquire through pain and embarrassment. There is so much a teenage boy thinks he knows that just isn’t so. His certitude primes him for disappointment and mistakes. He needs somebody who has experienced the world to help him navigate this perplexing place. But he won’t listen. He won’t hear it even though he is a good boy. He didn’t listen to his Mom or his Dad. He had to make the mistakes on his own. He is a silly stubborn boy!

All of us grizzled and jaded adults want to talk to the boy in the picture. We have seen suffering and we want to save him from it. We have tasted defeat and we want to rig the game in his favor. We have felt heartache and we want to help him dodge it. We want to trim the gristle off of life for him so he can enjoy the steak. But life is a marbled piece of meat. The good times and the bad times are inextricably intertwined. The people who give us the most pain are capable, at times, of giving us the most joy. Decisions which were clearly mistakes teach us something of value, even if it’s only the mundane lesson not to touch a hot stove a second time.

And if we could talk to the boy in the picture would we really know what to tell him? Have we learned anything true from our own experience? Would we tell him how to avoid our fate? As I lie in this bed snuggled against my wife, the absolute joy of my life, or stand silent in the hallway in the middle of the night listening to the most profoundly wonderful sound I will ever hear, my children’s breathing, I’m not so sure. Would I dare lead the boy away from a path which might be difficult but which will ultimately bring him to the warm place next to his soul mate, a woman who loves him and understands him and forgives him? Would I dare divert him even one degree from the true course that leads here, to this quiet hallway, to this bed?

When I consider, from the vantage point of age, what I would like to teach this boy about the world, I am troubled by a fleeting thought. What if the truth of the matter is this; I wish I didn’t know some of the things he doesn’t know. Sometimes I wish the boy could untell me things. I wish he could unteach me some of the bitter lessons I learned along the way. I wish he could teach me instead to trust people again. I wish he could help me forget all those things I know about the cruelty and greed and pettiness of other people. I wish he could teach me the pleasure of sitting on a rock.

The boy in the picture never changes. He is fifteen years old forever and there is no way I will ever teach him anything. But there may be, just possibly, a way for him to teach me a few things by his serene example. Maybe if I study the picture I can unlearn the cynicism and sarcasm that separates me sometimes from the ones I love. Maybe I can learn to forgive the people in my life who have let me down or disappointed me. Maybe I can learn, from the boy in the picture, how to just sit on a rock sometimes and let the world flow around me like a waterfall.

by: Dustin Joy

My Giant

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Before the fall

I love everything about where we live. Our farm has woods and creeks and trails and wildlife. We have farm fields and small sections of native prairie and peace and quiet. We can look up at night and see the stars. And we can pee in the back yard.

Of all the natural features of our farm there was always one that stood out as symbolic of the place. It towered above the rest metaphorically and actually. It was royal in its dignity and bearing. It captured my imagination the day I first laid eyes on it because it encompassed the spirit and the history of this farm.

A giant cottonwood tree is a marvel to behold. If you are inclined to like trees and value them as I do you cannot stand under such a massive living thing and not be stunned by its magnificence. To me the cottonwood is all the more astounding because of where it comes from, a tiny seed only a millimeter wide and light enough to drift on the wind with the help of its namesake cotton. There can be no clearer definition of the word fecundity than to hold this tiny seed in your hand and then look up into the canopy of a tree one-hundred feet tall with a trunk six feet across and know that the one came from the other.

My pet tree was a giant, indeed. It stood on the highest point of the hill north of my house (a bit unusual for a cottonwood, which prefer to keep their roots in moist soil). It was, I estimated, 85 feet tall and it had two main trunks each about 55 inches in diameter. The two trunks joined near the ground forming a main trunk which was easily 20 feet around. It had a crown that shaded a circle 80-90 feet wide. By doing some rudimentary estimates and using the Missouri Department of Conservation tree age calculator I figured this tree was 110 – 120 years old. Compensating for the tendency of many little trees to get gnawed by rabbits and mice or be stepped on by cows or rubbed by deer it is possible that the tiny little seed which spawned my giant fell in this spot around 1890. Where its parents stood I do not know. They were not necessarily giants themselves and may easily have been made into firewood or simply served as fodder for fungi.

In most cases a tree becomes a giant not because of its genetic superiority, although that helps, but because of the winds of fate and where they lay down the little seed. Even a giant doesn’t start out as a giant and little trees die by the millions in a variety of ways. Natural enemies abound. If you are a tree the aforementioned rabbits and mice take a big toll on you, as does weather. Too much rain in a given spot spells doom just as certainly as too little does. The buck deer rubs his antlers on you and the cattle (and before them the buffalo) graze upon you. If you survive long enough to grow tall the thunderstorm becomes your nemesis with wind to blow your limbs off and lightning to zap you. Finally, as sure as death and taxes, it is the insects and fungi who administer the coup de grace.

As with most natural things, the surest path to destruction is to merely be in the way; in the way of man. You will not find big cottonwoods, or anything else for that matter, in cornfields or pastures. If you do find one it is sure to be in an area that was too inconvenient to farm or pave or build upon. In a three mile radius around our farm I know of three truly giant cottonwoods and a handful of big cottonwoods that may, in time, become giants. In addition to these I know of a grove of truly big burr oak trees (probably each 100+ years old) and a single massive monster oak even older (150+?). The common denominator of these ancient trees is that each grows in a very inconvenient and inaccessible place. The giant cottonwood survivors that I know about grow hard against a steep hillside or virtually in the edge of a creek. My burr oak grove (a second treasure of our farm) stands along the crest of an unfarmably steep hill overlooking a creek. These trees did not contrive to find an undisturbed spot to grow. They are simply the ones (or one) of millions which did survive. The others were lost because their tiny little seeds landed out in the middle of a cornfield, or in a lush green lawn, or on the hard-packed shoulder of the highway. Man still determines such things. But nature will find nooks and crannies; even nooks and crannies big enough for a 100 foot tree.

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The David that ultimately took down a Goliath –  Bracket Fungi

It was the lethal combination of lightning and fungi that finally brought my giant down after 120 years of towering over this farm. It is testament to his strength that it took almost ten years after the fateful strike before my cottonwood lay prostrate in the ravine. I was home the night of the big storm and I heard the thunderclap as the bolt hit my tree. In the morning I went out to walk around the farm and assess the damage and I found bright, clean pieces of wood, some as much as two or three pounds, laying in the trail perhaps 100 feet from the big tree. When I looked up I could see a strip of wood about a foot wide and 50 feet long running from the base of the tree almost to the top of one of the larger west leaning branches. The strip of wood was six inches deep in places and appeared to have been exploded outward from the trunk of the tree. The exposed wood was clean and bright, not black or charred. The wound was enormous and deep. I figured that my pet tree would wilt and die in a short time. But it lived through that summer, and nine subsequent summers. The lightning had not killed it outright. It was very strong after 100+ years. But the ultimately fatal blow had been struck. What the lightning had done was to weaken the big tree and open its protective bark up which allowed the opportunistic insects and fungi to move in.

After a year I started to see signs that the western trunk was trying to close up the wound. There was growth of “scar tissue” around the lightning blown channel down the side. A tree can recover from quite a bit. But the old cottonwood could not close over a foot wide fifty foot long wound fast enough. By year three I saw the first bracket fungi growing along the gap in the bark. I saw wood boring beetles and carpenter ants beginning to make forays against the base. Higher up the stricken branch had died and did not put on leaves during year two. Other branches on the western trunk showed signs of weakness. During a windstorm the third year the outer ten feet of the stricken branch fell to the ground, the impact driving parts of it a foot into the earth. By year four woodpeckers had generated numerous holes in the top of the western trunk up high. There were more bracket fungi and, ominously, some of these were now present near the base of the eastern trunk.

By year five the eastern trunk was showing signs of failing, too, and I think this was the first year that the western trunk failed to put on leaves. Fungi now climbed higher along the western trunk and did not restrict themselves to the gaping wound area but were to be found near the junction of the two trunks opposite the wound.

Year seven confirmed my fear that the eastern trunk was not going to survive without its comrade. And, for the first time, I became convinced that the western trunk was essentially dead. It began to shed its branches with regularity. I moved one of my bee hives from under its shade to prevent its destruction by falling branches.

The wildlife, which are not subject to nostalgia, looked upon the dying tree as a godsend. The woodpeckers feasted upon the burrowing insects and their larvae. They bored holes in the dead branches which were then taken over by squirrels and made nesting cavities for other birds. For a while the taller branches were frequented by a bald eagle who found the high perch and lack of leaf cover agreeable for spotting prey. The hawks also relished this perch and I was happy to know that if I had lost my pet tree I could at least appreciate the red-tailed hawk’s breathy whistle on a summer afternoon. At length it was the insects who benefitted most from the lightning’s work. Unbeknownst to me they had penetrated the cottonwood’s interior and, along with the bracket fungi, had begun to eat out a cavity in the main trunk where the two branch trunks met, creating a cozy home, while it lasted. It lasted until last month.

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After the fall

I came home from a trip and made my usual tour of the property to check out my garden and my bee hive and my decaying and maintenance hungry house. Though I had known the big tree was failing I had not expected that it would fall down. I had thought that over many years the big trunks would die and the tree would shed its massive branches one by one until it was a ragged skeleton against the sky. But it was, in fact, the still living eastern trunk which finally gave up the ghost. While most of the dead western trunk was still standing the big eastern trunk with leaves still on it had crashed down into the ravine taking out several lesser trees in its fall. What I discovered was that the fungi and insects had hollowed out enough of the interior of the tree that, while it appeared strong and sturdy, the eastern trunk was standing by virtue of just a few inches of outer sapwood, the pith being dead and gone. It was not even a big storm that finally leveled my giant in heroic fashion. It was the slow but powerful effect of decay.

Cottonwoods generally live to an age of 70-100 years. There are reports of trees older than 200 years but this is rare. The cottonwood was never a commercially desirable tree. Though called a “hardwood” its timber is light and, one might say spongy. It does not burn satisfactorily like denser hardwoods and is not generally considered useful for carpentry or woodworking. They have been used for such crude purposes as the manufacture of transport pallets.

And cottonwoods have not always been welcome in polite company on farms and in the city. They are dioecious, like us, meaning that there are distinct male and female individuals that make up the population. The males produce catkins or flowers which release pollen in the spring. My giant tree was a male. But it is the female, whose catkins release huge quantities of seeds with their attached cotton, which often incurred the wrath of homeowners. A large adult female tree can release 48 million seeds in early summer. The resulting cotton can cover a yard, plug up gutters, and often blocked window screens in the days before air-conditioning.

Whatever their detractors might say cottonwoods have many superlatives. They have a remarkable growth rate like other poplar family members, nearly double that of oaks. Young cottonwoods often have a sustained growth of 5 feet per year, in some cases exceeding 10 feet. They were the perfect species to take advantage of the native prairies of the midwest and west, a dominant subspecies is even called the Plains Cottonwood. They possessed thick corky bark which was resistant to the prairie fires which kept the plains clear of other trees. They were adaptable to dry conditions and wet feet. When you drive through Nebraska or Kansas or Colorado you are likely to see cottonwoods, and only cottonwoods, in any low basin or dry creek bed. In fact, it is said that pioneers, used to the dense forests of the east, were cheered and relieved to see cottonwoods on the horizon since they indicated a source of fuel and shade and probably water in an otherwise vast expanse of sere empty space. That is probably why the cottonwood is the state tree of Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming.

I have liked to imagine my giant tree shading herds of bison and providing a perching and nesting site for passenger pigeons. These are probably fantasies merely. The bison were mostly extirpated from Illinois by about 1820, the last confirmed kills happening around 1809. There is a slight chance that a passenger pigeon perched, at some point, in my pet tree. Passenger pigeons could still be found in small numbers in Illinois into the mid-1890’s. One of the last known passenger pigeons in Illinois was shot in 1901 in Menard County. If my giant tree did not “see” the last passenger pigeons in our state some of its still-living cohort may well have.

At the very least this magnificent tree saw the births and deaths of generations of our community. It stood on it’s hill, withstanding wind and snow and lightning and rain, bearing silent witness to the comings and goings of men. It lived through the Great War, and the other Great War, and a hundred lesser wars since. It saw the Great Depression and the Cold War and the Farm Crisis of the 1980’s. It saw the Wright brother’s first flight and a man on the moon and I just took its final picture with my IPhone. All this time it stood silently on its hill and watched the world go by. Old things and old people are worth respecting and worth contemplating. We all become old things if we are lucky and if we do not gain wisdom we at least witness a lot of history. My giant cottonwood witnessed a lot of history. This link to our past is important, I think, even if you are not willing to call yourself a tree hugger.

 

by: Dustin Joy

Glacial Erratics

My Pet Rock

About ten years ago, I was operating the chisel plow on our farm in Western Illinois when the whole machine suddenly lurched and there was a loud bang from somewhere behind the tractor. I stopped and raised the implement out of the ground to see if there was any damage. What I discovered was a broken, but replaceable, shear bolt and partly buried in the newly worked soil, a big rock. The rock was unremarkable. It was grey, as many rocks seem to be, and round mostly, and scratched up, at least partly from being hit by a chisel plow. Its most remarkable feature was its size. We don’t see many this big around here. I made a half-hearted effort to kick it loose from the soil but discovered that gravity had a determined hold on it. It was not going to be kicked out of the way. I went on about my plowing and forgot about the rock.

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My Pet Rock

Our farm is not a “rocky” farm like you sometimes see in Minnesota. It has pretty good soil and is fairly productive by modern corn and soybean yield standards. This rock definitely didn’t belong. It was an alien. In the Fall, my daughter and I took a shovel and our little wagon and dug the rock out of the hillside. I could not lift it but, using the tilt mechanism, was able to roll it into the wagon’s bed and rotate it up into place. We hauled the rock up to our house yard and dumped it near our campfire ring as a place for kids to sit while roasting marshmallows. I didn’t think too much about the rock after that except that I did a little investigation to eliminate the enticing possibility that it was a meteorite. No such luck. A meteorite that big would be extremely interesting not to mention extremely valuable. But, despite being terrestrial, my “pet” rock, it turns out, has a name, and a story as interesting as any space rock. It is called a “Glacial Erratic” and it’s story is about geology and history and travel.

When I say Rock, I Mean Rock

For many years my family has taken an annual fishing trip to Lake of the Woods in Ontario, Canada. I love nearly everything about Lake of the Woods. The fishing is great, the people are friendly, the weather is generally cool and dry when ours is hot and humid. But the thing I really like about Lake of the Woods is the austere, almost harsh beauty of the place. It is a tough environment for both plants and animals. The winters are brutal and the insects can be fierce. But what makes Lake of the Woods a truly harsh place for life boils down to one thing, soil, or rather, the lack of soil. Plants don’t grow well without soil and animals do not live very well without plants.

Lake of the Woods is famous for rocks. The incautious boater can be skimming across Whitefish bay over 180 feet of water and a few seconds later can be surprised by the silence of his now absent outboard motor which has been sheared cleanly off the back of his boat by a boulder. The islands here are rock, the shorelines here are lined with rock, the houses here are built on top of rock. There are no wells. Septic tanks and drain fields simply don’t exist. Bedrock defines this place because that is what you can see.

When you spend a bit of time on Lake of the Woods you begin to notice interesting things about the terrain. One thing you notice, right off the bat, is that there is no dirt, or almost none. The reason you can see the bedrock, and hit it with your propeller for that matter, is that there is no dirt to cover it. When you pull up on an island to have a shore lunch you unload your snacks and cooler and so forth and you sit down on a rock to contemplate the beauty. What you notice, often, is that the rock you are resting on is itself resting on an enormous dome of granite sticking out of the lake. This rocky island frequently seems to be one big rock polished almost smooth across its surface but frequently bearing deep scratches, mostly parallel, and mostly aligned in a southwestward direction. This observation can be repeated all over northern Lake of the Woods and it gets a thoughtful person to thinking. As you ponder the scratches, and possibly scratch your own head, you might begin to contemplate the big round rock you are sitting on. It doesn’t seem to belong in this spot any more than a big, roundish, grey rock belongs in an Illinois cornfield. It is rock, of course, much like the island it sits on. But it is different in color and texture and appearance from the rock of the island. And it sits so oddly upon this smooth dome of rock that it appears to have been dropped here by some larger power as a sort of practical joke. The out of place rocks here and in Illinois were indeed placed by a larger power, larger than us, anyway. They are, quite literally, out of place. And they both share that same unusual name, “Glacial Erratic.”

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A Lake of the Woods island showing the effects of glaciers

As we sit upon this glacial erratic and nibble a piece of cold walleye, our thoughts turn back to the mystery of the missing soil. We ask ourselves questions. Where is the soil? Was it ever here? What could possibly move so much soil and scour the rocks so clean?  The answers are quite interesting. The soil that is not here on the Canadian shield did not disappear, it was hauled away and with it many, many little grey rocks. The soil, and the gravel, and the rocks were moved, as it turns out, to Illinois. The fertility which we do not find in northwestern Ontario is now producing 200 bushel/acre corn near Rockford. Left behind are rocky islands covered with scratch marks and an occasional giant boulder sitting incongruously atop a flat bedrock shelf. The trees which make up the “woods” of Lake of the Woods must make do with wind-borne accumulations of dirt which have collected in cracks in the rock. Limited in nutrients and susceptible to erosion these little “planters” make poor growing places but, as I noted in my essay The Sycamore, nature makes use of whatever is available to it. The trees here do grow tall, but they do it very slowly. Often there is not enough soil on a barren rock to hold up a sixty foot pine in a wind storm. You can see examples all over the lake of horizontal trees with their entire root ball and attached soil thrust up into the air.

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An Excellent Photo by my Aunt, Judi Roberts, shows exactly what I’m describing here. Notice how this 50 foot pine grew from just a few inches of soil. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.

A Larger Power

If you can picture in your minds-eye a mountain of ice nearly a mile thick where Chicago sits today, you have a better imagination than me. And yet, during the Illinois Glacial Episode (About 125,000 – 300,000 years ago) and the Wisconsin Glacial Episode (About 10,000 – 25,000 years ago) such was the state of affairs in our neck of the woods. During the height of the Illinois glaciation ice sheets hundreds of feet thick extended all the way to Carbondale. This was the farthest south glaciers ever penetrated in North America. The ice covered nearly 90% of what is now the Prairie State sparing only extreme southern Illinois and some high elevation areas near Galena. Up in Canada these ice sheets grew thicker yet, up to 8,000 feet deep in places. (Think of 125,000 years of snow falling but never melting). This dome of ice thickened and as it thickened the weight of the ice and snow compressed the earth beneath it and caused it’s lower margins to be pushed outward and begin to “slide.” This movement ultimately became a glacial front pushing relentlessly southward, sometimes at a third of a mile per year, like an unbelievable bulldozer. These lobes of ice representing billions of tons of pressure scoured the surface of the land in what is now the Canadian Shield (places like Lake of the Woods). The expanding glacier carried away the soil and through a process called “plucking” quarried out and picked up great rocks and boulders and ground them along the bedrock, rounding and polishing them and leaving parallel scratches on the rocky islands of Lake of the Woods. Smaller stones were ground into pebbles, pebbles were ground into sand and sand was ground into fine particles of clay. Moving southward over Canada and Minnesota and Wisconsin and the basin of Lake Michigan these glaciers accumulated great “loads” of soil and rock. This load of material and debris is called “drift.”

The bulldozer/glacier analogy is imperfect. Although glacial fronts did “plow” rock and soil ahead of them much like a bulldozer a great deal of the drift was ultimately carried inside the glacier. Glaciers are ice, after all, and subject to freezing and thawing cycles. Most boulder “plucking,” for example was caused by melt water beneath the glacier freezing in cracks in the bedrock below and splitting off pieces which became imbedded in the overrunning ice. Sometimes landslides from nearby higher elevations fell onto the top of a glacier and were carried along, not in front of the dozer, but far back along the glacier’s side.

And there was not one massive dozer of a glacier which pushed down to Carbondale, Illinois and then disappeared. At least four, and possibly eight, times Illinois was partly or mostly covered with ice. Even these measurable events did not represent single glacial fronts, but many lobes advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. When the temperature fell over a long period the ice would advance and the bulldozer effect would be an apt description. When temperatures rose, the ice would melt back leaving a ridge of soil and debris called a moraine. Though you may never have noticed them, Illinois is covered by moraines. The moraines southwest of Chicago left behind by the last Wisconsin glaciation event are the most prominent in the state. And glaciers don’t just melt on the southern leading edge; they melt on top, also. At times great rivers of melt-water flowed on and over the glacier itself, carrying their own loads of soil and flowing down into crevasses in the ice to emerge from under the glacier. In some places, the gravel and sand carried across and through the ice by these melt-water streams ultimately settled to earth to form gravelly ridges called eskers.

Making Topsoil

Ultimately the glaciers did retreat. They melted and the drift they carried was dropped on the sandstone and shale underlying Illinois. This “dropped drift” is called “till” and it is estimated that this till layer made up of soil, gravel, clay, pebbles and rocks, covers nearly 90% of the state and averages 100 feet deep. It can, in places reach 500 feet. When we drilled a water well at our house some years ago, the driller went down 485 feet to find the purest drinking water. It is this layer of drift which filters our water.

Glaciers did not merely drop their load. The enormous volume of water generated by melting hundreds or thousands of feet of ice moved soil, too. As water flowed out from the glacier, it carved great valleys and small stream beds. The present course of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio rivers were determined by glacier outwash. As the melt-water ebbed, and the sediment left in the smaller stream beds and larger valleys dried out, the wind tended to pick up the smaller, lighter particles and scatter them across the thick layer of drift. This fine soil is called loess and it covers much of Illinois, often to a depth of 20 feet.

Farmers today often think of themselves as stewards of the soil. This is, indeed a noble idea. But the amazing fertility which makes Illinois a “rich” state is only marginally related to agricultural practices. Illinois’ amazing crop yields and subsequent wealth (The average price for an acre of farmland in Illinois in 2014 was $7,700) are a direct result of this glacial windfall (loess being literally a windfall). Rich till and loess hundreds of feet deep were the perfect substrate for the forbs and grasses which ultimately covered Illinois and made it The Prairie State. Thousands of years worth of living and dying prairie plants generated thousands of years worth of organic matter which was stored up in the form of rich, black topsoil which now grows 200 bushels of corn per acre.

And what of Canada? Our gain, crop-wise, was their loss. You cannot grow corn, or much of anything, on a rock. But while row upon row of golden cornstalks reaching to the horizon do have a certain esthetic beauty, a bald eagle, perched on a pine tree does, too. If the Canadian Shield had kept its soil the austere beauty of Lake of the Woods that I appreciate now might have been simply a continuation of the vast wheat fields of Saskatchewan further west. I guess I like the way things turned out.

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A Bald Eagle perches on a Glacial Erratic – Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada

The Wanderer

A glacial erratic is a rock that differs from the size or type native to the area in which it is found. It can be as small as a pebble or as large as a house. The name erratic comes from the latin term errare which means to wander or go astray. I like that. I like to think of my little glacial erratic as I sit by the campfire. I like to imagine my pet rock being liberated from some shelf along the shores of Lake of the Woods and rolled and rounded in the belly of a mighty glacier for hundreds of miles across Minnesota and Wisconsin. And I like to imagine standing on the terminal moraine of this glacier as it slowly melts and recedes, leaving a hill which today comprises our cornfield. On the crest of the moraine sits a little rock left behind by the ice. It is covered, over time, with windblown loess from the nearby “new” Mississippi River. Generations of men plow this soil and plant corn and pick corn and plant again until one day a young man on a John Deere tractor plows deep enough to bring the little rock to the surface again.

The Philosophy Bit

My Mom and I sometimes like to look up into the night sky and watch for meteors. There is something about witnessing these little wanderers that makes one feel simultaneously very small, but also very lucky. We feel small because compared to the scale of the galaxy our little soap opera represents nothing. We are a blip in both time and space and the things that we worry so much about mean nothing to the universe. But we are lucky, too. And we are special, in a way. When my Mom and I sit outside at midnight watching for a falling star we are witnesses to nature’s power. We, unlike any other creature or thing, have the unique ability to see, understand, and assimilate these wonderful forces that swirl all around us. In his poem The Star Splitter Robert Frost says “The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see.” I think there is something in that. Whether it be a falling star or a rock carried by a glacier the world, and indeed the universe, is filled with things worth seeing and worth trying to understand. Until I learned a bit about glacial erratics I knew next to nothing about this farm we live on and why it is so good. I did not know why the Lake of the Woods was so beautiful.

Does it benefit our appreciation to also understand? I think it does. I think I appreciate things more when I can comprehend also the amazing power and endurance and scale of this incredible world. It is a cool place and it is worth knowing. Sometimes that starts with a little grey rock.

 

Text by: Dustin Joy

Photos by: Judi Roberts and Dustin Joy

Back Soon!

Sorry folks,

I realize I haven’t posted for a little while. In fact I’ve been up in Canada with my family on a little vacation fishing trip to Lake of the Woods. To me it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet. In fact, the home page picture from my blog is one of mine that I took on Whitefish Bay of Lake of the Woods a couple of years ago. We had a great time this year, the weather was beautiful, and we caught a few fish. I should be back in the swing of things this week. In the meantime I will try to back up my statement above about Lake of the Woods with a few photos from this year

Dustin

 

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Sex in the Garden

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Facilitated sex – A Honeybee making future Jack-o-Lanterns

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Lewd Tendrils – Green beans have sex, too.

I am officially on vacation! So why, you might ask, am I out walking around in my yard at 6:30 in the morning instead of curled up in bed as my sweet and sensible wife is? Well, two reasons really. Firstly, I like getting outside in the morning to hear the wrens chirp, the cardinals sing, and the pheasants crow. It is one of the rare times of the day where nature has the upper hand on man and it is interesting to see what it feels like to be “just another guy” in this vast and complicated community. And, secondly, I have been getting up at 4:30 AM Central time every day of my last four-day trip and for some reason, as I get older, it is hard to adjust the knob on that old internal clock. But as my retired dad, who insists every day is Saturday, can tell you, there are compensations for getting older, too.

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Corn Sex – Okay, not that titillating, but apparently effective.

What I found in my garden,  yard and little prairie this morning was nothing short of disgusting. There were brazen exhibitions of sex everywhere with plants openly fornicating with each other, lewd tendrils and vines slithering everywhere, insects “getting it on” or trying to, and pollen enough everywhere to literally make your eyes water.

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Cowbirds – The lazy coworker of birds.

People talk a lot about Spring but this is truly the exuberant time of the year. It is when the plants and animals live it up (I’m thinking of those raccoons who harvest my sweet corn for me just about one day before it is perfectly ripe) and the more sober members of the community (honeybees) work their little tails off saving up for the long Winter ahead.

I find these plants and animals to be uncanny metaphors for a lot of the people we encounter every day. You have the spendthrifts who live on the edge of solvency and depend on the good will and hard work of others. We all have coworkers like this cowbird who lays her eggs in the carefully constructed and maintained nest of another bird and lets the other couple raise her young.

There are the careful and diligent savers, like the honeybees, who “make hay while the sun shines” and set aside part of their bounty for that cold and rainy day to come.

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The Thrifty Savers – Honeybees wait anxiously to get the day started. Note the cluster near the entrance fanning their wings to move air through the hive and evaporate the nectar into honey.

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Exuberant Humping in the Yard!!! Okay, so maybe that is an overly sensational caption, but even moles need love.

We have the extrovert; the tiny little Wren who sings exuberantly from whatever stage he can find. And then there is the hermit- the mole who humps up mounds in my yard but makes his solitary way, never showing his face in public.

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Prairie Sex – Even plants use many different pick-up lines.

There are the heartless killers: the spiders, the snakes, mantis. And there are the useless parasites on society. Owww! Damn mosquitos!

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Making the beast with two backs (and twelve legs) – Japanese Beetles doing what Japanese Beetles do (unfortunately!)

And finally, there are the “twenty-seven club” members of our natural community who live fast and die young; mayflies and Japanese Beetles come to mind.

But whether these creatures are borrowers or lenders, shining stars or wallflowers, this time of year is truly when nature’s fancy turns to thoughts of sex. Not all, but most, creatures and plants have figured out that exchanging DNA is a pretty good strategy for perpetuating the species and maybe a bit of fun, too.

by: Dustin Joy

all photos by: Dustin Joy

Spiders, Ewwwww!

Design
by Robert Frost (1922)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

I have an illogical prejudice against spiders. I’m not sure I understand it myself. Other bugs? I can take them or leave them. As a beekeeper, I have been stung by bees on occasion. As a fisherman, especially one who spends time in Canada, I have donated a pint or two to those !@#$% mosquito bloodsuckers. My kids and I all love snakes and it is treat for us when we spot a Milk Snake or Garter in our yard, especially if we can catch it. Centipedes, O.K., pushing the limit a bit, but I can deal with that. I even had a 5” long praying mantis land on my arm once and only levitated a few feet above the ground. But let a spider run up my leg and, much like the Roadrunner, there is a puff of smoke in the shape of me and I am gone.

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Not all girls are afraid of snakes

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A cute little creepy-crawly – A Tiger Salamander from our yard

Most creepy crawlers don’t bother me and, indeed, some I really enjoy. My daughter and I were elated to find a tiger salamander crossing our road one rainy day and we inconvenienced him for some time with our examinations before sending him on his way. I even walked out on my patio in Florida one morning and was excited to find a Coral Snake casually crossing our threshold. Google Coral Snake to appreciate just how momentous that was.

There is something about spiders, though, that I literally can’t put my finger on. (Won’t put my finger on.) I could say “they are killers.” And they are killers, quite skillful and remorseless killers. But that cannot be the sum of it. As I said, I love snakes and they are, by definition, cold-blooded killers.

How about the mantis? These gals are such callous assassins that they make the Terminator look like Wall-E. They not only eat other insects alive, they eat their own mates alive. As a husband I just can’t sanction that sort of behavior. Check out photo below to see one of these ladies depopulating my bee hive one morning. She would sit up on the landing board and pluck bees right out of the air with her lightning reflexes as they approached the hive. Then she would carry them down below and chew their heads off. A real sweetie.

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A Killing Machine – A Large Female Mantis stealing my honey, indirectly. Of course I was kind of stealing it from them first.

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Eaten alive – Funny, they didn’t show this in the Lion King! (notice the fly whistling past the graveyard)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I can appreciate the beauty and efficiency of the mantis and the snake and the peregrine falcon . These are all amazing creatures at the apex of an evolutionary pyramid millions of years old. The fact that the little brown bat darting over my head last night can weave in and out among the trees and catch mosquitos on the wing by bouncing sound waves off of them is an achievement I can hardly fathom. Spiders’ strategies are just as remarkable. I have decided that I must come to terms with these amazing hunters. Firstly, of course, so that I don’t look like a sissy every time I encounter one and secondly because they deserve our grudging respect and yes, appreciation. I have almost never been injured by a spider but the insects they dispatch have done me and my garden much personal harm.

I got up early this morning while the dew was still on and took a walk around our yard. The first thing I noticed, aside from a mosquito bite, was the pattern of funnel shaped webs scattered about in the grass. I suspect they are probably there every morning during the summer months. The water droplets from the heavy dew really made them stick out today, however. The webs are the endless work of the aptly named Grass Spider or funnel web spider (Genus Agelenopsis).

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Grass Spider or Funnel Web Spider – lying in wait

Aside here: one has to admire the logical minimalism of spider names. There is the above mentioned creature who lives in the grass and builds funnel-shaped webs. In addition, in Illinois, we have the Black and Yellow Garden Spider which is, get this, black and yellow and lives in the garden. We have the Crab Spider (more about him later) who looks like a crab, the Ant Mimic Spider which looks very much like an ant, the Long Legged Sac spider which has a big sac-shaped abdomen and, yep, long legs. Knowing how descriptive spider naming conventions are could lead to some arachnophobia if one thinks about it. For example, also in Illinois we have the Spitting Spider, the Jumping Spider, the Grey Wall Jumper, the Black Widow, and the ominously-named Mouse Spider (How the hell big is that thing? Does it eat mice? Is it as big as a mouse? Ewwwwww!)

As research for this post, I decided I would try to identify all the spiders I see around our place. There is, of course, the Common House Spider (real imagination in naming that one.) The most common (by a factor of 10) spider that I see in our house, though, is a wispy, frail looking little spider that I find in our cellar anytime I want to look. They have long-thin legs, a long body, and they hang around up in the joists on disorganized, sort of drunken-looking webs, and don’t seem to do much. I went to some effort in my search, finally discovering the very cool website www.spiders.us. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this long-bodied spider living in my cellar is called – The Long-Bodied Cellar Spider.

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The Long Bodied Cellar Spider – very descriptive

Okay, back to the Grass Spider. Their little funnels are marvels of architecture and each one I saw was designed to interact with and accommodate its local geography. Each had a large platform of web, roughly horizontal and, at one end, a funnel-shaped hole disappearing down into the grass. If one looks closely he is able to see the small spider sitting down in the aperture waiting patiently. Grass Spider webs, unlike those of most species, are not sticky. They are not meant to trap the prey and hold them, but to transmit the subtle vibrations of insects which walk across them. The Grass Spider, who is incredibly fast, does the “leg work,” dashing out to grab the unfortunate victim and administer the fatal bite. There is not much about this evolutionary masterpiece to evoke our human sympathy. The famous song from the Lion King inadequately prepares us for the real “Circle of Life” and how it works. This little predator does a lot of heavy lifting for us and our instinctual response is, once again, Ewwwww!

I like to come out in the early morning when the birds first begin their chorus and walk around doing nothing in particular other than trying to be an observer. This is a challenge for someone whose wife actually coined the word “Non-payattentional” to describe him. Still, every once in awhile I spot something cool. One morning I came out to water the petunias growing in our big cauldron at the end of the sidewalk. What I found was akin to the horror described in Frost’s poem and was, indeed, probably the same creature. Since a picture is worth a thousand words here is the picture:

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Welcome!

Imagine yourself the size of a honeybee and approaching this pretty flower hoping for a payoff of nectar. Here, lying in wait, is this little monster ready to draw you into it’s warm embrace. This is the Crab Spider and again, evolution has produced an efficient killing machine here. So effective are these spiders at using camouflage to their advantage that they can actually change to accommodate the flowers they use. spiders.us says,

“This species is one of the few spiders in North America that are capable of actively changing their body color from yellow to white, or vice versa, depending on the flower they are perched on. They do this by transferring a liquid pigmented material to the cuticle.”

Apparently purple was outside this spider’s repertoire. Still, he blends in pretty well here, looking very much like the stamen of the petunia. Again, a grudging admiration is in order here.

Finally we have the Wolf Spider. This is probably the “scariest” spider we regularly encounter in Illinois. They are active “hunting” spiders who do not spin webs but, like the Grass Spiders lie in wait in a shallow hole in the ground and then pounce on any appropriately-sized prey who happens by (unnerving note: This can include small rodents.) They are the quintessential “scare the crap out of you” spiders. They are big and hairy and have long legs and, in one of the more creepy and odd reproductive strategies in nature, the female carries her hundreds of creepy-crawly babies around on her abdomen for a considerable time during their development. Again, below is a thousand-word photo taken by my Dad of a wolf spider in her den. Perhaps this picture illustrates the reason people fear spiders better than any other.

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Care for some spelunking?

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That’s OK, I’ll come out to get you, I mean eat you , I mean meet you.

Why do we, and in particular, I, get creeped out by spiders. Why can I pick up a snake or handle beehive frames swarming with honeybees but will almost reflexively “squish” a wolf spider that walks across the sidewalk? I really think, in the final analysis, that it is a matter of eyes. A creature with eight legs is one thing. A creature with eight eyes is quite another. There are very few animals in the world who are not “binocular,” like ourselves.

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As open-minded as you might be, if this picture doesn’t give you the willies you are a better person than I am.

Jellyfish, scallops, and starfish have multiple “light-sensing” organs. Some reptiles and amphibians have a remnant “third eye” which is sensitive to changes in light and dark but does not form images. But almost no other creature in nature has the obvious “creepy” grouping of six or eight eyes which are quite clearly eyes. It is hard when you are looking at them not to have a sense that they are looking at you even more intently.

Many other animals bear differences from our family of bipedal, semi-hairy, semi-intelligent mammals. Frogs are different from us in every way, from metamorphosis to the simple fact of greenness. Snakes are cold-blooded killers as we mentioned before. Even our beloved cats will rip the throat out of a cute little bunny rabbit when given the chance (funny they didn’t show that in the Lion King.) I think it must be these weird, foreign eyes that prejudice us against spiders. We cannot conceive of looking at the world from eight different angles at once. Nothing on earth looks so much like our conception of an alien as a spider does. Add onto that their proclivity for killing and skulking around in dark places and they are the perfect spook.

With the right point of view, we might realize that this diversity is what makes nature so interesting and worthwhile. Like with so much of nature, I think it behooves us to learn more about spiders and to try to deprogram our Ewwwww! response a bit, and make an effort to appreciate these amazing and versatile killing machines. At least keep an eye or two (or eight) on them.

By: Dustin Joy

photos by: Dustin Joy and Richard Joy

Weeds

My Little Prairie Plot — Coneflowers, Bergamots, Queen-Anne’s Lace, Black-Eyed Susans, and many others.

When one considers nature the dominant color is green. It is the floras of the world that provide the stage for the dramas of their more animate cousins. Unless you live on a polar ice cap or the remotest reaches of the desert the primary backdrop to all your activities consists of plants. Their presence is so ubiquitous that we generally do not even notice them. We take them for granted. Plants do not capture our attention easily. Until a tree falls on our house or poison ivy plays its cruel trick upon us we mostly see the world of plants as a green blur. They are not cuddly like puppies; they do not speak, bark, or purr. They are as indifferent to our existence as we to theirs. To us they are, as a group, Weeds. And yet without their activities we would perish. They feed us, clothe us, provide us with oxygen to breath, and lift our spirits with their brilliant flowers. So why weeds? A few years ago my daughter gave me something to think about on this topic.

I was spraying musk thistles in the little pasture south of my house. This import from the old world has invaded our farm with a vengeance. Like most thistles this one is characterized by spiny leaves. Unlike many other thistles the musk thistle also contains spiny bracts around the circumference of its purple flower head. It is truly a marvel of plant evolution; a fully armored plant. None molest the musk thistle without sustaining injury himself. Even if one succeeds in grasping the thistle with enough force to uproot it, it sacrifices part of itself for ultimate survival. Its long taproot inevitably breaks off, like a dandelion, at the surface of the soil. The plant withers and dies, but the taproot sends up another shoot and starts all over again. It is the thistle’s spiny defenses that make him unwelcome in the yard, and his tenacity that wear out his welcome in the garden. And though tenacity is a virtue in human beings we have little admiration for the obvious pinnacle of evolution represented by the thistle. My daughter made me “see” the thistle that day in the pasture as I was spraying them with Roundup.

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The Musk Thistle – A Fully Armored Plant

“Whatcha doin Daddy?” she asked as she ran across the pasture to observe me. I told her I was spraying weeds. “Those are thistles,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m spraying thistles.” “Are thistles weeds Daddy?” “Well yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Are dandelions weeds?” “Well yeah, I guess they are.” “Are roses weeds?” “Well, no, roses aren’t weeds.” “But Daddy, you sprayed those roses the other day.” “I never sprayed roses, did I?” “Those pretty roses down the trail.”

I had to think about it a minute. Then I remembered. I had sprayed roses; multi-flora roses. Multi-flora rose is a pernicious weed introduced by farmers as a natural fence. Good intentions soon led to problems as multi-flora rose galloped over the countryside filling pastures with impenetrable thickets of thorns. Soon farmers were fighting a hopeless battle to undo the damage. Today this pretty white relative of domesticated roses is a fact of life – a highly evolved, highly successful weed.”

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A Teasel – Evolution at Work Again

“So, Daddy,” she said, “What’s a weed.” She had me there. No matter what ground rules I laid down in my mind to separate flowers from weeds there was always an exception. Let’s try a few:

Thistle – Weed, right. Even though their seeds are valued by birds for food.

Dandelion – Weed. Yet they are quite pretty . You can make wine from them or use their greens for salad.

Jimson Weed – Even named Weed, must be a weed. But few cultivated blooms rival the beautiful flower of this tough weed.

Corn – Ha. Ha. That’s not a weed. But ask a farmer with a soybean field full of volunteer corn. Farmers spend millions of dollars a year to defeat the dastardly weed – Corn.

So what are we to conclude. A weed is merely a plant growing where it is not wanted. There is no other difference.

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Chicory – A Weed, Right?

My father once asked a nursery owner for chicory seeds. “Why that’s just a weed,” came back the quick reply. In a sense it is. Chicory grows along most of the roads in our area. It is tenacious, pushing its way up though gravel beds that other plants cannot begin to breach. For a brief span in the Summer it seems that chicory is everywhere. Of course the plants are there for much longer. It is only when the brilliant cornflower blue blooms unfold that one takes notice of chicory. The way they light up the roadways at that time of the year you would think the Chamber of Commerce had hired a landscaper. But the chicory offers up this service for free, no contracts, no bids. It only requires the use of some unused space for a few weeks. Not a bad deal. If you don’t mind doing business with a weed.

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Some of “My” Compass Plants

In my part of Rock Island County I have identified 5 patches of Compass Plant. These patches represent a few tiny islands in the vast sea of corn and beans that Illinois now represents. They are minute representations of what Illinois used to be. The vast rolling prairies which gave Illinois its nickname, “The Prairie State,” and its fertile soil are reduced now to these roadside refuges. They have not been spared on purpose. Their savior is the County road crew’s restrictive budget. They can only afford to mow these roadsides once or twice a year. The compass plants spend two months building long notched leaves and finally, in mid July start growing a tall vertical flower stalk, sometimes 7 feet tall. On the top forms a series of pretty sunflower looking blooms. Then, just as they are forming their seeds the road crew or local farmers mow the road banks. The compass plants in the patches, along with the black eyed susans, wild bergamots, and teasels start over, pushing up a new crop of green leaves and finally, a less robust flower stalk. Smaller, and shorter, this new flower stalk sometimes sets new blooms about the time of the second mowing. In our area that is all the road crew can afford. It has not been enough to obliterate the tiny islands of prairie, but they are not getting any bigger. Since I have been watching them, about ten years, they seem to shrink a little each year. A couple of the patches eluded the mowers several times because they are on steep slopes. But about every other year they too get cropped by some diligent public servant who is justly proud of his skill, precariously edging the tractor up until it teeters on two wheels.

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Compass Plant Refuge – It’s too steep to mow

Please don’t think I am disparaging these workers. Until a few years ago I didn’t see the compass plants, either, even though I drove past them hundreds of times. I didn’t see them because they were not a personality to me. They were part of the blurry green backdrop of my life; grass and weeds. They became real to me, individuated, because of a book I read by Mr. Aldo Leopold; A Sand County Almanac. Since reading the chapter called A Prairie Birthday I have learned to see many different plants that were once just weeds to me. I have learned to know something of their habits.

Knowledge of something brings a sense of ownership and I now own some of these beautiful plants even though they are on another man’s property. In this way we all own the natural bounty around us. Sometimes I wonder how I will feel if “my” compass plants finally succumb. I suppose I will feel sad, but that is not the true emotion. I will feel robbed. That is what this ownership of nature is all about. That is the only way to save a piece of nature in this busy world. We must own it in our hearts and see its destruction as a violation of something inside of us. People who mow compass plants or build high rise condos on top of wetlands are not to blame for their actions. To them they destroy nothing because they see nothing to destroy. In their minds they are building. They do not own the nature around them because they do not see it. The challenge of all environmentalists must be to help people see. We must share our sense of the beauty around us and when other people begin to see the world around them as a personality, they will care, and they will save it. As Leopold said, “We grieve for what we know.”

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Dutchman’s Breeches in woods on our farm

Part of our farm today is a nature preserve by virtue of its inconvenience. Ditches and wet patches and narrow necks of fields are too troublesome to farm, especially as machinery gets bigger and bigger for efficiency. Most wild areas remaining on Earth today are such. They have not been farmed over, grazed over, paved over, or drained only because it is too hard to do so at this time. Such areas will continue to shrink, as they have for generations. Inaccessibility is slowly overcome by technology and the economic feasibility of such development increases as more easily developed areas are exhausted.

When I fly over America I see this slow, relentless process wherever I go. I notice it in North Carolina, a state once almost completely forested in the western parts. Now, as you fly into Raleigh or Greensboro you still see big expanses of trees but you also see unexpected “cutouts” throughout these forests where housing developers have bulldozed the “big trees”, built houses, then planted “little trees” in the yards.

When you fly over West Virginia you are amazed by the endless, rolling mountains covered uniformly by dark green forest. I have sometimes said that if you could pound West Virginia out flat it would be as big as Alaska because there is not a flat spot in it. But I have to revise that a bit because when you fly over this amazing pristine maze of mountains and valleys today there are flat spots. There are barren, “dirty-looking” areas where entire mountaintops have been bulldozed down into the adjacent ravines. This is called, aptly enough, mountaintop-removal coal mining and from 37,000 feet it sticks out like a sore thumb in West Virginia.

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A Weed? – Purple Coneflower with bumblebee

When you fly over what used to be the austere grandeur of the vast western plains of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming you are struck by how the landscape, even again from 37,000 feet, looks geometrical; man-made. And, as it turns out, it is. the terrain in western Kansas and eastern Colorado is now made up of vast circles; center pivot irrigation systems, dotted with hundreds of rectangular gravel pads; oil and gas wells.

For now, midwest farms, and the southeast forest, and the hills of West Virginia, and the plains of Colorado are still a haven for the wild animals and plants that once made up all of America. Despite the necessity of feeding the human race, and lighting our homes, and fueling our cars and, yes airplanes, we still have space left for plants and animals and even beautiful vistas. We might think of these things, and value them, in the same way we do these other crops and commodities.

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Weeds in Winter – My Prairie

We harvest from them a crop as valuable as corn or soybeans or coal or oil. These places have value because they lift our spirits, refresh our souls, connect us to the past, and renew our connection to the Earth. We harvest this crop not once in the Fall but continuously throughout four seasons. It is ours to harvest even though we did not plant it. It is not diminished no matter how often it is reaped.

If you love the land, if protecting it is your goal, there are only two possible avenues to pursue. You can individually or collectively buy land and manage it for wildlife. The efforts of organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy are prime examples of the success of this approach. Such a process, is however, obviously limited. There is too much land and too few resources available for such efforts.

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Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot) – A Pretty Immigrant

The other choice is to teach people who own land to love it and respect it as we do. It need not be a hard sale. Most of the people, farmers and ranchers, who dislike environmentalists, don’t hate the environment. There is a reason farmers live in the country. There is a reason most of them would shrivel and die in the city. It is precisely because farmers love the land that they choose to be farmers and live on the land. And the farmers I know, like most people, will do what they can to protect the land if they know how.

Each one of you will find nature to love and nature to nurture no matter where you live. The other day in the heart of St. Louis I stood beside a drainage ditch which had been built to receive wastewater from a parking lot. In the wide ditch I counted some 50 species of wild flowers, numerous trees, countless insects, 4 ducks, and a muskrat. How many people drive by this nature preserve every day? I do not know. But most of those people do not “see” it, even if they see it. The amazing variety of floras and faunas that make up our world are everywhere. If we notice them, and take notice of them, we go a long way toward insuring their continued survival. That includes weeds.

Postscript: All these pictures were taken by me in and around a little native prairie plot that I planted about seven or eight years ago. It has been a great pleasure to watch it develop. For the first couple of years I saw mostly grasses (blue stems) and then some of the more robust forbs (black-eyed susans, coneflowers.) Finally, after a couple of years I saw compass plants growing in the plot. Their germination requires winter temperatures and abrasion (some prairie plants even require burning to benefit seed germination.) In what may seem a contradiction I have had to “weed” my plot from time to time to eliminate persistent and successful invaders like giant ragweed and musk thistle which threatened to “take over”. I am glad to say that as the plot has matured it has, on its own, eliminated the contradiction. I almost never have to weed anymore since the “native” plants now form an equilibrium that doesn’t exactly keep the invaders out but holds them to a level where they are simply another part of the community. And I have decided to welcome some local “invaders” who are not strictly “native prairie” species simply because I like them (common milkweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.) This is what I mean when I say that everyone can find nature to love and nature to nurture in their own lives, be it a prairie restoration project or building a bat house to put in their yard.

The Sycamore

There is a reason that mankind will never completely do away with wild things, hard as they might consciously or unconsciously try to do so. The reason lies in the limited scope of man’s perceptions and in the simple dogged persistence of nature.

There is little doubt that man has the capacity, with bulldozers, end loaders, excavators, and trucks, to undo nature’s patient workings of a thousand years. They have done it and they will continue to do it until the last trumpet blows, if you believe in that sort of thing.But they will not, ultimately, eradicate nature and natural things.

Along the Mississippi River, behind my father’s house, grows a nearly 100 foot tall sycamore tree. It is magnificent in its scale and its bearing, and I have stood at its base many times and looked up, slack-jawed, and just said WOW! How old it is I do not know. I could imagine it’s slow, relentless growth as the native Americans paddled by in dugout canoes. I could imagine Abe Lincoln stopping briefly at this pond to water his horse as he made his way to New Boston to do his none too impressive surveying job there. And I can picture generations of little boys growing up and growing old on this farm, fishing in the pond, helping their dads chop fire wood in this forest, and ultimately chopping their own firewood and planting their own corn. The sycamore grew patiently next to the pond. A hundred years, two hundred, it is hard to know.

The sycamore, or one like it, will continue to grow behind my Dad’s house. As the generations of humans in this little town are born and live and go to their graves it will persist. It will grow patiently and each year it will scatter its little seed balls on the mud below. And someday, when the river is neither too high nor too low, one will put down roots in a forsaken spot no other plant has been able to exploit (for a thousand unknowable reasons) and it will begin to grow. And the generations of humans will live some more lives, and drive bulldozers even. And it might be that after the sapling has pushed up six inches into the sky that a careless hunter will visit the pond and step on it and push it down into the mud. And it will be bent and may never recover its straight, proud bearing. But it will persist and start its crooked path toward the sun again. And perhaps, when it is six feet high, a buck deer will wander past with its velvety new antlers and rub some of the stuff away on the little sycamore and in the process give it a deep wound that will be visible on its trunk for a hundred years. Or perhaps the corps of engineers, in their wisdom, will determine that this little pond, good for nothing else, would be the perfect place to pump in 2 cubic acres of sand dredged up from the bottom of the navigation channel. And in that moment our little striving sapling will be buried alive and will die. If the big tree still lives its environment will be so altered that it, too, will not recover. Or perhaps the corps will simply cut it down to provide a road to their new sand pile. And these local tragedies will only be one more setback for nature, ultimately. There have been so many such tragedies it would be impossible to catalog them. Maybe sycamores, altogether, will succumb to these thousand little insults and become extinct. In that day we will have hurt ourselves and we will have destroyed the sycamore family, but nature will simply move on.

If you don’t believe in the persistence of nature go to Hawaii and look at a volcano erupting and try to picture in your mind’s eye how this devastation could turn into a verdant paradise brimming with life. Even here, along the muddy Mississippi, some little cell of life will persist when the last sycamore is chopped into kindling. Maybe a cottonwood can tolerate the sand better. Maybe it will take the old sycamore’s place and become the dominant life force in this vicinity. Maybe it wont be a tree. Maybe the deep sand will preclude any sapling from making another start here. Instead maybe the prickly pear that grows on the hills above will spread down into the new “desert” and use its special skills to translate a little sun and a little moisture into green paddles and pointy spikes. Or maybe only some sort of algae or bacteria can make a beachhead here. But rest assured that it will grow, and given enough time, it will evolve, and maybe its generations, after millions of years, will make something like a sycamore again. And maybe not. Maybe it will ultimately evolve a sentient creature with dextrous hands and a big brain capable of building and driving a bulldozer.

Bill Nye has said “We do not need to save the world, we need to save the world for us.” This is the point of environmentalism. The value of a sycamore tree, ultimately, is not to nature. Nature could not care less whether she exploits her resources with 100 foot sycamores or single celled algae. It is we, with the giant brains and the ability for aesthetic appreciation who need a 100 foot sycamore if for no other reason than to look up, slack-jawed and say WOW!

by Dustin Joy