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


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

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











































Sex in the Garden


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!

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.

10-07-08 040

Not all girls are afraid of snakes

10-07-08 053

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.

OCTOBER 2010 021

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

OCTOBER 2010 024

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).


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 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.


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:



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. 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.


Care for some spelunking?


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.


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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

new orleans 034

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.


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.