THE MOST IMPORTANT POST OF THE SUMMER

Saving any species from extinction is an incredibly difficult job.   Most of us have no concept of the dedication volunteers, researchers, and scientists contribute or the passion, success, cheers and heartbreak that accompany select small groups intrusted to preserving endangered and rare species. The world headquarters specific to saving the world’s crane species is the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Operation Migration, which rears and trains Whooping Crane chicks to follow a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida each year are based in New York and Canada. In summer they work up the road from me near Berlin, Wisconsin. In early autumn they’ll take several weeks, flying just a couple of hours a day, bearing south leading young Whooping Cranes behind Ultra Lite planes. No Ultra Lites, no Whooping Cranes, no second backup group of a highly endangered birds.

Ultimately, through the Ultra Lites serving as imprinted parent birds, the chicks learn the long forgotten winter migration to Florida – the route that was forgotten when the number of living birds dropped to less than 40 and none were left to lead what had formerly been thousand of birds across our skies on annual migration routes. Thanks to conservation measures and efforts of groups like the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, and others, the numbers are very slowly growing. However, there are still less than 600 treasured birds alive and far from sustainable numbers.

The major flock of wild birds belong to a natural group that migrates between Canada and the Texas coastline each year. The scary fact is all it will take is a drought, an oil spill, or a hurricane, to make a major impact on the native group. Establishing a second breeding group between Wisconsin and Florida is of major importance, but no federal funding supports the Operation Migration training program. Every dollar for this research group comes from the public. This year the Federal Government decreed Operation Migration had to replace their three Ultra Lite planes before they could fly in 2014. That means that in addition to the expense of training the chicks to fly this summer, they need to buy new planes, redesign the wings for a specific purpose of flight not required by any other aircraft, rebuild and change over engines and other mechanical issues.

To make this happen they only have thirty, yes a short 30 days, to raise the money to do this. I would not normally use links in my blog, but this is a special request and others have already done a greater job than  I  to explain how great the need is. I can only share the reasons for there is a place in my heart and my passion for these great white birds. Not many have yet had the privilege of watching these magnificent birds in flight, many people up here don’t even know what they are. That’s how uncommon they still are. Once seen, they are never forgotten, and once remembered, you know they can never be lost.

To donate visit the link below. We appreciate every dollar and even small contributions are welcome. We give a Whoop and a heartfelt thank you.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hope-for-the-whooping-crane-takes-flight

HOW MANY POUNDS OF ROCKS WILL PETE PICK?

Reed Canary Grass

Reed Canary Grass

Since frost out I’d been watching an elderly man in a vacant farm field picking rocks. Every day I’d gone past he’s been out there, dressed from cap to britches, in tones of faded UPS brown, baggy trousers tucked into practical rubber muck farm boots.  I have asparagus gone to fern and seed in my garden that’s brawnier than this petite man with his thin arms and barely wired biceps.

Last Tuesday I finally found myself driving behind him just as he was pulling to the side of the road to begin his day of rolling and rocking. I stopped behind him as a short thin arm extended out the rolled down window of his car and started frantically waving me ahead over and over again, the gesture reminding me of a sun worn whirligig before a big storm blows in.

When I opened my car door and started to walk toward him, he stepped out of his vehicle with a puzzled look on his face. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for weeks” I blathered. He backed off a few inches and looked up at the skyscraper frame of me, lifted off the worn brown cap on his head and scratched his seriously balding scalp. He chuckled and realized he’d just reeled in a captive audience for a country tale or two. I’d soon learn what makes Pete putter picking rocks and plunking them to haul back to the wee trailer hitched to his compact car.

I implored,  I was so curious, “Why are you in that field picking rocks every time I drive by?”

“Well, I wanted to plant corn in there this year and that damn ground just kept throwing up rocks!”

“Corn? What did you plant last year? I don’t remember seeing anything here.”

“Nope, wasn’t anything? I own 40 acres.”  Pete glanced down at his boots and lifted a foot a couple of inches then put it down again.  “ Well, to tell you the truth – it’s really only 39-1/2 but I like the sound of 40. Makes me feel richer than I am,” while carving his elfin aged face from ear to ear. I guess lifting his foot was his way of deciding if he was going to tell me the truth or not. “ Anyway, I owned these acres for over thirty years and never planted anything on them. Just felt like doing it this year. See that hunting stand back there, past the trees? Ben Bogbottom owns five hundred acres back there, nuthin’ but swamp. He never planted anything either.”

I look back of the small trailer he’s hauling and see it’s already got a small load of dirt and some grass clods. He catches what I’m looking at and flicks an explanation faster than a bullfrog on a fly.

“I already moved 145 wheelbarrows full of rocks outta that field this spring. Now I’m moving some-a-that Reed Canary Grass down to my last field, see the other two down there where the highway went and put in those new culverts onto my land last year but didn’t do a good job. Well that’s where I moved all those rocks and I’m dumping the grass to fill in where they missed when they put in the culverts where there wasn’t any before, you get what I mean?” I turned and looked at the two culverts each of which lead to a field bursting with Reed Canary Grass.

By then I could hear rocks rattling in my own head as I nodded yes to his query. When the county rebuilt a stretch of the highway last year they had closed the road to traffic and since no one lived on a five-mile stretch they rerouted all traffic. They had gone into the field across the road from Pete’s and removed marsh peat to raise the roadbed. That field, of course, had also not been farmed in decades. Pete told me, off the record, the field’s owner shall remain secret – well he tried last year to grow corn and he failed. He tried again this year and failed again. Pete crowed triumphantly, “Only thing that field can grow, is DIRT!”

Pete’s field was successfully growing a nice stand of corn and since he was so petite he would be able to walk among the rows and continue to hand pick rocks and put them into a ten-gallon pail he’d brought along to replace the wheelbarrow.

“How do you find the time to get out here and do all of this by hand?” I asked.

His shoulders humped up and down a couple of times while he thought about it. “I’m eighty-five years old. All I have is time. After I retired from the cookie factory, I drove school bus and helped my brother run his farm stand. Then my buddy, well he wanted to move down south and he had this garbage pickup route he wanted to sell me and I told him no thanks. I mean, why? The big company already picks up all the garbage around here, right. So anyway, see, he keeps asking me and I finally buy it from him and give it to my wife to go out and pick up garbage here and there. She’s been out picking up bits and pieces of garbage the other company won’t for over twenty years now.”

Pete’s still smiling, and he’s got all his teeth so I figure his wife can’t be too angry with him for dumping a garbage route on her. We’re still leaning on his car parked alongside the highway. Every once in awhile, I hear a high pitched whine from my car reminding me I left the engine running with the air conditioner going full blast and the window open so I won’t lock myself out.

Pete then wants to know who I am and what I’m doing driving down the road nearly no one lives on, so I give him a short course in Green Lake county Whooping Crane history and my horse down the road a bit. Pete gives me a bio on his five children, four of whom fairly successfully grew up to do what they planned as children.  The last daughter Pete described as “PFFT”.

Unless I was ready to surrender the next few hours I knew it was time to leave Pete. I promised I’d honk and wave next time I saw him and stop when I had time. He was made of finer stuff than me, less inclined to complain when things got rough, probably always measured his glass as half full, and would be thankful for whatever job he was given to do.

After I left, I found myself plagued by thoughts of Reed Canary Grass, that sterilizer of Mother Nature. Vast swatches of colors from pale yellow to deep violet in mid-June blocking all chances for native species to survive. With just one glance into Pete’s trailer I’d come face to face with an enemy I couldn’t fully comprehend surrounded me. In the past week all my favorite wetland roads and landscapes have become variations on a theme. Reed Canary Grass, in different stages of development. Nature can be choked in beauty.

 

 

WHAT IF …

Wild Lupines at Summerton Blog

Wild Lupines at Summerton Blog

 

I wanted to step back in time a hundred years and visit a couple of wetlands before two families of farmers parted the tall sawgrass like a Saturday haircut and walked behind a couple of oxen bought on the cheap from departing sodbusters, and butchered as stringy beef steak after the first plowing.

Summerton Bog

A 1919 Plat Map of Marquette County, Wisconsin shows land allotted to a variety of Summerton kin, Frank, William, Milford and J.L. At least the bog kept the surname of, if not, the original land owning family, most likely the one that contributed the most to the Nature Conservancy. It’s not a difficult location to find, but like many smaller Nature Conservancy sites parking is minimal and not well maintained. Parking was one narrow mowed down slope site with no turnaround.

Summerton Bog

I’d walked the bog before, in winter, when I could clearly see the artesian springs bubbling to the surface where dead sedges and saw grasses draped over on themselves like laundry fallen off the clotheslines. In late spring the tallest grasses were tickled by rivulets, most lush and nutrient fed by the constant flow of water. I was homo-stompus trying not to blunder through sedges dressing me to mid-thigh like an inverse kilt. Carefully placing alternating ugly size eleven black rubber boots, (this was no place for America’s Top Model), only thick corrugated soles lapped the tannic bronze water seeping through last year’s decaying mounds.

Summerton Bog

In mid-step I flashed back to a misadventure into another bog where my heel wouldn’t sink a couple of inches every few feet and bounce along for another step. Unreasonable fears of encountering a human-eating bog-thrasher flipped my anxiety into overdrive and I hurried back to Summerton’s entrance. My original plan was to photograph the bog’s wildflowers, not to set a new record for trail gaiting through a wetland. As I sped past, colors’ kissed their neighbors with bravado and laughed in the breeze. My eyes were weaving patterns from shades of grasses and textures from highlights and shadows. Amazing tidbits of prairie and bog flowers, ‘Made in the USA’, rich colors and sweet memories were simply Splenda in the grass. And even some of the grasses are invasive!

The original flora I was seeking no longer existed in this place, at this time in late spring. Perhaps only one flower, the Wild Lupine, photographed on this trip was a native plant. The rest were European-American wildflowers, originally planted by settlers in their gardens and now common and sometimes invasive escapees on bogs and prairies. From my conjured step back in time I was able to bring forward several of the native grasses and sedges, woodlands, and the artesian springs. Perhaps at other times during the year a greater range of native perennials will put in an appearance.

Closer to my heart, what if the bog out back of our home was still the small lake local Natives gathered wild rice in fall? Now it’s a silted over sedge bog, with two narrow trickles of water running through it, well on the way to joining encroaching woodlands. Not even a hint of wild rice remains.

An unknown farmer lived on this land before us. Late one day in the 1930’s, having finishing his upper field he started driving his tractor toward his lower work across the bog. That tractor had been fairly new, still a nice hunting shade of bright orange. He steered the ironed wheeled behemoth down the backside of the wee slippery slope one moist day when the monster gulped and the tractor entered the bog never to plow again. The deep, acidic, muck won every attempt to wrestle that tractor free. The tractor would celebrate more than seventy years of mockery in the war over man versus wetlands.

Long into the future, an old codger with a long memory and a hankering to rebuild a piece of his youth showed up with a couple of husky young friends and two strong, late model John Deere tractors. They started early one morning with a backhoe, three men on shovels, and two tractors hitched together. Just about dusk they finally uncorked the old tractor loaded in onto a trailer and hauled it off. It was in amazing shape for having been digested by Moby Bog for over seventy years. Bogs must have a very slow metabolism.

The following spring I went looking for a few worthy photos and noticed a beautiful group of Marsh Marigolds growing in a shallow pool of water where the old tractor had been. Carefully stepping through the still black water that reflected the marigolds and with one wrong step I was stuck above the knee in the bog with my left foot pointed southeast and the corresponding hip rotated north seeking terra firma. Like quicksand, when I tried to pull my foot out it went in deeper. Somehow I managed to save the other foot and the camera.

Eventually my husband noticed I didn’t return to the house and found me out back. After laughing himself silly, he tossed me a stick and I was encouraged to lean my weight on it and pull myself up and out. However, it was, literally, a stick. Being heftier than the catbird chirping in the Red-twig Dogwoods at my back, I crumpled back into the oily morass. My shit-kicker boot was rapidly filling with a thick peaty ooze as my foot slid ever farther toward the next town beyond us or in my mind, rapidly took aim at my chin and my unwelcome meal of mud pie and inevitable extinction.

Hubby, the woodworker, finally sorted through his collection of fine lumber, found a satisfactory slab to bear my weight and gave an accurate heave-ho across the sides of the pit from hell. At last I parked my oh-so-weary ass and cocked my free leg sideways above the clutches of the muck and sobbed. The sinister bog was still chewing away at my foot, trying to pull me into its ancient mire of extinct mammoths, bison herds, lost deer, and the old iron-tired tractor that had been stuck since the early 1930’s.

Devising several inspired contortions not shown in the Kama Sutra I finally managed to remove my leg with the foot intact. I swear the damn bog belched as it swallowed my rubber barn boot and soggy sock. In early September, when the morning mist comes on early, just before the sun rises, I still imagine the old tractor’s lonely farmer cussing up a blue mist over the bog and through the trees that have overgrown his fields. All these years I assumed the bog only got his tractor.

Swamp Thang

Swamp Thang

Lawn Mower Man

Several years ago an elderly man in Baraboo, Wisconsin was hauled into court on criminal trespass charges. He had been previously warned to cease and desist his actions, but he continued to ignore the Sheriff’s warnings. His violation? After his weekly mowing of his own five acre lot he moved on to the neighboring properties and mowed their lawns. We’re all familiar with criminals who commit a crime and cut and run; this is the only instance I could find of anyone being charged with only cut and run.

I have a lawn mower man for a neighbor now. Fortunately, he stops short of mowing my property, but only by a quarter-inch at most. He jealously guards the property line which, over the years, has become quite indistinct. Twenty years ago it was a couple of young trees which are now giants. He calculates from our side of the trees’ edge and I figure that mid-tree width would be most proper. Of course, our use of the property ends a good ten feet inside the trees but that’s just too close for his glazed eyes – so we silently bear his daily scrutiny of us from either the window over his kitchen sink or slowly simmering in the doorway of his distant barn.

He’s up thrice weekly by six a.m., sharpening the mower blades and testing the grass for moisture. I can always spot Old Will, like Peanuts Pig Pen, in a massive cloud of churning dust captured within a miasma of oily motor exhaust. As he lowers his wide overall-clad buttocks into the steel saddle he whips the throttle into a frenzy and dreams of the days past when his rust-colored steed could gallop across his two-acre lawn. Now it just wheezes and coughs like a foundered old plow horse.

This week Old Will sprung for a new hat – a shiny corn-colored straw twenty-gallon pseudo Stetson, minus a hatband. I figure that he’ll retrieve the tail from the first chipmunk he grinds into buzzard-bait and dangle it over the back of his hat for flair. Old Will likes flair. He’s a proud man and God forbid the visitor that mentions that he missed a bit of grass. His grandson did that last month and Old Will sent him out to the back forty to retrieve the mare that hasn’t been ridden in ten years, but she got papers that prove she’s registered, by gum, and give the old horse a treat – let her eat grass on the lawn to show what a generous, benevolent man, is Old Will. It took his grandson an hour and twenty minutes to snare the snakey mare and being innocent of horses he had himself a frustrating time. But then, grandpa knew it would go slow. There was a reason that horse hasn’t been ridden in ten years.

As I write this essay the lawn mower man dips into the road ditch and clips vagrant green slips from the verge. I turn my head towards the road as I hear gravel being ground into sand, and I watch as Old Will dives into the grass sea until only the tip of his yellow hat bobs through the waves of two-inch deep road drift. He emerges gasping from the ditch and heads for the three-year old tree-stump he’s been trying to have our landlord remove . It bulges above his smooth landscape, wayward tiger lilies and thistles crowd both the stumps old splines and Old Will’s mindscape. He hates its presence, its reminder that he can’t tame the western lot of his neighbor, and that he can’t control the people outside his own family.

Six hours later, six long hours of mower noise, and get the hell outa here, damn dog, and fumes, and grinding, and dead little critters, Old Will drives into his barn and turns the mover off. Ah, I breath clean air again and take a short noise-free break. I know it’s not over yet. Out comes the push mover and off to trim around the house and barn he goes. No fair lads and lasses, Old Will has yet a third trick up his sleeve. The hand mowing finally finished, Old Will sits for a well earned spell and shouts encouragement to his wonderful, long-suffering wife of fifty years, Ruth, as she presents the final flourish to Will’s day well spent – the weed whacker. Smack, smash, slap, it goes as she seeks out the wayward weed attempting to strangle the grapes and the phlox.

Anything that dares to grow taller than two inches is not his concern. If it were up to him there would be no flowers, no gardens to tend, and no trees to shade the yard. Yep, Old Will’s a flat-lander, and the flatter the land the happier he is. His long day is ended, his chores are done, he goes to the barn and gently strokes the bow of his new fishing boat. And regrets that he just hasn’t found the time to put it into the water.

Originally published on the Inditer.Com July 25, 1998.  I felt it was appropriate to reprint in honor of my neighbors’ that drive two hours for a weekly shave of the lawns of their vacation homes for a 48  visit. The photo is my ‘Oh no, no mow, backyard prairie reconstruction.  Being early June, so far only the Lupines and a couple of other plants have flowered. By the end of month this will be a full palette of colors.Image

Link

Water Music

Google Maps developed a capacity to fly to places I could only imagine visiting. I’m filled with childlike curiosity, exploring adrenaline-rushing areas unreachable by my aging body with a raging distaste of receiving a 30 point rating on the Zagat Insect Guide to Mammals – a movable feast for blood-sucking life forms. Physically my butt is comfortably established in a reclining chair while my mind soars as a two-year old Whooping Crane over the myriad wetlands a short flight from White River Marsh where I pretend I  fledged.

Geeze, last year’s chat-room time may have affected my thinking process. Google Mapping Green Lake or Marquette Counties shows a vast difference in land-forms and environments in its wetlands. The Fox River is the watershed for the eastern half of south-central Wisconsin. Unlike the majority of American Rivers, the Wisconsin Fox flows north into Green Bay, eventually to spill over Niagara Falls and into the Atlantic Ocean.

White River Marsh is north of the Fox River in Green Lake County, with a small section in the northwest extending into Marquette County. South of the Fox River, adjacent to White River Marsh, lie the Princeton Prairie and the neighboring Puchyan Prairie State Natural Areas. There is a strip of unique land flowing southeast of these two prairies called the Snake Creek Fen State Wildlife Area.

I focused via computer on an isle on the Fox River approximately halfway downstream from the outlet of the White River and upstream from the outlet of the Puchyan River. Both rivers  look like exemplary examples of topography from a couple of worms.  Perhaps a vigorous earthworm undulated the White River, broader, curvier strokes – deeper, at times and maybe navigable by canoe if you’re patient with obstacles. The Puchyan, hurried along by a slightly meager red worm, impatient by its thin water over melon-sized glacial rocks among the riverbed. The Snake Creek looks like a blunder by a sloppy cartographer after a night of heavy drinking. It’s a gray-green swath of watery smudge applied to the landscape and given a poor attempt at erasure by a giant slug using that portion of the county to skate slime.

The map’s colorful layers whisper stories of the Fox River – it gossips in a more complex language than its cursory cousins. If the Fox were human it would be an egotist, not for its attractiveness, which has long since lost to the ideals of man’s need to reconfigure for purpose and management. Oh how this river must have looked running wild a couple of hundred years ago. What songs it must have sung as it tumbled over rapids and falls long since buried under a system of locks and dams that leave it sounding like a phlegmy centenarian.

In spring this is a capricious river, a river of vast floodplains, channels, currents, overflowing banks, and prayers that my car won’t leave the road for flooded ditch or plunging riverbank. It’s not the widest, or the longest, or the mightiest, but nature knows it has a purpose, it has an “I’ll be damned attitude”, and when allowed it may appear a mouse but thinks it’s a mongoose. Google shows topography that looks like a wild night of tossed bedding in a whore house room shared by the Hodag and the Hoop Snake on a brief stay over before heading up north.

There is a bridge over the concrete remnants of a boat lock long abandoned. The gates are gone and the river runs freely through it, the river current taking time to sing around one of the remaining abutments in lieu of a set of rapids that perhaps once sat there. The Fox took umbrage with the boat lock, several times in fact. The lock must have become useless in a fairly short time because it cut another channel north of what was once solid land. It then carved a large oxbow into the land above that channel as if to fiddle away man’s folly in building a lock in that position. Another oxbow, nearly dry on the map, sits directly downstream and south of the lock. Clearly the Fox River would choke the life out of the man-made structure that attempted to impede its natural course.

On a sunny afternoon after studying the Google Map I drove to the real location and let the river tell its story. I was unprepared for the water music it had composed.  I fumbled and shook when I realized my camera should have been set to video with sound. A brief conversation between a Sandhill Crane couple and a still single Whooper was over by the time I’d turned the dial.  An elusive Whooping Crane had, once again, teased me and moved on. He flew upstream where he let out one more faint bugle before leaving.

The three successive, heavily wooded riverbanks, cut during the period the lock stood, now guard the territory between the last oxbow in the river where it’s scoured to marshland. Non-accessible marshland. Safe territory for endangered Whooping Cranes being raised and trained at White River Marsh to return and raise their future families.

Map of County Highway J – Princeton to Ripon, Wisconsin

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family