John Muir and the Three Little Where’s or Which Prairie When

Cuppants (Silphium perfoliatum) flow into a sea of yellow Anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora), and orange coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida).

Cuppants (Silphium perfoliatum) flow into a sea of yellow Anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora), and orange coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida).

Once upon a time, there was a tall man named John Muir.  He went for a walk through a prairie.  Pretty soon, he came upon a small familiar looking lake. He whistled and, when no one answered, he sat down.

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At the lake in the meadow, he spied three murky views into the future.  John was a quirky curious fellow.  He stared as the first hazy image became clearer.

Seedheads of Black-eyed Susans

Seedheads of Black-eyed Susans

“This image picture is so wrong!” he exclaimed. “Tis a very cold semblance to what I remember.”

Now on his knees, he gazed as the second vision cleared.

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

“This landscape is too contrived!” he said. “Nothing looks familiar to me.”

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As the last swirl in the lake became clear he exclaimed,  “Ah, this view is just right!”

Queen Anne's Lace - pre-bloom

Queen Anne’s Lace – pre-bloom

He happily sat back, crossed his hands behind his head, and recalled his boyhood.

Black-eyed Susan - skeletal remant of July

Black-eyed Susan – skeletal remnant of July

After seeing the three visions John was feeling a wee little sleepy.  Shuffling off to a hillside where he saw three trees, he leaned against the first tree to rest.

Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot) - after the bloom has faded

Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot) – after the bloom has faded

“This tree is too hard!” he exclaimed.

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So he leaned against the second tree.

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“This tree is too small!” he growled.

Prairie Cinquefoil

Prairie Cinquefoil

He chose the third tree, a young Bur oak, where he sighed and fell into a deep slumber while listened to the rustling dried leaves, sounding like far off tinkling of bells in a Buddhist temple.

Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower)

Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower)

As he was sleeping, three organization leaders came to discuss how to revive the worked-out land on which he slept.

Wind painting the Little Bluestem -Schizachyrium scoparium grass on the tall grass prairie

Wind painting the Little Bluestem -Schizachyrium scoparium grass on the tall grass prairie

Papa bear, who owned the largest portion of the land, decided it would be seventy-five percent native wild flowers, with a smidgen of sedges, and a portion of four native grasses, keeping the upland hardwoods, and a plan to open walking paths. This would become the John Muir County Park.

Wind painting with Big Bluestem grass, staple of the tall grass prairie

Wind painting with Big Bluestem grass, staple of the tall grass prairie

Mama bear, who owned the original homestead, the actual site of the Muir family house over looking the lake (NOTE: Private property no public access) felt the original prairie land would have been mostly grass with a smidgen of prairie flowers. They have maintained their property as predominately short grass prairie with appropriate prairie plants. I think John would easily recognize his front yard.

Wind painting the sedges and various grasses of the tall grass prairie

Wind painting the sedges and various grasses of the tall grass prairie

The federal government’s taken half the Muir family’s original homestead property and turned it into a tall grass prairie. Severed as cleanly by Wisconsin’s Marquette County Highway F, the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge, is a gem of a prairie reconstruction. Don’t visit Muir County Park and not cross the road to stand amid the waving grasses of a different kind of reconstructed environment.

Wind painting the tall grass prairie ...

Wind painting the tall grass prairie …

On a windy day you’ll understand why pioneer ancestors referred to their wagons as ‘prairie schooners’. The wind tosses waves of color, sunlight foams, and textures flow across my vision. Is it wind blowing past my ear or faint murmurs as John Muir and his boyhood friends scurry toward the distant river.

Wind painting a close in view of the neon, late August colors, of Big Bluestem prairie grass.

Wind painting a close in view of the neon, late August colors, of Big Bluestem prairie grass.

Would John Muir recognize any of the three landscapes? Which would look the most familiar to him? If an award were given for best adaptation, which of the three would receive it? I know which I prefer, and I know which I like least. Not that I would exclude any from my visits or my camera. All have something to discover, to teach, to preserve. Which to consider correct, I’ll leave for wiser minds than mine.

Wind painting the tall grass prairie dominated by Big bluestem, Turkeyfoot,  Indiangrass [Sorghastrum nutans], Switchgrass [Panicum virgatum], and Little Bluestem [Schizachyrium scoparium]), and lively yellow of Solidago speciosa (Showy Goldenrod).

Wind painting the tall grass prairie dominated by Big bluestem, Turkeyfoot, Indiangrass [Sorghastrum nutans], Switchgrass [Panicum virgatum], and Little Bluestem [Schizachyrium scoparium]), and lively yellow of Solidago speciosa (Showy Goldenrod).

(Unfortunately, I haven’t visited the private property – original home site in over ten years, so I have no current photos or permissions to post. You’ll have to trust me … it’s spectacular.)For information on where location and travel to Wisconsin’s John Muir country visit http://www.marquettenow.com/bike4trail.php

all photography copyrighted, all rights reserved, Charly Makray-Rice 2014
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ALDO LEOPOLD, SQUARE PEGS IN ROUND HOLES, AND FINDING FOCUS

Click on the any of the photos to turn it into a slide show

Most days members of Aldo Leopold’s family at the Sand County shack recorded in detail the natural surroundings and activities of their lives. Aldo wrote most entries, but family and visitors added their own sightings and comments into the yearly journals. The shack’s so small the journals must have been in plain view where any visitor could jot down what they saw before it was forgotten. Each event lists by initials which of the seven family members and by name any friends or relatives that were also present during each notation or entry.

The Leopold family used the shack year round, driving up from Madison in snowstorms, during high flood on the river when they had to abandon their car and walk in, and during swarms of insects. Nothing kept them from using the wood shack to gather and recording the coming and going of life around them. When the property needed repairs they looked to the river for scraps of wood that had washed ashore, or discarded lumber from old projects.

Standing in the shack I realize in one stride I’ve completed my walk across what is now the dining area. I’d been told Aldo and his wife’s bed used to occupy that place. One more stride and I’ve covered the width of the fireplace, half a hitch and I’ve hit the end wall which contains the cooking, wash basins, and a few extra oil lamps.

A lean-to built onto the side holds two home-made bunks with a couple of feet of head space and just enough room to put a lamp table between them. No closets, no dressers, no indoors plumbing. In a few seconds I inhale decades of smoke scent permeated into fireplace rock, and listen to the rafters still singing with music, laughter, and love. Yearning for simplicity, I crave a few days whispering after my lost muse in this space.

Other than a shared love of wild places, I doubt Aldo Leopold and I could have lived together a week in that shack. I would have adjusted to the Parthenon, campfire cooking and bunk house sleeping. Keeping meticulous records of what time a bird sings, what kind of weather and light accounted for variations in its arrival, tracking animals, even going so far as to count the daily roadkill, oh no, not me. I would have shoved a fist at Al and he would pointed the stem of his pipe at me.

Main reasoning, I can’t get up that early much less remember the names of all God’s creatures small and smaller. I love them all, but I have Attention Deficient Disorder and can’t maintain concentration for more than 15 minutes on any subject. Writing this blog creates an agony befitting a square peg in a round hole each week. I start with a grandiose idea, begin research, get sidetracked in various alleys of research material, lose track of speculative nuggets, get depressed, misplace focus, give up, start another idea, knock head against wall – ah, the crap of adult ADD.

I would have left in Aldo’s journal memo’s to posterity such as, “Do you really think anyone is going to care in 50 years that you saw 3 dead rabbits on the road today? Screw it, Al – went home to take a bath!”  A poor guest, I would have left guiltless the hard-working Leopold family to plant among themselves the thousand of trees on the barren shack property. I’d of been long gone and good riddance to bad rubbish before they got around to planting the hundreds of species of native wildflowers. Lucky for the rest of us, it doesn’t appear they suffered from Attention Deficient Disorder. The world is a richer place that they didn’t have a slacker like me for a friend.

Luckily, most  prairie and woodland plants on the Aldo Leopold properties for viewing along the hiking trails were planted between 1935 and 1948. I’d have been in diapers in 1948 so this entire scenario is, fortunately, a load of hooey. I read Sand County Almanac in 1974 and although it transformed my thinking and converted me to a prairie lover for life, I got the wrong sand county. Wisconsin has several of them. It would be another twenty years before I discovered the shack still existed.

The Leopold family had some prairie remnants still growing on the farm, like Big Bluestem, Over the years, they discovered other dwindling or marginal native prairie, woodland, and wetland plants growing on the property and transferred them to other areas they thought more conducive to survival. Some species were found on neighboring farms, in danger of destruction, and so they moved and transplanted them to the farm.  The remainder was brought in from their Madison home or donated by friends. Unlike todays garden centers there was no place they could  purchase native prairie and woodland plants.

Having thrown aside my internal furies I decided to focus my battles and my camera on the prairie and rain garden established at the Aldo Leopold Foundation Center. I attended the grand opening in 2007 and I wanted to see how it had grown from seedling to mature garden.  His daughters, Estella Leopold and Nina Leopold Bradley had spoken of their father and their years living in the shack. They were both lovely ladies with a passion for life, land, and their father’s dream. Although my photography focus differs greatly from the scientific precision of the Leopold legacy, I would hope Estella, the remaining Leopold,  would understand and appreciate the joyfulness I’ve found in exploring her family legacy.

The Sand County Shack, notable in the Sand County Almanac, is a  few miles north of Baraboo, Wisconsin. It is located next to the Aldo Leopold Center.  Use the link for directions and information. Walking tours of the property are free; tours to the shack area include a fee. http://www.aldoleopold.org/AldoLeopold/leopold_bio.shtml

Added to http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/weekly-photo-challenge-focus/