In Transition

A sense of nervousness has settled in here at Listening Stones Farm. This sense of affairs began shortly after our return from our trip north to Ely for our yearly break from routine. This “settling” has been by a series of degrees — literally. Our overnight weather report for Friday took it over the edge.

As Rebecca said, “Thirty-four is too close for comfort.”

With 75 tomato plants in her lower garden, plus the raised beds and tall green arches of produce she has out there, she is creating strategy while rationalizing her anticipated losses. Perhaps “our losses” would be more accurate, although there is both a sense of ownership and privacy involved in her near acre of produce farming. Those tomatoes are in the heart of the freeze zone since they’re located in perhaps the lowest level of our garden and yard — a location, she informs me, that makes it quite difficult to protect.

Rebecca's low hanging tomato plants on the right side of the picture are particularly vulnerable because of their location.

Rebecca’s low-lying tomato garden on the right side of the picture is particularly vulnerable because of its location.

The signs of this transition from summer to fall have been evident since we returned from up north. On Monday morning, our last day of warmth, my labor included working on frames for my Meander photographs. Many trips were made between the house and the workshop. Whenever I entered the workshop I was accosted by any number of swallows, as has been the custom all summer long. Later that afternoon as we shared our daily glass of wine on the deck, Rebecca spoke of her observation, “Well, the swallows are gone.”

“Can’t be. They were all over me all morning.”

“Listen. Look around. Do you see or hear them?” Indeed, while the prairie was still buzzing with dragonflies there wasn’t a single swallow in sight. None on the rooftop awnings of the workshop. None on the clothesline. The air was empty of the acrobatic fliers.

In the distant rise of the prairie we noted the short flights of ducks from one wetland to another. Yes, the ducks are coming through, and the geese are now gathering. Murmurations of blackbirds are beginning to fill the treetops in the grove. At night, as the sun sets and the coolness sets in, coyotes begin their night songs nearby, offering voice to the musical concert provided by the slight wind music from the chimes scattered around the trees in the yard. All of this nature is alluring and alive and you feel blessed to be a part of it.

Yellowheaded blackbirds by the hundreds gathered along Highway 75 near Bellingham.

Yellowheaded blackbirds by the hundreds gathered along Highway 75 near Bellingham.

Earlier this week was the rising of the harvest moon. I ran for my camera and was able to make a fun image of the last of the yellow flowers in the prairie. Yes, our prairie that was bursting with yellow just a few weeks ago, as it has all summer, is now mostly a dull green turning brown. We anticipate with pleasure the brownish beauty of a more mature prairie, which we see in patches around us, where the winds that make music with my chimes provides a dance for the Indian grasses and spindly bluestem. While the wind gives the prairie grasses a freedom to dance, those same grasses give face for the winds. And, yes, the browns are beginning to dominate those prairie patches. Bluestem is now in turkey-track stage, and the other native grasses shimmer in the glow light of autumn.

Bluestem in a prairie wind this week near Hermann.

Bluestem in a prairie wind this week near Hermann.

While there are no survivors of the original prairie pothole biome, my imagination is often taxed in trying to visualize an actual prairie. For years I’ve stared at horizons and tried, trying to replace the sea of corn with bluestem, to visualize those seas of grasses so spoken of; of bluestem so thick it could wear away the toes of the boots of horseback riders seems impossible to imagine. I’ve tried imagining murmurations of blackbirds so thick in coolish September afternoons that they blackened the skies, sometimes completely shielding the sun … if you can believe reports of ancient storytellers, both from the letters of settlers and the passed along stories of the native elders. These are among the images I just can’t seem to pull off. Far easier to picture, though, are the long wingspan of V’s from the geese flying high overhead, often at different strata. These are all pieces of a grand puzzle, though many with the edges worn and the hooking circles of the pieces torn.

The prairie is no more. More than 99 percent of it is gone, and more remnants are plowed as glacial rocks are pried from the soil with heavy construction equipment. The last field of glacial litter between Correll and Appleton was being scraped clean last week, a vivid image that needs no imagination. Nor is the continued mining of the topsoil of the former prairie that took nearly 12,000 years to form and less than 200 years of plowing, from the first settlers through the evolving of industrialized farming, to mine. Poor tillage practices and even greed prevents a protection of the soils from blowing in those eight or so months of bareness, or of trickling away with the seasonal rains as more and more acres of yellowish clay peak through where thick layers of topsoil once laid. Farmers are no different in this mindset than other “miners” of the earth’s resources, all part of a world-wide population reeking with indifference.

Whether we speak of cropland or the reservoirs of fossil remnants we boast as endless beds of fuel, we seem intent in using up all of the earth we can. It is an interesting concept that we can use up the resources of the earth and still survive, and when the time comes, and it will, the silence will be deafening — like our barn the afternoon the swallows left.

Harvest moon over our prairie now seems like a harbinger of the change in weather.

Harvest moon over our prairie now seems like a harbinger of the change in weather.

That is a decided winter for future times. As we scurry for blankets — how can we cover 75 low-lying tomato plants? — to protect what we can, the approaching autumn will not be ignored. A frost is imminent. We in that transition of autumn toward winter, and with much of the canning and freezing of Rebecca’s garden done, we hang on to what is left as best we can. We’ve had a lovely growing season, and some of our work is unbeatable — our smoked eggplant and tomato sauce is about as perfect a testament to the summer season as you can find. The apples are about ready for harvest and sacks of walnuts are hanging in the shed. We work hard, just as the squirrels around the grove are doing, preserving the last of what we can for the months ahead.

This transition into autumn is interesting, and becomes more so each day. We look toward the rest we know is coming. In some ways it can’t come soon enough. In other ways, we want to put this transition off as long as we possibly can.

This entry was posted in He Said by John G. White. Bookmark the permalink.

About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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