Choking the Dance

Overnight our prairie changed. Apparently while we were snuggled warmly beneath a pile of quilts, a cold, blustery wind rolling like a freight train across land left a ridge of snow dunes and snirt along the fringe of our prairie from our neighbor’s bare-plowed field. Deep, two to three foot drifts were caught by the prairie grasses.

Our snirt dune, and the adjacent field that was so generous.

Our snirt dune, and the adjacent field that was so generous.

Wind is a significant part of living here, and accounts of wind seem to harass prairie writers as fog does in the novels of London. You don’t have to read too many accounts from the early settlers of the prairie to read of how they gained such a hatred of the wind. Some wrote accounts of losing their minds from the constant wail of the wind. While it is difficult to say how many of us “modern” prairie inhabitants are so afflicted, there will likely (or should) be some farmers concerned enough about the dirt being blown from their fields to do something about it. While we’ll happily take what they’re offering, for it’s free to us, the legacy they’re allowing to blow away puts their finances at peril on the short term, and humanity’s ability to survive at greater risk in the long term.

Yes, the wind is part of the prairie. With each windbreak cut, dozed and burned, and with every spare inch of sod turned into commodity cropland, we lose rather than commune with the wind. Little has changed in the natural forces over those years except for the treatment of the prairie soils we were so blessed with after the last glacier. We have ripped it open, ditched it to drain the water from the wetlands before we laid tile to empty soil moisture for earlier planting. Ninety-nine percent of it. Now a more recent generation of farmers, heaped under high production and equipment costs and land prices, are working to convert more land into crops, and to re-tile with more “efficient” pattern tiling. Yet, the wind still blows, and with it, the product of their decisions … the soil on which they farm.
2.15.15 wind7
We can almost guarantee these constants will not change: The wind is going to blow, winds that are often harsh and constant; and with it, soils that become roadside and ditch borne dirt.

Learning of the harshness of prairie winds has been a revelation. My first 20 some years of living in the Minnesota prairie was on the edge of a small prairie town. We joked that if we wanted to feel urban we could simply look through the front windows where a picturesque postcard scene of tranquility came from an overhanging canopy of mature trees and older, comfortable looking houses. Across the room, though, the view was of the federal version of Hawk Creek and the prairie beyond. It was, in our minds at the time, a perfect collision of town and country. We did notice a wind, especially just before a blizzard when it seemed to reside above the roof tops in a distant roar. You could hear it, and watch as the tops of the trees waved their naked branches, but you couldn’t feel it. With non-blizzard winds, there were just too many houses and, yes, urbanity, to feel the full force of a prairie wind.

Joe Pye found the snirt dune to his liking!

Joe Pye found the snirt dune to his liking!

Now, having since moved to our Listening Stones Farm, we can hear it, feel it, and if you watch the prairie grasses nearby, you can see it. William Least Heat Moon wrote of how the wind gives prairie grasses the freedom to dance while those same grasses give face to the wind. If you lived here, lived within an actual planting of prairie grasses, you would identify with his description.

In our first year here my goal was to walk to the end of the section and back, a two mile hike on a gravel road. On one of those first hikes the trip down to the corner was brisk and easy, and I was feeling pretty chipper for my age. When I turned to return, and once past the abandoned and protective grove at that end of the section, it was a struggle make progress against what was actually a staunch breeze. By the time I made it to the protection of our grove I was worn out and working to breathe. Against a full blowing northwest  wind you are simply pleased to make progress. After a year of this, a membership was purchased at a nearby gym with a couple of wind-free treadmills.

Using the wind in a blue stem prairie.

Using the wind in a photograph of a blue stem prairie.

Like most of the farm homes on the prairie, our house is surrounded by a dense grove. That first year the buckthorn was too thick to  get through. Those walks on the gravel road in the open prairie was enough to gain a deep appreciation of the trees. Even the buckthorn. Our biggest concern of clearing the buckthorn the following year was how the new “openness” would translate with a cold wind. Our sawyer, Kurt Arner, suggested we not worry, that the windrows of downed buckthorn would still provide enough protection. He was right. Our mailbox, set just past the protection of the grove, serves as a sobering reminder of the worth of the woodland.

Last year after a cleansing of the vast buckthorn along with many of the damaged and diseased trees, including some with the telltale burnt brown “zipper” stripe caused by lightning, we planted 70 bareroot trees and countless shrubs. Some were fruit trees in our new orchard, but the rest were planted inside the canopy of the standing grove where Kurt had left “holes.” Recently Rebecca has been stewing over our next order of trees. Kurt has also returned to take down some offensive elms, buckthorn and other weed trees on the south and east portions of the yard.

Cone flower pods accented by prairie grasses moved by the wind.

Cone flower pods accented by prairie grasses moved by the wind.

In a short time we’ve learned to commune with the wind. Fighting it is futile. We raise chimes to create wind music, and I’ve learned how to use the wind in my photography. Our prairie grasses on our eight acres of tillable land protects the soil. An east wind will cause our water lines to freeze upstairs, so yes, we’re conscious of it. We’re equally conscious of the effects of the wind on the fields of our neighbors. Those who have left stubble in their corn fields have clean ditches. Those who plowed, even minimally, do not.

Although we have eight acres of replanted prairie, the two of us … migrants from tree-blessed states of Vermont and Missouri … love our few acres of trees, and actually bless them on nights when you can hear the steady “lullaby” of the prairie wind. Last night, as that gusty lullaby of prairie music played and partied, a horrible hangover of particles of blown snow along with minute molecules of our neighbor’s dirt were left in drifts along the fringe of our prairie, choking the dance.

Just down the road apiece is a prime example of the horrendous issues with wind-blown dirt ... all of which will wash into Big Stone Lake in the melt and spring rains.

Just down the road apiece is a prime example of the horrendous issues with wind-blown dirt … all of which will wash into Big Stone Lake in the melt and spring rains.