Robbie’s Wren

One couldn’t miss Robbie’s wren. From the moment we sat to sip a chilled white wine on her wooded deck in the late afternoon until we were enveloped by darkness while she worked a comforting bonfire, the little wren hopped from perch to perch and did so with constant chatter. From a Kon Tiki-like lantern to the crook of a shepherd’s hook, from the apex of the little wren house where his mate perhaps hid from his verbal onslaught, to a tall sunflower nearby, the little brown wren hopped from place to place, filling the silence.

Said Robbie’s husband, Harland, “That’s the male. He never shuts up. The lady of the house never says much of anything. He, on the other hand, sings from the first light of morning until darkness.” Conversations. Earlier on that Friday I had erected my pop-up for the annual Cannon Falls Arts and Wine Festival. It was five years since I’ve seen Harland and Robbie, and even more since I had been in the Cannon River valley. This would be like “old home week” once the festival began the following morning. So we sat, catching up and enjoying an evening of remembrance while being serenaded with songs from Robbie’s wren.

“Last year their first hatch yielded three birds. When grown, two left the next. Both within an hour of one another,” Harland explained over the constant wren chatter. “The third would come out onto the perch waiting to be fed. This happened for a few days. The female would scrounge for food and come back to feed the last of the batch, who by that time was the same size as she was. Then one morning the male started fending off the female from feeding the full grown chick. He sat there on the perch, face to face, scolding that full grown chick, really letting him have it. Finally, after about a day of not being fed, the chick finally flew away.”

“Did that stop the noise?” I asked.

Harland laughed. “Not in the least. But the old man had made his point.”

Many times a day Robbie and Harland pause to watch their active bird feeders.

Conversations, random or otherwise:

* He was middle aged, and from the chumminess and familiarity with the fellow with him, they may have been “partners” or husbands. As he eyed the canvases and framed prints, he said, “I never saw this beauty when I was growing up in Wheaton. Apparently there was a native prairie next to our family farm. I just saw it as grass. Nothing like what you see here. I didn’t see the beauty in it until recently, not the way you and other artists have portrayed the prairie.”

“Probably a restored prairie.”

“No,” he countered. “I’m told it was never plowed. I should have said virgin prairie. That’s what it was. Virgin prairie. Right next to the farm where I was raised.”

• “What’s interesting,” said the near retirement-aged farmer and long time friend, “is that my neighbor is putting in a 10,000 head dairy, which means we will now have 40,000 head of cows in CAFO dairies within a 10 mile radius of my farm. I’ve known my neighbor since he was a kid. The only animal he has ever had was a dog. What’s he going to do with 10,000 head of cows?”

Praire enthusiasts seemed to enjoy images of prairie flowers.

• Over the years I’ve wondered what athletes and various celebrities got out of hospital visits. Oh, there is that thought that of the viscousness those over the hill second string, junior high tackles who have since become more knowledgeable about football in middle age than Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, visiting terminally ill children in a hospital perhaps offered a nice relief. But, a reward? Then I went to visit Mariah, Robbie’s daughter, who is in the latter stages of MS. Named for “the prairie wind,” she can no longer walk. After the show closed on Saturday I dropped by her condo on the way back out to Harland and Robbie’s. When I walked in I was taken aback. Here was the lively and beautiful teenager who was seemingly always on the move now stretched out prone on her back, barely able to move.

“You probably don’t remember me,” I said, telling her my name as I bent to give her a hug.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” she said, breaking into the most incredibly and beautiful smile I have ever seen, one that radiated across the room. A smile I’ll never forget. Genuinely pure and so rich. Now I think I know what the professional athletes mean when they talk about how special they feel when making hospital rounds. It’s those smiles.

• She was the artist in the adjoining pop-up, a young mother with impressionistic and intimate paintings of prairie flowers. She is quite multi-talented, for when a musician strolled through with his cart of instruments, she played a nice piece of a concerto on his violin as he joined in. Their playing was so welcomed on a hot afternoon after visiting with seemingly hundreds of would-be buyers. She sold a number of tee-shirts decorated with a collage of prairie flowers representing different areas of the state. “I’m now concentrating on pollinators,” she said. “My mother-in-law has a beautiful prairie where I get my inspiration. The more I’m there the more I see. You just can’t glance at a prairie and see the infinite and intimate details. I can sense that in that way we’re soul mates.”

I smiled. Much like the musician smiled as they played the concerto.

Exhibiting multi-talented artist Heather Friedli played a short concerto with a strolling musician.

• Driving back to Robbie’s farm late Sunday afternoon after packing up to return their borrowed chair and to pick up my belongings before the drive home, I passed Mariah’s little condo and remembered my late friend, Foster Hall. Foster, also an artist, often spoke of finding and marrying his “dream” of an “exotic” woman. Eventually he met and married a sweet, dark-complected Jewish girl from New Jersey with wild and frizzy hair who possessed a flair for adventure. She was indeed “exotic” to Foster, an only child of an older Sante Fe couple. Not long after their wedding he was diagnosed with ALS, and his decline was rapid and sure. We were visiting about six months after he’d lost he ability to walk, and several weeks before his death. No, you never really know what to say, or to talk about, so to fill the awkward spaces of silence I asked Foster about his dreams. “Running,” he said with drawn out effort, his words slurred by the disease. “All I ever dream about is running.” I wondered about Mariah’s dreams.

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Robbie’s little wren on the apex of the Shepherd’s crook.

• Robbie and Harland were sitting on their deck when I arrived late in the afternoon. “He’s still at it,” Harland said as I carried the chair up the hill and joined them for a few moments before starting for home. Sure enough, there on the Kon Tiki lantern was Robbie’s wren, tail angled at a sharp 45 degrees, as he tilted back with a song deep in his heart. Seconds later he flitted up to the apex of the Shepherd’s crook, his highest point of the many perches he preferred, looking this way and that, singing his song of the ages. I wondered why. I wondered how could he keep this up without seemingly ever stopping, day after day, all summer long. Was he singing a warning? Re-establishing on a constant basis that this beautiful deck surrounded by wood was indeed his marked territory? Or, perhaps, was he simply uncomfortable with silence?




A Miscommunication?

Since I’m not a Gold Finch, I have no more love for thistles than many of my neighboring farmers despite the colorful purple blooms. There, the start of my story …

About this time a year ago an older man arrived in the farmyard with a threat: If I didn’t take control of those colorful blooming thistles in my restored native prairie I would be subject to both a fine and the cost of having the prairie mowed by an outsider. That’s where the SWCD man came through, for he convinced the County weed cop that the thistles would help provide necessary “fuel” for the proposed prairie burn we would do this following spring.

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The lush prairie in a sunset a few days before the cutting.

So the weed cop relented. And we had a very good prairie burn, and as happens following a burn, a gorgeous and lush regrowth of both forbs and grasses followed. Yes, and thistles. For a few weeks the eight acre restored prairie was a mixed blanket of purple and yellow, each providing color and background for the other. Indeed, after that initial growth a most colorful mixture of other prairie flowers began poking from the ground. Cone flowers. Different varieties of native wild clovers. Clumps of beebalm were scattered all through the emerging grasses. Big Bluestem was close to heading out, and there even were a few instances of its signature “turkey foot” seed head dancing in even the slightest breeze along the trails we have continued to cut through the upper and lower prairies. Yes, and the thistles.

I’ve been expecting the weed cop to show any day to once again bellow his threat. Then, on the Fourth of July, one of our neighbors came through with a rake and baler to bale the shoulders of an adjoining road ditch. I jumped into the car and went with an offer … my ditch shoulder hay in exchange for his topping off the thistles. The idea came after a motor trek through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where it was obvious this is what they had done.7-8-17 myprairie3

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said the man over the noise of the tractor he was using to rake windrows of mown fescue and brome, the common ditch bank plantings in the area. We shook hands on the deal.

There was no word or cutting of either the road ditch or the prairie since, and with each passing day I expected a visit. Who would arrive first? Weed cop or farmer? Finally the farmer pulled up in his pickup and rapped on the door. “I’m here to cut those thistles,” he said, and then filled me in on his frightening moment on the rather steep approach to our driveway on the north side.

“Remember, what I need done is for you to top off the thistles and leave the rest standing.”

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Acres of grasses and wold flowers …

He nodded, and said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Once again, we shook hands on the deal.

While working in the studio a little later the sound of his tractor came from the north side of the grove. I then left for an appointment in town. When I returned he was about to head into the lower prairie, which is when I noticed that he was not topping off the thistles as we had agreed. Rather he was mowing the prairie as if it were hay. From the narrow strip of prairie facing our deck all the way up the hill toward the upper prairie the once lush prairie was laying flat just inches from the ground. I was stunned, and felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. What didn’t he understand about our two conversations? Our deal? How could he have misunderstood my requests? It was really too late to say or do anything, for the damage was done for the most part.

A few hours later my friend, Wanda Berry, arrived for a dinner she wouldn’t eat. “It was just starting to look like a Monet painting out there,” she tearfully lamented, adding that she hadn’t been this upset even when she sold her home in Robbinsdale to move back to the prairie. Later she would walk through the damage picking up cut morsels to create a “cut flower” bouquet.

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What didn’t the mower understand about our conversation?

Yes, I made a posting on a social media site about what had happened, and many friends from around the countryside responded, mainly to suggest that we should relax, that it will grow back. That I realize, yet all that lushness is laying flat on the ground. The support was lovely, yet they had not nurtured this prairie for four years. They hadn’t fought the near takeover of sprouting Chinese elms that the hot controlled burn seem to kill, of the long effort to get a good propagation of beebalm going throughout the acreage. Nor had they listened to the pheasant families that had taken roost and raised families in that grass.

Regardless, the clipping at ground level wasn’t part of the deal. I realize there seems to be few people who respect a native prairie, or perhaps to even understand the necessity of perennial grasses. Otherwise there would likely be more than just one percent of the original prairie stretching from the plains of Canada to the Piney Woods of Texas. To some it’s just grass, a wasted bit of land that should be in some commodity crop. Something useful. That isn’t the case for us here on this little oasis of native prairie, miscommunication or not.

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Wanda and her “cut flower” bouquet of the yellow cone floswer, beebalm, native clovers and Big Bluestem..

“What I don’t understand,” said Wanda, “is that he knew what you wanted. You told him twice, yet he went right ahead and leveled it right down to the ground. If he realized he couldn’t do it, why didn’t he just stop and tell you? Why did he just keep right on mowing it down?”

I could offer no answers. Some days are like that. And, yes, sometimes there is miscommunication. All I could offer was that this time there wasn’t.