A Strange Silence

There’s been a death in the neighborhood. She was most lively especially with the fading of winter, when she brought much life and joy to a prairie springtime. She made her home just down the road. This time of year, in the midst of what we call a calendar year, she was awkward in dress with sometimes a shriveled skin, yet come autumn … especially in a wet autumn … she would seemingly bounce back.

Birds loved her, especially in the spring. This past spring a pair of Sandhill Cranes briefly stopped by. Geese came by the dozens. Ducks. Wading birds. Gulls and terns. She loved her frogs, too. Come autumn, her life through the accompanying harvest seemed to become more engaging as new goose families would drop in for a brief rest. Sometimes three or four. Other times a half dozen, and maybe more. Depended on how many of the newly hatched had survived the snapping turtles, coyotes and other predators that skim their hopeful hideaways.

ghost

The glacier gave us many wetlands, potholes, sloughs (whatever you call them), and now more than 99 percent of them are gone … tiled, ditched and drained.

As soft down gave way to emerging feathers, and the molting of the parent birds that seemed to magically coincide with that phenomenon of maturity, the short flying stints began. No long distance flying yet. And they would come to her, and sometimes waddle into the harvested field for random kernels of grain that slipped past the gear works and screens of those huge harvesters that arrive as wide as the road they tread.

Earlier this week the first oversized semi-truck lumbered down that same road as did the tillers, planters and later the combines. It stopped near her and a man climbed from the cab and began working the hydraulics that somehow detached the main portion of the trailer from the tractor. As he did so, two more semis and trailers bearing different but huge gouging equipment arrived, as did smaller trucks hoisting largely coiled rolls of black drainage tile. Shortly another worker emerged from a pickup truck to balance a laser unit on a tripod.

Then, without further ado, the various workers with their neonish shirts and vests climbed aboard their different machines and all the equipment lumbered into the soybean field. And her death was imminent.

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Some Springs she covered many acres, and in others not so much. Usually by fall, unless it was a wet summer and fall, she was dry.  She was, in truth, a small wetland.

She was a small wetland. Some years when the spring rains didn’t come she was planted over, though yields from those small acres undoubtedly were smaller than the average of the unsaturated acreage. These past few years, though, years that have been called “overly wet”, prairie winds created waves of water left standing in the wetland well into summer and sometimes even freezing over in winter. Those were the autumns when the goose families would arrive before joining forces with the flocks of the main migration.

It was in the spring when this little wetland, no more than a few acres and barely a couple feet deep, came to life as the migration along this flyway of Minnesota River was so vivid and alive. A call was made to the farmer this spring after the Sandhills arrived. On my walk the morning after a rain their footprint tracks were mired in the softened mud alongside the shoulder of the road adjacent to her. The following dawn their unmistakable bugling was heard through the opened bedroom window, and later, after waking, we witnessed their lifting from the wetland and flying across a marshy area seen from the kitchen window. When he was told of the sighting he said, “Oh, cool! Hopefully they will stay.”

That they didn’t likely had no influence on his decision to tile the wetland, to drain the last vestige of mystery from his portion of the cropped quarter section. The workers did a thorough job. A couple of rings were made, first around her outer circumference and then a smaller more concentrated ring a few meters closer to the middle, and finally a very large pipe was dug into the muck right through the middle of her, from one end to the other. The dagger, if you will, right through the heart.

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A couple of rings were made, first around her outer circumference and then a smaller more concentrated ring a few meters closer to the middle, and finally a very large pipe was dug into the muck right through the middle of her, from one end to the other. The dagger, if you will, right through the heart.

This morning there were only tracks of where the machines had been along with the scars across her bow. Come spring all that will be blended into the quilt of commodity, and she will no longer be a visible rest stop for the migrating birds. My neighbor’s “eyesore” and the angst he must surely have felt over the years will be as forgotten as the missing of her will be to those of us who took notice and appreciated the brief magic she gave us … and those before us perhaps since the melting of the glacier … as part of a balance of life and nature. A nature of a vanished ecosystem scholars have labeled as the “prairie pothole region” of Western Minnesota.

She was just a wetland, a prairie pothole, a seasonal slough, (whatever the name), and another of the millions like her that have succumbed to corporate agriculture through the years. Yes, she has joined the 99 percent of her sisters that have likewise been tiled, ditched and drained for as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but feel a sense of sorrow. Sisters of her have met similar fate across our nearby but former prairie these past few months, including three just up the hill on our country road. She was more personal, though, for she was close by.

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Birds loved her, especially in the spring. This past spring a pair of Sandhill Cranes briefly stopped by. Geese came by the dozens. Ducks. Wading birds. Gulls and terns.

Like any death in the neighborhood, she will be missed. Her varied voices … of the Sandhills, the migrating ducks and geese, of the explosive rise of the gulls, of the spring peepers and other vocal though latently invisible amphibians … all those voices of her uniquely individual nature are now silenced. It will be a strange silence.

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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.

2 thoughts on “A Strange Silence

  1. Pingback: A Strange Silence | Listening Stones Farm

  2. John, You did a beautiful job of describing what so few of us give enough thought to… the disappearing wetlands. My husband has noticed for years… sad 😦

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