Only a Prairie

Once again I was overcome by a gut-wrenched sadness when walking through my Listening Stones Farm prairie the other night, for I couldn’t help thinking what might have been, of what was lost and will likely never be regained. Here’s the back story: 

Back in 2017 we did a prairie burn. Our local fire department was hired to do the honors, which came with what seemed like an exuberant boast when one of the fireman excitedly exclaimed, “This is great! No more pancake flipping!” Firemen apparently love playing with fire more than flipping flapjacks. Unfortunately I seriously doubt if enough native prairie exists around these parts to burn on three to four year cycles to offset their traditional fundraising efforts. Yet, what happened after the burn was simply incredible. The flush! 

Like some magical enchantment the burn was followed by a beautiful rejuvenation of the forbs and grasses, one of unmatched beauty in our prairie. A “tired” prairie had come back to a full-fledged life. Magnificent colors throughout, and particularly in the yellows. From one end of these 14 acres to the other the color and depth was unbelievable. The yellow was then followed by a beautiful purple, a purple that unfortunately came with a price. An unwanted attention, for these were the blossoms of a fearful “weed” commonly called “thistles.”

A few days prior to the cutdown, our Listening Stones Prairie was rich with colorful forbs, from one end to the other.

With the turning of the calendar page to July all of that came into jeopardy. Apparently a complaint was filed concerning the thistles with the county weed inspector by a local farmer who spreads poisons on the field abutting our prairie by tractor or plane each season (although I’ve never filed a complaint about his reckoning with pollinators). Coincidently a farmer with an agreement from the neighboring commodity farmer arrived to mow and bale the right-of-way roadside shoulder grasses for hay and was coming through with his mower. 

Earlier in the week we had traveled down to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where they had brought in a mower that had simply topped off the blossoms of the offending thistles while leaving the prairie grasses and forbs tall and intact. Removing the heads prevents the thistles from going to seed, and eventually eliminates them from the prairie. What a wonderful idea, and one which was approved by the county weed inspector. So I stopped to chat with the man with the mower and explained what I needed done.

“What I need,” I told him, “is simply to top off the thistles. I do not want my prairie grassed mowed. I need the mower high enough just to top off the thistle blossoms. Can you do that?”

This was the last of the “yellows” … leveled to the ground.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he said while removing his hat to wipe his sweaty brow with his shirt sleeve.

“Remember, the mower blade must be high enough that only the tops of the thistles are cut. Nothing more. That’s gotta be the deal.”

In our bartering agreement he was free to mow and bale the grasses on the roadside shoulders alongside my prairie.

On the afternoon he showed up with his mower I again went through the exact same instructions, and he said he completely understood both my reasoning and needs. He headed into the prairie as I left to head downriver for a meeting in Montevideo. When I returned home a few hours later he was down to his last two acres, and my heart nearly stopped. My entire prairie was leveled as if it was a hay field. From the upper prairie down through all but the last couple of acres left on the lower. All of the flowering forbs were clipped and layered in with the grasses, all flat against the ground.

“Our agreement was that you were just topping off the thistles?” I yelled at him after running down his tractor.

“This is as high as my mower would go?”

“Why in the hell didn’t you recognize that and stop?”

Our same prairie today, a prairie that has never fully recovered from the mowing in 2017.

He shrugged as if nothing was amiss. It was just grass. Prairie grass, translated to say it meant absolutely nothing to him. Another neighbor suspected his intent was to eventually bale it for hay. What other use of prairie grasses is there? When he pulled out with his mower that was the last I’ve seen or heard from him. He didn’t even return to rake and bale the roadside brome he had leveled.

My prairie has never recovered. That prominent yellow has not been seen since, although there was hope that after our burn last spring during the pandemic that there might be a bounce back. There wasn’t, and I was reminded of that while walking through with my camera the other night. Present were ample purple and white prairie clover. Bee balm was scattered throughout, too. A handful of yellow daisies. Literally, in all 14 acres. This was not our colorful prairie of the past.

A sunrise when the prairie was in its full glory …

There couldn’t have been any miscommunication. My intent was made clear twice before he put the mower into the prairie. Yes, I agree that I should move along and get over it, yet it was about this time in 2017 when the inquiry about topping off the thistles was made. A gloomy anniversary, at best. All with the experience and knowledge that in no two years will a native prairie ever look alike. 

My interconnected paths through the upper and lower prairie are frequently taken with a camera in hand, and on this night as the evening settled in I ventured out once more and the memory of that fiasco hit home once more. This time with more force than normal. To date I’ve never sued anyone, and this incident was as close as I’ve ever come. Yet the reality is that I wouldn’t have won. Not in this commodity-rich cropping landscape, and not against a fancy attorney whose primary argument would be, “It was only a prairie.” 


Have you ever played tag with a Yellow Warbler? On an otherwise lazy afternoon the small bird tagged me by flitting into the young cottonwood next to our camper, jumping from branch to branch as if the smooth bark was coated in Tabasco. I say “he” because of his striking, bright yellow color. Colorful and bright colors in birds seems more common to the male of a given species than of a female. So I reached for my camera. Game on!

He had the advantage of the thick layers of leaves to flit and hop through, to hide with but a momentary peek over or through the foliage. Just when I thought I had him spotted and raised the camera lens to focus, he’d be off toward another hideaway. Then, just as quickly came a flash of yellow and he’d be off to another tree or to snuggle down to hide in the grasses blanketing the prairie of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Our little game would last off and on for parts of three days. For there comes a time when you realize there are fish to be caught or hillsides to explore.

Our simple goal was to practice trailer camper camping before a forthcoming two-week trip to Oregon and Washington, and to conveniently meet a branch of my Missouri family who had briefly interrupted their summer “Auntie Tour” to check out the Laura Engels Wilder haunts for their curious nine year old daughter, Lucy, who is an avid reader like most of our family tribe. Her great grandmother, and my aunt, created a bit of a reputation in her elderly years by purchasing book collections from decommissioned small town libraries. Her spacious garage contained rows of tables holding the books that she offered to any family member with an interest.

A pair of Chipping Sparrows did the honors of grabbing my attention away from the flashes of yellow!

Fortunately there were other distractions beyond the shy warbler. A pair of Chipping Sparrows captured my interest off and on, as did a frequent visit of a noisy Dickcissel that loved to grasp onto the highest naked perch of a barren shrub to rare back and sing as loudly as possible. It wasn’t beyond the imagination to suspect of some karma-influenced inheritance from some famous operatic soprano. There was simply no holding back of the Dickcissel. There never is.

Then, out of nowhere, came a warbler-sized mostly black bird with reddish stripes. I can now add an American Redstart to my birder’s list. Redstarts seem to have some kinship to the Yellow Warbler for it too loved to flit from branch to branch, and was just as adept at finding hideaways. Over the course of our second afternoon of tag I was able to make several brief sightings, and my quickest focusing was simply not quick enough. Neither of my two images were in focus.

Just as I was beginning to relax Mary alerted me to a new flash of yellow. Ah, yes. Goldfinches were also in the neighborhood! How could one forget? Within the blink of an eye and the leafy tree foliage it was difficult to distinguish which was which, then the male and female finches burst from the canopy and did one of those rolling tangled flights that only small birds seem able to maneuver; flights that make you wish for a nice movie camera so you could hopefully do a slo-mo later on to catch the actual acrobatics! 

A Dickcissel provided nearly a constant musical accompaniment throughout our game of tag!

Then came another flash. Whatever it was … Goldfinch or Yellow Warbler … was difficult to see. Perhaps a couple of leaves would wiggle out of the thousands that rose from a low hanging branch upwards to the top of the tree some forty feet above us. All with thick, leafy curtains that would give comfort to the shyest introvert. 

Yes, it was the warbler. And, no. Not a chance of being open long enough for a focus. A former colleague who eventually became a professor of photojournalism at a Denver-area university even sent a text message: “Auto focus!” When I offered a smite of protest he quickly answered, “Yeah, well I, too, only do manual focus.” Just for a kick, though, I tried it, with the focus bouncing around so much due to a prairie breeze tossing around the leaves that dizziness set in. 

So it was back to manual and the fate of aged reflexes. Years ago on a bluff overlooking a lake ravine near Annandale I played tag with a Blackburnian Warbler, my first ever sighting. That time I had a bit of an advantage, for I was younger with quicker reflexes, it was the middle of May and the leaves were in the budding stage. Though he was another nervous warbler I was able to capture numerous images before he tired of the game and disappeared into the distance. 

Finally, on the third morning, the Yellow Warbler was caught in our game of tag, and he seemed to sing, “It was the dew, Dingbat!”

Fortunately I’ve a somewhat recent habit of awakening quite early in the morning. Usually around 5:30 at the latest, and since we’re past the Summer Solstice this is just before sunrise. By the time I settled in with a cup of morning tea I’d had some fun working to capture a dawn fog hugging the prairie around a tipi next to our camper, so I had my camera handy when the minuscule yellow flash of bird suddenly appeared on a branch above my chair. Perhaps I can thank the fate of time for I was able to get in focus and grab a couple of photographs before he slipped through the leaves to head into the adjacent prairie grasses and shrubs.

The sort of evened the score. I was only behind something like 40 to 2 over the two days and heading into the third, yet it was just enough to up my game. Within moments he hopped up onto a prairie shrub, first turning this way, then that before hopping around to face the opposite direction, then flash … he disappeared into the grass. Suddenly he was back up on a nearby plant stem. My focus was just on when he decided to go airborne. And, I got my image! All the while he was chattering warbler language, which I actually translated to say, “It was the dew, Dingbat!”