Veronica's Garden

I originally started this blog to promote my novel, Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. Now I write essays and poetry about everything, including the Flint Hills, healing, parenting, etc. WARNING: emotional content, sometimes intense. Read at own risk of feeling.

Category: Veronica

Veronica on Winter’s End

Rachel’s had a difficult week, and doesn’t feel like writing tonight. There’s so much writing to be done, but so many expectations to fulfill (though, strangely, when I ask her who holds such expectations, she can never seem to provide a name). She didn’t have a vehicle much of the week, and she’s been trying to get someone to dig up her sewer pipe and replace it, with snow on the ground. So she asked me to write tonight in her stead.

At first I thought, not much happening this time of year. Every creature is still holding its breath, waiting for the days to get just a little longer, just a little warmer. But that’s really not true at all. The juncos (Junco hyemalis), also called snowbirds, have been active and visible all winter, and they are still here for a couple more weeks. The cardinals are nesting, as evidenced by their cheery song. A flock of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) flew over, in a northwesterly direction, marking the full moon. I’ve always wanted to see them on the ground, but to date they have invariably eluded me, rising up and continuing their long migration before I arrive at whatever avian rest area they’ve been reputed to frequent. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to see them over my head, as they fly to the far north to nest.

And the garden? Well, if you’d leaned close to the ground at just the right moment, after the snow melted, you might have been injured by a garlic sprout shooting up so fast you wouldn’t see it until it poked you in the eye. They’re fully two inches tall now. Well, they were yesterday afternoon, who knows, by now they may be two or three times that height. When the year is winding down, I have to force myself to plant garlic; but its appearance in the early spring brings tears to my eyes, it’s such a relief after the interminable winter.

So that’s what we have this week. Rachel will be back next week, one way or another. The current difficult lunation will pass, she’ll get her meds straightened out, and spring will save us all, eventually, as it always does.

What signs of life are stirring in your neighborhood?

I don't have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

I don’t have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

Wes Jackson on Earth As Organism

Driving Into Sunset

“I don’t think that it is proper to say that the earth is an organism. An atom is an atom. A molecule is a molecule. A cell is a cell. A tissue is a tissue. An organ is an organ and an organism is an organism. Going up the hierarchy, we can say an ecosystem is an ecosystem and the earth is the earth. I believe that those who insist on calling the earth an organism are doing so because they happen to be organisms.”

–Wes Jackson, Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth

Waves of Autumn Migrants

Monarch butterflies have come and gone, on their journey through Kansas and on to Mexico. It’s been perhaps two weeks since I’ve seen a live one. The lepidopterists say that any stragglers at this point would be unlikely to make it.

They’ve been replaced by Franklin’s gulls, making their semi-annual flyover. They don’t come down, so I never get a picture. But I love to see them every fall, on their way down from the Canadian plains. I wave to them as they pass, and call out, “Have a good winter in Texas! See you next spring!” I saw hundreds at a time this week, but only a couple dozen today. I think their migration has peaked.

They’ll be followed, maybe next week, by the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures like to warm themselves and stretch their wings in the sun of a morning, but days are getting shorter, and the mornings are getting chillier. One of these sunny days, soon, they will rise up, fly south, and keep going.

Whenever I search for information about vulture migration, I find some sites about the west coast, and some, such as this one, from the east. But if anyone in Kansas is watching turkey vultures, s/he is keeping her observations to herself. I watch for them, take pictures if I can, and will report to you, dear readers, when I see them leaving.

The Latest Bloomer on the Tallgrass Prairie

One of my favorite prairie wildflowers is white heath, or heath aster, scientifically known as Symphyotrichum ericoides or Aster ericoides. It is a hardy perennial, easy to transplant and grow, but, though it is said in books to bloom August-October, I’ve never seen a hint of a bloom before mid-September. Until that magical moment, white heath looks like an unsightly weed, towering above the polite cultivars blooming prettily through the summer.

Most vigilant gardeners I know cannot bear to wait that long, to tolerate a spiky plant doing nothing whatsoever useful before the autumnal equinox. Their hands itch to take up that weed and toss it prematurely in the compost. Do not try to talk them out of it. Nobody likes that, and nobody likes this plant. Let it have a forgotten, less conspicuous location, an out-of-the way place that most people don’t see. A place nobody bothers to trim the weeds because the public won’t know they’re there. That’s the kind of place where white heath flourishes, out of sight and out of mind, until its very late moment of glory. Long after you’ve forgotten about it, when some odd errand calls you out behind the fence or over by that last tree, you’ll be startled by the explosion of white. It’s too early for snow, so that can only be the glorious white heath, at last -at long, long, last, finally, blooming!

White heath and its relatives, such as New England aster, were used by several Native American tribes for a variety of purposes. White heath in particular was used as a smoke-producing plant in sweat baths, as well as for reviving an unconscious person. See Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, for more on medicinal uses of asters.

And if you’re out in the Flint Hills, do look for this lovely flower. It’ll be around for us to enjoy until the frost.


Lepidoptera, and Their Cousins

We’ve had spring rains this year, which means that it’s turning out to be a good year for butterflies. They deserve it, after the last two years of extreme heat and drought. In my last post about butterflies, I showed the three I see most commonly; the American lady, the pearl crescent, and the buckeye. I have since confirmed the white lepidopteran shown in that post to be a cabbage white, Pieris rapae.

Since then, I’ve caught a good photo of the other white butterfly who visits the flower garden. This one is similar to the cabbage white, and related, but not altogether the same; that is, the checkered white, Pontia protidice.

The American lady has a cousin who resembles her, whose common name is the red admiral. They are both Vanessas: the lady is Vanessa virginiensis; the admiral is Vanessa atalanta.

When the spectacular great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele, drops in, she’s usually pleased to show off her lovely silver spots.

But I’ve had the most difficulty identifying her cousin, who is much more shy of the camera. I barely get an aim, much less focus, before she’s off to some other bloom, leaving me, far more often than not, with nothing more than a picture of a flower. After perusing at length my antique Nature Library Volume 6, Butterflies, I finally found a picture that matched the bits of wing I managed to get into some of my photos; and learned that the variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, takes her Genus name from the Greek word meaning “easily scared.”

None of these lepidopterans are particularly unusual, or remarkable, as butterflies go; they’re just little bits of the daily miracle that is life here in the Flint Hills, Kansas, on this lush and living planet, Earth.


Salsify Seeds

Salsify seedhead

When a fairy wishes to make a journey by air, one might hitch a ride on a salsify seed.

Two days after I posted about transplanting salsify to a flower bed, one of the buds opened into this stunning seedhead. I’d seen them before but hadn’t ever taken a closer look. I probably photographed it a bit early, because later every one of those seeds had put out its own parachute. Fully open, the seedhead has a graceful symmetry, more complex and lovelier than the dandelion to which I previously compared it. A few hours yet later, and they were all gone.

Salsify, Tragopogon dubius

Today’s pretty flower is another of our guests here in North America, and, as far as I can tell, not one who makes herself particularly useful. Salsify is considered to be edible, though other species are more commonly eaten than dubius, which I’ve concluded is the one I have here. It does have a thick taproot, which is the part one would eat; the greens are sometimes considered edible as well. As for medicinal value, I believe this is the first plant I’ve researched for which I find none whatsoever.

I transplanted one to a flower bed today, just because I find the bloom pleasing to look at, and the seeds will be displayed in a manner equally striking. If you imagine a dandelion in her explosive seedy glory, perhaps mutated to be several times typical size, then you approximate the salsify seedhead.

This specimen was growing in a gravelly matrix, hardly worthy of the word soil. She was with some daisy fleabane, which you can see in the pictures. I put them together in the flower bed, so they wouldn’t miss each other. I don’t yet know if they will like their new home; I’ll have to wait and see.

Update: Two days later, this plant opened a seedhead. It’s as exciting as the bloom. See the picture here: Salsify Seeds.

Flint Hills Geology

I just came across this wonderful post on the geologic history of the Flint Hills.

Site Research Part 1: A Natural History of the Flint Hills

Don’t you just love geology? Oh, well, I suppose that’s another way that I’m odd. Take a look and see if you catch the bug.

The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part IV

We conclude our story of the quiet sisters. Click to see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.


The next day I was restless. I felt anxious, knowing my sister was going to leave, that she was going to do something forbidden, and that I didn’t know what it was. What if we had left some clue in our father’s study? At any moment he might find it and know that we had been there. What would I tell him? I’d never been a good liar, never been good at making up a story under duress.

Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about my sister. I was fantasizing about where she might be going, about going with her. I didn’t usually allow myself this luxury; I kept my mind present in the moment at hand. There were all kinds of mistakes to be made by not being mindful. There was important information that could be missed, even if I didn’t know what use it would come to.

Imagining her paddling down the river, though, I thought of the hazards of the river. I didn’t know what strange people might do to her, what dangers lay in cities, but I knew that even a person experienced in the ways of water could be injured. Her canoe could capsize, or she could get caught on a low-hanging tree. She could get cut by her knife or a fishhook. I went into the kitchen and made a healing salve.

I started with echinacea, for immune support, and comfrey leaves to speed healing. I added some essential oils for their anti-microbial properties. I went outside (in the daylight!) and found some tender green plantain leaves on the south side of the residence, protected from the coldest wind and deep snow. I cut some leaves from the potted aloes in the conservatory. I infused and filtered and mixed it all into a base of rich cocoa butter.

I knew there was no magic in the world, but I pretended I was a witch, or an alchemist. Wherever this salve touched my sister’s body, it would protect her from harm.

I made a fragrant herbal tea for my father, to cover the aromas rising up from the kitchen. He was at the desk, head bent down, forehead resting in one hand. He did not acknowledge my offering.


My sister smiled when I silently gave her the tin of salve. She opened it and held it to her face to absorb its fragrance, and she knew what it was for.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll miss you,” I said, simply.

“I too,” she replied. “It’s been a long time.”

I didn’t ask if she were coming back, or when.

I heard a distant low rumble. “Car.”

She looked toward the road, though it was out of sight from us. But then we could see the faint flicker of headlights through the trees. We held our breath. It could be anyone, for any reason. But it was unusual for cars to drive on this road, and as often as not, when they did, they were coming to our house, bringing men in dark suits who would go into the study with our father, to speak behind the heavy doors in voices too low for us to hear.

It wasn’t until after we had watched the lights move past, and on around the curve beyond the residence, that we let out our breath.

She finished wrapping her things into a bundle, and placed it in the front of the canoe. “If I had more time, I’d smooth the inside better. But I did have time for this.” She brought me to the front of the craft, to see a primitive rabbit carved into the wood. She had carved another into the freshly cut wood of her paddle. “She’ll be my talisman. I’ll be safe as long as I have her protection.”

I willed myself to believe it, even as I knew that there were no guarantees, no true protection anywhere in the world. But it would help me when she was gone, to think of rabbit magic surrounding my sister.

“Listen,” I said. There was another car. We looked at each other wordlessly. Two cars so close together was rare. Before its vibration had passed, though, the sound rose again. There was another vehicle behind it, followed by another. Something was happening. Not knowing what, my mind raced through possibilities. My father had found out we were in his study, or my behavior had been suspicious. Or maybe my sister had been watched since before she came here, and they were just now coming to get her, to take her away.

The way they had taken our mother.

“You have to go now.”


We pushed the canoe into the water, slogging through mud until it was in water deep enough to float with her weight in it. My clothes would be covered in mud, but it couldn’t be helped. Just before the canoe caught the current of the river, my sister jumped into it, raising the paddle to balance the sideways jiggle. Settling down into the canoe, she looked back at me for a moment, then turned to the water ahead of her. The last I saw of her was her back, cloaked and hooded in black, as she steered herself into the current of the river. I watched her float away, as water swirled around my feet.

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