Driving on KS highway 177 this afternoon, I saw twenty-two monarch butterflies heading south, as well as half a dozen or more little flyers that passed too fast for me to be sure they were monarchs. There’s only one time I see that many flying south: fall migration.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen more monarchs this year than last. While their numbers are plummeting throughout North America, here in Chase County, native milkweeds are still abundant, so we know monarchs who hatch and live here can find plenty of their host flower.
I’ve never gotten a good shot of a monarch, so here’s a cat picture.
While I was writing Post Rock Limestone Caryatids, I often thought of Jane Eyre. I’d read Charlotte Bronte’s classic while I was in college, many years ago, in Robin Behn‘s Women’s Literature class at Knox College. I remembered enjoying Jane Eyre in spite of the nineteenth-century language and morality. I loved the descriptions of nature, and the passionate romance. I flat out didn’t get why she couldn’t be with Mr. Rochester while he was still married, even as I wondered about the fact that he kept a crazy wife locked up in the attic.
Post Rock has been out for over a year now, and recently I picked up Jane Eyre and read it again. I had many thoughts about the difference between reading this book as a 19-year-old versus a 47-year old; but for today let’s just talk about long, descriptive sentences. Early on I noticed that those sentences were pretty much as I remembered them; I’d copied that style more than I’d even realized. It’s very different from the standard modern clipped prose, stripped of as much description as possible. It may well be that I loved the book not in spite of the nineteenth-century language, but because of it.
I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow: in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow!–when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down “ing” and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest in its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons.
Just for fun, let’s contrast that to a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006.
They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods.
Oh look, both the passages I just chose begin with sentences of 53 words. Nonetheless, you can easily see how different they are. It’s the difference between comparing a dormant tree to a skeleton, versus a pole. It’s the difference between being moved by intense passion, versus being beyond feeling any emotion whatsoever, the soul huddling under a blanket. Bronte lovingly describes a living landscape that sparkles, shrouds, wanders, and tears asunder; McCarthy writes a bleak, dead, wasteland, which simply exists.
Since it’s my blog, I can be so audacious as to take a passage from my own book for further comparison.
There were grass-covered hills in all directions, as far as she could see, not like CGI vermilion grass, but a whole palette of beiges and rusty reds, with only hints of yellowy green at the roots, as if it were hiding. Sable-black and deeply evergreen trees huddled in lines between the hills, but up high, there was nothing to break the horizon, the sky meeting the gentle slopes of the hills, coming all the way down to the human-littered valley behind her, laying over the land like a giant, dark, cloud-heavy dome. It appeared solid and impenetrable, and Maeve noted with irony that she felt almost claustrophobic, or was it the opposite, wasn’t she feeling a faint impulse to curl up and hide in the tall grass?
I didn’t quite make it to 53; the longest sentence is 51 words. It is long, still. But the Flint Hills roll on, layer after layer, and it takes a long sentence to speak them. I’m not Charlotte Bronte, it’s clear; but I do intend to keep writing and getting better, and I will write sentences as long or as short, as descriptive and adjective-laden, as passionate and emotionally intense as my subjects require.
What do you think?
I promised you some pictures of burning prairie, and here they are. I couldn’t get as close as I wanted, without going into privately owned pastures. From the road I did get some dramatic flames and some blackened ground and some distance shots of black and smoking horizons. Maybe next year I’ll talk to some ranchers and get out in their pastures when they’re burning.
Like the return of turkey vulture, prairie burning is a sign of spring in the Flint Hills. It isn’t the terrifying disaster some might imagine; the burns are lit intentionally to clear dead plant matter that would choke out new growth. From the blackened ground will emerge fresh grass, greener and more nutritious to the animals who graze here. It is considered an essential part of prairie stewardship, and it also raises the monetary value of a pasture. Prairie never burned or grazed by a hoofed animal eventually turns to woodland. Burning kills off the invasive trees, while the deep roots of the native grasses are left to send up new green shoots.
While I haven’t heard anyone criticizing the practice of burning the prairie, there is some debate about how often it ought to be done. Many ranchers burn annually, and profit from that practice. At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, they burn once every three years, and find that allows for greater diversity of plants, most notably, more wildflowers.
Weather conditions must be right for burning. Strong wind can blow the fire out of control. No wind allows it to burn out in all directions. A light, steady breeze is ideal, so that the flames advance in a predictable line, from one side of a pasture to the other. There may not be many days when the season and weather are right, so when they come, there’s a lot of burning all around. The smoke burns the eyes, and, even miles away, tiny bits of ash come falling from the sky.
Yesterday smelled like a camp fire, everywhere, all day. My client from Emporia reported smoke thick as fog on Highway 50. The fires at night are beautiful to see, but the day was preternatural and I couldn’t wait until dark. I went to the high spot at the scenic overlook, and though I didn’t see any blackened prairie, I got a few shots of the smoky hills.
It’s smoky again today, so maybe I’ll get a chance to photograph some actual flames. For now, here are some smoke shots, and I’ll post more later.
I was getting the kids ready for school, so I opened the door and poked my head out to check the weather. I was greeted by the most stunning sky I’d seen in –well, we get a lot of stunning skies here, so I guess it’s been nearly a week since we saw that moon halo. Nonetheless, to see such beauty in the western horizon at dawn is a delight that knocks on the door of the still-sleepy heart.
Sky photography is not my gift, and for years I wouldn’t even try; but the magic camera from the future goads me to attempt the impossible. Occasionally I get a little bit lucky.
We’re having an unusually early and very deep cold snap, but last week capped a lovely autumn. At the end of the kids’ Thanksgiving vacation, we went for a prairie walk with their grandma (“Baba”) at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Right away Kiran insisted she’d had enough of being with me and her sister over the previous five days, so I was free to walk ahead, listen to the quiet, and take photographic advantage of the prairie and the angle of the sun to the hills. The writer in me thinks I should tell a story, but all I seem to find are expansive horizons, light on grasses, dormant prairie flora in intimate contrast to distant, vibrant children. Reflections on a creek, more vivid than the tiny living fish hiding below the surface. It’s a story for pictures, not words.
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.
Sometimes before I go to bed, I step outside for a minute or two, just to listen and smell the air.
I can’t post an image of this. There’s no way to show the feeling of cool, humid night air on bare skin, or the sound of a single dog barking across the road.
You could come here. Come to the Flint Hills and we’ll sit quietly in the night together. Or, do it wherever you are. Step out your door into the darkness, and just be there for a while, doesn’t have to be very long. Then tell me what you find.
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.