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.

Tag: prairie

Snow In May

Dear friends, it is I, Veronica Speedwell. Perhaps you thought you’d heard the last from me; But no. Spring positively requires poetry about flowers, and that is a job for me, whether Rachel likes it or not.

Snows of the Prairie

White fluff falls from the sky
of a glorious early spring day.
Cottonwood seeds catch the breeze:
Snow in May

The sunflowers peak and die back—
summer’s last ember.
White heath breaks into bloom!
Snow in September.

white heath by fence

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Costa Rica Diary: Hanging Bridges in the Matrix of Life

The Monteverde area has many more ecotourism parks and reserves than it did twelve years ago. Andrea at La Colina Lodge recommended Selvatura Park for a zip line tour, but they have much more to do there than that. We took a walk in the bridges hanging in the cloud forest before our zip line adventure. It might sound pedestrian (no pun intended), but I’d rank it among my favorites of all the wonderful activities we did in Costa Rica.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s wet in the cloud forest. It’s not like the ethereal fog we have infrequently in Kansas. It’s like the air is hypersaturated with moisture. You get thoroughly wet just being in it. We couldn’t quite decide if it was sprinkling or not, and half of us put up the hoods on our rain jackets, half did not. Though there were other people around, we let them walk past us, and lingered in the quiet. We saw a slate-throated redstart and emerald toucanets, and other birds that I wasn’t able to identify.

Epiphytes grow everywhere. Wherever a seed or spore can land, it can grow. Trunks of trees are covered in shades of green, from so many kinds of plants that they would defy counting. The hanging bridges connect the steep sides of the mountains, so we walked among the clouds, wisps of which swirled silently among the trees. Looking down, I’d see a fern with leaves longer than my arms; when I’d crossed the bridge and come down the slope a bit, I could see that huge fern was growing from a crook in a tree, twenty feet off the ground. With so much water, who needs soil to grow in?

In my beloved tallgrass prairie, soil is the source from which springs everything that lives. There are insects and animals in the grass, and in the sky, and in the rivers and ponds; but the grass that anchors it all comes from the soil. It’s a thin but incredibly rich source of nutrients and moisture and the microorganisms that make other life forms possible. Old gardeners will tell you that the key to gardening is to feed the soil. Poets and scientists speak of soil in reverent tones. Soil is the matrix of life.

Monteverde cloud forest is so saturated with water everywhere, that the entire ecosystem itself is that matrix, from the soil up through the underbrush, and on up, two hundred feet into the tops of the trees. Many of the forest’s creatures rarely or never even touch the earth. If the prairie’s soil is a two-dimensional plane, the cloud forest is life exploding into three dimensions.

Amidst this fecundity, my Costa Rica story began to conceive itself. My character would have to journey from San Jose to the cloud forest. (There would be similarities to Maeve’s journey to the prairie, don’t you think?) I told Kevin about this as we walked, and he suggested mixing in some study of botanical medicines. Yes, I thought, she would be sick, seeking healing that couldn’t be found in civilization. What kind of illness? What sickness can only cloud forest heal? Forests are the lungs of the earth, so it would be a lung ailment, one which becomes more prevalent as the forests are inexorably razed. Somehow that led to the question of to what extent plot is necessary. Some authors (myself not included) excel at plot; I find myself moved more by other elements, as a reader and writer. Some books I’ve loved didn’t have much plot. We thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example of a story with not a lot of plot, but a journey.

If I were to make my story a heroic journey, then the heroine would have eventually to go back to her home, to bring newly acquired wisdom to share with her people. What form would that take? What wisdom will she find, and how will she share it?

I’d thought, I can’t write about this place without being here for a while, living in Costa Rica for months, learning the language and studying the culture. I’ll put this story on the back burner. But once I start talking about a story with Kevin, it takes on a life of its own. The story has no regard for my timelines and preferences. The story does not care that I don’t belong here, that I have deep roots and commitments elsewhere, that my eyes haven’t yet learned how to see this place. The story wills itself to being through me, its vessel. The story has magical power I cannot constrain, especially in this fertile matrix of life.

The Bees Know

I know I’ve said it before, but white heath is my favorite late-season native wildflower. When all the other flowers have spent themselves, white heath is just getting started. White heath keeps going till the last minute, when the themometer hits 32 on some early morning in October. White heath is always the last flower to leave the party of the tallgrass prairie summer.

Everybody hates white heath, except me. I have finally convinced the people who wield the weed whackers around here not to whack it, but I keep a few in out-of-the-way places, just in case. There’s a big patch this year by the compost, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it, after all. The honey bees appreciate it. There aren’t a lot of flowers left, and most of the others peaked a week ago, or more. It’s a glorious, sunny, warm day today, but there won’t be many more of these, and the bees know to make the most of every bit of pollen they can gather before the cold sets in.

I am not so industrious. I struggle to match my energy to the time available. I have gotten some good work done on my studio renovation this week, but it’s far from ready, and I didn’t really get anything done today.

Tomorrow I’ll take a lesson from the bees, I promise. The bees know.

And Yet More Prairie Burning. This Time At Night.

I talked a little about the ecology of controlled burns on the prairie, and posted some photos, and thought I might be done with burning for this year. (Though it’s possible the fire bug has bitten me, and I will be out doing this every spring, as long as I live in the Flint Hills.) But late yesterday afternoon as I sat at the computer, I could see through the window smoke billowing up from behind the fairgrounds across the highway. As twilight set in, I was preparing dinner, and just as I was setting it on the table, Kevin came in and told us all to go outside and look. We could see ribbons of flames stretching across the hills, too close not to go have a look. I quickly took the food off the table so the cat wouldn’t get into it, then loaded the kids into the car.

My magic device from the future isn’t really equipped to take night photos, but it does surprisingly well, considering that the first camera I owned would have required special film (measured in inches), and manually twisting some dials to get anything at all, and then you’d have to take the film into a special little room and dip it in stinky chemicals in total darkness. It sounds like some kind of joke, doesn’t it?

But here we are, and this is what I can get. The focus isn’t good when the light is poor, but I won’t complain if you won’t.

And a note to the kids’ teachers: Sorry if they’re tired today, some life experiences are more important than school.

More Prairie Burning

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.

Vulture and Flame: Spring In the Flint Hills

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.

Autumn Hiking In the Flint Hills

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.

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.

 

Maeve Walks the Prairie

Here’s a part of Post Rock Limestone Caryatids that Rachel decided to cut, believing that it did not advance the plot in any significant way. (Never mind that she sometimes wonders if the same could be said of every part of the book, and wondered if on this ground she ought to scrap the whole thing.) Oh Rachel, are we nothing more than automatons, bound to carry out the machinations of your imaginary plot? She assures me that she does care deeply for us, begging my pardon that she admittedly cares for her biological children somewhat more.
No matter, Maeve gets plenty of exposure in the book, but hasn’t had a lot here at Veronica’s Garden. Rachel may not have time for this bit, but I do.

***

In the middle of the day Maeve wanted to listen to some music. She thought of the Hutch Family song which had so moved her, so she asked the suit to play something from them, but it was having trouble accessing the web out here in the wilderness. It kept offering her alternatives from the built-in library, which enhanced Maeve’s understanding of the prefix nano. What did a 1950s folk song have to do with the Hutchinson Family? Why on earth was the suit trying to recommend “This Land Is Your Land?”

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream water
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a voice was chanting
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple
By the relief office, I seen my people
As they stood there hungry I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

She didn’t know what it all meant. She had to look up Woody Guthrie, who apparently had some connections to Communists. So was he making a comment on the ownership of private property? Looking around her, seeing the horizon in all directions, a couple blue jays squawking at her, the question of whether anyone could own all this seemed moot. Strange to think of a Communist who loved freedom so passionately.  She looked up “relief office.” It probably didn’t have anything to do with stress relief. . . . Maeve breathed a little sigh of appreciation when she found that Jabar had thought to upload an encyclopedia of history, one of his favorite subjects. It turned out that there had been a massive effort on the part of the United States government to alleviate the economic disaster of the Great Depression, which effort appeared to focus largely on banking, labor, and housing regulations and subsidies, but also fed people soup and employed them doing work that no one else wanted to pay people to do. What an interesting idea. The thought of government establishing programs with the sole purpose of helping people in need was completely foreign to her. She couldn’t figure out whose interest would be served by that. In the end she could only conclude (based on the limited information available) that someone (Franklin Roosevelt? the general population?) simply didn’t want people to starve, or to be left out in the cold. It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, but it was the best she could come up with.

The rhythm of the song was good for walking, though. She listened again and again, until she thought she could hear that voice rising up from the earth. This land was made for you and me. She thought she was on a long walk, but Woody Guthrie had walked so much more. She wondered if she would ever see those redwoods, or the sparkling desert sands, and what it had been like to see IRL those iconic features of this vast continent, on which she had spent so many years in a tiny dark room.

***

Rachel insists I add that, from her research, she believes that no one has a copyright claim on this song. If you believe you do, for heaven’s sake, please just tell us and we’ll remove it, and make our readers go to wikipedia for the lyrics. For everyone else, we hope that you read the whole song. The best verses are the ones most people don’t know.

Autumn Settling In

The weather has suddenly cooled. Today was lovely, sunny and mild, but the nights are chilly, and I’ve had to put another quilt on the bed.

Gulls have been making their semi-annual appearance. It’s been over a week since I saw the first, a group of perhaps a couple dozen; today I saw but one couple. They may be the last stragglers.

Turkey vultures are restless. I can feel that they will leave soon.

I saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher yesterday. I was surprised that it was still here. But, the scissor-tail’s migration is a fraction of the vultures’ so maybe they’re not in a hurry to leave.

I looked in the cabinet today and was surprised how many beans I have there. It’s almost as if I’ve unconsciously stored up for winter. Perhaps it’s possible after all for humans to follow the subtle promptings of the seasons, if we allow ourselves, and if we immerse ourselves in the sensory ocean of the natural world.

Why not dive in and see how it changes you?

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