Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: prairie

Witnessing the End

Autumn Hills

We were told that there would be difficulty,
betrayals, losses, and lack.
We expected to make sacrifices for
love and worthy causes. There
would be demagogues, tyrants, and
CEOs who lacked empathy.
And there would be beauty,
in a face or in art or in nature.
And we were taught to love these things,
to be comforted by them in times of
suffering. But did anyone tell you
there would be days you would
walk the streets openly weeping,
drowning in the world and the grief
of knowing you are witnessing the end.
It’s time to say goodbye to everything,
to giraffes and orcas, the butterflies
that migrate a thousand miles to share
warmth through the winter. To the wild
places that save us. To earth not driven
to hiding from relentless attack by those
who would plunder, extract, and leave
her for dead. And leave us for dead.
Say goodbye to life not owned by profiteers.
We were advised to remember
that time isn’t linear, and we are immortal
beings of light far greater than the
speck of dust we know here now. That
all these things we love are eternal,
in some way we cannot understand.
But still here I am, immersed in
sunlight on grassland in winter,
red-tailed hawk circling overhead.
And there’s a man from a city in Japan,
standing on the Kansas prairie weeping
to discover that there is still such beauty
in the world. Say goodbye to it all, my friend.
The voracious maw won’t stop until
every last drop of water has been tainted, every
wild animal eaten or caged. Every heart
and mind given over to the demagogue
and the masked man behind him. Say
goodbye with every breath and impulse,
every moment, every truck that passes
on the highway, every word or beat or
image clamoring for attention. Goodbye with
every step, walking hip deep in tall grass,
or pounding unyielding pavement of city streets,
or wandering the bright-lit aisles of a dollar store,
openly weeping.

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Flight of Unknown Birds

For Lent I gave up writing, and being a writer, and talking and writing about writing. A friend asked why, and I told her I couldn’t tell her until Easter. Truth was, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. But it turns out I’m not that good at keeping a Lenten vow, so here’s my answer.

The Flight of Unknown Birds

Coming over the ridge in the winter-golden hills
light angling toward the endless horizon
as it only does in late winter in Kansas.
How is it I have come to love this place
so deep in my viscera, rooted in me
in a place before words. Bald eagle lifting
into flight. Blood splattered on the road.

I should hit the brakes, grab my camera,
shoot, but I’ve done that before at this very spot,
more than once. No photo ever satisfies.
Only this moment itself can express
this moment. All beauty is unspeakable;
truth, inexpressible. In the back seat
my daughter bends her head to a book,
oblivious.

I have tried to quit writing for the spite of it.
Even walking away from certain failure,
I know I’ll come back. The light in winter,
the flight of unknown birds: all existence
is poetry. There can be no being apart from it.
I’ll write long after I’m dead, until my bones
disintegrate into the earth.

Winter Prairie 3

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

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.

 

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