Wednesday, November 26, 2008

People of Kansas

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a couple friends about Studs Terkel, the author whose specialty was to interview people from all walks of life and capture their thoughts and feelings in printed collections published as books. I've read several of his books, and there are several more calling to me.

Neither of my friends had read any of Studs Terkel's work, but they asked if I had ever heard of "Hatteberg's People"? I hadn't.

They explained that Larry Hatteberg was a reporter at one of the local television stations, and that he had been doing a series on people from around Kansas for years. It sounded a lot like Studs Terkel's work to them, but in a different medium.

This morning I finally got around to checking out their recommendation, and I'm hooked.

Here are two of my favorite interviews so far:

Harold Seipel has been the custodian and caretaker for Harper County Courthouse, one of the area's old courthouses, for 50 years now.

At 103, Martha Smith has the distinction of being the oldest librarian in the oldest library in Kansas. She's worked there since 1926.

These are lives lived deep and rich and embedded in their communities. They are almost the antithesis of modern life, but I have to believe they have important messages for us to consider about meaning and happiness and connectedness.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prairie Wings

I took my two canine walking buddies, Becker and Sunny, out back through the pasture late this afternoon. It was a gray afternoon, but the weather had warmed to a reasonable level and there was little wind.

As we walked, an orange marker caught my attention. I'd been debating leaving the flags until next spring, but now I went over to the long piece of wire and pulled on it. The damp soil released it easily, so I started slowly working my way through the grasses, pulling up every one I could find. It would make finding the emerging plants harder in the spring, but if we burned, I wouldn't be stuck with lumps of melted orange plastic on almost invisible wires all through the healing grassland.

Prairiewolf, who was out hunting, called on the cell phone, so I stopped to talk with him, facing north as I stood with the dogs wrestling at my feet. A movement caught my eye, a flash of white.

It was a female northern harrier. Her rich brown plumage tended to melt into the background of the leafless trees above the grass, but the white rump patch marked her every movement. I stood mesmerized as she skimmed along, just a few feet above the tops of the grasses, dipping from side to side, floating a bit, then taking a few wingbeats and doing a sudden abrupt turn-about to float back the way she'd just come. Every once in a while, she would hover for a bit, raising my hopes that she was about to stoop on a cotton rat in the grass, but she never did. They must have been taunting her, though, with brief glimpses or tempting rustlings, because she kept patrolling the same area over and over, sure that there would be an unwary tidbit for her if she was just persistent enough.

For a while I sat in the grass watching, my head at the same height as the seedheads of the silver bluestem. It made it harder to see her from far away, though, so eventually I abandoned that perspective and stood again.

Some neighbor teenagers pulled their truck to the back of their property and started target shooting, distracting my attention. By the time I looked for the harrier again, I couldn't find her, so I resumed my walk, pulling flags as I went. I caught a glimpse of her twice more, but never for long. I hope she feasted bountifully today; she certainly fed my spirit well as she shared time with me, however briefly.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Better Than A Garage Sale

Back in early August, I read a particularly intriguing post on Musement Park, one of the blogs I enjoy looking in on when I get a few minutes to browse the web. It was on freecycling, an updated form of passing on things you can't use to other people who can.

It took me a couple months, but I finally researched freecycling a little more and signed on to the local group. I'm hooked now.

The mission statement of the overarching organization is relatively simple and quite self-explanatory:

"Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community."

Here in Wichita, it works like this: You sign up with the local group, which is simply a Yahoo group. Besides requesting your e-mail and so forth, they ask that you make a VERY short statement explaining why you are interested in joining the freecycle network. (Note: I had to rewrite my statement about 5 times to get it short enough. Brevity is obviously of great value here.) The moderator takes a look at what you've said and, assuming you haven't written that you intend to rip off everyone you contact, admits you to the group. There is a series of "rules of the road" to read through, and you are off and running.

So far I've used the site to pass along 3 rather large items (a desk in need of repair, a sink and a gun cabinet) that were way too good to throw away, but hardly enough to hold a garage sale for. In all 3 instances, I had multiple responses and the hardest part was choosing who to reply to. Each time the item was gone in short order, best of all to someone who really seemed to be able to use it.

No money is ever involved. This is simply a process of gifting someone else with something they can use which you, for one reason or another, no longer have a use for yourself. I have seen everything from kittens, puppies and animal supplies to used magazines to furniture to clothing to food to building supplies to garden plants listed, and I've been a member for less than a month. It's almost worth a "what's the oddest thing you've seen offered - and taken" sort of article. At the very least, it's addicting to watch the continual parade of stuff.

Give it a try! You might be surprised what you can pass along...or find.

Coyotes and Red-Tails and Owls, Oh My!

Now that most of the leaves are gone from the trees and the cold weather is creeping in, I'm noticing a return of the major winter predators to our homestead.

Last Thursday was a particularly interesting day. When I took our puppy Sunny for an energy-release walk out in the back pasture, I noticed coyote scat (droppings), both old and new. Three sets of scat, to be precise. I'm assuming the coyotes have moved in to feast on the hispid cotton rats and other rodents that are making such glorious sets of runways through our grass back there.

On our way back to the house, I looked up to see a pair of red-tailed hawks in the trees of the draw. We had a pair that seemed to nest in the area late last winter, so this may be the same pair returning. I haven't seen them for most of the summer; I'm excited to have them back.

Last of all, that night we heard a pair of great horned owls calling to each other from the draw. We've had barred owls in the area ever since we moved in almost 2 years ago, but this is the first time we've heard great horned owls.

About 2 weeks ago, I found the mutilated body of a barred owl in our front yard. I didn't examine it too closely at the time, because I didn't want Becker going back to it and helping me "dispose of it" in his own special way. When I went out the next morning, sans Becker, to take a closer look, it was gone. I suspect the coyotes feasted on it somewhere during the night.

At the time, I was trying to decide how the barred owl had died. It was obviously wounded around the face in some way, based on the raw flesh that I could see (and the facial features I couldn't see) from about 30 feet away. I was concerned that a neighbor might have shot it but, without looking at it more closely, that was pure speculation. Other thoughts that crossed my mind were that it had been hit by a car at night, or that it had somehow misjudged a stoop and collided hard with a guidewire on the telephone pole nearby. Now I suspect that it was a victim of the great horned owls moving in.

One of these days I'm going to collect some of the coyote scat and dissect it to see what animals they are feeding on. And I'll keep my eyes peeled for owl pellets, both so I learn where they are roosting and so that I can learn what they are feeding on too. Meanwhile, I'm just going to enjoy the sight of red-tailed hawks soaring during the day, and the sounds of coyotes howling and great horned owls hooting at night. More interesting layers in the ecosystem that is our slowly recovering yard.

It's FeederWatch Time!

One of my favorite wintertime activities is feeding the birds. I feed year 'round, but the birds use the feeders more and are more visible in the winter, which makes it even more enjoyable. In a way, feeding birds takes the place of growing flowers during this quiet season of the year.

Many years ago I joined Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's FeederWatch program. It's a coordinated "citizen science" data collection project, keeping track of trends in the birds that come to people's feeders all across the country.

To help make it manageable but relatively consistent from site to site, FeederWatch traditionally has had each feeder watcher observe and record bird activity carefully for 2 consecutive days during each 2 week period during the winter months, beginning in November. Now, with online data reporting, you can do 2 consecutive days each week, if you so desire.

So that's what I'm aiming for this winter. Last week was my first count period. As usual, by watching closely, I noticed birds that I hadn't seen this winter coming into my count area. Last week it was a yellow-rumped warbler, a spotted towhee, and a female red-bellied woodpecker. Today, the first of my 2 day count period for this week, I "netted" a pair of Carolina wrens and a mockingbird. Plus I noticed a small flock of cedar waxwings just beyond the courtyard hedge that is my official count boundary.

I've seen all these birds before in our yard, but this is the first time I've noticed them at or around the feeders this fall.

Because of the online data reporting, I received feedback last week that I'm seeing unusually large numbers of white-crowned sparrows for this early in the season. That's rather fun to know. And because of more carefully monitoring the feeding birds, I noticed 2 abnormalities in the immature white-crowned sparrows last week: one with a wound on its side, and one missing its tail. I saw the wounded one again today, looking like the wound had healed quite a bit, but I haven't seen the tailless one since last Tuesday.

Most of all, the FeederWatch is just another tool to help keep me observing the wildlife in our yard, especially when it's all too easy to cocoon inside and simply try to keep warm. And it does a darn good job of that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Ignorant of Our Own Country's Wildlife Are We?

Before I shelve My Antonia, I have to comment on something I found deeply disturbing, a symptom of how disconnected our culture is becoming from our land.

First, however, I need to set the stage by commenting about how impressed I was with some of Cather's ecological observations. Given her writing in this novel, she would have made a fine ecologist* if that had been her goal. For example, she talks about elderberry like this, "The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots were always in moisture and their tops in the sun."

Another ecological observation that impressed me was her description of a prairie dog town....

"Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown, earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs.... We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenseless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies."

At another point in the story, Cather has Antonia and Jim stopping by a prairie dog town to explore a bit....

"...Antonia suggested that we stop at the prairie-dog town and dig into one of the holes. We could find out whether they ran straight down, or were horizontal, like mole-holes; whether they had underground connections; whether the owls had nests down there, lined with feathers. We might get some puppies, or owl eggs, or snake-skins.
The dog-town was spread out over perhaps ten acres. The grass had been nibbled short and even, so this stretch was not shaggy and red like the surrounding country, but gray and velvety."

These are very accurate descriptions of prairie dog towns, including a couple of their "companion" animals, burrowing owls and prairie rattlesnakes.

However, in the introduction written by Marilyn Sides, an author and senior lecturer in the English Department at Wellesley in Massachusetts, Sides refers to Cather's descriptions of the prairie dog towns in such a way that it is obvious she doesn't have a clue what a prairie dog or prairie dog town is. She is commenting on the almost total lack of a Native American presence in this novel when she writes, "The only truly original inhabitation seems to be the prairie dog town, which may allude to a kind of Indian pueblo (in 1916 Cather had toured the pueblos of Taos and the ancient pueblo ruins of Mesa Verde)...."

Not only did Marilyn Sides not know what prairie dog towns are, but the editing staff of Signet Classics evidently didn't know either. Prairie dogs are keystone species in the prairie ecosystem. They are part of the prairie lore and mythology of this country. How do you comment on a book, even a novel, about the prairie and not have the faintest idea what a prairie dog is or how and where they live? Especially when the author is describing so many of the prairie animals and their habitats in such straightforward but beautiful prose?!

It's long past time that we include studies of our local and national wildlife and our ecosystems in our basic education system. Kids don't get out and explore wild areas like they used to 50 years ago, so that sort of basic knowledge is literally being lost. While teaching 1st graders about rainforests is theoretically fine, I think it's far more important that they learn first about the native plants and animals that live around them. There's time enough for understanding rainforests after the kids learn prairies and deciduous forests and American deserts.

It's time we all learn our natural neighbors and neighborhoods again.

* Note: The science of ecology, with its understanding of communities of plants and animals that are dependent on each other for existence, was not widely recognized until many years after Cather wrote.

Revisiting My Antonia

I read My Antonia many, many years ago. I wasn't impressed. The very likeable hero and heroine didn't get together, for reasons my adolescent heart just couldn't fathom. Not much else least as far as I remember my long-ago reaction some 35-40 years later.

Fast forward to several weeks ago. Wichita was participating in The Big Read, and Willa Cather's My Antonia had been selected as the book for all of us to explore. Having a few more experiences under my belt, I decided to give it another try. Not only were there several interesting sounding public discussions being offered, but Willa Cather has a reputation as the first major prairie author, and I've been somewhat obsessively reading prairie writers as I reacclimate to life in Kansas.

I loved the book. I understand now why Jim and Antonia would never have been happy together - they had different dreams and different needs for their lives. Furthermore, although Jim's life was much more successful in terms of typically lauded actions (he became a top lawyer for a national firm in New York City, married to a socially prominent and rich woman), I suspect it is Antonia's life that was ultimately richer and more satisfying. She may have remained in Nebraska, married a farmer, had a physically hard life and become "nothing but" a farmer's wife and mother to a passel of kids, but her happiness and pride shines in her eyes and in the eyes of her family when Jim finally visits her after 20 years away. In a loveless marriage with no children, his life suddenly seems rather least to me.

However, it is Cather's descriptions of the prairie as it is being settled that really sunk into my imagination. Cather herself moved from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was 10 and she lived there for about 12 years before heading back east. She arrived in 1883 and left in 1895 after graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, essentially spending her entire adolescence in this half wild landscape. I feel like she offers me a rare moment of time travel back to see what the prairie looked like before so much of it disappeared between the hedgerows and under the plow....

"...this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it."

"Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.... The little trees were insignificant against the grass. It seemed as if the grass were about to run over them, and over the plum-patch behind the sod chicken-house."

"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running."

"I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass."

"The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow. And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie."

"Some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales."

"All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death - heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day."

Towards the end of the novel, Cather speaks through Jim as he returns to Nebraska after many years away...

"I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces."

My psyche resonates to that statement. I think the lands we come to know well in our lives will always be a part of us in a deep and timeless way. The prairie obviously touched Cather's soul. Her gift was (and is) to share that experience with the rest of us.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Attempting to Begin Restoration Effort Assessments

During this recent growing season, I've tried to keep track of the species that I've identified growing throughout our entire 10 acres, keeping separate lists for the area east of the draw, west of the draw and for the back 5 acres. It's not a terribly scientific undertaking, in that I haven't done transects or any other statistical sampling method, but I have done my best to identify what I've seen.

[One disclaimer here: I'm identifying plants based primarily on wildflower guides (of which I have 6 that I use). That means that I may be misidentifying unusual species as more common ones. Then there's the issue that if the plant isn't blooming or seeding out, I'm probably missing it altogether. Sedges, especially, have been tough for me. I know I have several species of sedge scattered throughout the yard, but I have no guide that makes me feel at all confident about identifying even one of them.]

Recently I started reading a classic on prairie restoration, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. The authors in this book caution that there are few good remnants of tallgrass prairie left, therefore most restorations will begin with land that has been compromised in one way or another. So one of the first topics they cover is how to begin assessing what you are starting with, as a basis for deciding how to proceed with the restoration and for figuring out whether your restoration attempts are moving you in the direction that you want to be moving.

One of the assessment tools they talk about is called the coefficient of conservatism (C or CoC, depending on the source). This is a number from 0 to 10 that is assigned to native plant species based on, in essence, their weediness and desireability within a high quality prairie. A rating of 0 is a widely distributed, weedy species in no need of conservation; a rating of 10 is a rare (possibly endangered) species found only in high quality prairies.

Last spring, Brad Guhr (of Dyck Arboretum) kindly forwarded a list of the coefficients of conservatism for plants species found in Kansas. Last night I used this list to figure out the mean CoC for each of the 3 areas on which I've have been compiling lists. My statistical methodology, for anyone who should happen to care, was simply to look up the coefficient of conservatism for each of the species that I had listed, count the total number of species on the list for that area, then divide the former by the latter.

Using this method, the area east of the draw has a mean CoC of 2.21; the area west of the draw has a mean CoC of 2.31; and the back 5 acres (the area we burned this spring) has a mean CoC of 2.64. That puts all 3 zones firmly in the "Who the heck knows what to do with this plot" category. Seriously. Although, of course, they phrased it a little more elegantly in the book.

So far, the worst plant I've found on this site is Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense). Based on their coefficient of conservatism, the best plants I've found are spring ladies' tresses (Spiranthes vernalis, CoC 8), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla, CoC 7), white prairie clover (Dalea candida, CoC 7), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens, CoC 7).

Plus as I started reading this book, I found one big positive for our site that I had never considered before: the soil is basically intact. It has never been plowed, nor has it been subject to massive erosion or reshaping. Given that plus, I'm determined not to use the "Roundup the whole darn mess, plow it up, and start fresh with seed that you buy or collect" method of prairie re-establishment.

So for starters our negatives are
1) overgrazing,
2) introduction of exotics,
3) lack of burning for years,
4) overgrowth of shrubs, young trees, and weedy species, and
5) small site size.

As I read, I feel like I've been on the right track. So far I've been keeping grazing off (at least for now), burning, using Roundup selectively, and overseeding with desireable species. Especially in the area we burned, I know that quite a few species showed up this year that I didn't see last year.

It's reassuring to know that my instincts have been reasonably good so far. Now if I can just keep threading my way through this continuing maze....