Friday, December 28, 2012

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Years ago - sometimes it seems like it was in another life - I worked with and for the Kansas Audubon Council.  One of our projects at the time was trying to get the Z-Bar Ranch, as it was known then, into federal protection as a national park.  Through the work of many dedicated people and organizations, with the Kansas office of The Nature Conservancy serving as a key link, that dream came to life - and the American people now have under their protection the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve has the Z-Bar Ranch, originally known as the Spring Hill Ranch, as its core.  Located near Strong City, Kansas, the Spring Hill Ranch was settled by a wealthy cattleman and his family in the late 1870's and early 1880's.  Stephen Jones built a literal mansion out of native Flint Hills limestone, situated on the side of a hill above the main road into Strong City.

To go along with his mansion, he built a huge limestone barn, a limestone outhouse (a 3 holer!), a limestone ice house, a limestone chicken coop, a limestone curing house and a limestone carriage house.  And 30 miles of limestone "fence."

A little to the north of his ranch headquarters, he donated land for a school house...and a limestone school house was built.

All of these beautiful limestone buildings still stand today.  For decades, they intrigued travelers along Highway 177, which runs directly in front of the ranch house, but very few were privileged to see the insides of any of the buildings, even though they were rarely owner occupied after about 1900.

Now travelers are privileged enough to be able to explore both the buildings AND the surrounding prairie through a collaboration between  the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy.  There are self guided tours of the buildings, wonderful nature trails of various lengths, bus tours of the "back country" during the summer and fall, and events held throughout the year.  There is a newly built interpretive center, too, which is due to get its permanent exhibits sometime this spring.  For now, they show a 10 minute film about the preserve and the tallgrass prairie, have bathrooms, a gift shop, and a very helpful park ranger to answer questions or give you guidance.

While our son Sean was home from Boston for Christmas, we decided to go up and check it out.  Neither Sean nor Greg had ever been there, although we'd all driven by it many times traveling between Wichita and points north and east. Plus, while December temperatures that are regularly in the 60's make me nervous about global warming, I have to admit that a bright blue day with a high of 64 degrees F. was extremely pleasant for exploring the prairie!

Here Sean and I are posing for the camera on the old road bed, with the mansion behind us on the hill.

The old road bed in front of Spring Hill Ranch is extremely obvious from some angles and almost invisible from others.  Here you can see the path of the old road to Strong City, running next to the new highway, with an old American elm (Ulmus americana) arching over it.

That old elm just fascinated me!  Such a huge, majestic tree!  And out on the prairie - thriving!

The site selected by Stephen Jones for Spring Hill Ranch was rather unusual in that it had a good spring located on top of a hill - hence the name, Spring Hill Ranch.  Rather oddly, then, the vegetable garden was located on top of the hill where it would be easy to water during dry times.  With the suppression of fire around the ranch buildings, a cedar grove has established on top of Spring Hill also.

The Southwind Trail starts by this vegetable garden, goes through the cedar grove, and meanders the pasture to the north of the ranch buildings, with a spur going up to the limestone schoolhouse.  This is a pleasant, relatively level trail that is just right for an easy stroll.  As we left the cedar grove, this pair of cedars, with the small series of steps between them, felt like a gateway into the open prairie.

In the shrubs to the right of the "gateway", several bright orange clusters of berries caught my attention - American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)!  Although this attractive vine is native here in Kansas, I haven't seen it growing in the wild for a long time.  I suspect that most of it, at least along the roadways, has been killed by overcollecting for Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations.

Just beyond the "gateway," if you look to the north, you can see the old limestone schoolhouse on the next hilltop....

Sean and Greg decided to go up to the schoolhouse, while I stayed on the main loop of the trail and photographed a few shrubs and wildflower seed heads.

I could ramble on for a long, long time about all the interesting and beautiful things we saw...but I won't.  Instead I will recommend one last treat that we discovered in the downtown Strong City.  Having not had any official lunch and having explored the buildings, the visitor's center, the Southwind Trail, the schoolhouse, and the Bottomland Nature Trail, we were rather dry and hungry when we left the Preserve.  Sean had seen a restaurant in Strong City whose name appealed to him, so we pulled in to check it out....

Ad Astra was wonderful!  We were expecting to just get a coke and a snack, then go home to eat, but an enjoyable atmosphere of brick and stone walls with a gorgeous tin ceiling, as well as a gourmet sandwich and entree menu, enticed us to have dinner here.

A delicious bison burger with a side of black bean chili called to Sean,...

while I fell for a Reuben sandwich with homemade potato chips and a homemade pickle, and Greg had a fantastic looking (and tasting) ham and cheese creation with a broccoli salad side.  Boulevard and Ad Astra ales were on tap, so we were able to quench our thirst too!  Last of all we decided to splurge on dessert:  a decadent peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake slice for Greg, a rich peppermint and chocolate cheese cake slice for Sean, and a delicious creme brulee for me.  All worth the stop, just on their own!

All in all, a most excellent adventure!  If you've never checked out the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve and you live somewhere within a couple hours, I'd say it would make both a nice trip for yourself and a great place to share with visitors.  If you're driving through Kansas sometime, I'd highly recommend checking it out for a unique and memorable experience.  It's one of the only places left where you can truly experience the American tallgrass prairie in its vastness and openness.  Just don't forget to refresh yourself at Ad Astra (or in nearby downtown Cottonwood Falls) when you're done!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Patchwork Prairie

Several years ago now, I asked for suggestions on what to name our little piece of property.  I got a few suggestions, but none of them seemed right.  The ideas I was coming up with didn't fit either.  So I let the concept brew for a while longer and eventually a name suggested itself.

Patchwork Prairie.

It's not a fancy name...but, then, this isn't a fancy piece of property.  The name fits on many levels and, most importantly, it comes naturally as I think about our land.  So Patchwork Prairie it is.

So what do I think about our property?  Why does the concept of "patchwork" seems to fit so perfectly?

First of all, prairies themselves are patchworks of many plants:  a clump of this, a spread of that, a few individuals stitching things together throughout, another large swath of something else over here.   Different patches appear during different seasons.  It's a crazy quilt design where some pieces intermingle with others and it all changes from year to year.  To give you examples, right now, on the back 5 acres (Back Five) that we are working to restore from highly overgrazed pasture to reasonable prairie, I have large swaths of tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) developing.  I didn't notice any tall dropseed at all in our Back Five until the second year we were here; now it's a major component of our grassland.  In the photo below, the tall dropseed is occurring in the two lighter gold sweeps that run from one side of this photo to the other.

There are almost a dozen patches, ranging from large to small, of dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).  The first summer, I noticed fewer than a dozen gayfeathers in one single, small area.  Presumably, all of the current patches have either spread from those original plants or the plants in each of them were simply too stunted to bloom for the first several years.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), the small, white flowers in the photo below, and silver bluestem (Bothriochloa laguroides subsp. torreyana), the grasses with the soft, fluffy seedheads in the same photo, are found throughout the Back Five, stitching all of the recovering prairie together.

An increasing number of compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) are beginning to appear scattered throughout the Back Five, acting as another "stitcher."  I found my first ones about 3 years ago, and have now counted over 2 dozen individuals.  The photo to the left shows one of only 3 compass plants that were mature enough to bloom this year.

Another stitcher, this time one that's declining as the grassland recovers, is the annual threeawn grass (Aristida sp.) that was so prevalent 6 years ago - I can walk the paths and not get a single awn in my socks these days, which is a major change from when we started.  The whitish grass, leaning over the mowed path, is a threeawn plant that I found this morning.

There are large, diffuse patches of white prairieclover (Dalea candida) in the spring

and I've even noticed a few small patches of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) developing.

On the other hand, another milkweed known as green antelopehorn (Aslcepias viridis) is dispersed everywhere during the spring, but is nowhere to be seen at this time of year.

It's not just the recovering prairie that's a patchwork on our 10 acres.  The entire property is, itself, a patchwork quilt:  the house and lawn (moving towards buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides) with flower beds form one major patch with smaller areas forming patterns within it.  Other patches include the courtyard; the vegetable garden; the lagoon area; the Draw; the Cedar Grove; the front tallgrass areas; and the Back Five, the recovering pasture/prairie. Within each of these patches are smaller patterns:  aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) in the flower beds, rows of eastern redcedars (Juniperus virginiana) forming hedges at the edges, different vegetables in each of the raised vegetable garden beds, a large area of prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) in the Cedar Grove, panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) in the draw, pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) along the edges of the draw and up near the house.  Paths stitch the patchwork areas together.

Finally, patchwork is a perfect historical term for modern human life on the prairies too.  European and other settlers had a tradition of using even small scraps of cloth from wornout clothing or from other leftover material.  The women would gather these scraps and sew them together to make warm, artistically beautiful and intricate quilts:  patchwork quilts.  The settlements themselves formed a patchwork on the prairie of different cultures from around the world.  And, of course, the farms soon created patches in the landscape - eventually forming a quilt that almost completely replaced the original prairie with agricultural fields.

Patchwork Prairie.  It's the right name for now, and we'll be working to increase the richness of our crazy quilt of a property for as long as we are its stewards.  The pattern is set.  Our success will be measured in the future.

Like Leaves on The Grass....

One of the things I enjoy most about being outside, walking or gardening, is how my mind is free to spin and make connections.  This morning I had one of those "Aha!" moments.

What if human lives are like leaves on a tree?  Each leaf is born, new and fresh and perfect.

Over time, the leaves grow to maturity, making food for the tree as they convert sunlight to the sugars that the tree needs to grow.

Along the way, the leaves experience problems.  Drought shrivels them a bit around the edges.  Insects gnaw holes in their pristine surfaces.  Diseases may kill off part of a leaf - or may even kill off entire groups of leaves.  Stormy winds pull some leaves off before their time.  Hail shreds other leaves, especially those on the outer and upper levels of the tree's canopy.

Eventually most of the leaves are simply worn out.  It's the end of their life span.  The tree withdraws the life force from within them, they turn colors,...

...and they drop from where they've lived high up in the air, down onto the ground.

There they will join with a myriad of other dead leaves...

...and slowly decompose, turning into fertile soil that enriches the ground where the tree, of which they were once a living part, grows stronger each year.

No two leaves are ever exactly the same, yet all of them are more alike than different.  All the leaves on a single tree are part of the same living organism, even though they each seem separate from each other.  No leaf can - or should - live forever, yet the life of the tree goes on for a long time...and the life of the forest of trees goes on even longer.

This analogy soothes me.  It gives me a concrete understanding on which to pin philosophical concepts such as "we are all one" and "there is life after death," as well as biological concepts such as aging and the inevitability of death.  To every thing, there is a season....

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

There's Always Something New

With the wind howling and fall progressing apace, despite the temperatures hovering in the high 80's/low 90's the last several days, I almost didn't take my camera with me when I walked the boys this morning.  After all, the flowers are basically all done, right?  What else would there be to photograph?

Well, I had barely crossed the draw when I saw this young sapling and was glad that I had brought my camera with me....

See that little knot of "debris" near the trunk, a couple of feet above the ground?  It's a small birds' nest.

As I've mentioned before, I never go looking for bird nests during the summer, since I feel like I lead predators to their nests when I find them.  I've actually become rather superstitious about this and generally won't even photograph a nest if I stumble upon it accidentally.  This morning, with the leaves dropping off this young hackberry sapling (Celtis occidentalis), a nest had been revealed that had, presumably, been there all summer long - not 15' off the trail and about 2' off the ground.  Despite having obviously walked by this nest numerous times in the last few months, I'd never noticed it or even noted that there was probably a nest somewhere in area...until now.

Even at this point, with all the leaves gone, the nest isn't sticking out like a sore thumb.  I have no idea what kind of birds built it or whether or not they were successful in their nesting attempt, but I certainly have my hopes.

As I walked back to the trail from taking the closeup photo of the nest, I noticed this hollow stem sticking up out of the drying grasses....

Looking around, I noticed more hollow stems, then realized that these were old stalks of wild lettuce, Lactuca sp.  I've never paid much attention to wild lettuce, assuming that it was an introduced weed and, as such, not of much use to wildlife.  Well, when I looked Lactuca up at Kansas Wildflowers & Grasses, I realized that there were 3 species listed, 2 of which were actually native.  I know that I have the non-native species (Lactuca serriola or prickly lettuce) on the property, but I don't know if these stalks are from that species or from one of the native species - I've never checked to see if I have the native ones or not, simply lumping all "wild lettuce" plants I've seen into the thought category of "non-native 'weed'." 

This is what one of the" freshest" of the wild lettuce plants in the area looks like right now - pretty much dead already - and there are stalks in all stages in between this one and the old, gray ones.  I'll have to wait until next summer to check about whether the native species grow on our property or not.

So why do I care?  Because, as the holes in these stalks insinuate, something has been living in these stalks and utilizing their innards for food and/or cover.  And some of the most common animals to utilize the inside of hollow stems are the native bees, aka native pollinators!  So even this very common plant that I had previously dismissed as basically useless turns out to have an important role in a healthy ecosystem.

In fact, as I read a bit more about the wild lettuces, they are actually rather interesting plants.  Native Americans used them for several medicinal purposes, including as a poultice for poison ivy rashes.  Wild turkey and deer will eat the leaves, even the prickly leaves of the non-native prickly lettuce. 

Sometimes I feel like I need a "Jethro slap" to the head! 

Despite finding these several new-to-me discoveries in the Cedar Grove, I wasn't in the mood to walk the Back Five this morning, so I walked around the front tallgrass area instead.  I haven't walked the front much at all this summer.

For only about the second time this year, I noticed that the cattails in the swampy area along the north part of the draw appear to be gone, at least for now.  Here is a photo of this area as it currently appears.  There is not a cattail to be found, but the giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) and annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) grew to enormous heights over the summer and a few panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) moved into the foreground.  It should be great winter habitat for the small birds.

I ended up this morning's walk out front by the driveway where I finally took a couple photos of the healthy young Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) that Melanie of There's No Place Like Home shared with me this spring.  I am just tickled pink - they not only survived, which was amazing given that they are planted in a "wild" area of the property and thus didn't get any extra water, but they thrived!  Even though the blooms are reaching their end, I still saw numerous insects feeding at them, including 3 different kinds of skippers that were kind enough to stick around long enough for me to photograph them.  The most photogenic combination of skipper and sunflower is below:

So my lesson for the day?  Be sure to take my camera with me when I walk, no matter how unexciting the day seems, because there's always something new if I keep my eyes open.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Samsara, A Visual Feast

Following the trail that serendipity was showing me, I convinced Greg to go with me to see the new movie, Samsara, on Friday night.  The day before, I'd come across an article about its making in a magazine.  Earlier that day, several friends had waxed enthusiastically about it on Facebook.  Realizing that Samsara was actually showing in Wichita seemed like a sign.  If nothing else, I wanted to support Warren Theaters for screening something beyond the latest low-level comedy or gore-filled thriller.

The movie fascinated me.  However, Greg fell asleep several times in the first 20 minutes and then, apparently, had to force himself to stay awake for the rest of it.  Perhaps not a movie to see after a long day at work....

Samsara took 5 years to film and was filmed in something like 25 countries.  There are no actors, per se, and there is no talking - just music and video sequences.  The trailer gives a good feel for how the movie feels overall.

There is no labeling, so you have no idea where each sequence is from, unless you happen to recognize it from your internal store of world knowledge.

I am aching to have someone to discuss some of the scenes from the movie with, as well as to help me analyze what the intent of the film-makers was in how they juxtaposed the sequences.  Why they chose to film what they filmed.  Sometimes the movie seemed celebratory, but at other times very disturbing.

It took me quite a while to come out of the spell that the film wove and, even now, I find myself slipping back into a mesmerized state thinking about it.  The scenes of the Great Mosque were mind-blowing.  A mechanized milking platform that still amazes me.  Shifting sands.  Martial arts practice by a crowd, a real CROWD.  Inside views of soaring modern hotels, ancient cathedrals, and homes being buried.  Red-robed monks creating a sand painting, watched by young initiates.  Beautiful women from different ancient cultures, some dancing in ways that seemed unreal.  Resolve.  Hopelessness.  The mechanics of daily life in places far removed from my daily here and now.

Hopefully I'll be able to see the movie again, preferably with someone who is stirred enough by it that they want to delve into what they've seen.  Meanwhile, I'm finding that I recognize certain images that wouldn't have meant much to me before.  (That's how I was able to pair up the movie sequences of the Great Mosque in Mecca with the name of the actual place I had seen - thank you, National Geographic!)  I may even go back and see Samsara alone, just to see what I notice on my second viewing that escaped my eyes the first time around.

If anyone who reads this has seen Samsara, I hope you leave a comment and let me know what you thought about it.  And if you haven't seen this movie, I must admit that I hope you get a chance to do so, at least once.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Autumn Findings....

Having taken a series of walks over the last several days, I have quite a few photos to share.  However, many of the topics aren't worth an entire post on their own, so I'll just band a few together in a miscellaneous post and call it good!

We'll start by crossing the draw and heading back to the Cedar Grove....

One of the first things I saw, welcoming me home, was this female Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) hanging on to the developing seeds of a giant ragweed. 

I love watching mantids turn their heads, following movement, and this gal kept changing her view, first watching the dogs, then turning back to look at the black tube pointed her way.  I don't see very many praying mantises, so it was a treat to see her so perfectly poised...and so full of eggs!  She seemed to be interested in me, too.

A little farther down the path, I was able to catch a shot of a grasshopper that seemed a little different from the handful of species that I normally see.  Some work with Insects in Kansas and with has me tentatively identifying this as a female admirable grasshopper (Syrbula admirabilis), one of the slant-faced grasshoppers.   Generally males of this species are brown and females are green.

The next thing to share isn't showing up well in my photograph (which actually just looks like a jumbled mass of tiny aster blooms), but I have a few clumps of heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) that are blooming a distinct light purple, rather than the more common white.  It was a good year for heath aster, especially in the area that we burned a little over a year ago.  This photo was taken last Monday;  just a week later there is almost no heath aster left blooming anywhere.

I rather like this next little bushy guy.  Looks rather like a Dr. Seuss plant, doesn't it?  Or perhaps a feather duster?  Maybe a fancy water fountain, frozen in mid-spout?

It's actually the seed head left from the dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) bloom spikes that were so bright just a month or so ago.  I'm always amazed at how quickly these blooms change from brilliant to bushy, then lose their seeds to the wind.  Where purple shone just a few weeks ago, now there is simply a soft tan, getting ready to take to the air....

A very few goldenrod blooms are hanging on.  The stiff goldenrod in my front garden is finished, but the single clump of stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) that I discovered out in the Back Five is still in bloom.

The bloom I highlighted in the closeup is one of the two stalks that I thought was dying earlier this summer.  The entire tip of the shoot was black and almost lifeless, but the flower buds appeared above the blackened area and they bloomed just as strongly as any of the other stalks.  You can see the remnants of the blackened leaves below the blossoms.

There are a few lingering goldenrod blooms on other species around the yard, even though most of their flowers are already showing the tan fluff of their developing seeds.  The brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) in the vegetable garden is simply covered with masses of blooms, although I gave up on growing any vegetables several months ago.  Most of the color left in my yard, though, is coming from the masses of aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) sprawling everywhere. I could easily do an entire post on that plant alone...and I may, if I get inspired!  Meanwhile I have dozens of photos of pollinators, gorging on aromatic aster pollen and nectar, that I need to sort through and edit.  So I'll leave you with a shot of my brown-eyed Susans and toddle off to bed.  Tomorrow's another day.

Autumn Color - Even in Kansas!

I've been away.  First a drive down to the panhandle of Florida to deliver Dahlia to our daughter, then a 10 day trip to Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  It's been enjoyable to get away and see how fall is treating some other areas of the country, but the timing also means that I've missed several weeks out of one of my favorite seasons here at home.

After seeing hillside after hillside after mountainside of beautiful fall foliage in New England, I was feeling a little down-in-the-mouth about coming home to autumn in south central Kansas.  However, to my delight, there was some beautiful foliage color here for me to see, too.

I missed whatever show the remnants of our Amur maples put on this fall, after the heat and drought of the second summer in a row.   At least two-thirds of them have died, which will definitely change the feel of our backyard next summer.  I'm not feeling too panicky about their loss, though - they had been planted much too close together and their roots sapped the vigor of anything I tried to grow underneath them.

However, I barely noticed the absence of the Amurs because the green ash next to the deck had turned the most stunning golden yellow that I've seen since living here!

A few of the redcedars had put on a spectacular berry... whoops!... cone crop this year.  Against a blue autumn sky, these are particularly stunning!

Even some of the giant ragweed plants decided that this was a fall to celebrate, and they donned a deep maroon to join in the seasonal spirit.  (Note that the male flowers along the spikes have dried and mostly fallen off, leaving the remnants of the female flowers at the base of the spike, with their nutritious seeds waiting to feed the incoming winter birds.)

Although I can't say that pokeberry is going to turn many heads, it's still providing a pop of bright magenta color as its foliage drops off and reveals the strong stems holding the remains of the fruit clusters up high.

And, of course, there's always poison ivy - one of our most reliable fall colorers here in Kansas.  As I looked over the trees in the draw on my first walk after getting home from New England, it was immediately obvious where there were still healthy poison ivy plants.  After years of Greg spraying carefully to set back the large, poison ivy shrub colonies that came with the property, it's mainly the vines that are left now, climbing high into the canopy.

Do be careful if you go out gathering leaves with the kids!