The land is waking up from winter’s slumber.
This is the Indian Creek I know and love, by its confluence with the Red Cedar River. By the river, the creek ranges from 50 feet to 80 feet wide. The Cedar empties into the Iowa River, which empties into the Mississippi, which carries our top soil and excessive nitrogen down to the Gulf of Mexico. Not only does Iowa lead the nation in corn production, hog production and chicken egg production, we also are the lead contributor of excessive nutrients that cause the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico.*
The bank is encrusted by rip rap for stability. Both the Union Pacific Railroad and Otis Road cross Indian Creek within view of the confluence. I swim the shallow pools of Indian Creek on hot August days and tap the sugar maples along its banks in February. I have watched the belted kingfisher nest in its banks and rescued fawns from its floodwaters. Every spring, and sometimes in the summer, I watch the water slowly edge out of its banks, submerge the land, and creep across Otis Road. Indian Creek is where I met my first gar and taught my nephew how to fish.
I have kayaked the creek in hot summer days, when I felt like mostly I was just dragging the kayak across the gravelly bottom and had to portage at the golf course. Other days I have watched the water go ripping by so high and so fast it has torn the pedestrian bridge off of its footings.
Less than a mile upstream from the mouth is the historic Daniel Mills bridge, a wrought iron truss bridge built in 1876. It is commonly called the blue bridge, in part because it is painted blue and in part because who Daniel Mills was is fading from cultural memory. Along its banks is an ancient black walnut tree, the biggest I have ever seen, and a rare old-growth grove of Kentucky Coffee trees.
On Sunday, a friend introduced me to another version of the creek, 14 miles north as the crow flies. By car, it was a 17.5 mile trip to the origin of Indian Creek. If we had followed the meandering course of the stream, we would have traversed 24 miles. At its headwaters, the creek is a beautiful and dainty little thing, meandering through a pasture, so narrow you can step over it without breaking stride.
As the creek journeys south, East Indian Creek, Berry’s Run, and Dry Creek join it, creating a 93 square mile watershed. For the first 11 miles or so, the creek runs through conventional crop land. Tile lines protrude periodically from the banks, dumping fast moving frigid water laden with nitrogen into the creek. After that, it becomes an urban creek, running through four cities. It cuts through the edge of the landfill, back yards, schools and golf courses. Hard surface pavement dumps fast moving warm water laden with oil residue and other chemicals into the creek.
Indian Creek is full of diverse problems as well as diverse beauty. It is my watershed. It is my home.
*This is a tangent in our prowess at leading the nation, not a tributary of the creek. We are the largest ethanol producer in the country. In 1869, Iowa had the first woman lawyer in the country. Every four years, Iowa holds the first presidential caucuses, and in August 2020, we also led the nation for most Covid-19 cases.
February 28. The fog is so thick the horizon between prairie and forest, between snow and air, is subtle. I got in what would be my last snowball fight of the season.
March 7. The maple sap stopped flowing. The skunk cabbage is up. This morning, we sit in the open doorway, feeling the world wake up between the first raindrops of spring. Nitro, Peaches and Jeff pause in an unspoken moment of truce. They are not in pursuit of peace, they are just entranced by that delicate, ephemeral moment when the warmth of the furnace on their backs shares equilibrium with the warmth of outdoor air on their faces.
March 15. The sound of clattering ice wakes me up. It is being driven by a solid 25 mile per hour wind into the side of the house. Tree tops, unattached but suspended in the air since August, have been wrenched down to the ground. The precipitation vacillates all day between snow, ice, and rain. Spring lies buried under a layer of frozen slush.
The flock of roosters was initially unintentional. I thought they would all be in the stew pot by autumn. I was wrong. I have the setup, the routine, and lonely birds. It is time to add some ladies, and I spent a lot of time at the Hoover’s Hatchery website and the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. The new additions need to be the right birds.
The flock free ranges. No fence in sight. Except for the garden fence, which they go over, under and around freely. They established their own range and stay within 130 feet of the chicken house. That range overlaps with predators: the dog, the cats, the racoons, the mink, the fox, and yes, the hawks. I need birds that forage well, are rugged, friendly and independent. Just like me.
My current flock makes me smile, and any additions need to be just as eye-catching. The Sapphire Gems are a gorgeous blue-grey and lay 290 large brown eggs a year. That makes them one of the top layers on the market. They are also a bit on the big side, weighing in at 6 pounds, and that makes me nervous.
Guineas are small, weighing about 3 pounds. That means my guineas could easily end up at the bottom of the pecking order. When guineas end up at the bottom of the pecking order, they end up in the tops of trees. I am trying two of the Sapphire Gems, which a neighbor will take if they become too dominate in the aviary. I am getting five Blue Andalusians. The heirloom Andalusians are smaller, and each feather is a dark laced grey, which means they will be exquisite looking birds. The Andalusians lay 280 medium eggs a year, so the production is significantly less than that of the Sapphire Gems.
If two of the seven hens survive to maturity in my yard, which is statistically what will happen, they will still produce more eggs than I can eat in a year. The trade off of smaller birds, smaller eggs and fewer eggs is worth it to me if it keeps my mixed flock content.
I am lying on my back under the sun, under the sky.
I am lying on the snow, suspended above the soil, above the prairie I burned last fall.
The flames of fall reduced the grass we think of as prairie to ash, reduced the grass we think of as prairie to the air I am now lying in.
Underground there is still a massive tangle of roots, woven together by mycorrhizal structures.
I can feel the transformation of spring through the sun on my face, through the snow on my back.
The snow insulates the prairie from the seasonal shift; I suspect the roots feel nothing yet.
I wonder if the air feels the emptiness of the space, if the air misses curling around the silicon-laced stalks of big bluestem and gliding over the petals of the gentian, if the air misses flitting through the styles of the prairie smoke.
I wonder if the air around the unburned autumn prairie was more dense than the open air I now lie in.
I wonder if the barred owls, chattering and hooting night and day now, are calling the prairie roots awake through the snow.
Nitro, meanwhile, has been working on his haiku poetry and dreaming of relaxing in the garden on a nice May day.
Stretching arching back
Into deepening slumber
Until the storm sleeps
Magic flood puppy
Nitro’s wisdom glimmers grey
This is me, from the heated cab of the 259D3, plowing…the deer’s path. Why? It has been a hard winter all the way around. While the deer are adapted to survive more than a foot of snow and multiple days of single digit highs and negative double digit lows, it can’t be easy or fun for them.
The tallgrass prairie can be defined by the hundreds of native plants that thrive there. The simplest definition, when looking at the broader landscape, is that the prairie is where the trees are not. The word prairie comes from the French word for meadow. When planting native prairie plants in your yard, selecting “the right ones” can be overwhelming. Which will thrive? Which will outcompete all of the others? Which will grow too tall and too wild? Which will make the wildlife happy? Which will make you smile when you look outside?
Providers that specialize in native plants will offer information about bloom time, growth height, soil conditions, and sun requirements. If I was going to plant a native wildflower garden in my yard, I would select species that usually stay under 3 feet tall. These are the 21 flowers I would pick today (tomorrow I might pick a different set):
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Canada milk vetch Astragalus canadensis
Common blue-eyed grass Sisyrinchium albidum
Cream gentian Gentiana flavida
Cream wild indigo Baptisia bracteata
Dotted blazing star Liatris punctata
Goat’s rue Tephrosia virginiana
Lead plant Amorpha canascens
Midland shooting star Dodecatheon meadia
Narrow leaved coneflower Echinacea angustifolia
Prairie onion Allium stellatum
Prairie smoke Geum triflorum
Prairie wild rose Rosa arkansana
Purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea
Rattlesnake master Eryngium yuccifolium
Silky aster Symphyotrichum sericeum
Sky blue aster Symphyotrichum oolentangiense
Slender mountain mint Pycnanthemum tenuifolium
Ohio spiderwort Tradescantia ohiensis
White prairie clover Dalea candida
Whorled milkweed Asclepias virticillata
A pollinator patch, or garden, would look beautiful in that spot in the yard where the hostas are now sunscorched, right? Right. Absolutely. From monarchs to bumblebees, lack of habitat continues to cause pollinator population declines. You may as well enjoy some beauty, while making the world a better place, while you wait for your new oak tree to mature into a shady canopy tree.
The ecological benefits of a pollinator patch are tremendous, and the maintenance goes down after the first few years. A pollinator patch creates an expanding positive impact on the environment, an oasis in a monoculture of lawns and pavement. Plant the plants, and the insects will come. The rabbits will come to feed on the plants. Owls will come to feed on the rabbits. Songbirds will come to feed on the insects. The hawks will come to feed on the birds. Native plants will create a dynamic array of life and beauty. A few thoughts to get you started:
1. Most native flowers are perennials. After the first few years, the plants won’t require watering. Buy a hose splitter and a soaker hose to minimize the time spent watering. You can get both locally for less than $20 to make those first few years easy.
2. Prairie plants evolved in an environment rich in limestone and poor in organic material. A plant that typically grows two feet high in a competitive prairie environment may grow five feet high in a weeded, composted garden bed. Keep the taller plants in the middle of your planting, or be prepared to fence them.
3. Leave the stems and pods up for the winter, as insects will be overwintering in the stalks and birds will be feeding on the seeds. Instead, cut them back as late in the spring as possible.
4. Weeds will be need to be controlled, just like they do in an an ordinary flower or vegetable garden. Consider weed control fabric, mulch, or pea gravel to minimize the time you need to spend weeding.
5. Add a bird bath. It will be used by the birds, but also by the chipmunks and butterflies.
6. Order your plants…soon. Most dealers don’t sell native plants during the growing season, because they have low survivability. Many do take orders throughout the year, and ship in the spring and fall. If you wait until you want to plant, you may find yourself waiting until the next season. If you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consider Indian Creek Nature Center’s Spring Plant and Art Sale as your source for plants.
For its plantings, Indian Creek Nature Center often orders seeds and plants from Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, IonExchange, and Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District. All of them provide good stock and excellent customer service.
I love setting the first set of footprints in a fresh falling snow. It is, quite likely, the closest I will ever get to boldly go where no person has gone before. This winter has provide me with ample opportunity.
First, I had to find my snowshoes. With my winter gear? No. In the shed? No. In the attic? No. They were hiding under some dust and cobwebs in my former office, which I evacuated abruptly in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, when snowshoeing season was still happening.
Then I had to sprint-nothing like sprinting in snowshoes to get your heart rate pumping-to beat some skiers to the trailhead. The extraordinary feeling of being the first one on the trail wears off relatively quickly, as that means one is also breaking the trail. It takes roughly three times as long to break a trail as it does to follow one.
This winter I had fresh falling snow and a brand new, yet-to-be-opened trail to enjoy. It was awesome. If you can’t find your snowshoes or don’t own any, the Nature Center will rent some to you to do your own exploring in the winter magic.