Wondering in the snow

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.

When the trees are gone, part 2

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?

Butterfly weed is a low growing, showy milkweed. Monarch caterpillars will eat its leaves and many pollinators will drink its nectar.

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

Canada milkvetch is a nitrogen-fixing legume.

Dotted blazing star Liatris punctata

Goat’s rue Tephrosia virginiana

Lead plant Amorpha canascens

Midland shooting star Dodecatheon meadia

Narrow leaved coneflower Echinacea angustifolia

Blazing star, close-up.

Prairie onion Allium stellatum

Prairie smoke Geum triflorum

Prairie wild rose Rosa arkansana

Purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea

Rattlesnake master Eryngium yuccifolium

Spiderwort provides both a beautiful flower and lush foliage.

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

Slender mountain mint smells delightful and is a favorite of pollinators.

When the Trees are gone, part 1

Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida)

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.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly (Battus philenor). To help identify the butterflies you see, visit https://www.butterflyidentification.org/

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.

Close up of the prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) flower spike.

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.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

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.

A new path, still under construction, will allow guests at Indian Creek Nature Center to visit this oak tree. Unlike the shattered pines and black locust trees around it, the ancient oak withstood the forces of the derecho.

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.

Terrence Nutworthy the Third

January 21 is National Squirrel Day. If you already have a bird feeder, you know that every day is squirrel day. To celebrate squirrels, here are a few more things we can do for our furry friends:

Set out some grapes, cashews, and pecans.

Add a year-round water source.

If it is snowy or wet, put your treats out a board to let the animals have dry feet for a bit.

Add selectively tasty compost scraps, such as sweet potato peels and apple peels.

A year and a half ago, I raised an orphaned grey squirrel, born around July 21, 2019. Later that fall, he vanished. It’s not unusual for young squirrels to move out and establish their own territories. Squirrel kits born late season often overwinter with their mom. As his mom, I had hoped he would stick around. I made him a nice nest box, filled the feeder tray regularly, and visited him at least twice a day.

One morning, he was gone. I said he was on walkabout, experiencing the world. What squirrel doesn’t dream of driving his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway 1? But odds were equally good he had been taken out by a red-tailed hawk, a great-horned owl, a raccoon, or even a mink.

I went outside to feed the flock on December 23, 2020 and a squirrel came running up and jumped right into the middle of the flock, scattering the birds. It made me laugh, he was so bold. I knew immediately it was Terrence Nutworthy the Third.

This is the point where people say, “uh-huh.”

My case that this really is Terrence:

-Fox squirrels have lived in my woods longer than I have, but I have never seen a grey squirrel in the yard. The grey squirrels are around in the forest, of course, but the fox squirrels keep them out of the yard itself.

-Both Terrence and this squirrel have a little dark scar under their left eye.

-A wild squirrel, when confronted by a human, should run up the nearest branch, and will likely chatter fiercely. This is what my yard squirrels still do, despite generations having grown up with me as a fixture in their lives. A wild squirrel will not literally ask for a human handout. Which this squirrel did. He came right up and ate out of my hand.

As if my day couldn’t get any better, Terrence brought a rare black squirrel with him. Black squirrels are really grey squirrels with different fur color (melanistic subgroup). The black squirrel, being a wild squirrel, wants nothing to do with me.

I immediately purchased an addition for my yard for Terrence:

a heated, ground mounted bird bath

Winter is hard on wildlife. Obviously, animals have adapted and populations can survive without us. But the heated waterer will make survival a little bit easier, and possibly more enjoyable for everyone, including the squirrels, opossums, deer, mice, song birds, and fox. It may even enable me to get a decent picture of the black squirrel.

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A forest starts and ends with a tree

On August 10, I sent a text shortly after noon to my flatmates:

“Get the chickens in! Shriekies first, as the big ones can get under cover.”

I do not use exclamation points lightly. As things turned out, it was appropriate. I was experiencing the beginnings of a storm so severe it would sever my electronic communication for some time. That was the last dependable text I would be able to send or recieve for days.

The shriekies spent the storm safe inside in the bathroom, the older chickens safe inside in the garage. The forest that I have loved and cared for since 1996 didn’t fare so well.

The rain swept through, being driven by winds at 140 miles an hour for 45 minutes. Straight line winds of such magnitude are known as a derecho, I would come to learn. It destroyed homes (not mine), businesses (not mine), and trees. Many, many trees.

The community estimates that more than 60 precent of the tree canopy is gone. In looking at the broken tops and splintered trunks of the remaining trees, we will lose a lot more in the coming years from this singular event.

The shriekies, also known as keets or baby guinea fowl
Sunlight glows inside of a shattered but still standing tree.

What Goes into a Food Forest Canopy

One concern I have with the phrase “food forest” is that it implies that the rest of the forest is inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in Iowa. Upland forest canopies are dominated by oaks and hickories,  with a handful of butternuts mixed in. The midlands are full of mulberries, black cherries and black walnuts. Even the bottomlands, with their thick stands of silver maples and lindens, are full of edible life.

Linden blossoms are delicious in tea, and provide a valuable food source for pollinators.

In most landscapes, I focus on the natural history of the land, and ask what would be here, if we hadn’t cut the trees, grubbed out the roots, and planted corn in the heart of the forest? What is missing from both this particular plot, as well as the surrounding areas? What would increase the native diversity and resilience of the ecosystem?

In a food forest, I narrow that focus to species that 1) are native to the area, and 2) are fairly straightforward for humans to eat. A food forest has a greater concentration of native edible species than you might naturally find in a woodland. Done properly, a guest wouldn’t necessarily notice they were in a food forest; they would simply notice that they were in a beautiful woodland with abundant opportunities for them to forage as they walked. People are so far removed from what is and is not edible without a plastic wrap label and a price tag on it, I’ll probably need to put out signs. There isn’t much point, if people don’t know that the food in the forest is there for them.

A box elder tree comes down to make room for a new black maple tree. We have far more box elder trees on the land than we do black maples, so this will help create balanced diversity over time.

The pocket of sunlight we created this winter will be planted to maples this spring. I am locally sourcing Black Maple from Fleming Nursery and Sugar Maple from Hughes Nursery. Just downhill from the clearing is a large silver maple, well-suited to flooding. Mulberry and black cherry are already growing in the area, and we planted butternuts last year.

To the Sugar Bush We Go

It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.

Otter tracks on Indian Creek. You never know what you will find in the forest until you go into the forest.

We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.

The small annual hole we bore in the tree does not siphon out enough sap to damage the tree.

We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).

Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.

The well known path

The sound of the fresh falling snow lures me outside with the alacrity of a five year old. The snow renders the world silent, reduces the color palette to monochrome, refracts light into a million swirling rainbows, and turns even a well-known path into a journey of mystery and wonder.

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I headed for the Baltic labyrinth because I wanted to be totally immersed in the snow experience. The woods can be a very distracting place for me. In the fresh falling snow, with no tracks before me, I am the pioneer and the sole voyager. The sense of the place is subsumed by the sense of the elemental. I become one with the intense solitude, and experience, well, obviously not waldeinsamkeit.  Schneeinsamkeit, perhaps?

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