Prairie Renaissance Part 7

November 5, 2020, was a perfect day for burning our prairie. We’d enjoyed several days of dry weather, and had our fire permit. We just needed a bit of breeze.

On that gorgeous day we burned the labyrinth, the backyard prairie, and our savanna…….and then we struck a match into our newest prairie. With the help of Linn County Roads and Air Pollution Departments, Pheasants Forever, the Monarch Research Project, UNI, and Sustainable Landscape Solutions we had prepared the soil and killed the weeds last May. Then we broadcast a native seed mix containing 82 species.

Prairie’s slow to start. We didn’t expect much this first year and ended up with lots of crabgrass.   It grew to about 8” and dried out nicely. A slow fire removed most of it,  allowing sunshine to warm prairie plants beneath. We expect a resurgence of delightful plants next spring and summer.

How Do Birds Stand On One Leg?

As we ate breakfast during the deep freeze that descended on February 7th six wild turkeys trudged through the snow from nearby woods and feasted on corn scattered under our bird feeders. It was 20 below zero – genuine 20 below. With the wind chill, the air was even colder.

Turkey standing on one leg

Warming toes.

The turkeys each stood on one leg as they pecked corn. Every once in a while, they alternated legs. One leg was always holding the bird upright while the other was tucked in the bird’s feathers. We wondered how they do this, so we went to our favorite new bird book, David Allen Sibley’s, What It’s Like to Be A Bird. According to him, birds have several adaptations that make it possible.

Here’s what he wrote, “The center of mass on their body is below the knee and a knob on the pelvis prevents the leg from angling any higher. Balancing on one leg requires angling that leg so that the foot is directly below the body, and with the leg essentially locked in position, and the body leaning against the leg, tiny adjustments of the toes are all that’s needed to stay upright.”

We often wonder how ducks and geese keep their legs and feet from freezing when swimming in frigid water or standing on ice. They have a useful adaptation. A bird’s leg is high, muscled, and covered with feathers. What we see that looks like a naked leg is actually a modified ankle, containing bones and tendons yet lacking blood vessels. So, the vascular area remains warm beneath feathers as the bird stands on the ice.

David Allen Sibley

We had the good fortune to chat with David Allen Sibley after he gave a presentation at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference a few years ago. An astute ornithologist, writer, and artist, his books on bird identification and behavior, and his tree identification book, are always close at hand in our home. We’ve learned much from him.

Birds Need Grit in Winter

Most bird species need to occasionally eat tiny pebbles. These end up in the gizzard, a powerfully muscled pouch, where pebbles act like grindstones reducing hard seeds into a slurry for digestion.

During periods of snow and ice birds have a tough time finding grit, so about once a week we toss grit beneath the feeders. Sand works, but we usually use fine and medium-sized grit sold to help chickens digest their feed. Once the snow melts there’s no need to add grit, as birds easily find plenty of natural tiny pebbles.

Why Do You buy Garden Seeds in Winter?

Winter Readiness

Recently Rich donned a heavy jacket, gloves, and hat then ventured through swirling snow to the mailbox. He returned with seed catalogs. Seems early but there are two good reasons why we like to receive them in the depth of winter.

Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs make great winter reading.

First, they make fun reading as we sit in the cheery glow of the woodstove. It’s pleasant to see photos of colorful vegetables. Makes us long for spring.

Second, they remind us it’s time to buy our seeds. Gardening was amazingly popular last year as Coronavirus confined millions of people to their homes and potential food shortages were a concern. So many people bought seeds that they were hard to find.   The lesson: Buy early.

 

We manage our small garden intensively and mix composted chicken manure into the soil. It makes vegetables seemingly explode in growth.

Here’s how we buy seeds:

Mail Order: Our favorite mail-order seed source is Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org)  in Decorah, Iowa. They specialize in organic, non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds. In other words, they sell classic vegetable varieties. We eat many winter squash, and Seed Savers sells a wide diversity of varieties. Our favorite is Silver Bell. It’s full of flavor, keeps all winter, and is just the right size for two people. We have ordered seeds from large format catalogs that come to our mailbox unrequested. They’ve been good seeds, but they tend to have fewer varieties of winter squash and some other vegetables. Most also sell flower seeds and fruit trees.

Over the Counter: Right after January 1st, home and garden stores put out their garden seeds. We often buy a dozen or so of the small envelopes of seeds.

Generally, they sell seeds packed by two types of companies. One is name brand seeds. The other is packets sold by companies with names we don’t always recognize. They are much less expensive than name brands. We usually buy some of each type and have had good success with the less expensive ones.

A Planting Tip

Lettuce, carrots, parsnips, radish, and many other seeds are tiny. It’s easy to plant them too close together. That results in tedious thinning in a month or two. We take the time to plant the seeds further apart to reduce the thinning chore. This also stretches the seeds in the envelope to produce more food. Often, we replant early vegetables and get a second, late-season crop.

 

Baby Chicks May Also Be in Short Supply

Last year hatcheries had trouble meeting the demand for baby chicks. Some customers were disappointed that they weren’t able to buy the breeds they wanted. We place our order at Hoover’s Hatcher (hoovershatchery.com) in the winter so we get the chicks we want at the best time for us.

Chicks in a box

Chicks need to be warm until their insulating feather grow.

Seeds or baby chicks……order early.

 

How Did Obsidian Get Around?

Obsidian on the Move

We have it easy. If we need to carve a roasted turkey, chunk up an apple, whittle a stick, or shave off a beard we just have to buy a knife or razor blade. They’re made in hundreds of shapes and configurations and sold in dozens of stores.

It wasn’t always that easy. A fascinating article about archeology in Yellowstone National Park is in the January/February 2021 issue of SMITHSONIAN Magazine. It gives a glimpse into yesterday.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we were told that, before Columbus, Native Americans lived in primitive tribes that lacked technical sophistication.

The information was downright wrong.

Research Reveals Facts

Bill Desmarais and Rich

Looking over Obsidian samples.

Decades of research by archeologists and historians have proved that Native Americans had complex societies and vast ability to live sustainably off the land. The Smithsonian article gives a glimpse of how pre–Columbian North Americans made amazingly effective tools that were carried around the continent on vast trade networks.

Early Americans needed sharp tools to make clothing, butcher game, process plants for food, and make weapons and ornaments. They lacked steel but had one thing almost better than metal – obsidian and other rocks that could be fabricated into outstanding tools. Even today, no steel knife is as sharp as an obsidian blade.

 

Between Mammoth and Norris in Yellowstone Park is Obsidian Cliff, the source of some of the best obsidian in North America. It had been mined by Native Americans for thousands of years and traded widely. Obsidian artifacts can often be traced to their place of origin and some items made from Yellowstone rock have been found as far away as Hopewell in Ohio.

Origin and Sources of Obsidian

 

Obsidian Points

The smaller piece is the back of a point. The larger piece is the broken tip of a point.

Obsidian is formed when molten rock with high silica content cools rapidly, creating a natural glass. It fractures in fascinating patterns with keen edges. A skilled person can craft amazingly sharp and beautiful cutting tools from it.

Obsidian is found on most continents and has been used by people in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. In the United States it’s found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, all western states, but some have been discovered in Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s always an indication of past volcanism.

Obsidian on the Move

It’s fascinating to think how obsidian got from Yellowstone to Ohio. Obviously, someone, or maybe many people in a relay, carried it the 1700 miles to Hopewell. Obsidian was so valuable that it made the trip worthwhile. It proves that Americans long before Columbus were involved in mining, long-distance travel, commerce, and manufacturing.

Winding Pathways is in Iowa. Nearly our entire state has a bedrock of limestone, a sedimentary rock. We lack evidence of volcanoes so no natural occurring obsidian has been found here. However, obsidian wasn’t the only rock used in trade and tool making. Iowa archeologists have discovered tools made from rocks that had been carried long distances.

Other Sharp Stones

According to Iowa State Archeologist, John Doershuk, there are dozens of varieties of chert that can be sourced to specific areas, knife River (ND) flint, Hixon silicified sandstone, jaspers, chalcedonies, and other rocks that came from distant points but were made into tools found in Iowa. Native people also transported and used copper and shells long before Columbus.

Winding Pathways is on an ancient sand dune high above Indian Creek. We’ve never found a natural rock on our property but love looking for stones when we walk along the Cedar River or other Iowa waterways. We often find chert that’s not been worked into tools but is still an interesting rock, and we keep looking for artifacts.

We know how lucky we are. If we need a new knife to slice a loaf of fresh bread, we don’t need to walk to Yellowstone to gather obsidian but can easily and inexpensively buy a knife at many stores near home.

 

Gratitdues 2020

For several years I have kept a log of daily Gratitudes.  Noting each day on a small sticky note, I stuff them into an old pickle jar. Then, at the end of the year, I spill them out on the table and re-read them, selecting several to share.  Often I list by month.  This year, I chose to put them in groups of similar topics.

Exploring: Around Town, Day Trips, Walks and Camping.

This year has been a great time to get to know our town! Each week we explored different parts of town by car. Wow! We found interesting streets, homes, businesses, and parks. That led to increasing our walking in various parks near and far. That led to arranging with the Cedar Rapids Gazette to write features about places to explore and be outside and more safe from the novel coronavirus. These were/are ways to ward off depression, increase our sense of community, and improve physical health. Even though we know some of them well, city, county, and state parks like Jones, Bever, Knollridge, Wanatee, Matsell, Hannen, Lily Lake, Whitewater Canyon, Ram Hollow, Pleasant Creek, Backbone, Wildcat Den all proved interesting and exciting. Returning to our favorite rough camping spot, Yellow River State Forest, we met a small group of scouts who decided that even though their long-anticipated trip to Philmont, NM, was out, they would camp anyway!  The boys spent hours crafting a multi-layer arrangement of hammocks in trees.

Crossing the Mississippi River on the Cassville Ferry is always fun. We stayed safely in our car, handing the small fee to the attendant through the window. We even bravely camped at Beaver Creek Hollow in SE Minnesota. A cousin camped in a nearby site. Rain-shortened our trip, but it is fun to remember the walks and campfire. All sorts of trails opened up possibilities to explore and stretch our legs, too. Cedar Lake, Prairie Park Fishery, sections of the Sac and Fox, and several in Johnson and Jones Counties. Herbert Hoover Historic Site is a great place to walk and soak up history all outside! We quickly learned when to walk to avoid interacting with many people. We watched winter fade as spring waltzed down the path to summer. Blazing hot and bouts of rain. Wind and calm and on to autumn with little color and winter with a blast of cold and deep snow.

Talks

Coffee shops and restaurants were out. But, the porch, deck, and in colder weather, the barn all proved to be fine places for one-hour chats with friends, neighbors, family, and book club. ZOOM went from novel to ubiquitous. As tired as we may have felt at times, it provided connections. Facetime was a handy way to touch base while making supper. Good old fashioned phone calls and letters!  Real letters! The main topics were missing travel, our families at a distance, ways we were adapting, new places we have found, politics, and after August 10th, the damned derecho that tore up Eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and parts of Illinois. One of the weirdest experiences is talking from the pulpit at church to an empty building into a microphone knowing dozens of members and friends were watching. Alone but connected. The minister and I figured out safe ways to hold our weekly meetings and keep the congregation and staff engaged.  My fondest memory is a neighbor bringing over coffee on a morning shortly after the derecho. We just sat on the porch before getting back to the cleanup.

Labyrinth Walks and Work

Each day I trundle out to the Phoenix Harmony Labyrinth and walk.  Sometimes I have an intention.  Mostly, I say thanks. To earth elements, the plant and animal kingdoms, people, those who have died, and beloved Universe.  Included are those I dislike or disagree with – that I may be of a kind heart. Not always easy to do this year of turmoil, dissent, violence, and flat out lies. Friends walk the labyrinth, especially on the astronomical and cross-quarter dates. And, the most exciting time of the labyrinth is burning it in the autumn.  This year Mark O. helped set and manage the fire.

The Council paused for several months when it was apparent that holding the Black Hills Renewal Day in person would not work. Working with Kathryn McL., Karen K., Twylla A., Christine F., and Nathan W. on specific projects we managed to hold together and creative projects emerged. Mary Ann W. created lovely virtual rituals. Virtually we said farewell to retiring members, we organized our strategies and interviewed 21 potential new members. We will welcome new ones on January 7th, 2021. Throughout the remaining year, each meeting’s theme held us in time and across the distance from the northeast United States to Australia.

Finger Labyrinth

Weekly finger walks through Veriditas.

The Veriditas organization quickly pivoted and began offering online labyrinth walks each Friday.  Wow! How successful!  Scores of men and women from across the world come on for the one-hour program that has a different focus each week.  A finger walk with music and time for people to share after.  It is wonderful and we begin to recognize and look for people we have come to know. Kudos to Veriditas.

Projects

Right away like everyone else, we cleaned, sorted, deep cleaned, sorted again, discarded, held on to until Goodwill re-opened, then looked around more. Rich built some birdhouses and small tables for the decks. I re-finished some chests of drawers and small tables. We freshened up the woodstove room and bucked up wood.

Little did we know we would have more than enough wood later in the summer to last for years!  Rich got some wood from a friend and another load from a neighbor. He bucked it and piled it up dubbing it, “Mt. Cordwood.” August 10th the derecho tore through the area and down came the trees.  Up went “Mt. Cordwood”! Of our 53 healthy trees, 47 came down.  It was a mess.  The gratitude is that we were able to clean it up, minimal damage to the garage, more to the cabin.  We hired a crew to take the trees off the garage and cabin. Friends helped haul and stack wood.  Iris kindly cleaned the labyrinth of fallen debris and old milkweed stalks when I needed to be at the church board retreat.

The restoration from derecho will be ongoing for a number of years.  We marked oak seedlings, bought, planted, and protected several more small trees, and have others on order for delivery in the spring. People get to create.

Consulting, Writing, and Energy Work

Part of the creation is acknowledging the losses and deciding to mindfully work to restore. Prairiewoods, with a number of organizations, is hosting a series of talks.  First on the losses. As winter and spring progress how we now move forward. Rich and I will present on remembering the understory of a forest which is sometimes a forgotten part of forest health and restoration.

From the derecho came land restoration and consulting gigs.  These are interesting and fun to do. Rich takes the lead and I help on the sides.  One client was so distressed that I offered and she accepted an impromptu healing session in the midst of her beloved woods.  Meaningful for me, too.

Our work with Hoover’s Hatchery and writing for the Cedar Rapids Gazette has grown with the pandemic.  People, new to raising chickens, have bought flocks and need solid information. So, Kelsey S., Tony H., Rich, and I have partnered to bring programming to folks.  The organic farm work at Etzel Sugar Grove Farm with Carl and Gavin R. is part of this.  Filming the activities and catching creativity are exciting. Our October session came in the midst of a surprise snowstorm! In December we moved our filming up a week to highlight the innovations Carl and Gavin have created to check up on the chickens and reduce their workload. Good thing, the original date was snowy! So, we hit that one right.

Our distance travel feature in March on the Pony Express, the Orphan Train, and the Willa Cather Museum came just ahead of the pandemic. We quickly pivoted to local attractions like parks, trails, barn quilt tours, and meat lockers. Now our kick is museums.  Some are closed and all have beefed up their online presence offering great tours. So, when the world opens up again, people will have plenty of ideas of places to visit.

Early in the pandemic, before numbers in our area were an issue, I did some work with clients and staff at the Nassif Community Cancer Center. A favorite client didn’t survive the year.  She was such a lovely individual. We held some small group sessions and staff came for longer sessions to reduce stress. Then, we really shut down as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.  Our neighbor, a nurse, said, “I have never seen so much death in such a short time. We are weary.” We do our best to avoid putting more stress on health care systems.

Teaching

Another casualty of the pandemic is the loss of in-person teaching.  Something that is wonderful has been the short, regular messages from Dr. Lori S., President of Kirkwood Community College.  She is up-front, humorous when appropriate, and expresses appreciation. Good role model. The tutor coordinator, and a good friend, asked if I would continue with tutor talks via ZOOM. The first topic was problem-solving and I used that when I discovered that my laptop is not strong enough for ZOOM presenting. Tutors in the breakout sessions came up with great ideas and laughed when they saw my solution – presenting in the garage next to the trash bins so I could be close to the router and modem for maximum upload and download. Gads!  Fun to do!

Before we ended in-person classes, the sessions were so heartfelt.  A note I made was about how one student supported another by quietly standing by him during the final short presentations. Amazing empathy in the adults re-training. Navigating Your Journey is a valuable program.

No Debt!

Early in the year, Rich decided to pay off the balance of the mortgage!  Whew!  That helped when it came to claims for the derecho. A stroke of good timing.

Miscellaneous

The emerging cicadas on a late summer labyrinth walk. Sunsets and sunrises from fires. (Well the second part is not at all good.  And, we could smell the smoke from fires hundreds of miles away) The dark sky after the derecho when electricity was off. Harvesting wild edibles early and late in the season. Dandelion greens in November? Yep. The beautiful moon rises. The NEOWISE Comet in the mid-summer. The planetary conjunction in early December.

Serving as church board president.  What? Why would someone be grateful for that role? In February a neighbor who visits the chickens with the children and who is on the nominating committee asked if I would be on the board. I looked at her and said emphatically, “NO!  Every time I have been on the board some wonky thing happens. I do not like to sit on boards. I do not like meetings. I do not like it Sam I Am!”  A few weeks later this friend asked if she and the children could come to see the chickens again. Sure.  When I saw her, I said yes, I will be board president.  She was a bit surprised as she had not actually asked. How did I know that was the ask? Just did that’s all. And, it has been a good experience.  We have a stellar minister and staff. The board is together and organized.  The membership has stepped up and supported the mission of the church. A calling tree kept us in touch. After the derecho people cleaned up, provided funds for members that were impacted, wrote notes and provided meals. When the minister and family contracted COVID-19, the good neighbors helped out.  Way to go, Peoples!

And Oreo, the black and white bunny. In April a family was moving and a friend, knowing we had had rabbits in the past asked if we wanted to adopt her.  At first, we thought, No. Then, realizing the pandemic was here to stay for a LONG time, we said yes. She has been a good companion and warmed to us. She gets a treat from Rich each night in quite a silly routine that amuses us.  I feed and pat her daily.  Her hangouts include the habitat that Rich built for her, under a small table, and stretched out by my computer chair.  She is a funny little rabbit who is a good companion.

These are some of the gratitudes I have for this weird year 2020.