Waiting for Plum Blossoms

The plan originally was to be in Colorado right now visiting family that we haven’t seen in about eight months. That’s why there’s been a gap in this blog recently. However, events intervened and schedules got complicated, so the trip has been postponed for later in the month. There is an upside, though: we’ll be here on the Farm when the wild plums start blooming.

“Mother” plum tree and her “babies” that are hard to see.

Last summer there was a blog post (you can find it here) about “mother trees” on the prairie that included a picture of this “family” with the mother and babies labeled. This spring the mom is in bloom and the little ones have new leaves. So the exclusion fence put up last year did help to protect them. The article posted last July speculated about age structure within the plum thickets and had pictures of the bigger, older trees in the middle and small young ones out at the margins. One of my friends, who had a long career in health care, raised a question about clusters of thickets being “related”. She suggested that some DNA testing would probably tell the story, but I don’t know how much that would cost. 

However, maybe the blossoms would come out at different times and that might reflect “families”? So, last week I walked through the main complex of plum thickets and took some photos of blossoms in different individual clumps and in different parts of single thickets. As you can see from this pair of pictures, the differences seem pretty subtle, but they do look real. The post last year also generated some discussions with people involved in prairie restoration projects. That included comments about how plum thickets could be “regenerated” and encouraged to expand by using fire or trimming to boost new growth. However, there was also some discussion of limiting the spread of plum thickets or even eliminating them completely to allow native prairie grasses to expand.

Here’s another pair of pictures from different thickets. Maybe the differences are even more subtle than in the previous pair? The discussions with prairie “enthusiasts” (and yes, there really are people who get excited abut the prairie!) also raised an issue about why wild plums are important components of prairie landscapes. One person pointed out that their blossoms early in the season are significant for pollinators like bees and butterflies. Another wondered if the roots of plum trees pulled up moisture and nutrients from the deep subsoil that could assist other plants. The roots also help to stabilize eroding banks along a stream and the thickets provide food and cover for wildlife. And, then of course there are the things that are important for humans like wild plum jam or jelly and shade for livestock.

Margaret took these photos and the next pair, the day after we had 90-degree temperatures this past weekend. The blossom photos earlier in this post were from several days before that. The flowers really opened a lot in the heat and there are differences visible within and between thickets. The photo on the left shows a single thicket that’s fairly uniform. The photo on the right has some areas where the blossoms don’t show so thick and white. Do those areas separate different “family units” with different mother trees within the thicket?

Differences within a big thicket are shown even better in this photo on the left. And, the one on the right shows an isolated thicket that doesn’t have the extensive flowers that are in the very first of Margaret’s pictures. (She’s got a good eye for composition and her photo records are much better than my attempts were! It’s really hard to catch the subtle differences.) Of course, the differences in blossoming could be due to differences in moisture or topography or soil or access to sunshine. BUT, maybe the blossoms are marking or distinguishing unique family groups clustered around individual mother trees. This speculation about matriarchs and their broods does risk putting an anthropomorphic spin on the interpretations, but it also makes a pretty cool story. And, it could all be tested with specific observations, if there were any incentive to spend the money.

This morning there was the threat of a cold and wet wind that could damage the blossoms. The last several mornings, temperatures have been at or below freezing. It’s happened other years. A late frost or other wintery weather can mess up our plans to make plum jelly, but the thickets continue to survive. There are stories in our family about people coming out from town to pick plums back before the turn of the twentieth century. So, these wild plum thickets have lived here on the banks of Kanaranzi Creek for many generations. With or without the nurturing mother trees, hopefully the thickets will continue to survive and thrive.

I plan to continue sharing the link to this blog on Facebook, but I’m never clear on who sees it or when. Facebook’s protocols and priorities are mysterious (or scary?). So, if you want to get an email notice when there’s a new post about Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek, you can do that by clicking the “Follow” icon. The only trouble is: it’s really hard to find! There’s a bar menu that’s displayed in the lower right, but only when you scroll up toward the top of the page. AND, you have to click the three dots at the end of this bar in order to find the “Follow” option. Good luck if you really want to follow the blog, in spite of the confusion provided by Facebook and WordPress. As always, weekly posts will alternate between natural history/science and human history/archaeology.

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Oxbow Evolution

We had a rain event last week that gave us about one and three quarter inches over three days and it brought up water levels in the Creek. Although the water in the channel was about a foot and a half higher than it was last fall, it dropped back lower in another couple of days. Last year was dry compared to the two previous years; even the ground water table has gotten lower. So, the habitats for plants and animals have really changed a lot from the record wet years in 2018 and 2019; even last spring there was still water in the oxbow.

When a channel meander broke through back in 2014, the cutoff formed an oxbow that’s been a busy place. When the habitat changed from open channel to wetland and pond, the plants and animals adjusted accordingly. Now, the wetland and pond are totally dry and the higher Creek levels didn’t even help. The water would have to be about three feet higher in order to flood into the oxbow and restore the wetland and pond. So, the changes from channel to wetland/pond have now progressed to mud flats and grassed areas.

The oxbow has a series of specific parts that we’re going to tour through to show the latest changes. The “upstream plug” is sediment deposited when water from the channel flows into the meander. It’s gotten to be so high that plants have established a footing. Last year’s brown grass now extends across the mouth of the oxbow and this season’s new green vegetation is starting to grow out into the mud flat. Looking the other direction into the wetland, it’s all dried up wetland bottom with mud cracks where there used to be water. The area of brown grass in the middle was an “island” last year and this is the area where rare cricket frogs and Topeka Shiners hung out. There’s no place for them this year unless water levels come up a lot and the oxbow is flooded again.

The pond at the north end is usually relatively isolated from the wetland to the south, but not now. What was once under water is now all black and cracked mud. The slight line in the mud right below the brown vegetation marks a former water level in the pond. It held water later than the wetland last fall because the pond tapped into a groundwater aquifer and that supported the higher water levels longer. The yellow arrows point to dead clams/bivalves that lived along the edge of the pond. That photo also shows a close up of the desiccation cracks that form when the mud dries out. Things have changed a lot in the old pond basin.

Originally the pond was connected to the main part of the Creek through a “tie channel” that let water in or out depending on the relative levels in the pond and main channel. But, not these days! Last year, grass totally took over and this season’s new green grass is already established where there once was water. Closer to the main channel, the “downstream plug” is completely grassed over, but it does have a small grove eroded when the water was slightly higher. However, like the upstream plug this pile of sediment at the downstream end of the oxbow has grown high enough to make it hard to get water in to or out of the abandoned meander. Once the vegetation is established, it acts as a baffle that slows down any channel water that comes in. That means the dirt carried by the water will be deposited and the oxbow will become even more isolated from the water in the main channel.

The state and federal agencies that have been monitoring landscape changes, fish, and frogs will probably not be doing much in the oxbow this year. The habitats have adjusted from open channel to wetland and pond to dry grassed areas. In a similar way, the human institutions have changed too. The agency that oversees the measurement of stream conditions (including my observations at the Stateline Bridge) in Minnesota is understaffed, so the start of this year’s season of citizen monitoring will be delayed. Change happens.

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Landmark Legends

When our homesteading family built their first home (a log-lined dugout in the side of a hill) in the nineteenth century 150 years ago, it was located near a big old tree that stood alone on the prairie. That “Lone Tree” gave the Farm its name and is an important part of our family tradition. But, that tree also seemed to provide subject material for local journalists and historians who were subsequently weaving the American “Legend” during the twentieth century.

A friend recently shared an article from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she found while doing research for the Rock County Historical Society. It includes this picture of my grandpa (namesake) standing in front of the Lone Tree. The article also describes the fall of the old dead tree and outlines several of the myths surrounding it. The date on the Sioux Falls newspaper article is September 3, 1930; the local Ellsworth News, which could provide more specific details, had the exact time as a Tuesday noon at 12:10. “The ‘Lone Tree,’ long a familiar object and landmark on the landscape of Kanaranzi township, has surrendered to the ravages of time and crashed into the Kanaranzi Creek from its site on the south bank of the stream. The tree—a majestic cottonwood—stood alone on the Minnesota side of the Iowa-Minnesota state line. The crash brought the George Shurr family from the dinner table and they found the big tree shattered into hundreds of pieces and scattered in the stream over which it had stood so majestically for more than 100 years.” Dad confirmed that the family actually did hear the noise.

View from the north, circa 1910.

The newspaper accounts are rooted in the language of the standard American Mythology and actually add to the foundations of the legend. “The lone tree has had its mark in history. Fifty years ago when the first settlers pioneers trekked into the wilds of southwestern Minnesota, this gnarled giant cottonwood stood on the bank of the then broad stream known as the Kanaranzi creek. No other trees dotted these virgin prairies and for a distance of from five to ten miles in every direction the lone tree loomed as a guide post to all incoming settlers.” Our family matriarch, who had emigrated from Wales as a child, did an oil painting of this view of the Lone Tree sometime in the 1920s.

View from the west in 1922.

In addition to settlers, all of the characters that are usually part of the standard  “textbook histories” are mentioned in the articles. That includes Indians: “In its shade was buried an early trapper; within its scope of view the prairie wilderness has passed from the hunting grounds of the Indians into the grasp of civilization and progress.” The tree supposedly had bullets embedded when Indians killed the trapper. The narratives also include outlaws: “Local historians claim the lone tree sheltered the notorious Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers in the days following the now famous Northfield bank robbery.” This photo of the Lone Tree was used to do an oil painting in 1978 by a family friend who emigrated from China by way of Viet Nam.

View from the east in 1928.

One of the stories written by E. E. Lovrien, who was the editor of the Ellsworth News, described a unique interaction between settlers and Indians. In contrast with the standard narratives, there was cooperation instead of fighting: “Once again, within the shadow of the Lone Tree a number of pioneer settlers came across a huge elk, dropping from shear exhaustion. They struck him a blow on the head and had hardly cut his throat when a Winnebago Indian came up. The Winnebago stated his case quickly and right to the point. The elk originally had been the game of a Sioux, who had gone for a companion. The Winnebago had stepped in and pursued the elk for a day and a night. He was now in enemy territory and the white men were welcome to the meat if they would only give him the head. He was given the trophy and lost no time in leaving the land of the Sioux behind him.” A fictionalized version of this story is included in the Ellsworth Centennial Volume and was probably written by George P. Heikes.

View from the south in 1930.

It was a big tree and it was apparently a “famous” tree, but in the end it died and fell into the Creek: “Split from top to bottom in its crash from the upper bank, the tree in death disclosed what was never suspected by anyone familiar with its history. Instead of being only one tree its wreck discloses it was a joint tree formed by the intergrowth of two separate seeds. Five feet in diameter at its base, it was supported by side roots measuring a foot across. Two years ago the passing of this monster tree was indicated when leaves and shoots failed to put forth and during these two years it has stood a grim caricature of its former greatness.” The still-standing dead tree is shown in the previous photo from 1928.

There’s a children’s book called “The Tree on the Trail” by Holling C. Holling that tells a story that’s very similar to our Lone Tree, except that it’s located in Kansas. Written in 1942, this book lays out all of the elements of the American Myth in a way that’s very much like the newspaper accounts of our Lone Tree written a few years earlier. These views through the prism of the dominant white culture all conform to the basic assumptions that underlie the great American Myth. That includes the old accounts of the Lone Tree that named our family farm.

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Big Birds Along the Creek

They aren’t yellow and they’re not as big as Big Bird on Sesame Street, but eagles and Canadian Geese are both big birds for the prairie! Most of the birds returning this spring are much smaller and most are very noisy like the geese. However, we do hear an eagle call occasionally.

Margaret took this photo earlier this winter when we first started seeing a lot of eagles. That included several days when we had “double eagles” (a.k.a. two eagles in one tree); during the first ten days of December, we had 13 sightings. It seemed like they’d fly northeast up the Creek in the morning and come back down the Creek in the afternoon. They were probably headed back downstream to permanent nesting areas along the Rock River. Sometimes they’d stop in our big old cottonwood tree and as the warm winter got closer to springtime, we started seeing them a lot more often.

March must be good for eagles! There are many online “eagle cams” watching eggs and tracking specific individuals. Search Google for one near you. I had a friend recommend the Raptor Resource Project near Decorah, Iowa, and this route map is an example of their work. They’ve tracked birds for some pretty impressive distances along the Mississippi and points north. It shows that the banded birds like to follow big streams and that matches our eagles’ behavior along the much smaller Kanaranzi Creek.

This bar graph shows our eagle sightings along the Creek since the first of the year. It was slow and steady from January 1 to March 1 because we had 16 sightings over the 60-day period. Then on March 4 and 5 there were 10 separate “sightings”! That included two times when there were four of them in the Eagle Tree…two adults and two immature ones without white heads and tails. Then there was a conspicuous dry spell with only a couple of sightings. That’s when the geese took over the pasture.

When the geese moved in and started shopping for nesting sites, things got really noisy. That happens pretty much every year, but I wonder if the racket drove the eagles away this year? I suppose goose eggs might be eagle food, but it’ll probably be awhile before that delicacy is available. In the meantime, could the adult geese be prey for eagles? They’re both big birds. I would think that the eagles might prefer to have a dead goose carcass for lunch rather than tackle a big old mad, live goose!

Here’s a picture of lunch counter for eagles and coyotes (and maybe mountain lions?). This hog barn is built on the site of an old homestead near where Dad and his sister went to country school back in the 1920s. That farmer was reported to have a stuffed eagle sitting on the piano in his parlor. The bird was shot when it was supposedly stealing chickens. Since this hog barn was built about ten years ago, both coyotes and eagles have helped to clean up the piles of dead pigs before the rendering truck makes it’s rounds hauling off the bodies.

Over the years, eagles have survived the threat of getting shot as chicken thieves. But in the 1950s and 1960s, populations dropped off dramatically because DDT made their eggshells fragile. By the early 2000s the ban on DDT had allowed eagle populations to recover and in the last decade or so it has grown significantly. There is, however, a new threat. A neurological disease associated with bacteria on an invasive aquatic weed is killing eagles and other birds. So, the challenges that eagles have experienced have evolved from being physically shot to being poisoned by chemical contaminants to being infected by a microbial menace. We’re really lucky to be able to see any of these iconic birds flying along the Creek and stopping for a rest in the big cottonwood tree.

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Visitation

Last week on the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, it was crisp and clear but warm enough for me to have coffee on the porch. One nice thing about a taste of spring….no bugs yet. So I’m sitting in a daze that caffeine hasn’t yet cured, when all of a sudden I hear this deep-throated snarl! I thought at first that it might be farm machinery off on some neighbor’s farmyard. It sorta sounded like metal getting dragged over concrete or rubbing against other metal.

Then I heard the scream! I’ve heard an otherwise voiceless rabbit, scream in fear or pain and I found examples on You Tube to help confirm the idea. After that brief and piercing scream the deep base growl continued for what seemed like a long time. Did it also seem like it was a contented growl? Did I just hear a mountain lion kill a rabbit right below the bluff beyond our backyard? Now, I’m in full “adventure” mode!

Mountain lion tracks along the Rock River.

Over the years there have been lots of reports of mountain lion sightings in our general area. Usually it’s in the next county and usually there aren’t very many trail cam photos. But, several years ago one of our neighbors found these tracks along the Rock River about three miles west of our place. They look pretty authentic to me and they are probably the most direct evidence that we have had of a mountain lion fairly close to the Farm…. until the morning after St. Patrick’s Day!

I reported my suspicions to Margaret at breakfast but she didn’t seem too concerned about my plans to go looking for evidence of the kill. Old guys need something to occupy their retirement days, after all. So, I went off looking for distinctive tracks or some dramatic spread of crimson snow that might mark the kill site. I also thought about the new calves that were cavorting around a paddock near our house and recalled the stories about pets at risk from mountain lions in Colorado. Remember that witch’s line from The Wizard of Oz “….and your little dog too”?

Well, I did find some tracks but they were probably made by a coyote or a raccoon. The only red thing that I saw was a piece of wild plum wood in the Creek that had been stripped of the bark by a beaver. No bloody snow with gray rabbit fur spread around. So, there wasn’t much direct support for my mountain lion speculation.

I don’t mind losing a few bunnies. They’re usually busy grazing on our landscape plants and pooping on the porch all winter. In fact, that’s one reason I like to have coyotes along the Kanaranzi Creek: they help to control the varmint population. Contrary to popular misconceptions, coyotes don’t pose much of a direct risk to calves. Here’s a link to a blog post by a prairie ecologist in Nebraska that describes all the good things that coyotes can do.

Coyotes and mountain lions are pretty much at the pinnacle of the predator “pecking order”. I know that we routinely have coyotes in the Creek pasture, but if it was a coyote growling that I heard on the porch the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, it was a BFC…. A Big Fricking Coyote!

Sunset over the State Line on the vernal equinox.

And, there’s one final thing to point out. This “visitation” was just a few days before the vernal equinox, the astronomical first day of spring. There are a lot of folklore traditions that say strange things happen around this time of change. For example the east-facing headstones in the cemetery on the hill two miles west of the Farm, light up with bright sunrise reflections on the mornings around the first day of spring. And, the sun sets exactly where the State Line crosses that hilltop because it’s due west of us. Margaret caught this photo at precisely the right time and it’s emblematic of all of the “magic” that’s intrinsic in Nature this time of year.

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Lone Trees

Lone Tree Farm was named for a huge old cottonwood tree that originally stood along Knanranzi Creek just beyond the present-day farmyard. Although it was been gone for almost a century there still are some isolated trees that carry on the tradition.

This ash tree is the lone survivor of a stand of trees that used to occupy the abandoned meander near the bridge. There were mainly willows and box elder trees in the stand, but the ash tree that remains now is pretty much alone. It does have a significant new purpose, however: it holds a bolt that serves as an elevation datum for the periodic U.S. Geological surveys of water levels in the Creek. Originally, the elevation marker was part of the previous old bridge, but the “permanent” datum was surveyed into the marker bolt on the ash tree. Bridges come and go, but the tree has preserved the elevation during those transitions. And, like the willows and box elders that used to be the ash tree’s neighbors in the abandoned channel meander, it’ll probably eventually disappear.

This elm tree was safely isolated in the pasture while the rest of the elms on the Farm and throughout the countryside all succumbed to Dutch elm disease. It was probably saved by its location. The canopy has that distinctive mushroom shape of an elm tree, in contrast to the box elder tree on the far horizon. That tree silhouetted against the sky along with the bushes around it’s base has been called the “Chicken Tree” by our grandkids because when the leaves are on it, it looks like a chicken with big cartoon boots. Not so much this time of year, however. The photo on the right shows a line of elm trees that were planted along the south property line of the original tree claim. All of those elms were wiped out and Dad spent most of the 1970s and 1980s turning all of that wood into fuel for their wood-burning stove. That project also probably helped him work through the loss of my brother Bob. I’m thinking about Dad today because he was half Irish and his birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day.

Apple tree isolated in the “wild’ far from the farmyard.

This apple tree is also a survivor and is located along a north property line marked by the fence. It’s tempting to think that maybe the tree is growing out here in the “wild” away from the farmyard because someone paused fieldwork to have lunch that included an apple. Fieldwork has changed a lot, however. The lunchtime planting of an apple core was probably back when horses or small tractors were used. Now with the big field equipment at work, trees get in the way. So, this poor old tree has been trimmed way back. The limbs piled on the other side of the fence were taken from where the circular scars mark the tree trunk. It’s ironic that there’s a little thin frost clinging to the top of this threatened apple tree, while on the long-dead elms along a different property line there’s a total covering of thick white frost.

Cottonwood matriarch and her plum thicket protectors.

This big old cottonwood tree may be a descendant of the original Lone Tree. At least it’s growing very near where we believe the original cottonwood was located. This sole-surviving offspring of the namesake tree is now the only cottonwood left on the whole Farm. I tried to transplant some of the little ones that took root near this old survivor, but the flooding in the Creek wiped them all out. As the steep stream bank has eroded back over the last couple of years, this senior citizen may be threatened with collapsing into the channel. However, there were plum thickets that helped stabilize the Creek bank and pushed the main area erosion farther downstream. The modest little wild plum trees have basically provided protection for the much larger matriarch. The plum trees have fallen into the channel and have floated away, but the grand old cottonwood lady still is standing. Maybe some day there will be seedlings that survive to continue the cottonwood tradition that started with the original Lone Tree.

There’s recent research that suggests the trees in large forests may communicate and support each other through their root systems. I’ve speculated about the implications of these ideas for trees on the prairie in this post. But if trees really do share with each other in community settings, then who do these lone trees communicate with in their isolated locations? Also, the research emphasizes relationships among trees of the same species. Is there mutual aid and support (other than protective shading and bank stabilization) going on through the roots systems of the lonely big cottonwood and the cluster of little wild plum trees?

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Farmyard Changes

The farmyard has changed in response to fluctuations in row crop and livestock markets and to the inescapable cycles of wet and dry weather. But, there have also been modifications to accommodate family generational changes. We’ve got a set of four air photos that illustrate a few of those progressive changes.

1978 view to the northwest

Some of the buildings described in recent posts are visible in this shot: the Big Barn that has been torn down and burned, the Windmill (marked with an arrow), the two Metal Sheds, and the Silo with nearby Hog House and Corn Cribs that have all been demolished. There’s also a pretty good view of the “Greats’ House” built by the homesteading ancestors. I plan to eventually share some old-time photos on the ground that show the house from several different perspectives when the trees were all much smaller. Off in the distance you can see cattle grazing in the Creek pasture and a nearby farmstead that has been totally removed so that the site is now part of a row-crop field. They’re also marked with arrows.

1983 view to the northeast

This perspective gives an even better view of the Big Barn, Hen House, the two Metal Sheds, and the Silo-Hog House-Corn Crib complex. But, there are also some things marked with gray arrows that haven’t been described. The small granary has been removed; those tiny white boxes are beehives (the man who owned the bees paid his “rent” with a case of honey); and the Little House is just peeking out from the trees. The Little House was used by several cycles of hired men and their families and it was my parents’ first home as a newly married couple. The pens that show up around the Metal Shed and Hog Barn reflect the sheep operation that had been part of the farmyard in the two previous decades.

Raising sheep was a project that both brother Bob and I did through high school in the 1950s and 1960s. Dad fed cattle, but the sheep were mainly our responsibility. It helped pay for college and helped us both make our career decisions. I left the farm to be a geologist, but Bob’s training and experience were aimed at bringing him back after college. He was supposed to be the fourth consecutive generation of our family to farm here. That all changed when he was killed in Viet Nam in 1970. The two black and white photos bracket a time about ten years later when that new reality had finally hit the farmyard. There would not be a new generation from our family taking over, so there were few changes and what changes there were came slowly. The two color photos shown below are from about thirty years later when Margaret and I returned to be the fourth generation in our family to live here but we did not run the farming operation.

2010 view to the north

Our “new” (it’s actually ten years old by 2010) house is probably the most conspicuous change. There are several groups of cattle in the pasture, but they’re now distributed through smaller paddocks designed for rotational grazing. The clump of trees shown with a yellow arrow, started as volunteers inside the Corn Cribs; the Corn Cribs and Hog House and Silo are now gone, but those trees mark the spot. Margaret planted the three pine trees just to the left of the Corn Crib trees. She likes evergreens. The two Metal Sheds remain as enduring landmarks and the Hen House still stands. But, the Big Barn has collapsed into a pile of rubble waiting to be burned and there’s another burn pile in the lower left corner of the picture. Our renter who is doing the rotational grazing has been very patient with the slow pace of cleanup and change around the farmyard. My parents still live in the Greats’ House through most of the decade while Margaret and I are more busy with grandchildren than with our careers. The farmyard has been mostly a retirement community.

2017 view to the northwest

Things really have started to change by 2017. The folks moved off the farm in 2009 and passed away in 2014. Margaret has planted more trees south of our house, but to the north the old ash trees that once surrounded the Little House have been thinned out by old age and chain saws. The Greats’ House and adjacent Garage are used for storage and so is the Metal Shed on the left. But the other Metal Shed has been cleaned out and the metal panels outside are positioned for handling cattle. There are other changes related to our renter’s cow/calf operation: two watering tanks are visible at locations 1 and 2 and the dark green paddock in the lower right (3) is seeded to warm season grasses. The bare strip that looks like a driveway running from newest tank (2) and down along the warm season paddock (3) is actually where a new rural water hookup was installed. The location of the Big Barn is shown by the bare patch (4) where the bones of the barn were buried. Even though it’s not our family, another generation has started to reconfigure the farmyard for a farming operation in the twenty-first century.

Images from Google Earth and those taken from drones have probably put the original air photo company out of business. But, I do appreciate the time sequence preserved in these four photographs spread over almost forty years. They document changes that were not so easily perceived while actually living through those years.

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Winter Harvest

Before the warm weather melted all of our snow last week, there were lots of signs that small mammals were busy with their winter harvest. Rabbits, mice and beavers all root around in the snow looking for lunch….or dinner….or second breakfast. Rabbits aren’t considered to be rodents according to online sources, but mice and beavers both are; beavers are supposed to be the biggest rodents in North America. We see bunnies all the time around the Farmyard, but the mice and beavers aren’t so easily seen.

After a fresh snow the rabbit “pastures” are clearly marked where they dig down into the snow in order to “graze” the dry grass. Without the snow it’s hard to tell where the bunnies are eating. In addition to the dry grass, they strip bark off young trees and thin out the sage and other native plants that we have as landscaping around out house. They also eat the old asparagus plants from the previous season. That’s shown near the top of the second photo above a bunny pasture in the snow.

Here’s another asparagus plant getting chewed on by rabbits. We know that its rabbits because they left their calling cards in the snow next to their tracks. In some places around the house, these fertilizer pellets are so thick after the snow melts that they almost pose a health hazard. The melting snow also exposes old trails used by mice to get to their grazing areas. There are probably poop pellets here too, but they’re not as conspicuous in the old melting snow.

Tail Trails

We may not see the mice very often, but on thin fresh snow their travels are pretty well documented. It’s like a map of mouse behavior. What’s surprising about these particular trails is how far they go without any protective cover to hide away in. The mice were probably moving pretty fast over the snow to avoid becoming a meal for the predators that are always on the hunt. Notice the trail that the tail leaves, especially in the track at the bottom of the photo.

Here’s a closer shot that shows the marks of the tails a little better. And, it looks like all tracks are leading to a clump of dry plants that’s probably like going to the mouse grocery store. The photo on the right shows tracks that are all leading home. That’s a mouse house there in the center of the picture. These guys were probably also moving pretty fast to avoid becoming someone else’s meal.

When the water started flowing over the ice in the Creek last week, this orange branch of plum wood got exposed. I think that it was probably “beaver-bit”. And earlier this winter it looked like some critter tried to get out of the water and up onto the snow-covered ice without much luck. Although we haven’t seen any beavers this winter, I think that both of these are clues that they’re around this year too. These pictures were both taken near a spot on the Creek that has had lots of adventures: an old horse fell into a collapsed beaver den; an old man lost both snowshoes when he fell through the ice; a big snapping turtle “attacked” a little girl; and a different little girl lost one of her mittens in the Creek as the ice was floating by. Some of these stories have already been told elsewhere in this blog, but some of them have not….yet.

Butterflies and birds are cool, but beavers and rabbits and mice are also all integral parts of the mosaic of life on the prairie. Beavers impact waterways and trees in both positive and negative ways. Rabbits’ job this time of year is probably to thin the thatch in a grassland. But, what possible good are mice? Small mammals like mice help to plant seeds with their caches and their burrows probably enhance soil health by providing direct conduits for water (like turnip roots in a cover crop mixture). And then of course, mice and rabbits are food for the hunting hawks and coyotes and eagles. They’re like an intermediate link between the plants and the predatory carnivores. “All God’s critters have a place in the choir” (Peter, Paul, and Mary) of life that makes the tall grass prairie viable and resilient.

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Building Memories

Memories are mainly preserved in our minds, but there are “triggers” that help us to recall specific people or events or buildings. Photos help, but that only routinely goes back to the early 1900s. Older than that, we have to use other pictures like sketches or paintings. Tangible mementos help, but then these “treasures” or “souvenirs” have to be stored and sorted and curated. And, then there’s this blog. It’s storing memories and photos and stories. Specifically this week, there are recollections of some old buildings that are no longer part of the Farmyard.

This photo from the early 1970s shows the windmill looming over a building that had many uses. It was a garage, as you can see from the International pickup parked inside. After that, it was used to store a tank of fuel oil for emergency backup heating. But, this building was originally the Hen House, before it was converted for the later uses. I remember gathering eggs from nests protected by some grumpy old hens. The building has been demolished so all that’s left now, is the row of cement blocks that were the foundation for the old building.

Here are a couple of items salvaged from the old Hen House. The triangular bunch of boards is from the peak above the converted garage doors and the small door was originally just around the corner from the big doors. I may not have those detailed locations exactly right, but who cares? Now that they’re documented for posterity in this post, the old wood can go onto the burn pile. You can only keep so many “treasures” stored around the Farmyard!

These doors are all “souvenirs” from another building that’s gone, but unlike the Hen House we don’t have any photo of the Sheep Shed. The Sheep Shed was originally a hog barn, but we never had any hogs….we had sheep. This was where the lambing would happen about this time of the year. The people-sized door is in pretty rough shape, but the two smaller doors are more intact. Those small access doors let the sheep move outside onto a cement slab when the weather was good.

Currently, all that’s left on the site of the Hog House are these two hackberry trees and a depression located where the cistern once was. We planted the two evergreen trees after the Sheep Shed was demolished. The snow patch circled in red is filling in the hole where the cistern used to be; it’s frustrating to try to mow through that. The two hackberry trees are survivors that originally grew up as volunteers inside corncribs located along the south side of the cement slab.

The Silo was also located in this general area so it was convenient for feeding silage to the sheep. This is the way it looked in the early 1970s. One of the earliest posts on this blog has some pictures of the process of taking down the old Silo. That happened about 20 years ago and the location is part of the “tall grass”/unmowed part of our yard. After two decades, the circular foundation is still visible on recent high-resolution air photos available from the county. The three dark green shadows are the same three evergreens shown in the previous paragraph. If you’re standing next to the evergreens, you can’t see any sign of the foundation circle on the ground.

So, these buildings are preserved as memories associated with pictures and mementos. And, those memories are now part of this collective sharing of stories.

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Cold Snap

This past week has been a week of holidays: Chinese New Year, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Margaret’s Birthday! We’re about half way between the fist day of winter and the first day of spring. The media says it was the coldest Valentine’s Day on record. It WAS cold; we didn’t get above zero on Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the temperature on the morning after Valentine’s Day. It counts as -25, but there was no wind and that helped a lot. My parents used to count the mornings below zero so I looked through some of their records. My mother kept a journal of daily paragraphs from 1982 to 2004 with temperatures sporadically included. Surfing through a random notebook, I found a -27 with a strong wind for January 19, 1985; two days earlier the daytime high was +36! Our forecast for next week looks like it’ll make mid30s, although the turn-around time will not be not as abrupt as in 1985.

Even at the below zero temperatures, there’s melting on the south side of the house in the direct sun because it’s getting more powerful. Runoff from the dark porch roof built this stalagmite and stalactite out of ice. (There’s an old retired geology prof “joke” that says in caves its “Up go the mites and down go the tights, like ants in your pants.”) The combination of a powerful sun and cold temperatures grows some impressive ice cycles and sculptures. My folks used to quote the old saying: “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.”

These pictures of a sunrise and sunset were taken by Margaret. The sunrise picture is from around the time of the winter solstice, but during this cold snap the sunrise position has shifted to the north. Now it comes up behind the Greats’ old House and we don’t even see it. The sunset shows a view to the west along the Stateline just last week. By the time of the spring equinox, the sunset position will shift north until it goes down at the point where the road disappears over the horizon. Our weather calendar says there’s about 8 hours and 45 minutes of daylight around the first day of winter, about 10 hours and 20 minutes around Valentines Day, and about 12 hours and 10 minutes around the first day spring. The next batch of lengthening days will bring much warmer temperatures, I hope.

Just before the cold snap there wasn’t much snow cover so the frost depth has probably increased a lot. That could be tough on those earthworms who were busy back during our January thaw. The depth of freezing most likely varies with differences in vegetation cover. Earthworms under the bare lawn may not be as comfortable as those under the snow near the long grass. The picture on the right is in a paddock with warm season native grasses. Hopefully the worms are really happy and healthy under this tall grass where the snow is providing some insolation from the cold that’s creeping deeper.

Depth of freezing temperatures and earthworm survival may also be influenced by snow cover that’s trapped in small-scale rises and depressions. The picture on the left shows snow along a slight rise in the land surface in the Creek pasture. I wonder if the soil microbes are different under the snow when compared to the brown areas that have blown clear. The linear white snow bands in the right picture mark old cultivation furrows where potatoes were planted in the early 1900s. Even those really subtle depressions might trap enough snow to influence depth of freezing. Do micro-topographic features like these, impact the well being of the soil microbes and earthworms? Are there observable differences in soil health associated with really small changes in the landscape?

Beyond the techy soil science, there are other questions about the cold snap. Why is it so quiet? It seems like it’s really easy to hear the wind in the tall grass or an owl trying to be sociable. Maybe it’s because the cold air suppresses sound? Or, maybe it’s because there are no neighbors out driving tractors and trucks around in the frigid weather? In any case, there’s been a cold silence around the Farm “in the bleak midwinter”.

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