Two Layers of Bones

This tooth was found several years ago on a sand bar along Kanaranzi Creek. It probably eroded out from the layer of gravel that’s buried beneath the Creek bed. And, it’s probably a tooth from a wooly mammoth. That suggests that the buried gravel was originally deposited during the Ice Age thousands of years ago.

Here are two more specimens that most likely also came from that buried layer of glacial gravel. I think that the long piece of splintered horn might be from an Ice Age bison. Maybe the big, dark brown knuckle is also from a bison? That’s all speculation on my part. We’ll have to show them to a paleontologist who knows about really old bones.

We can see the top of the glacial gravel exposed in the lower part of the Creek bank when the water level is low. However, most of the steep banks along the channel show a thick layer of black clay and silt that was deposited by the Creek in the last few hundred years. This layer of alluvium also has bones that erode out of the steep banks and end up on modern sand bars.

The bones in the alluvium layer are also from bison, more commonly referred to as buffalo. We found these three skulls in 1997, 2001, and 2014. In addition, we found these six horns. So that represents at least six total buffalo! Growing up along the Creek in the 1950s, my brother and I searched a lot and only found one small piece of horn. And, the previous generations of children and grandchildren of the homesteaders never found any that I know of. The Creek is eroding a lot more lately, so there are more buffalo bones coming out of the alluvium layer lately.

The buffalo bones are broken open in strange patterns and lots are splintered. Some seem to show cut marks. It looks like there may have been a buffalo butcher shop back when Native Americans lived along the Creek. However, buffalo bones look a lot like cattle bones so we’ll have to get an expert’s opinion on these bones too. That will come from an archaeologist who knows about younger bones.

Earlier this month, a paleontologist worked on excavating a mammoth tusk at the town of Hills about 20 miles west of our farm. So, there are Ice Age fossils over that way as well. I don’t know if the tusk was exposed in glacial gravel like the layer below Kanaranzi Creek. But, this would be a scientist who could confirm that our tooth really did come from a mammoth. Now we’ll have to find an archaeologist who might be able to confirm the butcher marks on the younger buffalo bones.

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Wild Cucumber Hanging Around

Have you seen any of this stuff lately? It’s prime time for the wild cucumber vines and they’re climbing everywhere! Here’s one stretched up on the lilac bushes north of the old house. The other one nearby is headed up the dead tree by the gas barrel.

The flowers do smell good. Wild cucumber has been planted some places as an ornamental, but it is a native forb that’s probably in the seed bank all over the farm. That’s good because it adds to the general biologic diversity. You can buy the seed online for $20 an ounce (seems kinda spendy to me) because it is, after all, a wild flower. However, that depends one where it’s growing. The USDA officially lists it as a weed.

Wild cucumber vines grow so fast that it’s sorta scary stuff. Seems like those extensive, vigorous vines would smother the other plants that they cover. But, I’ve read that it rarely does any damage. Still, we pulled the vines off our favorite asparagus cluster right after we took this picture. We didn’t want to risk losing one of the best suppliers for next spring’s asparagus crop. So, yup, it’s a weed there.

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Springs This Summer

The high rainfall this year and last year has saturated the subsoil and filled the underground storage “tanks”. Actually these buried aquifers are NOT open spaces, like caves, flooded with water. But, instead they are layers of sand and gravel saturated with the water stored in tiny void spaces between the sand grains and gravel pebbles. And, when the buried aquifers spill out onto the land surface, we get springs. A lot of springs this year.

This is the fairly permanent spring that we have in the western part of the farm. The active spring is marked with a star in the dark green vegetation. And, the band of yellow and light green vegetation along the edge of the hill is where the layer of sand and gravel is leaking out to form a new spring this year.

We can actually see the layer of saturated sand and gravel where it’s exposed in a high bank along the Creek farther north. Water from the uncovered aquifer goes directly into the Creek channel at this location. There’s a layer of wind-blown silt, called loess, covering the aquifer layer. Black soil has formed at the top of the silt. Loess is the parent material for all the good soil in this part of Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.

There’s also a layer of sand and gravel buried down below the actual Creek channel. When this lower aquifer is filled up like this year, water flows directly into the channel water. However during a dry spell, the surface water in the Creek may flow back into the buried aquifer. The exposed layer of wet sand is basically unstable and big blocks of the over-lying clay alluvium (which was deposited when the Creek was flooding over it’s banks) slump down into the channel. The same thing has happened with the upper sand layer back over along the high bank.

Upland hills are capped with loess rather alluvium and below the loess there’s clay that has interspaced boulders. This widespread geologic unit is called till and it was deposited directly by the ice in the old glaciers. Clay doesn’t usually store much groundwater, but if it is highly fractured it can act as an aquifer. The bands of Queen Anne’s Lace and white clover on this hillside probably mark moisture available from the fractured clay till. When the gravel road on a hill slope crosses the layer of saturated till, we get the frost boils and mud holes that have been so bad this year.

An active spring forms when the saturated, fractured till leaks its water out onto the side of a hill where it runs down to puddle up on the flat surface of the Creek’s floodplain. I’ve never seen a spring at this location, but this year there’s a new one. The boulders at the base of the tree are part of the till layer. This is the place where we got the boulder that became my brother’s headstone. Native American traditions link springs with places with spiritual significance and that certainly holds true for me at this spot.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

Over the past several weeks, the Queen Anne’s Lace has made its annual appearance. Usually we’ve got grandchildren visiting the Farm and that’s the way that it happened again this year. These two pictures, however, are from past years; both girls are “much” older now. Catching fire flies is also one of the standard activities when the Queen Anne’s Lace is in bloom and the kids are at the Farm.

Internet information says that the red center of the flower is supposed to be a drop of Queen Anne’s blood when she pricked herself while sewing the lace. It also says this is a “nativized” plant which means that it was introduced into North America, but now it thrives in the wild. In fact, the state of Minnesota classifies it as a noxious weed. But, weeds are in the eye of the beholder.

Queen Anne’s Lace is related to the wild carrot and there are on-line suggestions for eating it. We tried these pancakes several years ago, but there wasn’t much of a distinctive taste. Mainly it was for decoration, I think. However, there were warnings to go with the cooking ideas. “Don’t confuse Queen Anne’s Lace with poison hemlock.” What? So much for on-line suggestions! Margaret deserves thanks for making the pancakes and for building these two photo collages.

The calving paddock just south of our house has strips of the plant that are probably related to soil saturation. The green and more wet waterway has bands of the white flowers on either side. But there are fewer flowers in the foreground of the photo and over on the hilltop with the trees. These zones of vegetation may correspond with distinct soils developed over layers of different parent material. And, the layers of silt, clay, and organic matter each hold different amounts of water. This is all a “teaser” for the post next week!

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Unsettled Weather

This past weekend a pretty strong storm system blew through South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It was the culmination of a week of unsettled weather and it marked the change from hot and humid to cooler temperatures. We had more than 3 inches of rain at the farm over the week; that’s about what the average normal is for the total month.

The high wind took down a big branch up east of the old house, but there is a silver lining. Several years ago that same Chinese elm spread seed into the adjacent paddock where warm season grasses were just getting established. There were so many little tree seedlings that the paddock had to be sprayed. So, this storm worked some punishment on that offending parent tree.

The cattle were restless in the unsettled weather. And, of course the Creek came up enough to mess up some of the crossing fences. Part of the herd got into a newly seeded paddock that had a multi-species grazing mixture of grasses and other forage. But, there was some good news: they ate the tops off the pigweed, so it won’t go to seed. And, their hooves stirred up the soil so the water could soak in.

One of the most dramatic impacts of the storm in our area, however, was on a wedding reception. On the morning of the wedding, the wind blew down the tent that was going to be used for the reception on the groom’s family farm. Everything turned out alright because almost one hundred friends and family pitched in on short notice to redecorate another reception area. It was a great testimony to the sense of community that people have who live in rural areas. So, the storm provided an opportunity to witness to that good news.

We were somewhat worried that the muddy Stateline would make it hard to get to the wedding. It’s been a tough spring and early summer on that gravel road. The photo on the left is from back when the snow melted in early March and there’s been a lot of rain since then. The photo on the right is from this weekend, so we had no trouble driving out this time. But, there is a story in our family about the muddy Stateline and a wedding.

My parents were married on Mom’s family farm “on the banks of Plum Creek” near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. My Dad’s parents were almost late for the wedding because the muddy Stateline was essentially impassible. However, there’s also some good news in this story from about eighty years ago. The Stateline was graveled shortly after the wedding and that young bride had a better road to travel while she lived out her life on Lone Tree Farm. And, even though there’s now fiber optics cable, underground electric lines, and rural water running along the Stateline, the road itself is still gravel.

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Kids at the Creek

These are the grandchildren of the homesteaders fishing at the Creek in the 1920s. That’s the original Lone Tree “landmark” on the skyline to the right of Dad and his older sister, Harriett, and one of the buildings up on the hilltop farmyard is visible just to the left of the Lone Tree. This view is looking generally south.

The bluff line is almost completely hidden by trees. There were supposed to be plum thickets around the base of the Lone Tree, so some of the smaller trees may be wild plums. There aren’t nearly as many trees now and the stream channel has also changed substantially.

These are the great-great-great grandchildren of the homesteaders fishing at the Creek. We had both sets of kids at the Farm this past week. The two from Colorado on the left look a bit more despondent because they got nibbles, but didn’t land any fish. Note the worm can in the foreground. On the other hand, the pair from South Dakota on the right did pull in four or five shiners. So, they appear to be more alert and engaged. Dad used to say that there were “pickerel” in the Creek back when the homesteaders were fishing.

That big cottonwood tree across the Creek in these two pictures is probably an offspring of the Lone Tree and yes, those smaller trees are wild plums. There still are some trees along the bluff line to the right in both pictures. But, the channel is much wider and has fewer visible sandbars. That’s all part of the “altered hydrology” that’s been documented in southwestern Minnesota. These views are looking to the north. The site of the original Lone Tree is behind the kids and to the right of the photos.

It doesn’t really matter what year it is or which generation is exploring the Creek, there’s one fact that’s inescapable. The home that we make for our children and grandchildren in the world of Nature is the same home that our parents and grandparents made for us.

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The milkweed is in bloom. There’s been lots of discussion in conservation and environmental circles about the importance of milkweed for Monarch butterflies. As the population of Monarchs has declined, people are asked to plant milkweed to support Monarchs and other pollinating insects. But, milkweed is more than just Monarch food. It’s also non-grass vegetation that contributes to the overall diversity in prairie plant communities.

We’ve got some healthy patches of milkweed in un-mowed parts of the farmyard and in paddocks grazed early in the season. It turns out that an efficient pasture depends on more than just smooth brome and blue grass for cattle grazing. Milkweed and other forbs provide environmental services that are often over-looked, like pulling up nutrients from the deep subsoil or improving the filtration rate in the shallow layers. Too bad that we usually call them “weeds” because these non-grass plants are important for the overall soil health on our grass farm.

I’ve read that during World War II in the fall, school children in our area collected milkweed down to contribute to the war effort. Supposedly the fluff was used in life jackets and floatation devices for pilots shot down at sea. That all sounds like wartime propaganda to me, but it seems to demonstrate a need that milkweed could fill. And, it’s a dramatic contrast to the actual soil health functions that are much more subtle and important. Plants have to be “useful” or we call them “weeds” and our notions of utility change.

Here’s a link to some more pictures of milkweed in bloom: It’s from a blog by a naturalist in Nebraska who is doing prairie restoration in a working landscape. Surf through his posts because he’s got a really good balance of basic science, idealistic conservation, economic reality, and esthetic photographs. Here’s one of his posts on diversity:

Now if I could adjust my attitude to accept thistles as forbs doing environmental services to improve soil health…..

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