Who’s Awake?

In the cycle of seasonal rounds, winter is a time when many organisms—plants, animals, and humans—slow down. But in the morning after a fresh snowfall, there are tracks that make you wonder exactly who’s awake and who’s hibernating. And after our January warm spell, there’s a real mystery about earthworms. Don’t they “sleep” in the cold winter weather?

Cottontail rabbits are busy around our house all winter. They’re not hibernating. They’re so thick that they follow the same “bunny highway”, both before and after I put my tracks down. There are some areas on our lawn where the snow is thin and the rabbits have harvested the dry grass…a lot. One of those “bunny pastures” is shown in the photo on the right. We see bunnies and birds all winter. Although there are other critters that we don’t directly observe, they do leave trails to let us know that they’re not hibernating either.

In the morning after a fresh snowfall, we can see the results of the mouse patrols during the previous night. This looks like a random walk experiment, but it was no doubt a focused search for food. The snow wasn’t deep enough to hide this guy’s tunneling, but in another part of the trail he pops out and digs down to get to the seeds and then continues on his way. On still another part of the trail, he leaves the exposed tunnel and we can see his individual footprints.

But, that mouse is not alone. There’s a coyote out hunting for food too. The mouse tracks look different on these two photos, so maybe they’re documenting two different types of mice or maybe different body weights? But in both cases, a coyote crossed the mouse trails. He wasn’t sleeping either on the night after the fresh snow and he doesn’t eat seeds or dry grass. He eats mice and bunnies!

“Varmints” are animals that cause a problem, but that definition is a little like the definition of “weeds”. It all depends on your perception. Milkweeds are good for attracting monarch butterflies and pigweed used to provide food for Native Americans. If you have new lambs, coyotes can be a problem. But, they also keep the populations of bunnies and mice from exploding. If you think that coyotes are “bad guys”, here’s a link to a prairie ecologist in Nebraska with some science that says otherwise. Coyotes serve an important purpose and so are welcome in our pasture and around our farmyard.

There are some other animals that aren’t so welcome in winter or in summer. Skunks, woodchucks, raccoons, and possums have all caused problems when they make themselves at home in one of our sheds or dig under the old house. They’re fine if they poop in the pasture or they poop on the lawn, but if they poop on my porch, They are varmints!

Now, how about that earthworm mystery? The photo on the left was taken earlier this fall and shows piles of earthworm castings where they were busy in the bare, high-traffic area near a stock tank. Those piles of castings are slightly worn down and flattened; early in January you couldn’t see them at all. The photo on the right was taken at the same spot after the warm spell that we had about mid-January. The piles of castings have been restored. So, don’t earthworms hibernate? Or maybe the warm temperatures “woke” them up? Maybe global warming will help the health of our soils?

And so we’ve reached the end of our story about critters hibernating in the wintertime. Here are the tracks of  an animal (maybe a raccoon?) that’s awake and traveling west in the pasture toward the sunset. Turning around to look east, we can see the trail that marks some poor old guy wandering around looking at the tracks of mice and coyotes. But he is  headed back home.

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Burn and Bury

When we first moved back to the farm twenty years ago, the cattle barn was still standing. The family always called it the “Big Red Barn” as opposed to the older “Horse Barn” that had less paint, I guess. The older barn had been taken down and the beams recycled into new metal sheds in the late 1950s, but the Big Red Barn stood more than forty years after that. It fell down shortly after we moved back.

This is a view of the Big Red Barn (sounds vaguely like the title of a kids book?) from the east in the early 1970s. It had a central area for storing hay surrounded by areas where the hay could be fed to livestock. It was just north of the main feedlot, so cattle had access when the weather got bad. Although we did salvage some beams after it collapsed in the early 2000s, that timber wasn’t recycled into a new building. Times change. The remnants of the Big Red Barn were burned and buried. Looking north today, the site looks like the picture on the right. That whole open area in the foreground is in the process of being redesigned into a new corral complex for the current cow-calf operation.

Cleaning up the bones of the barn took several years and multiple burning attempts. The first few stages were relatively simple because the dry wood burned easily. But, there was also old wet hay in that central area so it took much more planning and messing around to get that burned. These three photos show the before, during, and after shots of one of the later efforts. You can tell from all of the green plants that the burn events were far enough apart for vegetation (a.k.a., “weeds”) to move into the vacated ground.

The barn was originally designed to store loose hay and these two “treasures” are part of that apparatus. The iron track shown on the left, ran along the ridge of the inside of the barn. The “trolley” on the right, traveled along the track to carry the slings of hay back into the west end from the haymow door on the east side. When we were little kids, we were allowed to pull the trip rope to drop the load of hay at the right place inside the barn. However, my most enduring (not endearing!) memories are of stacking baled hay inside the hot barn on a summer day. We took turns working outside on the bale wagon where it was little cooler. That way, nobody put bales into the elevator too fast because they knew that there would be revenge when it was next their turn inside the stifling barn.

This scanned photo was taken of the feeding operation back in the 1950s. Wooden bunks stood beside the wagon of ground ear corn. The feed was spread into the bunks by carrying in five-bushel baskets and then the supplement was spread out over the feed and mixed in by hand. You can see the barn dominating the cattle yard on the north side. Things are a lot different a couple of generations later! Now, a scientifically-formulated ration is unloaded by driving a wagon along cement bunks. Even the cattle are different because you don’t see very many white-faced Herefords around the neighborhood anymore.

Everything changes. These days, it’s cheaper to burn and bury the Big Red Barn rather than take it down and recycle the lumber. Back in the 1950s, we pulled a lot of nails out of the wood salvaged from the old Horse Barn in order to reuse it to frame metal sheds. More than one hundred years ago, the homesteading family took down a house over on the Rock River about three miles west. They brought that salvaged lumber back home to build a part of the original farmhouse. That wasn’t being miserly; that was being frugal. And now today, there’s talk about an emerging “circular economy” that’s not extractive and wasteful, but makes money by reusing, repurposing, and recycling. Maybe the future will be back to the past? Everything changes and nothing changes.

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Watching the Wind

Last week we had another ground blizzard similar to the one that we had back in mid-December. Both of these storms had lots of wind. The “dust of winter” made it possible to “see” the wind.

What little snow there was, came in horizontally and in gusts that made visibility variable. You can see the haze of blowing snow close to the ground in these photos. The tall trees stick up above the ground “fog”, while the lower plum thickets come and go with the gusty wind. It makes for a really dynamic and changing landscape, but it also made the roads slippery and dangerous. It’s much nicer to watch it through the windows and in the warmth, rather trying to drive someplace that we have to be.

Last week included January 12, which is the day that the Children’s Blizzard hit in 1888. I don’t remember any stories from the homesteaders about that storm, but Rose’s History of Rock County has a description of local conditions. There’s also a 2004 book by David Laskin that describes lots of sad stories, but it includes an early history of the need for and origin of the National Weather Service. That’s why there’s a photo of our primitive weather station. However, it’s hard to accurately measure sideways snow. The Children’s Blizzard is also the subject of a new novel by Melanie Benjamins that is this year’s selection for “One Book South Dakota”. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to because it’s set in southeastern South Dakota.

The photo of the dusty boots is from the warm, dry days before the storm hit last week and provide a transition into another way we can watch the wind. There are some stories of the Dust Bowl Days in our family tradition. Dad played baseball in high school and he had a game canceled one afternoon because of poor visibility. There are also low ridges along many old fence lines where wind-blown dirt drifted in from the adjacent fields back in the 1930s. Actually, you can still see that going on with wind erosion of bare fields and deposition of the black dirt on the white snow that fills road ditches.

Long before the Dirty Thirties back when there were glaciers in this area, there was a lot of dust blowing around off the front of the melting ice. The regional map on the left shows that the immediate tri-state area was located between two separate glacial lobes, so there was much dust in the air. This “rock flour” was ground-up rock material that was liberated when the ice melted and it settled over everything in the area beyond the glacier’s margin. This wind-blown dust (called “loess”) is shown as the dark tan area on the left side of the more detailed colored map. The location of the Farm is also shown because we’re in that loess-covered area.

The photo on the left illustrates the loess over-lying a layer of older glacial gravel in a terrace along the Creek. But, there’s other evidence on the Farm for wind activity during the Ice Ages. The boulder on the right is probably a “ventifact” that was polished and faceted by wind-blown dust. We found it when we put in a drainage tile because it was buried several feet deep. I hauled it up to our house as a curio.

Ironically, while the blizzard was raging last week, I had an exchange of emails with a former colleague about wind erosion and ventifacts from glacial times. She reminded me that many of the polished surfaces on red quartzite outcrops in the area, have been interpreted as buffalo rubbing up against the rock. That idea of buffalo polishing the hard rock might be an alternative explanation for super-smooth surfaces. But, my little curio boulder is too small for a buffalo rubbing station. It was probably polished and faceted by dust blown around in the wind, just like the snow in the ground blizzard.

I’m posting this today because the wind is blowing like crazy (20 to 30 miles per hour out of the northwest)! It is the prairie, after all! But, it’s not just snow or dust that’s swirling around in the air. It’s also change.

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Tall Tower

This is the first in a series of posts that will describe the buildings spread around the farmyard at Lone Tree Farm. Some are still standing, but many have been demolished, repurposed, or replaced as the farming operations have changed through the generations. We’ll start with the windmill.

We don’t have any pictures of the windmill standing alone, but these photos from the early 1970s do show it as background. The shed converted to a garage was once used as a chicken coop and is gone now. So is the classic old pickup (although it wasn’t yet a classic when the picture was taken). The metal shed is still here and is framed with beams salvaged from a barn that once stood on that exact spot. But, both photos show the tall windmill.

The windmill tower was about 60 feet high. When the tower fell sometime in the 1980s, a neighbor had parked his new pickup about 70 feet to the south. This recent screen shot from a satellite image shows how close the falling tower got to the new pickup. He often parked a little farther north, but that would have dropped the heavy gearbox on the top of the tower squarely on the pickup! It wasn’t particularly windy, so we’re not exactly sure why the old windmill went down that day.

Even after 40 years of salvaging straight pieces of angle iron, there still is a tangled pile of the twisted pieces. That’s the ladder there in front. In recent years the fins on windmill wheels have been used for interior decorating. The pieces from our wheel have gone to sisters who used to visit the farm when they were little neighbor girls.

Here’s one of the other souvenirs from the windmill. This is the tail that directed the wheel into the wind and yes, those are bullet holes. But, they may have been added after the tower fell and before this “treasure” got stored in one of the metal sheds. Aermotor placed a lot of windmills around the country. It was wind power long before the modern wind farms. The stenciled name is probably the local supplier. Frank J. Seitz was the plumber in Ellsworth before his death in 1971, according to the town’s Centennial Volume.

After the tower fell, an electric motor on a pump jack brought the water up out of the well. The middle photo shows the process of formally plugging and abandoning the well as encouraged/required by the State. Here’s a post that has lots of pictures and describes how the well was sealed. It was educational because the family tradition was that this well had been drilled to a depth of 400 feet, but they only pulled 200 feet of casing out of the well bore.

Before the deep well was drilled sometime in the late 1940s, water was a problem. Lots of shallow, curbed wells were dug, but the deeper bedrock aquifer provided a reliable quantity. However, the water quality wasn’t so good. Dad’s sister used to take jugs of it home because it was helpful for constipation. This is the same person who, as a little girl, climbed the tower and got stuck. She panicked and froze so Grandpa had to climb up to rescue her. At that time the well wasn’t located where it was when the tall tower fell. There have always been lots of family stories about the tall tower because it was a distinctive feature of the farmyard for so many decades.

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Frost Fall

The New Year started out with several days that were a monochromatic fantasy world of white. Mysterious white-gray fog encased every exposed surface with pure white frost crystals. When the frost fell, the dirty snow and the brown grass got a thin coat of whitewash. And, the falling frost provided a lesson from the Land.

The tops of tall trees seemed to have a more complete covering of frost than the squat wild plum thickets. Don’t worry, I didn’t/couldn’t climb up the big tree to get the artsy shot of white frost against the blue sky. The photo on the right is an enlarged version of one that I took with both feet on solid ground.

It wasn’t only the trees and plum thickets that got painted white. Every plant that stuck up into the moist air got frosted. These two are along the high bank of the main Creek channel. It’s easy to see why everything was muffled; the insulating frost soaked up all the sound that might be bouncing around. 

Fluffy seed heads had more intricate exposed surfaces and so the frost cover was more complete than on the narrow leaves and smooth grass stems. The growth of the frost crystals is due to a phase change of water vapor (which is a gas) to the solid ice crystals. We usually think of ice freezing from water, but the frost formation skips the intermediate step of liquid water and there’s a direction conversion of a gas into a solid.

But, not all exposed surfaces were plant material. Metallic wires didn’t get a coating as thick or as complete as the vegetation. Also when the frost started falling, the wires dropped their white frost first. That’s what produced the line on the ground in the photo on the right.

Although Nature sent a warming breeze that started to dust off everything, even the tall trees, I also shook the frosting from several wires and plants. But, then I suddenly realized what I was doing: I couldn’t resist the urge to exert human control. I should just have trusted and respected Nature’s way of doing things. It was an epiphany for me.

Today is an appropriate day to share this sudden revelation. It is Epiphany which is a day celebrated as a part of the “Twelve days of Christmas” in several Christian traditions. This is supposed to be when the Wise Men brought their gifts. In it’s wisdom, the Land sent a lesson about humility in the white frost. That’s a great way to start the New Year!

If you would like an email notice when these blogs are posted, there is a way to do that: when you’re scrolling through a post, there’s a bar that pops up in the lower right corner, but only if you move up with the scroll. That bar has three dots and if you click the dots, you’ll get the chance to click a “follow” icon.

I know “it ain’t easy”, so I’ll continue to share the link through Face Book. However, it’s not clear when or who gets to see the Face Book notices. But, if you can follow the Word Press procedure, you’ll get an email when I post these “literary gems” on Wednesday afternoons. Thanks.

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Double Eagle Days

Earlier this month we had a string of eight or nine days that were mostly clear, sunny, and warm. And, almost every day we saw a mature bald eagle “parked” in the big cottonwood that we can see from our porch. On a couple of those days we saw two mature eagles! Another large brown bird was also periodically in the area and we think that it may have been an immature bald eagle.

The double eagle picture on the left is one that Margaret took back in early November. That’s when we first became conscious of visits from a pair (male and female?). Unfortunately, we didn’t get any pictures of the “double eagle days” in the December stretch of warm weather. But, the photo on the right was taken on one of those December days when we did have a single, vigilant visitor.

Our eagle tree is located in the light green circle added to this screen shot from a Goggle satellite image. A couple of miles up Kanaranzi Creek we’ve seen an eagle perched in a large tree that’s part of the “Jungle” of trees and plum thickets up on “Rainbow Curve”. That sighting location is shown by the orange circle in the upper right part of the image. About four or five miles downstream, near where the Creek joins the Rock River, there are reports of eagle nests and we’ve seen them flying in that area marked by the larger orange circle in the lower left corner.

That string of warm days in early December got me all enthused about seeing eagles. But, there was nothing for two weeks! The weather was warm, with lots of the days that were cloudy. Don’t the eagles come around in cloudy weather? Maybe it’s the sky conditions rather than the warm temperatures? Then, on the day before and the day of the Winter Solstice, we had clear and warm weather. I kept a pretty close watch both of those days, but they didn’t show up.

Three days later on the morning of Christmas Eve, we suddenly saw a mature bald eagle in the cottonwood tree! There was a clear sky, but the temperature was below zero. Maybe sky conditions are more important than temperature in determining when they fly around? The next afternoon, Christmas Day, the sky was clear, the temperature was in the 30s, and we had another eagle in the cottonwood tree!

What’s the message here? It’s not about trying to see a pattern in the sightings. It’s about the surprises that Nature has for us. I looked for an eagle on the Winter Solstice and none showed up. But, then on Christmas day there was one! We can try to make an appointment with Nature based on perceived patterns, but the eagles still decide when to put in an appearance. The lessons that the Land shares with us are like prayers: sometimes they don’t directly answer the questions that we ask and sometimes we’re surprised to learn something that we haven’t even thought to ask about. We just have to keep alert in order to tune into the insights that Nature sometimes provides us.

POSTSCRIPT…. But wait! There’s more! Most of this post was written yesterday with the intent of putting it out today. This morning at around 8:00, I was having my coffee and watching the sunrise, when I happened to glance out the window. There were two mature bald eagles in the cottonwood tree! This photo was taken on this last day of 2020! They stayed only about half an hour and didn’t show up the rest of the day (I kept watch pretty carefully!). I’m thinking that Nature had the eagles put a benediction on this crazy year! There’s new hope and new light in 2021!


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Seasonal rounds are an intrinsic part of life on the prairie. They’re an experience shared by Ice Age animals and plants, by Native American hunters and farmers, and by homesteaders and people in agribusiness. But, 2020 has been different. COVID-19 is a life form that has impacted rural and urban populations all over our country and all over the world. And the pandemic has evolved as distinct cycles tied to the changing seasons. In addition to the familiar and normal attributes of each season, COVID-19 has added some distinctive and devastating patterns.

Winter is regarded as a time of dormancy and preparation in many cultural traditions. Plants and animals are waiting for warmth under the white snow. It’s a time of rest (unless there are early calves to take care of) and incubation, getting ready for the growth spurts that are coming later. During this year’s gestation period, the total precipitation on the Farm is almost an inch under the normal average. The past two years have had record rainfall, so the subsoil moisture is in good shape. But, that seasonal moisture deficit is an omen for difficulties to come.

Although the first COVID-19 death in Minnesota doesn’t happen until the last part of March, the first one in the US is in early February. Most of the initial impacts are on the East and West Coasts and in urban areas. It’s relatively quiet in our area, but the virus is silently spreading all over the country and world. Like the moisture deficit, the winter infections have big impacts over the next several seasons.

Spring is a busy time of riotous new life and rampant growth. Eventually, the green shows up, but at first there are still some snow banks in protected areas. The main channel of the Creek does run bankfull in spite of the continuing reduced rainfall. That’s probably due to groundwater seeping out to support the flow of surface water because we’re again about an inch below average for the season.

The first of the US pandemic peaks hit in mid-April. Although the daily rates of infections and deaths are smaller than in the peaks-to-come, there is fear bordering on panic. And, it’s warranted because there’s one death for about every 15 infections. That’s a much higher threat than in the peaks-to-come.

Summer is the time when the green and growing things began to mature into gold and brown. It’s also a time when there’s less rain than in the spring. This year, however, there’s much less rain. The green of the early summer is tempered by the later brown drought signal. We’re three inches below normal, so that makes us five inches under for the year. But, the drought is going to deepen even further.

And, COVID-19 peaks again in the US at the end of July. Daily infection rates are higher than in the spring, but there’s only one death for every 55 infections. It seems like things are improving, although the total numbers continue to increase and the stage is set for the climb to another peak in the fall.

Fall is when the rewards of the harvest are collected. The leaves have left the trees, but these photos are misleading. Everything looks brown on the first of November and December, but both months had significant snowfalls that had totally melted away by the time that the pictures were taken. The shortage of rain didn’t seem to impact harvest yields significantly. The rains must have come at just the right times and we probably are also making withdrawals from the groundwater storage. We’re still another two inches below average at the mid-December mark. Officially, the drought index says we’re in a moderate to severe drought. The year is ending on a lot different note than last year.

COVID-19 is killing record numbers of Americans. We personally know some people in our area who have died and several of our neighbors have tested positive. The national post-Thanksgiving ramp-up in death count amounts to the equivalent of one Nine-Eleven event every day! On December 17, there are almost 240,00 new cases and about 3,300 deaths. However, that’s only about one death for every 72 infections. The total numbers are staggering, but apparently health care procedures have been refined so that threat of death is less than in the spring and summer surges. And of coarse, there’s hope on the horizon because vaccines have now become available.

The precipitation and pandemic patterns carry some important “lessons from the Land”. In the jargon of the current generation and cultural heritage, those lessons sound like: trust the science; monitor and adjust; keep calm and carry on; don’t be afraid. And, “Keep your stick on the ice. We’re all in this together.” That last bit of wisdom is from an old prophet who lives up in the North Woods, rather than on the tall grass prairie. His name is Red Green and loosely translated from the Canadian hockey language, this advice would probably sound something like: “Don’t beat each other up. The team/family/society needs to work together.”

This post comes two days after the Winter Solstice and two days before Christmas. Both of these celebrations call us to give up the dread of darkness and cold and live up to the promise of light and warmth. And to add to the Holiday cheer, here’s the link to the just-released Holiday episode of the Prairie Podcast (Season 3, Episode 11). It’s one of the resources that helped to inspire the last few blog posts on changing environments, cultures, generations, and seasons on Lone Tree Farm. Some of the online sources for the information (especially the numbers) in this current post include the Minnesota Climatological Network, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the graphics posted by the Reuters COVID-19 Tracker. Happy Holidays!

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Four generations of our family’s Grandmothers have lived and worked on Lone Tree Farm since 1871. All four had the kind of quiet courage that holds young families together and contributes to viable farming operations. However, each woman had her own unique set of gifts. This third in a series of four “Advent” posts provides a thumbnail sketch that includes each Grandmother’s favorite tree as described in an earlier post.

Harriet Cackett Shurr (1846-1928) was born in Wales and immigrated with her mother to upstate New York. Her mother and stepfather tried unsuccessfully to homestead in Wisconsin’s Big Woods when Hattie was a child. However as a young mother with three children, she helped to homestead near the cottonwood tree that gives this farm its name. We have family letters describing their dramatic arrival. They thought that a cabin would be waiting for them, but it wasn’t there and her husband wanted to turn around and go back. However, Hattie persisted and they stayed.

One of Hattie’s gifts was art. This is one of the miniatures that she did in pastels, but she also worked with pen and ink and oil paint. Ironically, most of her landscapes are reminiscent of upstate New York. Her religious fervor was another gift that was a mixed blessing. Although she helped to establish several churches and Sunday Schools, there’s also family “gossip” about how her religious zeal influenced the decisions of five of her nine children to leave the area.

Daisy Edna Shurr (1881-1957) was born on a farm homesteaded by Irish immigrants that was located close to Kanaranzi Creek about five miles upstream from Lone Tree Farm. After teaching country school for several years, she came to the farm as a young bride. The lilacs that she planted when she first arrived are still alive and bloom every spring. Although Daisy was somewhat frail, she worked as hard as any farm wife was expected to do in those days.

Daisy’s gifts were an interest in history and storytelling. Her father was a veteran of the Civil War and when her young husband enlisted in the Spanish American war, they shared a rock with a hole in it from Kanaranzi Creek. In her Irish tradition a rock with a hole in it is good luck. Her great granddaughter now has that treasure. Daisy used to tell my brother and me stories about Native Americans along the Creek and commonly pointed to leprechauns that always disappeared before we saw them.

Bernita Bell Shurr (1918-2014) was born on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. She got a four-year degree in mathematics and after teaching for several years she got certified in library science. Her granddaughter, who is a middle school librarian, now owns Bernita’s old textbooks. When her son was killed in Viet Nam, Bernita became a strong antiwar advocate, although that loss would have a profound affect on her life until the very end.

Bernita’s gifts were her independence and her love of Nature. One of her students from the early 1950s just recently told me what an important role model she was for young women. Bernita encouraged us to find adventure down in the pasture along the Creek, although she secretly supervised our activities without us knowing. Wild plum trees in full bloom represent her commitment to learning from Nature.

Margaret Ann Siemer Shurr (1944-present) was raised on a farm very near Kanaranzi Creek about eight miles upstream from Lone Tree Farm. All four of her grandparents were German and had farmed for several generations. When Margaret was ten years old, her mother died. Although she always credited her family’s help, it was mainly her own personal resiliency that got her through the trauma. And, it was her courage that took her away from the family farm to get her college degree and then teach in several different metropolitan areas.

Margaret’s gifts of empathy and compassion extended beyond teaching and raising a family. When we moved to Lone Tree Farm twenty years ago, she planted evergreen trees….a lot of evergreen trees. She also cheerfully pitched in to provide help and support for the three “oldsters” who we had primary responsibility for. And, she joyfully did the same thing for our four grandchildren. Margaret’s gifts also include those of the other grandmothers: she’s independent, interested in family history, loves Nature and is artistic. She’s got a following on Facebook for her “The View From The Porch” photos.

These blog posts on “changes” have basically become “teasers” for the DNR Holiday “Prairie Podcast” that’s still coming. I’m sure that there’ll be lots of other stories in that podcast if the previous years are any indication. These posts on changes are an expansion of segment that’s only about five minutes long. So there should be something for everyone. Watch for it.

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Here is the second in a series of four holiday posts celebrating changes on the tall grass prairie and learning from the land. This is a time of celebrations: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice. These are the most familiar ones, but almost every culture has some kind of celebration marking the end of the year or the beginning of winter. Before the current Euro-American culture was transplanted to the prairie along Kanaranzi Creek, there were as many as five separate Native American cultures that lived in this creek valley.

As described in last week’s post, fossils of Ice Age animals have eroded out of the channel banks in the last few years. There may have been Paleoindians hunting in this area 10,000 years ago. But in addition to those very early cultures, there are bones and artifacts that are much younger. Some of the small pieces of bone seem to have cut marks from the butchering. These “fossils” are the remains of buffalo or bison that were hunted here in more recent times and the artifacts document what archaeologists call a “multicomponent site”. That means that a number of different cultures lived along the Creek far back into deep time.

Mauls or hammerheads have been found in the cultivated fields on the uplands around the valley. But, these artifacts aren’t distinctive enough to be diagnostic of specific cultures or particular times. On the other hand, some arrowheads or projectile points can be associated with specific cultures. At least one of the arrowheads found along the Creek channel in the floodplain, has been interpreted by an archaeologist to be from an Archaic cultural tradition. That represents a second Native American culture that was here about 2,500 years ago.

A third culture is documented with these two pieces of pottery and by a detailed geophysical study that mapped a possible dwelling outline and associated storage pits. Distinctive patterns in the pottery are diagnostic for a specific cultural tradition and the geophysics map suggests that the people of this Great Oasis culture lived here about 1,000 years ago. These interpretations are all based on more detailed data here on the farm than are available for the earlier cultures. The people of the Great Oasis culture are possibly early ancestors of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes that historically have lived in North and South Dakota.

About 500 years ago there was a “Silent City” with thousands of inhabitants located approximately 30 miles west of the Farm along the Big Sioux River. This Oneota tradition built mounds at Blood Run in Iowa and is described in displays at Good Earth State Park across the river in South Dakota. This diagram of a storage pit for corn is in the Visitor’s Center at the park. The Oneota people raised corn and stored it in cache pits. These corncobs were collected this past summer on sand bars along Kanaranzi Creek and are probably prehistoric cobs because they have about half as many kernels in each row as modern corn. Like the Oneota, the people of the Great Oasis tradition raised corn and stored it in pits so these prehistoric corncobs might be from the earlier agricultural activities. But, the Oneota had extensive trade networks and quarried pipestone in southwestern Minnesota. Although the evidence is indirect and the idea is speculative, maybe this is a fourth Native American culture that traveled along the Creek? It is believed to be the precursor to the modern Omaha, Ponca, and Ioway tribes now living in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Our grandchildren found these two artifacts along the Creek just behind our house. They’re probably related to the Great Oasis occupation because that’s the culture that we have the best record of. The blades seem pristine and may have been for ceremonial use rather than utilitarian knife blades. All of our understanding of the ceremonies celebrated by these ancient cultures is based on interpretations of physical artifacts. In contrast, there is a fifth Native American culture that has been directly observed to travel and live along Kanaranzi Creek. The Dakotah people encountered the homesteaders who settled here 150 years ago. We have family stories of kids playing together and adults interacting with mutual help and trade.

It’s commonly recognized that diversity is good. For example, a diversified portfolio reduces investment risk and biologic diversity is a hallmark of resilient natural systems. Cultural diversity is something that people look for by traveling all over the world. But, there’s a lesson from the land here that says cultures have always changed out here on the prairie. Back through time there’s been a continuity of humanness. No matter what their cultural tradition, all people want to care for their family, earn a living, maintain a safe environment, and practice their spiritual beliefs.

The idea for this series of holiday posts originally came from an invitation to contribute to a “Prairie Podcast” organized by the MN DNR for people working in the tall grass prairie. It hasn’t “dropped” yet, but I’ll let you know when it becomes available.

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This is the first in a series of four seasonal posts that speak to changes: environmental changes, cultural changes, generational changes, and seasonal changes. They’re all based on insights provided directly by life on the Farm and rooted in the tall grass prairie. We’ll call this series “Learning from the Land”.

There are two types of glacial sediments on Lone Tree Farm. Well-sorted sand and gravel was deposited by water from a melting glacier and poorly sorted clay with boulders deposited directly by the ice in an older glacier. This “outwash” sand and clay “till” have been described in several posts over this past year. The fractured till has served as an “aquifer” in the last several years when we had lots of rain. The flow conditions during high water levels in the Creek channel have eroded things from the buried outwash sands that provide clear lessons from the Land.

Ice Age fossils started showing up on modern sand bars! This tooth and bone are from a mammoth that lived in the general area about 10,000years ago. The fossils have been identified by a scientist who works at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota. He’s seen a lot of mammoth remains and has lots of experience interpreting the environment that they lived in. The animals may not have lived directly in the glacial valley now occupied by the Kanaranzi Creek, but their remains probably washed down the meltwater stream to be deposited with the sand and gravel now located on the Farm.

That ancient stream came from the front of the melting glacier that was about 15 miles northeast of the Farm. This map is taken from a publication by the Minnesota Geological Survey and shows the valleys of the meltwater streams in yellow (4). The main ice mass of this last glacier in the area is marked by the light brown color (3) in the east and north half of the map. The end moraine that was the front of the glacier is the red-brown (3) strip that trends diagonally through the middle. And, the darker brown (4) western half of the map is deposits from an older glacier. Those are all geological interpretations based on the materials observed in the map area and on observations and interpretations from other areas. In addition to the mammoth fossils found on the Farm (A), there are collections from gravels to the northeast at Adrian, MN (B) and to the southwest at Rock Rapids, IA (C).

There is also a collection of mammoth remains from a location along the Big Sioux River near Brookings, SD, just to the northwest of the map area. That site also includes artifacts from the PaloIndians who were hunting these big beasts. Maybe there were also hunters working along Kanaranzi Creek back 10,000 years ago? There’s a theory that large Ice Age animals (called “megafauna”) like the mammoths, were hunted to extinction. But there’s still disagreement about this interpretation among the scientists who are doing these studies. There’s no disagreement about what mammoths look like, however. These two photos are reconstructions on display at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota.

And, there is pretty much complete agreement about the interpretations of the environmental changes that we know as the Ice Ages. The descriptions of earth materials and the age dates are universally accepted among the scientists who are trying to visualize the advance and retreat of the multiple glaciers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees about the causes of those environmental changes. One idea is that changes in the earth’s orbit helped produce the environmental shifts and there’s general consensus that carbon dioxide also played an important role.

This is all somewhat similar to the current debates around climate change and the COVID pandemic. There’s general agreement about the data (with some glaring exceptions), but there are dramatic differences in opinion about the interpreted causes. In fact, there’s a spooky similarity between the exponential growth curves for carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the COVID case counts. And, these discussions are clearly mixed up/messed up with politics and opinions from people who are unfamiliar with the data. There are actually a couple of important lessons from the Land here: 1) adapt to new conditions or go extinct and 2) exponential growth is not sustainable in healthy natural systems.

The idea for this series of four holiday posts came from an invitation to contribute to a “Prairie Podcast” organized by the MN DNR for people working in the tall grass prairie. It’s not out yet, but I’ll let you know when it becomes available.

Posted in Earth Science, Life Science | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments