Frog Calling

This past Monday morning, I finally got a response to my frog calling down at the Creek. I’ve been doing this frog calling periodically since mid-May, but the first answer that I’ve gotten back this year was on July 1.

There’s a colony of rare little frogs living in the wetlands of the abandoned stream meander just west of our house. Two years ago they were identified by a couple of scientists—one is a member of our family and the other works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). These two guys were excited because cricket frogs hadn’t been documented in the state since the 1980s and now there are several known occurrences. Herpetologists have been tracking their movement up from southern Iowa for a number of years. Now this colony was established on Kanaranzi Creek about a quarter mile from the state line.

But, what’s most interesting to me is the way that we do the frog calling. This is a picture of my equipment to call cricket frogs. They make a noise that sounds like two rocks clicking together and they’ll answer in response if they hear that call. How cool is that? A retired geologist gets to call cricket frogs by hitting two rocks together! Seriously! That’s how the professionals do it! By the way, the white rock used as the strike plate is limestone and the black one is basalt. Only a geologist would care. Any two rocks will work.

The cricket frogs’ response to this rock-banging call was late this year. In 2017 it was first heard June 11 and in 2018 it was May 24. Another DNR staff person monitoring this area told me that she heard from colleagues in Wisconsin that the cricket frogs were late there too. Maybe the cool, wet spring influenced that late start. We had three days of temperatures over 90 degrees before I heard them on Monday morning.

This is what these little guys look like. There’s another picture and some more description of the “oxbow” that is their home in the April 13 post titled Snow at the Creek. And here’s a link to a YouTube video that includes their call. Beware, it’s not the initial buzz that you hear; it’s the later clicking “rock song”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGeDWb7O5wE

Cricket frogs are a part of an assemblage of species, including Topeka Shiners and Blanding’s Turtles, found in patches of prairie included within working landscapes. I’m grateful to know that these native animals are doing well, living in the modern agriculture-dominated setting.    

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Sealing the Windmill Well

Last week the windmill well was officially sealed and abandoned. The truck-mounted well rig raised a mast so the long lengths of pipe could be pulled out. The first one to be pulled had the original old pump. It hadn’t been used in more than 20 years because rural water came in when we moved back to the farm. The well was drilled in the 1940s and the windmill was moved on to the location from a shallow well. In the 1980s, the windmill fell; after that an electric motor ran the pump.

Each section of pipe pulled out of the well was about 20 feet long. The rig lifted the string of pipe, each section was unscrewed, and then laid out on the ground. There were about 10 or 11 sections of pipe, so the well was just over 200 feet deep. That’s deeper than most of the old wells in this area, but it’s about half as deep as I thought Dad had told me. Consequently, I’m not sure if the layer producing water (“aquifer”) was a glacial deposit or a deeper sandstone called the Dakota Formation.

After the pump and all of the pipe was pulled out of the hole, a slurry of bentonite was pumped down into the empty casing. Individual bags of the expanding clay were mixed with water and the slurry was pumped into the well through blue PVC pipe. The idea is that when the “grout” sets up, the well is sealed so that surface water can’t contaminate the subsurface water in the buried aquifer. This formal sealing procedure is particularly important in the southeastern part of Minnesota where buried limestone aquifers are more easily polluted by surface water. Although it’s less critical here in southwestern Minnesota, all abandoned wells in the state have to be accounted for on every parcel of land that’s sold.

So, here are the before and after pictures of the top of the well. I’m not sure what we’ll do with that cement remnant. Maybe just leave it as a monument to the memory of the windmill. The decision to abandon the well was based on water quality. The well water had high sulfur content; one of our relatives used to take a jug home to use as a laxative. It also was very hard and had a high iron content that stained things a rusty brown. The rural water is probably better for both cattle and people.

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Solstice Season

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This is the season of cottonwood seeds. Like dandelion down, cottonwood seeds are spread by the wind and take root where they fall. They especially like wet, muddy places along the creek, but that makes them vulnerable to flooding.

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Several years ago there was a crop of seedlings (like this one) that sprouted on a mud flat near the parent tree. That nursery of baby trees provided stock that I moved downstream and planted in the wetland of the abandoned meander. It was an impressive field of young trees with great potential. However, a “rain bomb” storm event hit the watershed, the Creek flooded, and the nursery of little cottonwoods was swept away. The several dozen seedlings that I had transplanted were also wiped out. Sometimes it’s hard to work with Mother Nature.

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The “tree” in “Lone Tree Farm” was a cottonwood. This photo is taken near the location of that old lone tree where the homesteading family lived in their dugout. We like to think that maybe this tree is the offspring of that original ancestor. The seed and seedlings shown above are from this survivor. But, now it’s the only cottonwood tree left in our pasture. It’s the last cottonwood on Lone Tree Farm.

The ancestral lone tree was reported to be huge. It supposedly took several grown men to reach around it. After it fell in the 1930s a lot of stories were left behind. There was a legend of a trapper’s treasure buried nearby and it was said to be a boundary marker between Indian territories. My brother and I looked for the treasure when we played along the Creek, but all that we ever found was shared excitement in the holes that we dug. There was a stream used by white mapmakers to divide Indian territories, but that was several drainages farther east. A case could be made that the original lone tree was used to approximate the state line because Iowa is less than a quarter mile to the south. Stories don’t have to be true to be interesting.

But, all of those traditions and speculations are transcended by the reality of this seed season. The old lone tree is long gone. The offspring is spreading new seeds. Some of those seeds will survive somewhere. And, the summer solstice is tomorrow.

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Shared Experiences

These could be pictures of the homesteaders headed for Lone Tree Farm. Our family traveled in a covered wagon pulled by oxen, but the stories suggest that Great-grandma Hattie probably did NOT get out and push! She was, however, the one who persisted and refused to go back when their arrival did not go as planned. Great-grandpa John was the “buttercup who had to suck it up” and make things work.

These photos are from a diorama in the Archway Monument at Kearney, Nebraska. The exhibits describe conditions experienced by settlers traveling west along the Platte River in the late 1800s. We stopped there on our recent return trip from Colorado (see June 5 post). The homesteaders in Nebraska shared parallel lives with folks who homesteaded here in southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.

We recently went to a presentation by the Rock County Historical Society that included the story of a family who settled near Hills, about 15 miles west of our farm. After emigrating from Norway and spending several years in Fillmore County, Minnesota, they came to Rock County in 1874. They made the trip in a covered wagon pulled by oxen and they had a 2 year-old child and a baby who was 6 months old. The early years were spent in a dugout. Overland trips to trade centers were more dangerous than the encounters that they had with Native Americans.

John and Hattie Shurr had already had similar experiences. After emigrating from Germany and spending several years in Waseca County, Minnesota, they came through Rock County in 1870. They had also traveled in a covered wagon pulled by oxen and they also had small children: a 3 year old, a 2 year old and a baby who was 9 months old. In their early years in a dugout, the Native Americans were friendly and the overland trips to sell crops and buy supplies were arduous. These were shared experiences in parallel lives.

Actually, the Shurrs didn’t live on Lone Tree Farm until 1871. The original plans were to settle in Lyon County, Iowa, but there were complications and John wanted to go back. However, Hattie prevailed and our family has lived here ever since. The story of the complications in Iowa is included in a book of reminiscences from northwest Iowa published in 2013. The yarn is about 1000 words and here’s a link to it: https://ellsgeostories.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/lyon-county-homestead/

 

 

 

 

 

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Climate Change for Kids

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Last week we took our South Dakota grandkids to visit the Colorado cousins. There was still snow on the ground when we got to their house in the mountains. And, the abnormal spring weather included snow that kept us from visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. But, we all did have a great time because the four kids had fun together.

One of our stops was the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. The kids had a good hike up close to the “Flatirons” and we also toured the facility. NCAR is a federally funded university consortium established in the early 1960s. It has climate change exhibits that are several years old, but the predictions are now reality. For example, extremes of too much (or too little) water are predicted. From 1958 to 2012, Minnesota and Iowa have had up to a 40% increase the amount of precipitation that falls in the heaviest downpours. We are no longer “modeling” climate change; we are living it.

On the afternoon that we visited the climate change exhibits at NCAR, I got a text message from home saying that there had been 2.5 inches of rain over the past several days. The Creek was flowing high and parts of the pasture were flooded. Cattle had to be moved to paddocks on higher ground and the high water wiped out the fence crossings again. The crossings are getting hard to replace because the Creek is so wide; it’s really changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Row crop fields are saturated so the spring fieldwork has been delayed still longer. “Prevented planting” is the condition that triggers federal crop insurance “help”. But, the risk reduction is minimal and it comes with a lot of strings attached. Cover crops that mimic prairies could be used to somewhat alleviate prevented planting in wet fields. Ironically, prairies are remarkably resilient in wet and in dry times.Here’s a link to a blog post that describes the effects of recent flooding on prairies in Nebraska: https://prairieecologist.com/2019/05/28/underwater-prairie/

The same afternoon (May 28) that we visited NCAR, there was a severe tornado outbreak in eastern Kansas that made national news. On our trip home several days later, smoke from Canadian wildfires turned the setting sun blood red. The political debates about the causes of climate change are just empty and sterile rhetoric that distracts from the reality that the changes are already here.

And, our grandchildren will be living in it.

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Old Fashioned Flowers

Back in the mid-twentieth century, Memorial Day was also known as Decoration Day. It wasn’t only military veterans who were remembered and whose graves were decorated with flowers. It was all of our family and friends who had died. It was somewhat like a “Day of the Dead” or “Totenfest” in springtime.

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The flowers that were put out in the cemeteries were the ones that were available from house yards and gardens, depending on the spring weather. This year, for example, the cold and wet weather means that late lilacs could be used. In other warmer spring seasons, spirea and peonies would be available. But not this Memorial Day. Those flowers still haven’t bloomed.

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Bleeding hearts are in bloom around our house, but I don’t remember ever using them for the cemetery. They were, however, part of the standard landscaping elements carried over from the late nineteenth century. Other “old” flowers included lilies-of-the-valley, tulips, iris, and tiger lilies. The old farm homesteads were fragrant and colorful in springtime, but not so much in the hot and dry summer.

I remember that my grandma’s house in town had most of these flowers. Ironically, however, I just recently learned that my sister-in-law who’s ten years younger than me, really likes the old fashioned flowers: lilacs, bleeding hearts, lilies-of-the-valley, and peonies. In fact, she has them as part of the landscaping around her house.

Plastic flowers are currently much more convenient than cut flowers or plants for decorating graves. So now in addition to military flags there’s a lot of color in the cemeteries from artificial flowers. And, there still are a few real flowers used.

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A Promise of Good Harvest

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A blustering wind has been blowing wet and cold for the past two days. In other years, this really messes up the fall harvest of wild plums because the delicate new blossoms get zapped. Not this year. The plum blossoms are far enough along, so the fruit is probably set. We should have a good harvest of wild plums this fall.

 

Last week the blossoming plum thickets looked like snow banks, as you see in the picture at the top of this page. But, it also seemed like every small clump and even the isolated plants put out their white flowers. You can see that in the photos just above this paragraph.

We have a family story about Grandpa’s method of “picking” plums. He stretched a canvas over a wagon box and drove the team of horses into the thicket. Then he shook the trees so the ripe plums fell into the wagon. It was a fast and easy way to get lots of plums with a minimum of effort. I pick them individually and slowly by hand. There’s also a story about people from town coming out to the farm to go “pluming”. These stories are from more than a hundred years ago.

 

Mom always made wild plum jam with her mother’s recipe that included anise seed. Mom’s childhood farm was on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, MN (just like the book, really). Margaret also followed that recipe until last year when she left out the anise and made jelly. The grandkids loved it, she prefers it, so that will be the new tradition. This collage shows last year’s jelly canning enterprise and the single jar is the only one left. The jars of the old anise jam used to age/rot in the back of the cupboard. The new jelly has disappeared.

 

And, it’s not just the wild plums. The last old apple tree in the backyard up at the old house had an explosion of blossoms last week. I’ve read someplace that dying, stressed trees will send out excessive crops of seeds. That’s probably what’s happening with this old tree. It maybe doesn’t have much time left. The green blossoms shown above are gooseberry bushes. Margaret has not yet committed to making gooseberry jelly or jam, but I’m working on her. Maybe it’ll become a new tradition?

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