Midsummer Birds

At midsummer we’re seeing some of the same birds that we saw last spring. But, we’re also seeing some that we haven’t seen since last year at about this time. And, we’re seeing one that we haven’t seen in a long time….years, in fact.

Both of us remember seeing red-headed woodpeckers around our family farms when we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. But after we moved back here to Lone Tree Farm around 2000, we don’t recall seeing these guys. Lately, however, we’ve seen several pairs. Anybody else remember seeing them as kids, not seeing them after that, and now seeing them more often? We wonder if they’ve been in decline, but are now making a comeback? Or maybe it’s just a local situation confined to Lone Tree Farm?

We saw several of these flycatchers last year at about this time, but weren’t sure what they were called. Margaret put out the question on Face Book and got several suggestions back. The consensus identification was flycatcher; we hadn’t even heard of that bird. Sometimes Face Book does provide helpful information rather than just raising our blood pressure! We’re seeing these flycatchers around the yard again this year. Wonder if they’re late arrivals or just more shy early in the season. We’ve also got some birds around that we haven’t seen since last spring. After that lapse we’re now seeing humming birds dance around the available flowers again and the geese seem to be flying up the creek valley like they usually do in the spring.

Turkey vultures or buzzards? It doesn’t matter what you call them, these are not pretty birds. But, they do an important job because Nature needs scavengers like these to clean up “degrading biological material”. That includes the carcasses stacked outside hog barns (waiting for the rendering truck to pick them up) or a sick calf that has died in the pasture. Our buzzards have a reputation for roosting at night on the water tower in the town just downstream from the farm. Then in the morning the crowd takes off to do the daily cleanup chores. They all return at night and the next morning the routine starts all over.

The herons are back again. Although it’s hard to catch them flying in a photo, we do hear them croaking down at the Creek beyond our back yard. That’s a different location for them than in other years. For the past several summer seasons they’ve been hanging out in the abandoned channel meander called an oxbow. This posing bird is from a post that describes animals in the oxbow. One of the things that herons probably eat is cricket frogs. The inset shows a cricket frog in a post from last year when there still was water in the oxbow.

But, this year there’s a drought and the pond and wetland in the oxbow have totally dried up. So, the herons seem to be standing around in the water closer to our house. Maybe the cricket frogs have moved to a new wet location? I suspected that and have been listening for their unique “croak”, but haven’t heard their “rock music”. Their call is supposed to sound like two rocks clicking together. That’s the dinner bell for herons.

But, the story of the herons and cricket frogs has an additional twist this summer. Last month our Colorado family visited the Farm they way they often do in July. Our nine-year old granddaughter tried to call the cricket frogs because she remembered how to do that from several years ago. I was surprised that she tried the rock banging to call them and sorta grateful that they didn’t answer back any better for her than had for me. Seems like the herons have to eat something other than cricket frogs in this dry, drought year.

Thanks to Margaret for putting together these collages.

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Mourning the Loss of a Tree

Early in the evening last Thursday, a thunderstorm blew through….literally. You could see the gust front on the National Weather Service radar before the rain in the main cell even got to us. It dropped about a half inch that we’re grateful to have, but it also damaged a big old ash tree just to the northeast of our house.  

You can see that the windfall didn’t really threaten the house and didn’t even block the driveway. We’re grateful for that too. However, the huge limb that got torn off did knock down some braches from the younger hackberry tree at the end of the driveway. We really don’t know how much damage there is on the hackberry. Although the main trunk of the old ash tree still has a couple large branches sticking up high, the windfall basically ripped into the major part of the trunk. The tree is doomed.

Several years ago when we had some trimming done, we were warned that the old matriarch was at risk. That’s her without any spring leaves yet, looming above and beyond the truck. Now, we’ll have to have the whole thing taken down. We’ll get this equipment out again to work on the upper part that’s still standing. But it’s obvious looking into the broken heart of the trunk, that it’ll be hard for the tree to survive.

When the equipment was here earlier, there was another big ash tree removed. The tree with the most recent damage is just barely visible on the right side of the first photo. The weird-shaped companion that was removed first is more in the center of the picture. Together the two huge old ash trees stood guard on either side of the gate and sidewalk that lead to the “Little House”. Now, only a couple of pieces of the sidewalk will be all that remains to mark the memory.

There are lots of memories associated with the Little House. It was originally part of the homesteaders’ house, but was removed and moved down to this ash grove in 1912. In 1940 Grandpa George and Dad refurbished it so the newlyweds could move onto the farm. In the last few years of her life, Mom had a black and white photo showing her sitting on the front step with a car nearby. She said that it was comforting to look at that picture because it reminded her of her first house, first car, and first job. The folks lived there about three years and then there was a progression of three or four young families that started out there while the fathers worked as hired men. The Little House was abandoned for several decades and then taken down as a part of the cleanup before we built our house.

There’s not much left of the original ash grove and windbreak. The tree shown here at the end of the trail is one of the originals, about the same vintage as the two guarding the gate to the Little House. It has a split in the main trunk and is probably also toward the end of it’s life. Although most of the original ash trees are dying out, there’s a new generation of hackberry trees coming on. And, the most recent additions to the succession of species are the fast-growing mulberry trees. The larger tree on the right is one of the hackberries and the smaller tree on the left is a mulberry. The littlest tree right in the middle between those two, is a young ash tree. So even though the Little House is gone and the newer trees are taking over, there still are juvenile ash trees growing that are probably related to matriarch that just blew down. Maybe someday there will still be ash trees preserving the memory of the Little House and the families that lived there.

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Images of the Lone Tree

The Lone Tree that gave this Farm its name was supposedly a landmark for travelers and possibly a boundary marker between Native American territories. Located about a quarter mile north of the state line between Minnesota and Iowa, it probably was a useful way for people to locate themselves back before global positioning systems (GPS) were even dreamed of. And, it’s provided inspiration for a variety of art over six generations.

Hattie Shurr homesteaded the Farm and did a large number of paintings, including this one of the Lone Tree. The tree died and fell down in the early 1930s and she passed away in 1928, so this oil painting was part of her work in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. The perspective is looking south from a position on the north side of the Creek. The old photograph on the right was taken from that same location and may have provided the image that she worked from.

Both of these paintings were based on photographs. The oil painting on the left was done by Agatha Shurr who was Hattie’s granddaughter. Aggie lived in North Dakota, but she did visit the Farm and took a photo of two of Hattie’s great-great grandchildren playing in the Creek very near where the Lone Tree once stood. The watercolor on the right was done by our friend in St. Cloud, MN, who was a refugee from Viet Nam in the 1970s. He worked from a black and white photograph looking off to the west of the Lone Tree’s location.

I did this pen and ink drawing for my parents in 1971 and I’m Hattie’s great-grandson. The photograph on the right is of the only remaining cottonwood tree on the Farm. It’s located in about the same place as where the person stood taking the old photo that Hattie used for her oil painting. The view is to the west; the Lone Tree stood just to the left this living tree. We like to think that this is the offspring of the original Lone Tree. Margaret took this photograph as well as all of the others in this post.

Our two granddaughters did these pictures before they were ten years old. They are Hattie’s great-great-great granddaughters and have continued the family tradition of making images of the Lone Tree. Both of the girls worked from some of the pictures shown earlier in this post, using colored pencils and charcoal. And, both of these images obviously show the tree after it has died because there are no leaves. But, both of these two girls are still very much alive and so is Hattie’s heritage of doing art along Kanaranzi Creek.

Here’s a word of explanation about people’s names. This blog never uses the names of folks who are still alive because of the risks associated with digital “exposure”. In contrast, the names of people who have passed away are used so that there’s a potential for recovery in genealogical searches.

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Four Generations on the Farm

There were people living here long before our family farm was established. The homesteaders encountered Dakota Indians from the north and west who routinely traveled along the Creek. There are also local landmarks that suggest there were Native Americans in the area from the south and east. For example, “Kanaranzi” translates to “place where the Kansa were killed”. The Kansa once lived a long way down into Iowa and Missouri, but this incident along the Creek happened well before our family landed in southwest Minnesota.

My great-grandparents, John and Hattie, homesteaded here in 1871 and built this house in 1874. We think that this is John and Hattie, but aren’t certain which baby is on Hattie’s lap. It was a subsistence farming operation that produced crops and livestock and babies. There were four girls and five boys; a subsistence farm in the late 1800s needed big families to do the work. Human muscles and animal muscles did all of the work and used locally-produced fuel. They grew or made what they needed and anything that was left over was sold locally. Lone Tree Farm wasn’t large enough to support the grown children and their families, so two of the sons moved to North Dakota to raise wheat. Son George stayed on the Farm.

My grandparents, George and Daisy, were married in 1904 a year after his homesteading parents retired. They’re shown here with the house that was remolded in 1912. The family was small, one girl and one boy, but the farming operation expanded using new machinery and tapping into distant markets. George shipped livestock by rail to Chicago and invested in land near his brothers in North Dakota as well as near the home place. The operation was probably based on the extractive approach that characterized “bonanza” farming in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, most of land was lost when the expanded operation collapsed during the drought years of the Great Depression. Son John was left to clean up the debts.

My parents, John and Bernita, were married in 1940 and Dad was thrust into the management role when Grandpa George died suddenly in 1943 while shelling corn. The folks lived in the same farmhouse shown in this painting done by a friend in 1978. Again, the family was small, two boys, but the excesses of the previous generation required that the ambitious operation be cut back to the original farm site. Following World War II, government programs did provide some technical expertise and conservation programs. For example, Dad used a five-year crop rotation that included both small grain and hay. However, markets became more dominated by large companies and industrial farming based on expanded use of agrichemicals was on the rise. Polluted water and depleted soil started to become problems.

The transfer of the farming operation to my generation was complicated by the Viet Nam War. My brother who was educated as a range manager and who was supposed to take over the Farm was killed in action in 1970. Dad continued managing the operation, but rented the pasture and crop ground to younger neighbors, as he got older. The renters generally followed the “progressive conventional” practices that relied on artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and seed genetics. Agronomists hired by agribusiness provided a lot of the technical assistance and incentive programs.

Margaret and I returned to live on the Farm in 1998. We built our own house and my parents continued to live in the original farmhouse through their eighties. When people asked Dad if he had lived on the farm all of his life, he always joked, “Not yet”. After they died in 2014, the old house has fallen into disrepair and is now mainly used to store artifacts and buffalo bones. Although I had no training or experience in agriculture, our renters did do some minimum tillage and initiated rotational grazing. These practices and others have become part of an emerging approach to farming that we are very interested in: sustainable agriculture. It’s not the small-scale alternative called organic farming and it’s not the extractive industrial model of corporate agribusiness. Sustainable agriculture is a “middle way” which recognizes that a successful farming operation not only depends on economic viability, but also on environmental responsibility and a strong neighborhood community.

This post is based in part on a talk that will be given at Augustana University’s Dakota Conference in early August. The theme of the conference is “Farming and Ranching and Sustainability on the Northern Plains”. Maybe some future post will look at how sustainable agriculture might be used on Lone Tree Farm.

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The Hunt for Art Treasures

Several months ago I did a post on Great-grandma Hattie Shurr who homesteaded here on the Farm. After retirement around 1900 she had more free time and started to paint. She shared many of those pictures with friends and family, but none of these works of art are signed or dated. It’s mainly family tradition that preserves the memory. Most of the pictures are landscapes in oil, watercolors, and pastels and most of the landscapes have trees and buildings. That leads to speculation that she was probably recalling her upbringing in upstate New York, rather than painting the prairie that she lived in.

After putting that post together, we figured out that she also did do this seascape because the fiberboard label on the back matches one her other paintings. It’s a real contrast to her other landscapes. AND, in response to the post two cousins told us that they each had two of Hattie’s pictures. The Montana cousin even sent photos of his two and one of them clearly uses the wooded landscape motif.

However, the other painting is of a pair of lions. His nicely framed picture is in better shape than our slightly damaged version. But, both show the same sleeping lioness “guarded by her ever-vigilant male companion”. There are some differences, however. The damaged painting has a gray background with a dark rock in the lower left corner. The framed one has a brown background and no rock in the corner.

Although the lions are a departure from Hattie’s preference for landscapes, they’re not the only animals that she painted. I’ve never cared for either of these two pictures because they seem to be flat and lack the depth of her landscapes….kind of a “Grandma Moses” primitive feel. But, family tradition says that Hattie painted these animals as well as lots of landscapes. The count on her landscapes is now up to more than a dozen and the hunt goes on.

Hattie Shurr was not the only woman creating art just after the turn of the twentieth century. The bucolic scene on the left was painted by Lora Adams (my Grandma Bell) at about the time that she married in 1915. The darker painting on the right was done by her future sister-in-law, Olive Bertleson, around the same time. Lora was 20 years old and Olive was in her late teens. So, Lora and Olive were much younger than Hattie who probably didn’t start to paint until she was in her 60s and 70s. And, the two younger woman didn’t live near Lone Tree Farm; they lived on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

So, why were these women of different ages in three separate families doing art? Was it the “genteel” thing for a lady to do back at the beginning of the twentieth century? Or, maybe it was an activity that kept them out of trouble during this time when the suffragettes were raising hell? Or, maybe it was an uncontrolled opportunity for self-expression that was more socially acceptable than agitating for the vote?

Here’s another question related to woman doing art at this time: are there other families that have these treasures preserved but lost in attics and closets? Those paintings are probably also unsigned and undated and their origin is probably only known because the family traditions remember who did the art. It would be really cool if the hunt for these art treasures expanded out beyond the three families described in this post! And, what if there were enough of these discoveries that could be shared and displayed in local museums or history centers or art galleries? That would be real grass roots affirmation of the historical significance of the art created by these women.

Once again Margaret, the woman who I live with, deserves thanks for the photographs and for the organization that helped to preserve Great-grandma Hattie’s artistic legacy.

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Surveying the Creek Channel

Yesterday we got almost one and a quarter inches of rain. It won’t exactly break the drought, but it’ll really help the crops. The Creek has come up, but the dry pond and wetland in the oxbow will probably stay dry. And, the changes in the Creek will continue.

A couple of weeks ago a survey team from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) measured specific places on the Creek channel that have been monitored for almost a decade. In 2014 the main channel cut through a narrow bank and abandoned a meander loop that is called an oxbow. That short-term, dramatic change has been followed by more subtle long-term changes in the channel. And all of those changes have been documented by the measurements done by the DNR survey team.

This year there were three people, but a fourth person has been here for many of the surveys. It’s not only the Creek channel that has changed. We all have aged and had life changes and the technology for surveying has changed. The global positioning system (GPS) that the team originally used had a remote, stand-alone base station to access the satellites and the survey rod communicated with that station. The new setup has the whole miniaturized system mounted on top of the rod so it’s much faster and easier to conduct the survey.

Here’s the results from four of the surveys; 2014 and 2015 were just after the channel cutoff happened and 2018 and 2021 are the most recent data. The early cross section (on the left) shows five feet of lateral change on the east side of the cut and essentially no change on the west. In contrast, the later cross section (on the right) shows ten feet of erosion on the west and very little change on the east. The total change in the gap goes from about 80 feet wide to almost 110 feet. These numerical changes are clearly shown on the cross sections constructed using the quantitative data from the surveys, but the visual comparisons are more dramatic.

The photo from the spring of 2014 shows the slump blocks that were left behind immediately after the channel cut through. The blue arrows point to the edges of the cut shown in the surveyed cross section. The photo from the summer of 2021 does show the steep edges of the cut at the black dirt on the left and right side of the channel. But, it also shows a sand bar deposited in the gap as the channel migrated to the left (west) while eroding the steep bank on that side. So, the changes in the channel include building up by sand deposition and also removing soil by erosion. Here’s the link to a post that shows the patterns of erosion and deposition from above in map view.

Long-term surveys like this are not common in government agencies because of changes in personal and priorities. I once spent two months on a team of five people measuring layers of sedimentary rock in central Montana, but the report was never written up because of political changes within the next year or two.

In the case of this DNR work, the same scientists did the multiple surveys but like the erosion and deposition there were changes in the lives of those people. Families have grown and gone. Young children are now in high school. One person, who had recently married back in 2014, now has kids and one of those kids has fishing videos posted on You Tube. Another person who was single several years ago is now engaged.

So the people who conducted the surveys and who study the changes in the Creek channel have experienced changes in their personal lives. Maybe we should also think about the Creek as a dynamic, living entity.

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Wren Real Estate

My family’s interest in birds goes back several generations. My grandparents had a bird book to help identify who they saw and my parents had a winter feeder and put up birdhouses. Margaret and I are continuing that tradition. Although I’m mostly a passive watcher on the porch with morning coffee, she’s much more proactive. She has put up feeders with grape jelly for orioles and sweet syrup for hummingbirds, and a variety of seeds for anybody who’ll eat them. And, wren houses….lots of wren houses. 

This wren house is just west of the house, easy to see from the porch. You can just barely make out the sticks of the occupant’s nest in this photo and the house is close enough to the porch that we can hear as well as watch the comings and goings. We’re not getting scolded very much these days. My mother used to describe how the wrens scolded her while she hung out clothes because their wren house was on one of the clothesline posts. It’s good to have the busyness in this star house close to the porch because the feeders have all been taken down. After the initial surge in the spring, lots of the birds don’t visit the feeders much. Plus, the strong winds make it hard to keep them filled.

This property is a little less formal and more rustic. It’s located to the east of the house near our driveway and was the first to have a tenant take up residence this spring. It’s hard to see the sticks inside, but this particular model has an innovative way to make cleaning out the nest much easier. The front is hinged and that little lever on the right side holds this “door” closed. Also, it’s a “hippie/earth hugger” house because it advertises a commitment to protecting the environment….”Going Green”.

This property is located in the ash grove north of our house. It’s also occupied as you can tell by the stuff hanging out of the door and by the sticks that are poking out the bottom. In contrast to the slant-roof on the “hippie” house, this one has a peaked roof. That peaked roof is designed to lift off for easy cleaning. That’s why the roof doesn’t fit down tight and why there’s a gap between the roof and wall.

Here’s another unpainted, rustic wren house with a peaked roof design. It’s also located east of the house near the driveway at the old wagon box and antique grindstone wheel. However, this property is currently vacant. We think that it’s because it twists in the wind so that the door ends up facing the tree trunk. That makes for limited access and may explain the vacancy. On the other hand, the gap between the wall and roof is pretty conspicuous in this model. Maybe it’s a bit too drafty for a committed occupant?

These two shots are of an a-frame design that my Dad built. The tin roof is a coffee can lid and it’s badly in need of paint. However, the deterioration has progressed well beyond the do-it-yourself stage! This is no longer a “fixer upper”. The photo on the right demonstrates just how far things have fallen apart. Needless to say, this home is no longer occupied on a regular basis. At least it’s an easy cleanout job with no floor to get in the way or even hold the nest.

We got this sculpture for our anniversary. These are the only cardinals that we’ve seen around here; I don’t think that I ever remember seeing them here on the farm. We have just recently realized, however, that we are seeing redheaded woodpeckers lately. Both of us remember seeing them as kids, but can’t recall seeing any when we first moved back twenty years ago. As you can tell by this photo, the sculpture is west of the porch (near the star house of the first photograph) and the dry brown grass shows how dry we are.

It seems like the wrens aren’t as active in the heat, even in the cool mornings. The draught has dried up most of the sloughs and wetlands, so we’re not seeing any of the big herons that we saw during the last several wet years. Another “fringe benefit” of the draught is an invasion of varmints on the dry, dormant lawn. Rabbits, gophers, and even woodchucks are hitting the brown grass pretty hard. I may have to respond with deadly force. Hopefully, that won’t bother the wrens in their private homes. And, Margaret’s responsibilities as slumlord landlord are minimalized until fall when it’s time to cleanout the wren houses. In the meantime, she deserves credit and thanks for taking all of these pictures.

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Music Along the Creek

Over the years and through several generations, there’s been music along the Creek. In the days before radio and recordings, you had to make your own music and the homesteading family did that. But even in later years, people continued to make and enjoy music. That effort extended upstream to bring families together from two different neighborhoods.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, my mother sang solos at weddings and funerals. But, she also made music in our home; she played piano to accompany an old man who played a violin. He was my grandma’s cousin and he lived on the farm that his father homesteaded in the neighborhood of Civil War veterans located several miles north east of our farm. Another farm in that neighborhood was sold to Margaret’s great-grandparents and that set the stage for sharing more music and musical instruments.

The original piano from Lone Tree Farm.

In the 1920s, my aunt was a child recovering from an illness that kept her indoors. Her parents bought her this old piano to help pass the time. After she was grown and gone, the piano moved with grandma’s retirement into Ellsworth. After she died, it was sold to Margaret’s aunt who had married into a family in the Civil War veteran’s neighborhood. So it got moved back out to Kanaranzi Creek. The date stamp is from much later when we had the piano restored. That’s why the back is off in this photo. My brother and I used Mom’s old piano (not this one) for music lessons; eventually that piano was donated to a local charity. Meanwhile, piano lessons skipped a couple of generations in Margaret’s family and her grandmother’s piano (not this one) came to live with us in St. Cloud where our kids used it for lessons. But, that piano stayed behind with one of Margaret’s teacher friends when we moved back to the Farm more than twenty years ago.

The restored piano.

During that same time, the original Lone Tree Farm piano was being used for music lessons by several generations in another part of Margaret’s family. It had been moved away from Kanaranzi Creek during those years, but eventually it ended up stored out in our garage after we moved back. So, after about sixty or seventy years the piano was back where it started. But, not for long. We had it restored and moved to our daughter’s home in Vermillion, South Dakota. This is a photo of the “new” old piano in it’s current home where yet another generation took music lessons. Most of the many generations of kids who took piano lessons only lasted a few years on the instrument. I’m not sure that there are more than one or two people who still play! But after at least four generations spread over about a hundred years, who cares? This original piano is still in good shape and kids and adults in both extended families all enjoy music.

The fiddle from up the Creek.

There’s another musical connection between Lone Tree Farm and the enclave of Civil War veterans up the Creek. Charlie Barnes was the grand old man who played the fiddle back while my mother accompanied him on piano. (At least I thought he seemed really old, but he died at age 90 in the early 1960s. That means that he was about the same age as I am right now!) This is NOT a photo of Charlie’s fiddle. This fiddle is from Margaret’s family who were his neighbors about three generations before we were married. It’s really remarkable and fortunate that we weren’t related!

Fourth and fifth generations on the old piano.

This is our daughter and her “littles” back when the Lone Tree piano first arrived at their house more than a decade ago. These folks are some of the fifth and sixth generations beyond the homesteaders, but the interest in music continues on. The second, third, and fourth generations all had members of male gospel quartets. The fourth and fifth generations had participants in high school and college choirs. And, the most recent sixth generation includes a mandolin player in a high school orchestra and a voice in a high school show choir.

Last night we went to a concert in Sioux Falls that included a friend who is a singer-songwriter and there were several ties to music along Kanaranzi Creek. His wife is the archaeologist who did the geophysical study of the site where we’ve found artifacts; one of the songs that he did was about the 2017 flooding in northwest Iowa that eroded out those artifacts. But, wait….there’s another connection. He’s also working on a song inspired by the post on lilacs from several weeks ago. It’s great to know that there’s going to be some original music associated with stories from along the Creek.

Thanks to Margaret again for finding these photos in her archive and for the fiddle picture.

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Summer Solstice Celebration

There’s no doubt that summer is here! The hot weather over the past few weeks can tell us that. But, the start of the summer season can also be seen in the position of the sunset on the western horizon. This astronomical observation is also associated with changes in the length of day and night. So, both location and duration are part of this celebration.

Back in February, the sunset was located well to the south of the state line gravel road that runs exactly east-west in front of the Farm. So the photo on the left is looking west and the sunset is off to the left. And, the winter nights are long and cold. In contrast on the first day of spring (the equinox) in March, the sunset is exactly along the east-west state line and the day and night are about the same length.

In May the sunset has shifted to the right/north of the gravel road. The photo on the left doesn’t show the exact time of sunset, but you can tell that it’s headed down toward a position that’ll be just to the right of the “Chicken Tree” which is the lone tree silhouetted on the far horizon. (The grandkids called it the Chicken Tree because it looks like a cartoon character with boots on.) Then in June closer to the first day of summer (the solstice), the sunset has shifted to a point way north of the Chicken Tree and the gravel road. That most recent photo is the one on the right. Now, at this farthest north location, the days are long and hot and the nights are short.

It also seems like the sun moves faster toward the far north solstice position than when it’s approaching the east-west equinox over the gravel road. But, maybe that’s not so easily documented. There is a data source that tells us that the days get longer faster toward the solstice position but are more slow to get shorter near the equinox position. So, both space and time are tied up in the solstice observations.

Margaret deserves a special thanks for these photos. They’re not just the ones that she sometimes posts as “The view from the back porch”. For example for the most recent solstice shot, she made a mad dash down the driveway to catch the sun right at the setting location.

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Lilacs Don’t Last Forever

When Grandma Daisy came to the Farm as a bride in the decade before World War I, she planted lilac bushes. She was the daughter of a Civil War veteran who had homesteaded along the Creek about five miles upstream and new her father-in-law had homesteaded here at about the same time. Although the old farmer liked to garden, he was pretty certain that the lilac bushes wouldn’t grow well. But, she was determined to have lilacs and hauled pails of water during the dry years to keep them alive. And, the bushes did so well that they almost grew into small trees.

She planted several small clusters of lilac bushes that have bloomed every spring since then. The photo on the left shows one clump that has a pretty good crop of the distinctive-smelling flowers this year. But if you go around to the end of the stand, you can see that not all parts are equally healthy. There are some spots that don’t have flowers and in some places there aren’t even any leaves. That’s shown in the photo on the right.

Not all of the lilac bushes have purple blossoms. There’s one that’s all white and it seems to be in pretty good shape this year. However, another cluster barely has any flowers at all. This small, lonely “bouquet” is surrounded by some leaves that seem to be curled. It looks like something isn’t right in this clump.

The largest bunch that Grandma Daisy planted was along the east side of the yard behind the original farmhouse. There is, without question, a part of this line of lilacs that is dying. There are no flowers and the leaves are so thin that you can see right through to the pasture beyond. In other years the green and purple wall was solid. At the south end where there are no leaves, the gnarled and twisted trunks are stark and naked. The lilacs are dead. Can this seasoned old lilac wood be used to make anything useful, other than memories?

At the north end of the line behind the farmhouse, the leaves are so thin that the old outhouse is no longer hidden. After more than a century, the lilacs that Grandma Daisy planted as a young bride are dead and dying. In the photo on the right, there still are plenty of green leaves in this group out along the driveway, but there are no flowers. The bushes are clustered around the base of hackberry trees that are even older. Many of the shrubs and trees planted in the first two generations are gone.

Lilacs are often associated with death and loss. Think about Walt Whitman’s poem commemorating Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”. We’ve often used lilacs to decorate family graves for Memorial Day when the season produced a good crop of flowers. But, now it looks like the lilacs themselves are dying.

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