Queen Anne’s Lace

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

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

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

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

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Unsettled Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kids at the Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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Milkweed

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

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

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

Here’s a link to some more pictures of milkweed in bloom: https://prairieecologist.com/2019/07/05/photo-of-the-week-july-5-2019/. It’s from a blog by a naturalist in Nebraska who is doing prairie restoration in a working landscape. Surf through his posts because he’s got a really good balance of basic science, idealistic conservation, economic reality, and esthetic photographs. Here’s one of his posts on diversity: https://prairieecologist.com/2018/02/07/diversity-redundancy-and-resilience/

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

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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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