Prairie Dock Series in the Breeze with Grasses and Shadows

For a blog about sitting in the woods, I tend to spend a lot of time in prairies; and lately, as I’ve mentioned, I have been spending a lot of my free out-and-about time at Wolf Road Prairie.  Again, this is a great place to visit and a window into the landscape of Illinois and the Midwest in general before..well, before.  There’s only a fraction of a percent (1/100th of 1%) of original prairie left in Illinois, and the health and density of biodiversity of this site is quite startling.  It’s almost a little disorienting I find with the great variety of plant species of all shapes and sizes, the colors, and then the constant movement of it all in even the slightest breeze.  This near perpetual motion also poses a challenge to the picture taking.  The density and variety of textures are what I’ve been more attracted to lately than the colors, though the colors are nice too.  As I was flipping through some of these pictures, there were some that I liked more than others, but then I kinda felt that, taken altogether, they portrayed some semblance of this constant shifting of the landscape which has become a significant aspect of my developing relationship with this area.

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What a Day!..and the Irony of it All

Last Saturday was the first substantial snowfall that we’ve had all season.  To herald the occasion, I was out of bed by 5AM, shoveling the sidewalk by 5:20 or so, and on the road by 6:30.  I would have left much earlier, but you can’t get into the preserves earlier than dawn, and the sun wasn’t due until 7:03, so I took my time.

snowy fungus

snowy fungus

As things worked out, I should have dawdled a great deal longer.

As an aside, let me say that I can’t help but feel that so much of our lives these days are colored by these various shades of irony, though without the comedic relief.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.  For example, I write a blog about experiences in nature, deep thoughts while sitting around and all that good stuff…yet I have to drive 8 to 10 miles to actually get out to these woods.  I sit in my car so I can go sit in the woods.  swell.  And then there’s the fact that the forest preserve “closes” at dusk, and “opens” at dawn?  I understand the reasoning behind this, and it makes sense; but is there not an irony in the fact that I have to observe visiting hours in order to spend time in the natural spaces that I seek?

Prairie Snowball

Prairie Snowball

Anyways, I hurried out the door and was on the road, unplowed, which felt all adventurous, and I was dead set on being the first one out at Bemis Woods.  You know, to beat out the throngs of naturegoers lining up to go wander around at 7AM on a Saturday morning.  Well, I get to the place, and right as I’m pulling up I see the snowplow man closing the ‘closed’ chain behind him and heading up the way.  I was a little early, so I felt okay about things at this point and figured I’d just drive around for a bit until he got things tidied up.

An hour later, after driving up and down through dark and slowly waking neighborhoods, peering in the windows of unwary Americans – the man sitting alone at his dining room table, the woman at her desk in an office with floor to ceiling bookshelves that I now covet, a couple people here and there shoveling the walk – the snowplow dude is STILL not finished.  Another irony, I guess – to get up early in the morning so as to enjoy the sun slowly filling the spaces and lines of a snowy woods, only to spend my morning driving around looking in people’s windows.

Bemis First Snow-13

Icicles in Salt Creek

And to top it all off, I had to stop and get gas.

Around 8:00 o’clock I phoned home and the family was roused and willing to come out with me.  So, I returned from whence I came, was nearly killed by another snowplow that threw a blinding sheet of slush and salt onto my windshield as I was passing, had an Eggo, a cup of coffee, and piled everyone in the car to go back and check out the scenery.

Snowplow dude was just leaving when we arrived.

All in all, when it was all said and done, it was a good time and time well spent.  I got some pretty good pictures, and the kids had a lot of fun before their toes started to freeze.  I also had the chance to see where a vole or some other rodent had been tunneling under the snow, which was pretty cool being that I’ve been reading up and getting all lerned on winter ecology this past season.

So there you go.

Fall is here…and I’m slathered in deadlines…

For the few of you who are actively following, here are some pictures from my favorite spot by Salt Creek Woods.  I’ve been going out regularly, and I have a number of pictures and thoughts that I need to share, but all my time is being eaten by some other commitments.  I hope you like the images…it was a cloudy day, with storms in the forecast; I sat in the middle of this field for about an hour waiting to get stormed on – seemed like somethin’ to do.  In the end, the deluge didn’t ensue until I was already heading back to the car.  ah, the car…always back to the automobile.  So, it wasn’t nearly as cool as it could of been, as I had some romantic notion of sitting in the middle of a field and gettin’ whooped on by the wind and rain.

ah well, there’s always spring.

And winter is sure to be interesting.

More soon…

Salt Creek Prairie 8:15/60°/Wind-East

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Sitting still in the middle of the field.  One tree South of me making a racket, letting the world know that there’s a breeze blowing.  A million leaves flapping in unison.  The grasses and flowers are going to seed, covered in dew, sparkling and billowing.  What few clouds move quickly along and the sun shines down.  Behind me a sudden cascade of dried leaves, birdsong and flight.  A cricket, a steady and sustained chirping.  The leaves falling herald the breeze, which is seen and heard before you feel it.  A small flock of finches dip and veer, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills.  Alight briefly on the branches and then they’re gone.  Down low in the grasses and seedstalks.  A goose passes overhead, alone, calling out.

on dragonflies, a carcass, and beavers

There be beavers in Salt Creek.  He found evidence as he was ambling along this past Saturday.  Downed trees and stumps chewed to a fine and tapered point.  Another tree, still standing, which was a work in progress.  Where they make their home is anybody’s guess.  He didn’t see a lodge, but he didn’t spend a lot of time looking.  He was in a hurry to check up on the carcass of a deer he’d found lying by the edge of a small, green pond a couple weeks back.  When he’d first seen the animal it was still barely alive, though obviously down and not getting back up.  He had returned the next day to see if there were any buzzards, which there were not.

Returning after two weeks, he could smell the subtle undertones of rot as he neared.  Not too strong, and maybe even imperceptible if he hadn’t already known what was there.  There was a small trail that broke between the thick shrubs and brambles that surrounded the water hole, and the smell was there too, stronger, but not overwhelming.  He stood on the muddy bank where the receding water revealed the prints of the other deer and wildlife that drank there.  He stood, looked across, maybe 8 to 10 yards, and could see what was left.  not much.  The bones had been picked clean.  Funny, he thought, how bones don’t look like bones.  They were a reddish brown color, largely indistinguishable from the ground where they lay, scattered.  Again, if he hadn’t known they were there, he likely wouldn’t have seen them at all.

As he walked out of the woods, the sun was soon to set over the field, sinking behind the trees.  The field was filled with blooming yellow sunflowers and the sun shining through their petals.  Small insects and dragonflies were ascending, silhouettes and specks of light both cascading upwards to loop and hover, sway up and downwards again.  The dragonflies were feasting on the smaller, slower insects, dipping in rapid fire arcs, rising again to meet one another in midair for the briefest moment before resuming their flight.

The smaller insects’ wings were illuminated by the sun so that they appeared almost as glowing specks of dust, or fluff.  One rose up before him just as the dragonfly swooped in from somewhere off to the side, paused, with its back to the sun, four wings and segmented body framed and held static in the light, before continuing on, leaving only emptiness.

finding time at Willow Springs Woods

8/21

Into the woods with the family.  Willow Springs Woods in South Cook County.  First time here, and I’m learning that it’s important to go and scope these places out ahead of time, or else you find yourself wandering aimlessly trying to decide on a place to sit.

Which was what happened my first morning at Salt Creek Woods.  I had parked the car at Bemis Woods, pulled the bike off the rack, and after riding about 7 minutes West on the paved trail, pulled off onto an unpaved path that I had seen a few days earlier.  On that morning, I rode a short ways farther before tethering my bike to a tree and continuing on foot.  All told, I probably spent a good hour tripping over hidden branches and pushing through briars, sitting here and there, before finally walking out in a field and coming across the small cluster of oak trees where I have spent several mornings since.

So, this initial reconnaissance tends to increase the “demands” of the project somewhat, in that there are now pre-excursions before the actual “sitting”.  This sounds absurd, and whether sitting, standing, or hiking, there shouldn’t be anything complicated about spending some time in the woods.  And, when it comes down to it, this is just another great reason to get the wife and kids out there with me to see something new.

Finding where the trail actually begins at these places can be a challenge. Willow Springs is no exception; and, once underway, I have to admit that I was initially underwhelmed.  The path was lined with buckthorn, which I really wish I didn’t know anything about, as it invades everywhere, chokes out the understory, and it’s about all you can see once you know what you’re looking at.

But you can’t be discouraged on the few first steps, and we ended up making some great discoveries.

After about fifteen minutes, the narrow trail from the parking area through the woods opened up to a wider, gravel path.  Walking along we come to a small, L-shaped, marshy lake. With grasses and reeds lining the muddy banks, the first bird we encountered was a Greater Egret, standing white and poised, filching fish from the shallows.  Hiding behind some brush, we passed the binoculars and saw the silver flash and spasm of a minnow in the egret’s beak just before disappearing down into his gullet.  It took flight once we appeared and flew croaking to another visible section of the lake and landed a short ways from a Great Blue Heron.

We continued to pass the binoculars, watching the two birds wade slowly along when suddenly the shoreline erupted in a multitude of small explosions as frogs fled the bank into deeper water.  At least we think it was frogs..could’ve been minnows, but pretty sure it was frogs.  Regardless, it was impressive, watching these small creatures flee the banks, and something none of us had ever seen before.  We hung around long enough to see another wading bird, what may have been a Green Heron, make his way up the opposite side of the bank and take up position equidistant from the other two.  We never got a close enough look at this one to tell for sure, but it was pretty cool nonetheless watching them stand spaced along the edge of the water.

As we departed I heard the call of a what may have been a Red Shouldered Hawk somewhere over the water.  As we moved away from the water and back into the woods, I heard her again somewhere in the trees, hidden deep and invisible.

Later, we took a small trail off the main path through the woods and into a field filled with grasses, wildflowers, and a smattering of trees placed in small clusters here and there throughout.

A closer examination of the black specks in an Ironweed’s fuchsia blooms revealed an abundance of shiny beetles. The lighter purple florets of a Rough Blazing Star served as a frilled suite for two yellow soldier beetles as they mingled their genes to form yet another generation in an ancient lineage.

We looked up and noticed how, when we’d stop moving for a moment, the one dragonfly hovering above would suddenly be joined by a host of others, materializing out of the blue sky.

More notes from Bemis Woods…and Speeder Bikes

“It is in the wilder spaces, of scrub and deadfall, where you’d rather not tread.  In these places you find wonders.”

– We must balance our need for order with the natural order’s need to be wild.

“…skimming the leaves atop the understory…(birds)”

Small flocks of five to seven chickadees chatter and fuss and pursue one another across the trail ahead of me: at eye level, into a small clearing, they skim the tops of saplings and underbrush, turn abruptly in mid-air and zip back across the trail and back again.   I’m reminded of the Speeder Bikes and that great chase on the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi.  Maybe a ridiculous correlation, but this can’t be helped.

Afterwards, I find that these images have become imprinted in my mind.  Not images of Speeder Bikes, but images like this small flock of birds in flight.  Their speed, their capacity to swoop and dip, turn on a dime and return again.

I can’t help but feel frustrated by my incapacity to provide a truly adequate description, but this line from Leopold’s “Marshland Elegy” makes me feel better: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

I have this image from a place and of a place that I can return to, and though I can not expect to see the same thing, or have the image repeat itself, the place itself is not lost to me, which is a great comfort.  This is one of the joys I am discovering as part of this project.  This is not a place I’ve visited on vacation.  This is a place within my community.  I don’t have to wait until next year to return – I can return tomorrow.

Still, I wonder if I’ve somehow been conditioned, or conditioned myself, to consider my engagement with the land as something transitory?  Because, when I’m there, I  feel this sense of anxiety almost where I need to take it all in, or else I’m going to miss something.  And then this subtle sadness and reluctance to leave.  As if I’ll never return, and there’s no way that I can preserve what I’ve seen with words, or a photograph.

Where does this feeling come from, I wonder?  It’s as if we mourn the loss of the wilder spaces, even as we turn away from them.  Subordinate ourselves to the promise of our own manufactured dreams, though we carry this nostalgia for something simpler, more pristine.  Or, is it that we understand, more deeply than we’d like to admit, that even these small spaces, which hold wonders, are disappearing.  Or simply being forgotten.

As of yet, I don’t have the language for it.  I hope only that I may find it along the way.

Salt Creek Woods – 7/29

First visit:

In the woods

What is valuable in this:  sitting alone on a Sunday morning, tripping over limbs, listening to birds and looking at trees that I don’t know the names of?

7:45 – Is it to learn something?

I am learning borders, edges of habitat seem to harbor a great diversity of birds.

7:47 – Scared a deer and it scared me.  Didn’t even hear it until she blew a fit and bounded away.

New location: edge of field

This seems very silly, but I’ve been told it’s worth including…for effect, or something.

8:15 – Oriole

8:24 – A deep and abiding clarity, yet you cannot remain here.  So you return, again and again.

The air is full of chirps and whistles. Hammering on a hollow log.

8:48 – within a small circle of trees…trash lying about – it must be cleaned.  Otherwise, this is a great spot.

10:17 – On the way out: 2 male indigo buntings, competing for a mate.

Reflection: my notes suck. i need a watch.