Roadside Riches to Ruins

Just a few miles from my northern Wisconsin cabin, coffee in hand for my 3 ½ hour drive back to Milwaukee, I pass a hilltop full of grazing Herefords. I let out an audible gasp and then an “Oh no.”

Thirty years ago, when I bought my land and started to work on a 30-some acre prairie planting, that hilltop had a sandy, 15-foot, sloping edge that abutted the road. It looked like an area that had been excavated at some point but was now healing. It was colonized by a healthy population of lupines. Because this lupine patch and later, cream baptisia, were along the route of my 30-year odyssey driving back and forth from Ferryville to Milwaukee, I grew to know it well.

My prairie restoration project began in 1988 with a species list created with the help of TPE. My dad joked, with a hint of dismay in those days that I would never be able to retire because I spent all my money on seeds. Alas, at 66, I'm indeed looking at quite a few more years of work, even if it is part-time.

The prairie project proved a more difficult process than I had anticipated, and to be frank, it didn't go well through the years for a plethora of reasons, including weather variations, equipment failing, battalions of weeds and not enough help. I'm a tenacious, obsessive, nature-loving nut, so despite many setbacks, I wasn't about to give up. I started to pick my own seeds, choosing diverse areas with roadside access along my endless trips back and forth across the state.

I came to know all the spots where groups of prairie plants still thrived. The row of cup plants that grew along County Road J just north of the white Lutheran church; the spiderworts that shined along Hwy 14 just east of Gotham; the prairie dock that stood tall along the railroad tracks a few miles west of Middleton. There was also the rough blazing star along Hwy 133 outside of Muscoda, the prairie coreopsis in the dry, sandy soil along the railroad tracks near Blue River, the tall boneset, blue vervain and common ironweed flourishing in a wet pasture on Hwy 35 south of Ferryville.

I don't want to miss mentioning any of my friends, although I'm sure I have. I want to testify to their continued existence and stand witness to their tenacity, despite the prairies around them that were destroyed long ago.

To pick prairie seeds is to become entwined in a very intimate way with the species. First, you identify its bloom and the time of year it occurs. Then, you learn where it's growing, its moisture and its soil preferences. Next, you have to check on it week by week to learn when its seeds are ready to pick. Like Goldilock's porridge, the timing has to be just right. For many species, this would take a number of years as I drove by them - one year too soon, another year too late.

Picking seeds enabled me to spend time with them one last time in the open spaces where they lived. I could also engage in a leisurely outdoor activity that made me slow down and be more mindful. Some seeds essentially clean themselves when picked. If you waited long enough, gray headed cone flowers fell apart as you gently pulled the seed heads off their stems. Indian grass easily came off in an amazingly satisfying way as you ran your hand up its tall seven-foot stems.

Next, I invited the seeds into my home. My condo in Milwaukee was filled every winter with paper shopping bags full of seeds. I spent winter nights on the floor separating and cleaning them. Hours and hours of intimate touching and rubbing, with each one having its own character, smell and texture. Cream gentian flower heads flake apart like a fine Greek pastry, their tiny seeds easily tumbling out as I rubbed them between my hands. Pale purple cone flower heads would cut my hands if I didn't wear gloves. Cup plants, compass plants and rosin weed, all of the same family, easily separated when rubbed between my hands, but I learned to spread them evenly on a table top to dry after picking or they became moldy in the bags awaiting cleaning. Sneezeweed lived up to its name as I sneezed non-stop while cleaning and inhaling its seeds. Bee balm filled the room with its lovely fragrance, making it obvious why it's used in potpourri.

A mix of all these friends would slowly permeate every inch of my living space and nasal cavity as the contents of my condo became covered with a fine prairie dust that also turned my Kleenex black when I blew my nose.

After cleaning the seeds, I picked up sawdust from the local lumber mill and used it as mixer and filler to spread my seeds. I would get down on my hands and knees and mix the seeds into a huge pile of sawdust, ultimately emerging covered from head to toe with the fragrant mix of oak and forbs. As my prairie planting expanded, it would take seven large trash cans of this mix to cover the area.

The final stage of my growing intimacy with these friends would be to watch them grow, mature, bloom and spread in their new home.

My relationship with those lupines on the edge of that hillside followed a similar path. I spread their seeds on a dry, nutrient poor area, hoping their magical ability to pull nutrients out of the air gave them a competitive edge in poor soils. One year, while exploring the sight for more lupines, I wandered up above that sandy cliff into a field above. It was surrounded by barbed wire but hadn't been grazed in a while. There I found a couple dozen mature and healthy cream baptisia. It was one of my most precious finds in those days of seed hunting. I collected seeds for a couple years and planted them on a drier, west-facing hillside on my land.

Afraid of a poor take if I hand broadcast this most precious of guests, I walked up and down the hill with an old broom handle, a hammer, a pouch of seeds attached to one side on my belt and a bag of dirt on the other. I would pound a small hole with the broom handle and hammer, drop in a couple seeds, and then cover them with dirt, gently stepping on the spot before moving on. As is often the case, years later after I all but forgot of planting those seeds and accepted the fact that my efforts had failed, I started seeing mature baptisia plants starting to bloom.

One year six plants, the next year 15, and now there is a wonderful population of three or more dozen thriving cream baptisia plants on my hillsides.

Years ago, a trailer appeared on the dirt drive near the lupine patch. This was followed by a moment of sorrow when the new inhabitants excavated that area for sand and destroyed all of the remaining lupine. That scenario has been repeated over and over again the last decade as I have watched these patches of survivors mowed, covered in wild parsnip, overcome with crown vetch, killed by herbicides, bull dozed and developed. There is never any fanfare with these exterminations.

Despite becoming accustomed to the losses, the morning I saw those Herefords grazing in what used to be rare, native patches of cream baptisia, my eyes welled with tears as I gasped, sighed, slowed the car and stared. No funerals had been held, no proclamations made. My quiet grief seemed to be the only testament to their existence and their passing.

My sorrow remains, but it's tempered by the thriving prairie I continue to manage and love today.  

When I stand on that west-facing hillside shared with the cream baptisias, the golden sun of a summer evening illumining the cumulous-shaped tree tops of the huge cottonwoods that line the trout stream winding through the prairie, my spirit begins to rise. As I look out and see all the friends I have invited here over the years, now thriving and smiling back at me, I can't help but rejoice.




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