Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Spirit Villages

Watching the timber recover from logging, farming, grazing, drought, storms and time, I’ve come to trust the resilience of the land. With humans or without us, the earth will survive. Gaia takes care of her own.

Reading Ronald D. Parks’ meticulous and compassionate book, The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland, 1846-1873, I’ve begun to see some hope for humans. Like other indigenous peoples, the Kaw were driven to the brink of annihilation. European settlers attempted to destroy their culture, their livelihood, their history, their spirituality and even their language. They were driven from their lands, reduced to poverty, reviled for following their traditions, forced to attend punitive schools and regarded as less than human. In the words of Chief Allegawaho, they were driven from place to place “like a flock of Turkeys.”

Yet they survive. In Oklahoma, Kaw City flourishes. The Kanza tribe sponsors events, maintains a museum, provides health care and offers language instruction. The last full-blood Kaw tribe member died in 2000, but mixed-blood Kanzas continue the dances and celebrate the old ways. The last speaker of the Kaw language was Robert Rankin, a linguistics professor who grew up in Georgia. His Kanza dictionary and tribal teaching materials are helping to revitalize the ancient tongue. Former enemies of the Kaw have allied with them to preserve and revive indigenous cultures. A recent land purchase near Council Grove brings the Kaw back to Kansas at last.

The Kanza farmed the Kaw Valley for eight generations. In the winter they hunted deer and raccoons in the woods to the northeast. In the summer they went west to hunt bison. The women farmed; the men hunted. They planted sunflowers to mark the graves of their loved ones. After they were removed to progressively smaller reservations, and eventually from the state, they still returned to visit their old lands. Even after death, their spirits returned to their Kaw Valley homes.

The timber does not look the same as it did before the railroad loggers came through, cutting oak, hickory and walnut. Each time a storm takes down an old tree, the forest changes. New clearings open. Young saplings fill in the gaps. Trails detour around fallen logs. The deer had almost vanished when I first came here; now they pose a hazard on the roads every autumn. Foxes have moved into town, hunting rodents at dawn and dusk, singing under suburban windows.

The stolen Shunganunga Boulder
Spirit villages ensoul the Kaw Valley. Sunflowers bloom along the roads every summer. River trails lead hikers through unnamed half-blood lands. Farm tours showcase growers of healthy produce. The huge quartzite stone where the Kanza offered prayers, ripped from its original resting place, stands at a city intersection, marked with the names of European settlers. The glacier that brought it south resculpted the land long before living memory. The land always meets change with adaptation. We can survive if we remain resilient. We can survive if we offer reverence to life. Spirit villages nourish us, teaching us to eat well, to care for the land, to remember those who loved the earth before we were born to walk it. The Kaw still dwell here. Gaia takes care of her own.

The Kaw Valley

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rain in August

After a couple of dry summers, sometimes classified as severe or extreme drought, this season has been moist and comparatively cool. By mid-August most years, the grass is dry and crackling. Trees begin to lose leaves. The only bright green along the roadsides is the budding ragweed.

Calamus loves water.
This year, after a rain-rich June and less than three weeks of dry weather in July, August came in with a deluge. In eight days, I measured 5.7 inches of rainfall here; other parts of the county recorded 3 inches and up. The creeks are brown and flowing. Rocks collect puddles. I track mud through the house after a walk. I could get seriously used to not having to water the garden.

My feral yard usually gets mowed with a weed-whacker once or twice in May and June. Once the rains stop, everything slows down and goes almost dormant. August is famous for yellow flowers and yellowing vegetation. This year is green all over. I’m going to have to whack weeds again this month. This is unprecedented.

Cooler weather has been another surprise gift. But even with this unexpected bounty, precipitation for the region is still below average. And of course, the ragweed is still thriving.

Giant ragweed gets ready.
The seasons have been out of kilter all year. Leafing and flowering and fruiting have been happening anywhere from two weeks to a month late. I had been wondering how the cycle would right itself. Extra rain in high summer is evidently the solution this time around.

The first storm this August came in at night with no warning from local weather forecasters. The song of rain through the trees is the loveliest of lullabies, a promise more eloquent than the rainbow. That morning, my daughter left a thank offering for Yemaja the Mother of Rivers on a stone in the garden. The most generous gifts open your heart with surprise and delight.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Prairie Evening

Yesterday a few friends and I journeyed in time, to the grasslands that once rolled like ancient seas from the river to the mountains, to a refuge for rare native plants, to a resounding moment of presence at the heart of the prairie. We walked a paved trail, stopping often to identify and photograph plants and insects.

Rattlesnake master,
Eryngium yuccifolium
Blackberries and black raspberries lined the path just before it passed into the shade of a red cedar grove. Climbing out of the shadows, we watched the meadows open before us. Sections of this prairie are maintained by mowing. The fragrance of new mown hay spilled over us. Rattlesnake master raised its white globes, and gayfeather gathered butterflies. Bluestem grass waved at the sky.

The university maintains this land as part of a biological reserve. Some sections are mowed; others are burned or grazed. Some are left untreated. Old fields have been reseeded with warm and cool season grasses. In a garden a few miles down the road, ethnobotanists and chemists study the medicinal properties of native plants. Public trails lead hikers into secret worlds.

Liatris pychnostachya
The trail ends at an overlook with a long bench designed to roll like the prairie. We spread out a picnic on its hills and valleys. We ate and talked and gazed across the river valley toward the town. We finished as the sun was setting. The crescent moon emerged from shining clouds.

On our way back, the two fastest walkers went on ahead. As they followed the turning trail, they seemed to wade to their knees in long grass until they vanished. A few minutes later we watched two ethereal figures returning. Our friends appeared transformed, barefoot with flowing skirts and swirling hair, tall nymphs of the wilderness conversing in musical voices on the wind. Two strangers said hello as they passed us on their way to the overlook. 

There are moments like this if you pay attention: For the space of a few heartbeats, strangers on a path embody a glimpse of immanent magic. Spirits of the Meliades tend the pastures, and Nephelai shepherd the wild clouds. Demeter and her daughter wander through swaying grasses. The moon rides in dusk and cloud above the shimmering prairie.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Field Botany

I signed up for a six-session class in field botany this summer. I had taken a botany course in college, but I retained about as much information from it as many people do from seventh-grade Spanish classes. The attractive aspect of the short class was the field trips. I have bad memories of blurry microscopic images. The class included undergraduates and several nontraditional students, like me. One of the nontrads had been the instructor’s second-grade teacher.

Botany Bluff trail
Looking over the first few pages of class material was daunting. The eleven-page primer of botanical terms looked like it might at least help improve my scrabble game. Spelling the words had to be easier than understanding what they were on about. I tried to read the class material before each session. In class I tried to take notes on the printout pages. At home in the evening, I wrote up my interpretations of what I was supposed to have learned. I decided to transfer my notes to the computer, mostly in hopes that I could lay out the information in some way that would cause some of it to stick in my brain. I found myself explaining roots and shoots to my daughter. I actually sounded like I had a clue. This might just get me somewhere, I thought.

We shredded a few of these in class.
I managed to get the microscope to show me anthers and carpels on the second day. It also produced images of a ferocious yellow dragon with horns. Tiny insects that occasionally fall out of flowers look quite alarming at 25x magnification. On the field walk that day, the teacher asked me how many anthers I could see in the flower of a wild pink. This had about the same result as the medieval joke about tricking the devil into enumerating the holes in a colander. The poor dimwitted guy keeps counting over and over, “One, two, three. Uh. One, two, three. Uh.” At least I made it as far as nine.

I discovered by taking daily quizzes that I don’t mind drawing a blank as much as I mind thinking that I know the answer when I’m actually wrong.  Working my way through a botanical key was also a humbling experience. The key to local trees threatened to provide me with many delightful hours of wandering around in the timber, checking a printout and mumbling to myself. I collected bur oak leaves from two different trees on one of the walks. They didn’t look all that similar to me.

I know people who could
identify this tree in five
seconds. With the botanical
key, it took us half an hour,
but now I know what makes
it a bur oak.
I had heard rumors that botanists were sufficiently obsessed to jump over private fences to photograph neighborhood flora. Our teacher raided other classrooms on occasion. To illustrate the Liliaceae, he darted out of the room (leaving the undergraduates deep in a discussion of bands I had never heard of) and returned with a florist’s vase of Asiatic lilies, larkspur and coneflowers. “I don’t know who these belong to,” he warned us, “so don’t dissect them.”

On the last day we visited a local prairie held in trust by the state and the family of the woman who had treasured it. We went out in groups to find examples of plants from the families we had studied. For some reason, each group scored 16 of a possible 10 points. Botanists are evidently as generous as they are obsessed. The conserved prairie held a small memorial to the woman who had loved the wildflowers there — a pink quartzite boulder, a bench, some peony bushes and a plaque dedicating the wild grasslands to her memory. I can imagine no finer tribute.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lavender Moon

One of the many names for the full moon of April is the Pink Moon, supposedly derived from early colonists’ perceptions of spring blooms in New England. In this part of the timber, I’m seeing more lavender, especially in late April and May.

The native redbuds, Cercis canadensis, are the most spectacular. They usually bloom in mid-April before the trees have leafed out. For a couple of weeks, the light is filtered through a cloud of blossoms. The roadsides look like an invitation to enter FaĆ«rie. My daughter gathers the blossoms to sprinkle on cinnamon toast and drop into salads. When we first bought this land, my husband and I (both lifelong locals but townies) walked through the woods in March. There were more unfamiliar trees than either of us had seen before. We asked each other, “What are all these trees with the dark red buds on them?” In April the answer became obvious, a delightful “Duh” moment.

The lilacs are next. We planted purple and white Syringa bushes early on. We now have a variegated lavender selection spreading beside the driveway. As far as I’m concerned, the lilacs can be any color they want as long as they smell like ecstasy. The species name comes from syrinx, a hollow tube or pipe. Syrinx was a nymph who escaped the pursuit of the wild God Pan by transforming herself into reeds. Pan gathered the hollow stems and invented his signature instrument, the panpipes or syrinx. My daughter likes to compose flute music in the garden and the woods, where the singing of crickets and spring peepers inspires her. The neighbors sometimes hear distant piping, elusive as the scent of lilacs.

In May the sweet rocket goes off. It’s also called dame’s rocket and lady’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis: Mother of the evening. It was here before we were, favoring the edges of the timber. It moved into the yard with great abandon. One year I bought a couple of plants of the alba variant at a local nursery. They mixed it up with the natives immediately. Now the rocket explosion features not only the native deep purple, but also a random selection of white, pink and lavender blossoms.

So I use a personal name for the moon of May. The light changes as it pours through blossoms, spilling purple shadows on the ground, showering the timber with the Mother’s blessing.

 (Listen to "Syrinx" by Claude Debussy: 
performed by Paula Robison.)