Flash of Red

Most mornings as I wake up and walk down the back stairs I take a glance out the window at the top of the stairwell to get my first impression of the day.

This morning, as I looked out towards the old gray mare I saw a flash of red in the decrepit honeysuckle bush at the end of the sidewalk.

Bit of red

Can’t see it? I’m not surprised. It’s here:

Bit of red circled

Cardinals are not especially rare out here. They overwinter with us, and when we’ve put out bird feeders we’ve routinely seen them happily eating with all of the LBB’s in the snow. I also see them fairly regularly when I’m out riding, flitting about between the trees.

I tried, with limited success, to get a closer look with the camera:

Bad cardinal close-up

Some things become mundane, boring, and begin to fade into the background with repeated exposure. Somehow, cardinals escape this for me. While they are semi-ubiquitous on our landscape, I experience a little bit of joy each and every time I see one. Each and every time I feel like I’ve discovered something wonderful - albeit again - and like nature has given me a special little gift.

I feel the same about blue jays (which are otherwise kind of hateful) and goldfinches (which are decidedly not hateful). Perhaps it’s the unusual flash of bold color against the greens, browns and, increasingly with the season, grays of our landscapes that allow them to give that dopamine rush upon discovery.

Perhaps. But this is the rare type of event I don’t really want to examine in detail. For this I’ll just enjoy.

Lovely but Fickle…

Autumn at the Homestead is typically beautiful but brief and fickle with her gifts. While the maple trees turn red and golden each year, the prairie wind conspires always to take this visual feast and end it all too soon.

October is often very damp, as if Mother Nature is in denial that the growing season has passed. This leaves the person weathering the damp asking why as they pull closed their coat against the encroaching precipitation.

But when the timing is right, the rain falls just after the leaves have hit the ground, and the damp keeps them there for a few brief, precious days:

6A4C3BB0-1EF9-4FF7-A647-21C3E31F737A.jpeg

43127AC4-1418-4F89-B404-A6226CDBC7E6.jpeg

And it’s a gift that everyone seems to enjoy...

Calamity Jane plays in the leaves

Rosie and Callie

Spiders Am Our Friends

As the saying goes, you are never more than... some number of feet from a spider. I’ve heard multiple versions of this saying, and the distance ranges from three feet to a few yards. Out here at the Homestead this is certainly true, regardless of which version you want to pick.

This has occasionally led to some tension between LB and myself, since my child, in their youth, announced in no uncertain terms their hatred of our constant eight-legged companions. This has, in the past, resulted in multiple situations in which a child who would, at different points in their life, fly through the air on uneven bars or stand toe to toe with opponents throwing punches and kicks or engage in public speaking (which many people would determine the most frightening on the list), had to nonetheless be rescued from an eight-legged interloper that was smaller than a dime.

In these occasions I would always come in with a tissue or paper towel and gently relocate said arachnid to a more palatable location. When I would do this, I would always say "spiders am our friends".

In a broad sense they are. Aside from the rare octolegged critter that can provide actual harm to humans, their cohabitation with us is largely beneficial. Their food source largely consists of the very insects we don’t want around us, and any dude that wants to collaborate with me on the removal of houseflies and earwigs (ugh!) is decidedly on my team.

To be fair, in their later years LB has indicated they are no longer afraid of spiders. They didn’t say they like them, but that’s improvement regardless.

150-ish year-old structures seem to offer more than their fair share of places for these insect carnivores to ply their trade. We have more than our fair share of the traditional daddy long legs hanging around in the basement (the actual spider, not the harvestman, tho we have those too). We have others around and about tho, and very occasionally I find one or two that is in a position to catch a good shot of them.

Its a big’un

Out in the old barn last fall I was able to catch this fine specimen. I’m not a spider expert by any means, but a little time on the Insect Identification website suggests that this is an Orb Weaver.

Orb Weaver

Orb Weaver up close

The other shot I got a little earlier this fall. I pulled a dog crate out of the basement to relocate it, and this lovely lady had made her home there:

American House Spider

She appears to be an American House Spider. We see these pretty regularly, particularly in the basement. Usually they are not interested in posing for pictures (and being in the floor joists is not a great location for photography). I didn’t object to her presence there, but the crate was needed in another location. Probably the most challenging part was removing her and the web (with her eggs) without (hopefully) damaging any of it too much.

I have not shared these pictures with my child, nor mentioned the location of these fine multi-gammed fellows. Their announcement of diminished fear aside, I doubt they’d find any of this as interesting or as pleasant as I do...

And Just Like That: Autumn

The memes are all over the place saying that the change in the temperature over the past week is like what happens when you go by a state trooper on the highway.

Memes as a general rule are what they are, but this one is more or less true for the moment. We moved into October and it was like Mother Nature watched the page on the calendar flip.

(Just kidding - everyone knows that Mother Nature uses the calendar app on her iPhone nowadays).

So now we start to roll into my favorite time of year here in the Midwest. Now the air takes on a crispness to it, especially in the early morning hours, and gently works its way up to the pleasant hi 50° to low 60° degree range. There will be exceptions, of course - we will have days that touch into the 70’s or perhaps a bit higher - this is the Midwest, after all. But for a little while we get a reprieve.

That reprieve is, I think, always shorter than we expect (or perhaps hope). As any parent who’s taken a kid out trick-or-treating can tell you, it’s not uncommon for October to run fairly cold by its end, so much so that the hard one effect of a grim reaper costume is muted by the down jacket that had to be hung over it.

Grim Reaper: It’s time

Dude: It is? I thought I’d... hey - is that a Land’s End jacket?

GR: Yeah - you like it? It was on sale...

This, of course, assuming that all goes as we expect. After a monsoon level spring, a summer that, aside from one three day period felt like we were living in Northern Washington (hard to complain about that, but still...) and an early Fall that looked at the challenge offered by spring and said "You call that rain? Hold my beer", it’s hard to know what to expect.

I write all of this a little painfully self-aware that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. You know, metaphorically, but also literally. And this isn’t a hey you guys finger pointing moment - I mean me too. I have, for example, had multiple opportunities this summer to hang clothes on the line, but where did they go? Not on the line, that’s where. It’s hard for all of us to work against convenience and habit.

There are lists of things we can do. Surprisingly, most of them don’t involve buying a Tesla (lets not mention that to my spouse, okay...).

At least, in the interim, I can enjoy this perfect fall day, today.

Weather Continues to Reign

Back in the spring I posted some pictures of Big Bureau Creek following the extensive volume of rain we’d experienced. It was an usually wet spring.

The thing is, I drove by Bureau Creek yesterday and it looked pretty much exactly the same again. Here, set firmly now in autumn as we roll in to the end of December we are again seeing prodigious amounts of rain.

We had a reprieve for a fair amount of the summer, but now it’s like Lady Gaia is making up for lost time.

Portions of this area are absolutely lowlands, and geographically is poorly drained. A fair amount of that is compensated for by tiling done in the fields to drain the water away into a series of ditches and ultimately into the natural waterways (like Bureau Creek). Reading through historical accounts of the region you get the clear impression that much of the travel through the area was challenged by finding routes that could be maintained without ending up caught either in wetlands or, in the winter especially, out on the open prairie where the wind and white out conditions were a risk of life-threatening potentiality.

You can see that history, to a significantly lesser degree, in these heavy rains when they overwhelm the tiling systems. At times it almost seems like Gaia is trying to reassert the old landscape. And it does have the effect of reminding one that, as technologically advanced as we’ve become, the weather has not been conquered.

Little Quonset Huts on the Prairie

A couple of months ago Omnibus! with Ken Jennings and John Roderick did an episode on Quonset Huts.

You’ve probably heard this term before - it shows up in movies and books, particularly if they are about or adjacent to the military - e.g. you might read a line like "the base included row after row of Quonset Huts..." But while I know I’d heard the term over and over again growing up, and I did periodically make the connection between it and what it was referring to, I most often did not. Reading that name in a book did not typically evoke an image of what it was specifically referring to.

This is a somewhat odd disconnect, given that they are literally all over the place out here on the prairie. If you have spent any time on country roads or rural highways I can just about guarantee that you’ve seen them too. But I think for me the term “Quonset Hut" throws me - both because the first part is somewhat exotic sounding, and because the second part evokes an image that is significantly different than what the actual thing is. When I think of a hut, I think of something like this:

Now this is a hut

Very different from the reality of the actual thing:

But this is a Quonset hut

There. Now that you’ve seen that picture you probably realize that you’ve seen these before and, if you didn’t know what they were called, simply thought of them as sheds or workshops; and aside from the half-cylinder shape, likely otherwise found them to be nondescript and perhaps rather uninteresting. They certainly are not a hut, and they don’t deserve an exotic name like "Quonset". And what is a Quonset anyway?

As John explains in detail in the Omnibus! episode, it’s not really an exotic thing. They were designed and developed in the US and produced by the military during World War II at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center, which is on Quonset Point in Rhode Island. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) says that Quonset is an Algonquin word meaning "small, long place".

The Wikipedia article also says that the place name is now widely known because of its association with the Quonset Hut. It’s an odd route to minor fame (or at least recognition), but there it is.

So now we’ve cleared that up - it’s an oddly shaped, exotically/non-exotically named military building. There are good reasons behind the design, and it has a history going back to Britain in World War I, all of which John Roderick goes through in detail in his inimitable and delightful way - I highly recommend you listen to the episode for all of that (and frankly, just go ahead and subscribe to Omnibus! - it comes out twice a week and it’s never not good)

But if it’s a military building, what the heck is it doing all over the Midwest? Because it _is_ all over the place. I see variants of these when I’m riding around the countryside, from classic versions like the one above, to modified versions put to different purposes:

Three-quarter hut - shed

Hut as hay shed

They are very common on farmsteads, and they often seem to be put to similar purposes as what I think of as a machine shed - large buildings with corrugated steel siding - and naturally so. But the thing is, they also show up in town. The first picture above is within the city limits of my hometown, as are both of these:

Town hut

Schimmer’s old building

The second of the two pictures was the home for Schimmer’s car dealership for a sizable portion of my childhood, and apparently for some time prior to that:

Schimmer’s Newspaper Ad)

(That pic posted on Facebook by Edie Frizol on September 4, 2019)

They cleverly hide the shape of the building with a facade and a careful selection of the angle with the newspaper picture. But coming from either side, and certainly when you were inside, you always knew the building was a half-tube.

If these are military buildings, what are they doing all over the place here in the heartland? Well, I suspect that it’s because they were sold as military surplus after the war. I’d imagine that if you were a farmer looking for an easily erected, relatively inexpensive shed, or even a car dealer who needed space to house cars, a repair shop, and even (why not) dealer offices, this might have been an attractive option.

And clearly it was. And they turned out to be durable options as well, given the number of them that are still standing, mostly in relatively good condition - or at least so it appears from the outside. It’s not at all uncommon to see sheds with rusty metal roofs out here, but I cannot recall seeing a rusty Quonset Hut.

With any luck, and with the instruction of the guys at Omnibus!, maybe now I won’t have to do an extensive mental search to make the connection between the name and the picture.

Little Green Bugs

Here on the midwestern prairie we have an abundance of many things, insects among them. Some, like bees, are beneficial, some are bothersome (who has any real use for biting flies?) or worse (West Nile anyone? - thanks, mosquitos). And some are just... there.

At least from a human perspective, some bugs are ubiquitous but harmless in a way that just allows them to disappear into the scenery. Or they do until they don’t any more.

This time of year out here we start to get a showing of these little green bugs that I’m sure I must have seen before and just not noticed. But when I started riding my recumbent trike around the countryside I became much more aware of them because they like to mooch rides:

Random passenger

I’ve been riding around the countryside for over a decade, but I only noticed these guys the past couple of years. The noticing seems to accompany the transition to the recumbent trike, and I suspect it’s lower profile riding position is simply bringing me down to a level that makes me a more likely landing spot. In the late summer, depending upon the ride, I can pick up anywhere from one to a half-dozen of these guys across the course of the trip and, once they’ve hopped on they seem content to stay for the entire ride. Or so it appears - I don’t want to seem bug-normative - maybe it’s multiple different little green bugs switching on and off during the ride.

It’s a small event, but like so many things, once you become aware of something you start to see them everywhere. Start considering buying a particular type of car you’ve never really thought about before? Bam - they are now on every highway and in every parking lot you frequent.

And so it is with these little green guys, in particular in the patch of false sunflowers and goldenrod out by our barn.

False patch

I love this area of the yard in late summer. The false sunflowers are an amazing plant in and of themselves - you see them in ditches and off the side of the highway, but you can’t fully appreciate how unbelievably tall they are until you stand right beside them. It’s then that I realize just how initially intimidating the prairie must have been to early settlers - thick swaths of grasses and flowers standing taller than a man.

I’ll wander out there at different times of day to watch the bees moving back and forth between flowers, hoping to perhaps catch a glimpse of a Preying Mantis. But as I’ve been picking up my cycling companions the past couple of years I came to realize that they are here in abundance as well:

Little Green Bugs on Flowers

Little Green Bugs on Flowers

Using the tool at insectidentification.org suggests that these little guys are Pale Green Weevils.

I say "suggests", because much of the online information on the Pale Green Weevil is limited. I suspect that this is because they are small, and fall into that category I described before: just... there.

They feed on the leaves of some species of trees, but apparently don’t do any real damage - they don’t lace the leaves the way a Japanese Beetle will, for example - and, thus, aren’t of any great concern.

I am also using the word "suggests", because the information I’m finding indicates that they are actively feeding in early summer, and I’m seeing them in late August and early September, rolling towards the end of the season. And I’m finding them on false sunflowers and myself, neither of which are mentioned in the habitat and feeding choices of these little dudes. It’s entirely possible that they are something else.

In any case, they are here, keeping me company on the country roadsides as I trundle around. They don’t add much to the conversation, but they aren’t heavy either, so I’m fine to have them along for the ride.

When is a Summer not a Summer?

On Friday last I took a screenshot from the weather app on my phone:

Autumn airs

This presents the forecast for the current weekend, and leading into the last week of August. As you can see, lows dip down into the 50’s on a routine basis, and the highs never crack 80°.

To be clear, I’m not complaining here - I absolutely love this weather. For anyone who enjoys going out of doors - cyclists, hikers, or even just someone doing yard work - it’s hard to find any kind of fault with our current local climatological presentation (I’ll pause for a moment for the avid summer swimmers to chime in their objections - I hear you folks, but I’m not one of you, so...).

But like it or not, it is odd. Or at least it seems like it should be thought of as such.

In my recollection, August in Northern Illinois is one of the hottest times of the year. It seems to like we should be struggling with temps in the high 80’s at least, if not watching things creep up into the lower 90’s, and all of it accompanied by ambient moisture that makes the heat cling to you like a spiderweb you’ve just walked thru.

But when I look back thru my journal I realize that the past several years have been like this, more or less, and it brings up the odd differences that result from climate change. 2018, according to the reports, was the fourth hottest year on record ever. Yet here in the Midwest of the US - or at least in the northern portions of the Great Lakes region - we seem to be mimicking the Pacific Northwest.

I can’t pretend to truly understand it, and I absolutely think we should, as a society, be doing more about it. But until then, I think I’m going to go outside.

Social Kitchen and Bar - LaSalle IL

A common perception of rural life is that the solitude and connection with nature you gain comes with a trade-off, a cost, in terms of access to more the more sophisticated things in life. And, one reasons, isn’t this the point - isn’t part of the reason that one moves to remote areas in fact to simplify?

Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t periodically want some of that there fancy stuff. And so periodically we like to venture out and see what the region has to offer and, as it turns out, it really does have quite a bit.

Our most recent foray was heading out to the Social Kitchen & Bar in LaSalle, Illinois. This little restaurant is located in downtown LaSalle, just around the corner and down the street from the entryway into the I&M Canal path, making it a nice start or end to an exploration there.

Social Kitchen falls into the gastropub category, with an interesting variety of options on the menu, with twists on old, familiar favorites, and a few things that you don’t generally see out here on the Illinois prairie.

Twists

An example of a twist on an old favorite is the Hog Wings. No, hogs don’t have wings, but then neither do buffalo, and yet you see those all over the place. And that’s the general idea here, except that there’s a little more truth to the name of this dish than there is for the one coming out of New York state. What you have here is pork shank with a sauce of your choice - Buffalo (naturally), Thai chili, barbecue, or spicy garlic. MLW and I went with the spicy garlic - the better to fend off close-talking strangers - and found them to be very tasty.

Also falling under this category would be the Portabella Fries, which the menu describes as "battered and deep fried slices of portabella with chipotle ranch". For the mushroom fan this sounds like something to die for - we didn’t sample it this time around, but it’s definitely on the list for our next visit.

Both of these items are on the "shared plates menu" - their term for appetizers. There are several other items there as well, all worth exploring.

New to the Prairie

If you are looking for something you don’t typically see out here in the grasslands you can order up a shrimp ceviche or a tuna poke bowl. These are items that aren’t unheard of - on our trip to San Diego last year we came across both - but they aren’t common out here in the hinterlands.

The menu also features the Social Kitchen’s own twist on Poutine, a dish from the exotic northland of Canadia (from which MLW originates).

Familiarity

If either you or the loved one you have to convince to come along is not among the culinarily adventurous set, fear not! There are burgers, wraps, and even mac & cheese on the menu as well. If you missed your opportunity to pick one up at the Sweet Corn Festival they even have a gyro on the menu (delightfully called "Not All Gyros Wear Capes" - Edna would approve)

And if your group includes herbivores there are salads and a black bean burger on the menu as well, and the Magic Mushroom Panini looks like it would also fill the bill. Sides include grilled asparagus and crispy shaved Brussels sprouts to round out the veggie goodness.

Drinks

As the last part of the name implies, the Social Kitchen and Bar has a full menu of potent potables, include a nice variety of wines and mixed drinks. There are drink specials, and the night we visited they were offering a five wine flight. This is a nice opportunity to sample brands and varieties without risking the inability to find one’s way home. For myself I tried a flight of reds, and found a couple of delightful options on the menu that I’ll have to pick up in future.

Getting Down To It

For ourselves we got the Hog Wings, as mentioned above, as well as the Spin Dip (we like appetizers). Both were quite tasty.

Entrees were a difficult choice because so many of the items on the menu beg for exploration. MLW ordered up the Mac & Cheese, which featured gruyere and bacon. I ordered the Grilled Brisket Monster (I am not an herbivore). Both were quite tasty - and how often do you see brisket on a menu? The brisket was crispy at the edges while still falling apart when you dig into it - a neat (and delicious) trick that has to be hard to pull off. It was all very good.

The restaurant overall is cozy, and service was excellent. There are seats at the bar and a couple of outdoor tables in addition to the dining room. We were there on a weeknight, and arrived early in the dinner hour. We were alone at first, but things began to fill up as our time rolled on - a good sign for a little, out of the way spot.

And, since it was such an easy option, after dinner my sweetie and I took a walk along the I&M Canal Path, enjoying the summer evening. This one’s worth a look folks - check out the Social Kitchen!

Hard Summer to Enjoy

As we roll into August, we also roll into the last portion of the summer. This is often a point at which one wants to look back over the season at what’s been done, and check that against what one would still like to do before the season runs out.

Unlike most years, tho, I suspect most of us have a longer list of unchecked items than usual. While we’ve only had a scant few days of scorching heat (and it has been only a few - while the weather reporters churned up much storm und drang over it, it was less than a week), the sheer volume of rain at the beginning of the season, persisting across most of June and into July, really put a damper on the opportunity for outdoor activity.

This isn’t just my perspective. In the last week of June MLW and I went out exploring in Utica, spending a little time doing some wine tasting at the Illinois River Winery and then having dinner at Ron’s Cajun Connection. The folks at the Winery tasting room were talking about traffic being down for the season. And this makes sense - much of the activity in the area is based in Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks, the I&M Canal Trail, and/or on the Illinois River. At that point large chunks of all of those things were either under water, or were the water other things were under. And I can verify that the soggy state of affairs persisted two weeks later along parts of the canal trail.

Back at the Homestead, where we have our house on the hill, things have been a bit dryer, but the effects of the rain have still been present. In particular, while the farmers have been hampered in their ability to plant crops, the local insect population has been working overtime. This means that, even in places where things are otherwise high and dry, attempts to spend time outside have been impinged upon by fleets of insect predators. My uncle’s brother’s cousin told me that he actually saw a small child get carried off by a swarm of mosquitos...

I don’t usually tend to grouse here, and if there’s a message that I’m trying to get to (seems like there should be, right?), it’s that there is still summer left to enjoy. Since I prefer exercising out of doors, I’ve spent a fair amount of time out and about even in the misery of this frankly inadequate season. I can verify for you that, over the past couple of weeks the squadrons of biting flies and needle-nosed exsanguinators seems to be paring back to a dull drone. It’s been at least a month since I’ve ridden thru a fog of gnats (a fine source of protein, let me tell you), so now is the opportunity to make up for lost time.

I’ll see ya out there!

Tar and Chip

I was about four years old when we first moved out “into the country”1. When we moved out to the house across the field, the road we lived on was gravel, as were most of the roads connecting to it. And the road in front of the house we live in now was gravel up until I was a young adult. Many of the roadways in the region have since been paved, but certainly not all.

When the roadways in the area get upgraded from gravel they most typically are converted to tar and chip. If you’ve driven on country roads this is a surface that you are probably familiar with - it’s very common. According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), tar and chip is cheaper than asphalt or concrete pavement, so it makes sense that it would be applied on more lightly traveled roads like ours.

The past winter was pretty hard on the roads in our area, and as a result the township road crews have been dutifully working on them. The first phase of that often involves simply patching holes, but as the summer goes on they have reapplied the road surfaces in several areas.

This leads to an... interesting period of time with respect to those surfaces.

You can tell when a road has been recently resurfaced. The visual effect is exactly the opposite of what you see on a new asphalt roadway - with new asphalt the surface is a very dark back. With tar and chip, it’s much lighter - often almost white.

Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip

I’m no transportation engineer2, but broadly speaking, as I understand it, tar and chip essentially involves putting gravel (“aggregate” - the “chip”) into a layer of tar, then rolling over it to smooth it down. I’m quite sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s my layman’s understanding.

The reason any of this is important is that, when one starts to encounter those newly whitened roadways, one also needs to be prepared for a change in the quality of the road surface. Often, for the first few weeks following resurfacing, there can be a considerable amount of loose material on the roadway - chip that did not choose to join with the tar.

For this period of time then, roads that were once apparently solid and unyielding suddenly become slippery, sometimes in an unexpected way. For all intents and purposes, for this period of time, those roadways behave in many ways as if they are gravel roads. This means that not only can you expect material to be moving from under your wheels, but you will also have the joy of passing vehicles throwing gravel up at you as they pass (and, to be fair, you at them as well).

This is especially delightful if you are operating an open vehicle like a bike or trike when people drive by. And because people are used to driving on these roads like they would on any other paved surface, they often operate at speeds commensurate for those surfaces, rather than what you typically see on gravel.

None of this is to complain - not really. As a person who has routinely operated a variety of vehicles on both gravel and tar and chip, I can confirm that the latter is a far friendlier surface. When I was a kid I can remember having a friend who lived only about 2 1/2 miles away - a paltry distance for our bikes to manage, even at a young age, back then. But the fact that the last mile of that ride was on gravel made riding to see him seem challenging at best, insurmountable at worse.

As an adult I no longer see it as insurmountable, but as a general rule, I avoid gravel where possible, regardless of the vehicle I’m in or on3. What this means is that, if the direct route involves gravel, but there’s a way to either avoid it entirely, or at least minimize it, I’ll be going out of my way (sometimes by a couple of miles).

So the tar and chip is an overall good, relatively speaking. But you’ll want to keep your eyes open for that characteristic white roadway, and adjust accordingly.


  1. I put that in quotes because urban readers will consider the small town we moved out of to also be “in the country”, but there are absolutely differences. The primary difference is proximity. In a town, your neighbors are typically within a couple dozen feet of you in every direction. They are always in earshot, and often in view and, consequently, so are you to them. As my brother-in-law once said: “If you can’t pee off your back porch without being seen, you aren’t in the country”.  ↩

  2. I’m not a transportation engineer, but the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry might very well be. Including the part where it’s written as if everyone reading it will also be an engineer...  ↩

  3. Perhaps somewhat ironically, gravel roads are at their best for cycling when they are in poor repair. Give me a gravel road with well worn tire tracks in it and I’m happy, but a newly surfaced gravel road is an instrument of torture.  ↩

The Living Fence is Back

The Living Fence Returns

Several years ago I wrote about the living fence that would surround our yard every summer. Of course, nearly as soon as I wrote that, the situation changed, and my cousin planted alfalfa, which has provided the scenery around our perimeter for the past several years.

There’s nothing wrong with alfalfa, and I enjoy the changing nature of the scenery over time. And besides - it’s his field, so he can plant what he wants.

But I do especially enjoy what happens as the corn grows. I sit and write this now, in a glider rocker in my dining room, looking out a window facing east.

Dining Room Window

Through that window I can see the old pine trees at the eastern end of the yard, remnants of a previous generation’s tree line. For the past several years, and up until a couple of weeks ago, we could readily see beyond those trees out into the field, a verdant expanse to the horizon. Now the yard clearly ends just beyond that point in a wall of green.

Beyond the tree line

This has the effect of making the back yard a secret garden, a space alone and away from others.

I like to walk the yard on weekend mornings, and occasionally in the evening. The dogs will join me intermittently as I sojourn along through the different parts of the property, checking in and moving on and checking in again. As the corn grows it makes that walk an ever-changing experience, alters and changes the view, the airflow, and the overall experience. It will change again in the fall, when the corn comes down, and opens that expanse again to the horizon.

This is a small thing in the realm of experiences, I suppose. But where others travel and seek experiences in that way, we have the opportunity to enjoy the shifting tableau just by looking out the window or walking out the door.

Yard War III

Yard War III

The standard

Normally I set aside Sunday afternoons for a ride through the countryside, but last week I’d managed to squeeze in a ride on Saturday. Besides, it was raining into the early hours of the morning, and the weather reports threatened more rain (because - you know - we haven’t had enough of that lately) by noon or so. So it seemed reasonable to default to some yard work until the rain started to fall.

Behind our shed we have a volunteer maple tree for which a portion gave up the ghost and fell over late last fall. At the time it was unfortunate, but did not require any immediate attention. As spring has come, however, that departed tree now stands (or rather, lays) in the path of the lawnmower. It has been time to deal with it for a while, and today provided a good opportunity, given the circumstances.

LB has been engaged in ongoing work on the yard this summer, but this was a multiple person job. So we gathered up our weaponry and struck out.

One might look at the prospect of cutting up a tree and think first and foremost of a chainsaw. And understandably so - I know it’s something that I think of every time I take on a project like this.

But I don’t own a chainsaw.

Perhaps I should, and it occurs to me at least once a year or so. But the need is an intermittent one, and typically by the end of the project the felt need has faded. Besides, swinging an axe and running a hand saw provide a workout that a power tool doesn’t offer. So each year I end the season without having purchased a chainsaw, and the following season the cycle begins anew.

And now it was time for LB to learn their way around the handle of an axe.

Axe pose

The primary goal was to remove the downed portion of the tree. It was a good 10-15 foot of maple, which meant that it had to come out in portions.

Chopping away

Rosie offered to help, but her lack of thumbs presented a particular impediment to actual assistance...

Rosie watching, thumb-limited

There was a secondary objective of clearing away lower branches so that mowing could be cut closer to the trees going forward. Progress through all of this took a fair chunk of the afternoon, and ended up with a fair amount of debris.

Debris

Once everything was cut away it was a matter of hauling it off to the ever-present burn pile. Some pieces were small and manageable, while others were slightly larger...

Hauling trunk

Some four hours later, give or take, this particular project was done, both objectives achieved. There’s still more to be done, of course. There is always more to be done. But we were finished for this day.

Playing Possum

Some times, when I get up in the wee hours of the morning I find that the dogs have secured some form of treasure. Often these are small treasures in the form of mice and voles. In the springtime the dogs take their toll on the fledglings as well.

And once a year or so this scenario occurs:

Playing with possum

Of course, I went for the artistic soft focus there (yeah - that’s the ticket...), so if it’s unclear, that large white furry blob is a possum. I also really enjoy the long, furtive look the dogs seem to be sharing.

Possums are the type of critter that, until one has the experience, may seem far less prevalent than they really are. I mean sure, you see them as victims of the road from time to time, but they are still pretty rare, right?

And with that, what about that whole "playing possum" thing? That’s probably a myth, don’t you think? No animal would really just lay there to get knocked about, would it? Wouldn't that just get them killed more quickly?

But the thing is, it’s all true. We see them regularly out here, plying their trade in the dark of night. And we see them often enough that I’ve developed a system for helping them out when they venture into the wrong territory.

That system involves a shovel and some leg work.

Fear not - I’m neither hitting them nor burying them with the shovel. Rather, a shovel is a handy way to pick them up but keep them at a safe distance (safe for both of us, I think). And this fella was big enough that I got out the snow shovel:

Possums and snow are both white, so...

I used a second shovel - a spade - to gently slide it into the snow shovel, and then carried it out beyond the dog fence, into a somewhat secluded part of the ditch.

Ditching the possum

The end result is the same - go back and look at that same spot just a little while later and...

No-possum

...The Opossum is now No-possum.

(I’ll pause here for laughter and applause...)

Either they are really good actors, or perhaps my dogs are just naive, but it seems to work for them every time. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a time when I’ve used this system and not come back to find the possum has scoffered off.

Now, all that said, their commitment to the role is not always as solid as one might hope. This particular adventurer reflexively curled up a bit as I slid him on the the shovel. It was subtle, and the dogs didn’t seem to notice, but it definitely happened. And I had one candidate a couple of years ago who we found laying on the front steps. He tolerated all of the investigation and attention of the dogs, but being lifted into the air on the shovel was clearly a bridge too far, and he suddenly got up and tried to run away. I’d been uncertain about its status - living or no - right up until that point.

As I understand it, these rather fearsome looking creatures are harmless at worst, and can be considered beneficial in that they will eat insects and rodents (and to that I say "more power to the possum"). So unlike some of the other critters in our midst, their presence is welcome. At least to me.

The dogs seem to feel otherwise, but until they choose to express their opinion at a more reasonable time of day (I mean, this was really early) I just don’t want to hear it.

The Grass it Isn’t...

Walk, ride, or drive along country roads out here in the Illinois prairie lands and you will see something that looks like this:

Grassy ditch

These scenes get punctuated periodically by bits of color, usually from lilies ("ditch lilies") or clover, or sometimes from phlox and a variety of flowering plans. But usually it’s a sea of green. It can be easy to look at something like this and say "it’s just grass".

And it is. But I was trying to name a particular type of grass for a post a week or two ago, and I’d originally written that it was oat grass. This because, to me, it looked a little like oats at the top. This is the grass in question, along the Hennepin Feeder Canal Trail:

"Oat grass"

I was not correct.

In trying to verify the name I was using, I found the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes, & Non-flowering Plants in Illinois page at Illinois Wildflowers.

Now, I am a (very) amateur and intermittent gardener, but I thought I knew a thing or two about grass. We all know about Kentucky bluegrass and crab grass, but I’ve heard of others - big bluestem, little bluestem, turkey grass, red fescue. I know my grasses, right?

I had no idea.

Follow that link above. I’ll wait.

...

What you found, when you went there, was links to something in the neighborhood of 100 different types of grass and similar plants, right? I thought about counting the number of links, but honestly, life is too short. Plus, I’d already lost a ton of time following many, many, many of those links.

What I realized, as I looked at link after link, was that I really don’t know that much about the grasses growing around me. And there are a lot of them. Let’s look back at that picture from before:

Grassy ditch

If you look closely at this, and start checking out the links on the wildflowers site, you’ll soon realize that what looks like a sea of green is really a varied ecosystem of multiple species:

Grassy ditch annotated

the width of the grass, it’s height and rigidity, and the presentation of the seeds at the top all mark differences between the species. And different areas yield different species still.

Another ditch

I’m often seeing these things while cycling, and then usually on a recumbent trike, which puts me at eye level with the grasses. I might not have taken notice otherwise, but now that I know it’s hard not to see it.

The really hard part with all of this is that there are so many varieties listed on the Illinois Wildflowers site that it quickly becomes dizzying. I clicked probably a third of the links there before I finally gave up, fatigued by the volume and the staggering degree of my apparent grass-related ignorance.

And I still don’t know what variety of grass it is that was growing along the Hennepin Canal Feeder Trail, but I can tell you for sure it’s not oat grass. Not Poverty Oat Grass, not actual oats, not side oats grama, not inland oats, not...

...I finally just gave up and called it "wild grass".

(Seriously - if anyone knows what the grass in the Hennepin Canal picture is, let me know)

Big Bureau Creek - High Water

It’s no secret that we’ve had an unusually wet spring here in the Midwest. Out on our part of the prairie we’ve been more fortunate than others - we aren’t positioned near a large water source, and the Homestead itself is on a hill. That’s not a great thing in the middle of winter, when the west wind is beating mercilessly on the front door, but it is decidedly a benefit when it comes to the rain.

As I sit and write this rolling into a new week the weather seems to have shifted towards the drier end of the spectrum, at least for the next couple of days. But this past week, particularly very early Thursday morning, the ground was not just wet, it was saturated. Yes, there was water on the grass from rain the night before, and low areas in the yard held the expected puddles. But walking through the grass everywhere - including higher spots in the yard - found the ground sopping, squishing beneath the feet. It’s like the water table was announcing that she was full-up.

A major waterway here in western Lee County is Big Bureau Creek. Bureau Creek is a meandering affair that winds its way through Lee and Bureau counties until it ultimately empties into the Illinois River. There are areas on the creek that are wide enough to canoe down, given the right season, but up here, for the most part, it’s a smaller (if lovely) affair. This is Bureau Creek last December:

Bureau Creek in December 2018

And this is the Creek a mile downstream very early in the AM this past Thursday:

Bureau Creek swollen

To be clear, the Creek is bit wider at the location of the second picture - naturally so, given that it’s downstream - but not this wide. She’s out of her banks in parts, and the amount of water being moved is, frankly, astonishing. The channel you see to the left in the picture flowing into the main Creek isn’t really a channel. I mean, it was then, but it’s simply, typically not there. It’s water feeding in from the flooded fields alongside. I was able to get a short video of it:

As I said, we’ve been fortunate out our way, relatively speaking. Everything is wet, but we’re not underwater, and my cousin has been able to get the fields around us planted. Others have not been as fortunate. But wherever you are at, if you are in the Midwest, it is wet, and wetter than we’ve seen for quite some time.

Against the Wind

Guess we didn’t want to sit outside anyway...

It’s always a crapshoot as to when to bring out the lawn furniture here on prairie. The warmer temps tempt its retrieval from the shed, but the wind of spring frequently laughs at my optomism.

These chairs sit at the back of the house, hypothetically having a buffer from the predominantly west wind. But "predominant" is not synonymous with "always", and for fun the wind likes to change things up sometimes and come from, say, the south.

The gentleman who completed our roofing project made note of this as well. After the project was finished he said "you know, the wind out here just comes from every direction". And given that they were not only out here, but high up on the roof, I’m sure they became intimately familiar with the peculiarities of our air movement patterns.

So the picture represents a not-uncommon sight for us. You look out the window, or come up the walk after arriving home, and find the chairs face down (I guess - do chairs have faces? If so, would they be on the backs?). The miracle in this picture is that the table is still in position, and not, say, halfway across the yard.

It all works out, I guess. If one is wondering if it’s too windy to sit outside, and cannot tell for sure by, say, the sound of the wind slamming against the house or the erratic movement of the trees, the chairs being in this position can pretty much answer the question for you.

Prairie Yard...

This past Sunday I mowed my lawn for the first time of the season.

Now I realize there will be a subset of you out there who, upon realizing that last Sunday was the middle of May, will pronounce me a monster.

Fine. You’re right. While I desperately love that we have a substantial yard, I do not aspire to the tightly manicured green-striped lawn of suburbia. In fact, that’s part of the reason I do not live in suburbia. But beyond that, there is a school of thought that says that it’s better for bees - which are struggling - if we give some time to let the lawn grow.

Of course, that presumes that you are also letting things that flower grow in your yard as well.

Which we do. Trigger alert here for those for whom a yard means an extended stretch of Kentucky bluegrass and nothing else...

Dandelions

The other benefit to letting the yard grow is the view. It’s not strictly a prairie - the grass and flowers certainly aren’t that high - but you do get a crop of at least the ubiquitous dandelions and violets to pose for pictures before the lawn gets sheared.

Violets and dandelions

But there are limits. I waited long enough that Rosie seemed to be a little perplexed at what I was up to...

Rosie, watchful

Of course, by this point, Calamity could also be in the picture - with her short little cattledog legs, I’m not sure she can see out over the standing grass.

And ultimately, as you are working your way through the taller portions you realize why people started cutting grass. In addition to the occasional opportunistic tree that tries to take root, there are also a small assortment of rodents that scurry away as the mower approaches. There are actual, practical purposes to this activity besides ensuring that your dog doesn’t get lost.

I think we’d reached that limit.

Yeah - it’s a little long...

Inlet Cemetery

Spending your time on the rural backroads of Illinois will often reveal tiny cemeteries dotting the landscape. Live here long enough, and they become a common feature along the roadsides.

But sometimes they aren’t on the roadside. Very occasionally they are hidden away from view, a forgotten remnant of days and people past. Inlet Cemetery is such a place.

Inlet itself is a place that used to be. A tiny settlement situated on high ground in a wetland, back in the 1800’s it hosted an inn or two for travelers moving back and forth through the protection of the groves, avoiding the relatively inhospitable open prairie. It was ultimately replaced by the slightly larger Lee Center a couple of miles down the road, and which remains a spot on the map. Now there are only a handful of a houses here to suggest that past settlement.

And there is nothing to suggest the cemetery. You have to know that it’s there.

Inlet sits in the middle of a field, in a stand of trees. Even in early spring the leaf cover begins to obscure it. If you already know what you are looking for you can see it from the road on one side, but even that is challenging to suss out:

Inlet from the road

Don’t see it? I knew where to look, and even then I wasn’t sure if I was actually seeing it, or just convincing myself that I was...

Inlet from the road - markup

The key is the tiny hint of gravestones seen through the trees:

Inlet from the road close up

But even if you know that it’s what you are looking for, what it also shows you, from that angle at least, is that there’s no way to get there. You’ll have to go around to the other side for access.

The path in to the cemetery is more of a suggestion than a walkway. It’s a strip of grass in-between a fence line and a field. It’s passable by foot, and by bike/trike in low gear. And it’s a little less than a quarter-mile long. And there is nothing from this side of the road to suggest that it’s a path to anything . The trees completely obscure the graveyard, and while the path is possibly wide enough for a motor vehicle, there are no visible tire tracks.

The path into Inlet Cemetery

As you get back inside, you can see the stones. It’s a similar sensation to the Other Melugin Grove Cemetery, in that it’s a hidden thing, no longer appearing to be in use. But it’s different because, while some of the stones are quite old, others are considerably newer.

Old stone

Newer stone

Walking through you can see, and the listing at Geneology Trails will confirm, that while many or most of the people interred here were laid to rest in the mid- to late-1800’s or early 1900’s, some are considerably more recent. There are stones marked with passing dates in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the most recent person laid to rest passed in 2001.

This seems impossible, given the appearance and hidden nature of the place, until one realizes that 2001 was 18 years ago...

According to Geneology Trails, William E. Shaw was the first person interred here, that back in 1839. Take Inlet road a couple of miles south from here and it intersects with Shaw Road at a place some of the maps still call Shaws. Like Inlet, Shaws is a place that used to be, though perhaps a bit more substantial. But the ephemeral reality of its existence does not keep one from realizing how most of these places got their names.

Given the range in age, the stones vary considerably. Many are old and in poor repair (though it’s clear that people have tried):

Stones

Stones

You have a family plot - DeWolf - bounded by a cement fence:

DeWolf

And - as is often the case, some of the stones have reached the stage where they are approaching impossible to read...

Obscured

...Or where there is virtually nothing of them left.

Gone and nearly forgotten

And, as happens sometimes, I find a stone type that I’ve never seen before. This particular marker appears to be suggesting a Greek column.

Josiah Rogers

Josiah Rogers

Josiah Rogers is the only person with that particular surname that appears to be here. It makes one wonder what brought him out this way, and then what caused his demise, to be buried here, apparently alone...

There are a couple of other solitary souls but, as is expected, most of the folks here have family within. For better or worse, from a family tree hunting perspective, none of them appear to be mine.

My people settled east and south of here. The distances aren’t great by modern standards - in most cases less than 10 miles, as the crow flies. But in the 1800’s that distance was enough, it seems, to discourage intermingling. And it’s worth considering that those Victorian Era folk in the Midwest didn’t - couldn't - travel as the crow flies. Between the unforgiving nature of the open prairie, and the untamed wetlands dotting the groves, those ten miles likely represented a journey of significant time and effort for a person also worried about eking out an evening’s meal.

On my way out...

I headed out from there to resume my ride through the spring countryside. Inlet is a lovely place to visit and, unlike the Other Melugin Grove Cemetery, and despite its remote placement, it appears on the maps. But I appreciate that remote placement, because though time will likely eventually take it, that placement means that a person really has to want to see it to venture in. And those are often some of the best places.