Summer Visitors

There are a lot of little benefits to rural life in the midwest, kind one of them is the abundance of wildlife we get the opportunity to experience.

Yes - this may seem an odd statement - isn’t even the rural territory of Illinois largely tamed? It is true that we don’t have to fear wandering grizzly bears or marauding packs of wolves (though wolves aren’t really the danger that children’s stories would suggest), but we certainly do have a variety of other critters, including coyotes, foxes, and an array of marsupials and large rodentia, not to mention the f&%king raccoons...

But mid- to late summer here also offers an explosion in activity of the insect variety. Some of this is less than desirable, of course - it’s amazing how quickly after cracking open a beer the picnic bugs arrive, for example. But then there are the moths and butterflies.

Between the agriculture around us, and the array of things we allow to grow in and on the borders of the property, butterflies seem to find our little homestead a fine place to hang out.

I’ve discussed this tangentially before, but spying multiple examples of this little guy brought it to the forefront.

fuzzy little guy

It’s a curious looking little fella, and when I see things like this I find, more often than not, I want to know what it is. When I was younger, of course, that would require a trip to the encyclopedia set and/or the library, all assuming that a) I would remember to look it up once the opportunity presented itself; and 2) that I would accurately remember the thing that I’d seen days (or possibly weeks) before well enough to match what I was seeking.

Of course, the naturalists of the 1800’s would simply have sketched themselves a drawing of the thing they’d seen in their notebooks. This makes me think, nowadays, how nice it must have been to have the time to sit there and sketch things into one’s notebook. It also makes me wonder what became of all of the naturalists out there who were poor artists. Were they shamed by their peers? Or did the Royal Society require them to be able to pass a drawing test before allowing them to join? "Why I’m sorry old chap, but if you cannot accurately render Tippy the Turtle, it strains the mind to consider what would occur if you attempted to represent a tortoise in the Galapagos..."

Instead of consulting with my tweedy colleagues in the smoke-filled gentleman’s chambers at the Royal Society or combing through their notebooks, I was able to look the little guy on the grill up on the North American Caterpillar Identification site (how cool is it that such a thing exists?).

A little scrolling there finds that it is the caterpillar guise of the White-Marked Tussock Moth. If that doesn’t sound like a familiar species it may be because, like a child star, the stand-out part of this critter’s existence is in its youth. For Orgyia leucostigma adult life is one of blending into the background like a desk worker wearing khakis and a polo. Adult males are gray and black in a fashion that suggests they are moths we’ve all seen time and time again, paying them no attention except perhaps to be irritated by them. The females get the real short end of the stick, however, as they don’t grow wings strong enough to fly - they live their lives in and around their cocoon.

They are a small part of the array around us, of course. Yet, they do help to remind how much there is to see here, even within our own little wild space.

Screen Room?

Like a lot of people we have tons of plans for our old house. Some of those plans are on a definite near future timeframe, others in the necessary long term, and some are more aspirational.

One of the things we’ve long discussed is the possibility of putting a screen room on the south side of the house, off of the dining room. This is more more towards the aspirational, longer-term - it would be very nice to have, but it comes behind small niceties like having a second bathroom and updating the 70-year old kitchen...

While it is a reality of life that one can’t always do everything one wants (or at the very least, not now, necessarily), one of the upsides to our old house is the realization, through living in it, that our predecessors had similar thoughts. While the house doesn’t have, and hasn’t ever had, as best I can tell, anything like a screen room, many of the rooms in the come close.

Every room in the house has at least one window, and most have at least two. The front rooms in the house, upstairs and down, each have three. The windows are over five foot tall on the upstairs, and about six foot or so downstairs. While they didn’t have the construction techniques to do a wall or corner of windows ala Frank Lloyd Wright, our ancestors clearly understood the value of having a connection with the out-of-doors.

This leaves a home that is awash with natural light during the day, which makes sense given that it was constructed in the days well prior to electrification. It also means, for the rooms where we’ve had the opportunity to replace the original windows with modern units that include full screens, a cool summer evening or early fall afternoon presents a close equivalent to that screen room.

Living Room screen room?

No - it’s not exactly the same as having open walls on all three sides, but it does get close. On a summer evening you get a delightful cross breeze and (assuming there aren’t too many explosions and gunshots on the televisual entertainment selected) the beautiful night sounds of rural Illinois - crickets and frogs fill the summer night.

It’s a little thing, of course, but it’s a little thing that gives well and reliably, and makes the waiting for those more aspirational items a little easier.

Glazed Over

Our old house has a lot of windows. This is something I’ve written here before, of course, and it continues to be the case. There are somewhat fewer windows than when the house was first built, some of them victims of remodeling (no one wants a six-foot tall window in the middle of their shower stall. Well maybe not no one, but nobody in this house at any rate). Still, there are many.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that having this volume of glass around the house seems to also increase the likelihood that one will have broken panes from time to time. These occur for a variety of reasons - wind blown tree debris, rocks thrown from lawn mowers, animal incidents, the possibly unwise decision to have your 12-year old hold a martial arts target for you inside...

As a result, I’ve become somewhat adept at fashioning temporary repairs using cardboard and duct tape (if the women don’t find ya handsome, they should at least find ya handy...). This is an especially attractive repair when the only box in the house large enough to use for a given opening happens to be the ones from the pet food delivery service:

Thanks Chewy!

What one might think, if one is being optimistic, is that this also gives opportunity to learn a new skill. And there is absolutely truth to that. In the course of dealing with this... opportunity, I’ve learned a few things:

  • Stephanich Hardware in Mendota will cut glass to your specification and, if they are not busy, they’ll do it while you wait. Quickly.
  • They also happen to carry the other components you need - glazing putty and glazier’s points - things that one has almost certainly had no awareness of until one has had to do this task.
  • Replacing a pane of glass is conceptually simpler than you think, and involves only a small number of tools.
  • A thing being conceptually simpler than you think does not mean that it doesn’t involve skills that are best honed with years of practice.

The window in question here is a large picture window that was put in to replace the bay window original to the house.

Old House - Bay Window

The replacement was done in my grandparents time because, as I’ve been told, the bay window was "a leaker". My uncle tells me that the picture window was custom made for the opening, which is certainly believable, given that it is huge - over 6 1/2’ tall and nearly 5’ wide.

Tom Silva from this old house recommends that the process of replacing a pane of glass be done with the window taken off of the wall and completed on a flat work surface. I’d done this task once before, on an upstairs window, and I did exactly that: removed the sash from the pane and worked with it on the floor. But there was no way that was going to be feasible with this particular portal. Given its aforementioned hugeness, it would be a two or three person job to lower it out of the wall safely. Even if I wanted to do that, I’m not a fast worker on such projects, and the prospect of having a 6 1/2 x 5 foot hole in the wall in the middle of insect season for any length of time was not an attractive one. What’s more, the overall condition of the window leaves one skeptical about its ability to successfully survive the transition out, and then back in to the opening. So - thanks Tom, but this was going to have to be done in an upright position.

What I realized, as I put the putty in to place (this part is kind of fun - a little like working with silly putty), is that it didn’t have the adhesion (or gription) needed to keep it there for much of any length of time. This wasn’t an issue for the bottom or sides, but it meant that, when I put the pane of glass into the opening, the putty at the top started drooping down like 4th of July bunting. But, you know, not in an attractive way.

But we got past that and got the glazing on around the outside as well, necessary to seal it up against the elements. And here is where I really begin to realize the skill set needed to do this well; a skill set that I simply do not have.

glazed window

(I mean, I could probably have done a more ham-fisted job of it, but that would likely have required considerable drinking while working on it, and handling glass while intoxicated seemed unwise).

With practice I could get better, I suppose, and this window certainly offers the opportunity for additional practice. While the other panes are intact, the glazing is crumbling off around each and every other individual pane - all 19 of them.

Close up of other panes

And, of course, the window frame itself is in need of paint.

This is all a task I’ve been reluctant to undertake because: a) all of the above; and 2) the plan is to eventually replace this window either with a setup that is more energy efficient or, ideally, with French doors that exit to a porch or deck. But at this point you can tell the direction of the wind during a rainstorm based upon how much this window leaks, so...

Little Green Boxes

Heading out the driveway and down the road the other day I noticed something hanging in a tree at the corner of the property:

Little green box

I didn’t have time at the moment, but a little later I had a chance to look at it more closely. It’s cardboard, three-sided, and open on the sides. And I was unaware that it had been put in my tree (it’s in the portion of the tree that hangs over the ditch).

And then I began to see them elsewhere. In other trees (sometimes you have to look closely)...

Another box in a tree

And another box in a tree

...and on fenceposts:

box on a post

Closer inspection finds that these are gypsy moth traps. Apparently the Illinois Department of Agriculture places traps every year to monitor the population and make decisions about where and whether to treat for them. I don’t know if they’ve done that in our area before and I just haven’t noticed, or if this is new for us.

I’ve heard of gypsy moths before, but I didn’t really know anything about them. There’s info on the Department of Agriculture Page linked above and, of course, on Wikipedia, but the gist, from Wikipedia, is that this is an introduced invasive species. It first appeared in the northeast Atlantic States - beginning with Massachusetts - in 1869, and has been diligently working its way westward ever since. It now appears in eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, and it is problematic because its larvae will "consume the leaves of over 500 species of trees, shrubs, and plants". According to Wikipedia this moth is "one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees in the eastern United States". Among other things, the eggs hang out on firewood, which is at least part of the reason you’ll see materials asking that you only use local firewood at campsites.

This is one of those cases where an enterprising soul thought he’d be doing a solid by bringing the moths over from Europe - in this case to try and breed them with silk moths to get a version of a silk moth that wasn’t such a fussy eater. Turns out that Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s skills as an astronomer may not have translated well to his amateur interest in entomology - the two species cannot interbreed. But what gypsy moths can do however, apparently, is get away from you and escape into the woods around your home. Which, it would seem, is how you can have craters named for you on both the moon and Mars, but still have "introducing the gypsy moth to North America" be the only thing listed in the "known for" section on your Wikipedia page.

All of this makes one curious as to what might be in those traps, but they should not be disturbed, so I’ll just continue to wonder. But at least now I no longer have to wonder what those little green boxes I keep seeing are for...

Edward’s Church

Edward and Erna lived In a house just down the road from our old house when I was growing up. Most of my memories of them were from when I was very young, but they are all fond. I remember that they had a three legged dog - my recollection is that it had been hit by a lawnmower (poor thing). My memory also records that Edward had a delightful speaking voice - a voice I can best describe as being reminiscent of Paul Lynde.

I had no idea at the time that Edward was my grandmother’s first cousin. It makes sense, of course - her brother, also Edward’s cousin, lived right across the road from Edward, and it’s clear that this was a family stretch of road. But I was frequently unaware of these relations as a child, coming to learn and appreciate them all the more as an adult.

I also came to learn that Edward was a painter. Not a painter of houses or fences and such, though I’m sure he was capable in that regard. Rather, he painted oil on canvas of things around him. One of those paintings hung in my grandmother’s house for the entirety of my recollection, and it is of the old church.

the old church in frame

I realize as I write this that I know very little about the painting beyond its original subject and the artist. For example, I do not know when it was painted, nor how old Edward was when he did so, nor where this fell in his artistic arc - e.g. is this an early work, or something that occurred later?

Assuming that he intended a realistic representation of the subject, some clues can be gathered from the painting itself when compared to current day (photo taken from the seat of my trike, so the vantage point is a little different):

Church photograph

Church painting close up

The differences here suggest some things about the era in which the painting was made. The difference in the roads stands out, of course. In all four directions out of the intersection the road is asphalt in current day (though two of those directions change to gravel after a short distance), while Edward portrayed either gravel or dirt roadways. The road signs are absent, of course, as is any sign of anything resembling a power line.

The fence in the foreground of the painting is gone now, though I remember it within my lifetime. Edward’s Church also does not have lightening rods atop the peak of the roof. You can see that he took pains to try to accurately represent the complex lines of the stained glass window.

Though part of it may be the differences in the days portrayed - Edward’s a bright, partly cloudy summer, mine a steely gray midwinter - as I look at the painting I find that I’d rather be in his picture than in mine much of the time. His is quiet, serene, while mine is harsh and cold. I can see that he is connected to the place and the time, and I find that I very much appreciate the window into that place and time that he has given.

Roadside History Lessons


I suppose it’s a bit of a truism to say that, despite how much you think you know, there is always more to learn. Still, new information insists on presenting itself, and sometimes in unexpected ways.

There is a site a few miles from home that I have ridden by many times, both since moving out here to the Homestead, and back when I lived here as a child. It’s a small plot of land at a very rural intersection that has always been mowed and tended, despite the appearance of there being virtually nothing there.


Now, nothing is not an entirely accurate description. Part of what made me take notice of the site riding past it in our recent occupation is the fact that something is missing from it. When I was younger, I distinctly remember this site having a storm cellar on it. These, for the uninitiated, are concrete bunkers set low to the ground with the intention that one will get inside when high-wind storm events (think tornados) appear to be imminent. I remember this distinctly because I can remember that, as a child, I desperately wanted to go in to that storm cellar and I was, of course, also terrified to do so.

This is a distinct feeling of childhood, I think, and one that I can recall feeling over and over and over again. It usually involved choosing to do something that was likely inadvisable at best - walking across a railroad trellis, riding the rail system in the hay mount, climbing up the tower at the grain elevator late at night... (how did we not die doing these things?)

The storm cellar was dark, and indeterminately deep when viewed from the outside. And since one could not see in, one could only imagine what might be living inside - might we encounter snakes? Raccoons? A hibernating bear???

I did finally screw up enough resolve, as well as the foresight to bring along a flashlight. The outcome was... disappointing. There were no bears, no raccoons, no snakes. There was, in fact, nothing. Nothing but a muddy floor, and it was far less deep than it seemed it should be, suggesting it had probably been slowly filling in with mud flow over the years.

I always assumed this site was a former home site, with the house no longer present - either torn down or moved. Still, this did not explain why someone was continuing to maintain the site, nor why it also had what looked to me like the remnants of a bit of playground equipment set to one end.

Lilliputian Monkey Bars

So it was the recollection, and the notable absence, of the storm cellar that initially made me take notice of the site as I rode by it. I also noticed that there was a large stone there, with what appeared to be a plaque set in it. I was curious about this, but I’ll admit that I rode by it many times without stopping, always figuring that I would check on another ride, more concerned about getting my miles in.

This summer I did go ahead and stop to look, and thereby to learn the something new:

In honor of Immanuel Ev Lutheran Church

The Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church that I know - that I attended throughout my childhood - is a mile to the west of this site. I knew that it was old, and established by settlers to the area, including my ancestors - the stained glass windows at the church still display wording in German, the language those early settlers spoke. But I did not realize that the church was not always at its current site, that it had been first established further down the road. Nor did I realize when. Establishment in 1864 would set it only three years after our own Homestead was built, and place it at a time when the settlers were likely still carving their lives out of the prairie.

And the Lilliputian monkey bars? I wonder if this perhaps wasn’t a hitching bar...

I have no notion at the moment as to who decided to place the stone and the plaque at this site, it being well off the beaten path. However, I do very much appreciate that decision, opening up as it does yet another opportunity for discovery, and demonstrating that there are others about who truly care for the history of this place.

The Mantis Strikes!

A handful of times over the years I have encountered people who have found and caught Praying Mantis’s. For myself, however, despite an abundant amount of time spent in the out-of-doors I have never personally come across one.

Not until this summer - now I’ve seen three.

The very first was found by LB, who saw it along the north wall of the old barn, and pointed it out to me. I’m not sure I would have noticed it myself, but there it was. I considered myself lucky for this encounter.

Then, a few weeks later I came across another, in grass that was perhaps a little longer than it should have been around the garden. This one I came across on my own, and I spent a little time with it.

Mantis in the grass

At first it did not notice me, too busy trying to navigate its way through the long blades (did I mention the grass may have been too long?). But then it turned and saw me and my phone there, intruding on its personal space, and took offense...

Mantis Attack!

Mantis Attack! close up

This Mantis was here to say "I will beat your ass if I have to", and showing it’s martial arts cred for the world, and more specifically, for me, to be aware. We stayed in this position, the two of us, for a short while. If I moved in and out the Mantis would reassert, making certain that I would not forget the danger posed by its arcane knowledge.

Seriously Dude - I will beat your ass!

Finally, détente reached, the Mantis took its leave of me, satisfied that I would fear and respect it, and all of its kind for the remainder of my days (Dude had quite an opinion of itself).

I am outta here

The Praying Mantis, or Mantis Religiosa (yup) is apparently not native to North America but rather, like Columbus (and ourselves), is an invader. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) actually lists its page on these critters under the title European Mantis. I actually thought that it might be the case that the versions we were seeing in the yard were some different variety of Mantis, since the outer carapace was a light brown rather than green, but apparently they come in a variety of colors.

And that fancy pose, warding me off and striking fear in my heart? It has a fancy scientific name, of course. This is the deimatic display, and is intended to make it look big and frightening and show off that extra set of eye marks on its upper chest (and who wouldn't want to show those if they had them?).

My third encounter - the day following, as it turns out, which I did not realize until I saw the dates in Photos - was the one that I included in last week’s post. That fellow, of course, was happily munching on a bee when I encountered it.

Bees are what’s for dinner

That one did not attempt to ward me off. One might assume it was too taken with its meal to notice me, but I suspect it is because it was confident that it’s comrade had sufficiently cowed me the day prior such that I was no longer a concern. I was now beneath notice.

Given history as a prelude, I may never see a Mantis in the wild again, but this summer has certainly offered a rich array of experiences with them.

Late Summer Oasis

The Stand

At one corner of the property we have a stand of tall plants primarily dominated by goldenrod and false sunflowers. When I first started taking pictures of the stand, it was with the thought that I would research and write a piece about the plants themselves, in a vein similar to the one about Chicory a short while back.

I enjoy learning about the things around us, especially about the things that are ubiquitous in a way that we often take them for granted. In many respects we think of these as ditch weeds, things that grow in areas that we do not tend and likely don't care much about.

Goldenrod is everywhere in the Midwest in late summer, and sometimes blamed for allergy flare-ups. Still, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) this is an error of association - ragweed is in bloom at the same time, and can be readily and more appropriately assigned that blame (f&%king ragweed!).

I remember the Goldenrod from childhood. The false sunflowers I do not, though that could simply be due to fuzzy memory or a childhood lack of attentiveness. They are also everywhere now, blooming along the roadside. And I should note that I believe these are false sunflowers - a bit of research makes me question that a bit. Multiple sources indicate that these plants grow anywhere from 16" to 59" tall. I think we can all agree that a five foot tall plant is a respectable height, but here's the thing - I'm about 5'8" tall, and I was standing up straight when I took this picture:

too tall?

...and this picture:

these are very tall plants

As you can tell from the angle of the shot, I'm looking up at these plants as I take the pictures. They are easily six foot tall, if not a bit taller. So, either these are a different type of plant, or my internet sources, including Wikipedia, have inaccurate or incomplete information about the growth range for these guys.

Like I said, I started out approaching this with the intent of writing a piece about these plants. Then I got in close to the stand for more pictures...

Now, before we moved out to The Homestead I had grown a small garden of native wildflowers, so the fact that there were bees buzzing about didn't entirely surprise me, but the sheer volume of them did.

Bee on Goldenrod

This batch of late summer blooms is one of many across the countryside, but most, like ours, are little islands, oases in what must otherwise seem a floral desert to our bee friends. I know that the potential for getting stung can frighten some people when they come across something like this. Still, I, and I suspect many people with gardening experience, have typically found that the bees are content to tolerate your presence as long as you aren't disturbing them. As my Grandma Marie would often be heard to say "if you don't bother them, they won't bother you".

And speaking of bothering them, I also came across this fine specimen:

Mantis Lunch

I've always known that their name, while referencing an appearance that suggests penitence, also reflected a predatory nature. Still, I've rarely ever seen them in person, and certainly never seen them in action. Given the decline in bees that has been going on, I briefly considered trying to free the victim - he was still moving. But nature is as nature does, and the mantis would undoubtedly catch another.

Ultimately, what I love about areas like this is that they become their very own ecosystems. The bees and other small insects are there, of course, and the presence of the mantis shows that they, and likely other critters are also about, preying on the pollinators. There is something pleasant and peaceful about having something like this, right there, nearby.



As the summer winds towards a close the landscape begins to change a bit. The first hints of drying of the leaves of the corn and soybeans begin to show, and the chicory begins to bloom along the roadsides. The picture here was taken a few miles from home on one of my Sunday rides.

Many years ago, when I first started driving through the countryside to commute to work, I became fascinated with learning what the variety of things I was seeing growing in the ditches were. In this quest I came across the UofI Weed Identification Site - which is honestly the sort of thing that one wouldn't even consider would possibly exist unless one were looking specifically for it.

I've learned a lot about what is around us by using that reference, but discovering that the multitudinous pretty blue flowers coloring the roadsides in the late summer were, in fact, chicory, was one of the most surprising. In most cases my searches would simply involve looking through the pictures and seeing that the items I was pulling had a name - "Oh - so you are lambsquarter. Nice to meet you - now get the hell out of my garden..."

But chicory is different. Here was a discovery that a thing I'd heard the name of for years was actually a thing right nearby, indeed, perhaps under foot. Anyone who is a fan of westerns, or civil war-era fiction, will have heard of chicory. Soldiers or traveling cowboys will be found to be brewing and sharing it while they camp by the roadside. It's one of those tiny references to historical fiction that gives the era being described a different feel and helps put one in the place of the story.

In those stories chicory is being brewed like, and in the place of, coffee. The implication, often, is that the characters in the story are living rough, and so chicory is what they have to work with. This has apparently been a common usage, as the Wikipedia entry illustrates, using chicory in place of coffee, or at least blending it in with coffee to make it go further, in times of scarcity. The Wikipedia entry on the plant illustrates this quite nicely.

That practice of mixing it into coffee still stands, though now by choice and for flavor, something we learned when friends from Louisiana shared coffee with us a few years ago.

Café Du Monde

The can, sadly, is empty now, but it made for a delightful change of pace, and felt a little like drinking history with each cup.