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The Turning To Warmth on Stone Prairie Farm

Today's post is from Steven I. Apfelbaum, author of Nature's Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is founder, president, and senior ecologist of the firm Applied Ecological Services, known for its international science-based ecological design and restoration work. He lives in Juda, Wisconsin, on Stone Prairie Farm.

Book Cover for Nature's Second Chance, links to Beacon Press page for bookI noticed the difference in the first rays of the rising sun that 5th February: a definite brighter yellow morning glow, the appearance of warmth even though it was only seven degrees Fahrenheit, and something else that spoke of a turning point. I wasn't the only creature at Stone Prairie Farm cognitive to this event. The chickadees, at the bird feeder for the first time since late fall, were calling. They spurted parts of their normal songs, seeming like first-time vocalists practicing a few lines over and over.

The sunlight soaked the land, once released by the horizon to our side of the earth. Then I knew, before listening to any weather reporting on the radio, today was going to be different. Today the snow drifts would shudder and slump, water would ooze from beneath their slumping forms like the melting of butter, and the land’s whiteness of several months would flow from the land to the streams, to the ground to replenish water supplies, and evaporate back to the atmosphere. The passing thought--expect foggy mornings--was interrupted by a proclamation for the fish in Spring creek: expect a surge of cold clear water. Incoming!

Then I became preoccupied with the morning rush to chores, off to my office and work. During the perfunctory morning dog walk, Willow ran between the shadows and the glowing light as he crisscrossed behind prairie grass clumps and shrubs, looking for the perfect spots and sniffing the scents of the nightly wildlife movements. The rabbits in particular. For a gray haired muzzled dog, there was a little more spring in his step. He too appeared to notice or feel something in the cold morning air.

Once at the office, I think I looked down at my work on the desk at 8 a.m., and didn't look up until 5 p.m. I was completely immersed all day long and oblivious to the people around me in other offices and their various activities the entire day. Finally, primarily driven by hunger, I emerged from my sequestered state, shook off the day, and walked outside.

The cores of the large snow drifts were all that remained; water was moving everywhere along the ground. Dead plant stems, buried for months, were now springing back to vertical. The flattened foliage showed the weight of the snow. Trailing threads of white fungi growing over the surfaces of the leaves and other dead foliage showed the work of decomposition that had been operating under the snow. I raced to get home, to our prairie before the sunset, to see what Stone Prairie Farm experienced on this day of turning.

Stone Prairie Farm was still blanketed with snow. As I drove up, I could see the drifts were noticeably smaller, but compared to the bared soil in the adjacent agricultural fields, the prairies and restored landscapes at Stone Prairie Farm were still completely covered by the snow, held by the insulating effects of the dense grass and foliage covering this land. In contrast, the bare corn fields in neighboring lands had no such insulating effect from vegetation; only plowed, deep, black soils, which did not hold the snow (or the water), were visible. I drove around to the drainageways to seek evidence to the differences. From Stone Prairie Farm flowed a trickling clear icy cold film of water that shimmered in the last rays of sunlight. Next stop, at the adjacent neighboring cornfield, the starkness of the differences were clear. Before me was a three foot wide meandering mess of mud, fragments of cornstalks, and a several-inches-deep, newly eroded channel formed at the insistence of the mad rush of water from the land.

Shadowy hints of rabbits moved out of the way when I pulled into the driveway. They were chasing each other around in circles, oblivious to me and the predatory Subaru. Willow barked on hearing of my arrival home and this sent the rabbits off in various directions. I sloshed through the soft, water-soaked snow and went into the farm house.

Susan and I reflected over dinner on the day and the turning point. How, every year, days like this make such a difference. A comparison of the appearances of the land between yesterday and today reveals what could be two different places on earth. We also talked about the chain of events triggered by such a turning to warmth, the first big melt. Over the next week the maple sap will start its journey up the trees, interrupted here and there by an occasional tap where sap will be spilled from the vascular tissue into lines and pails for boiling down into maple syrup. The suckers, pike, and other fish in Spring Creek will move against the rising waters to access the floodplain wetlands and upper headwater streams to spawn. We also fondly remembered an early-arriving, migratory Red-Winged Blackbird, the one with an unusual call that shows up each year to perch behind our home, above the spring brook. Instead of his species' normal, "Oooglaree, Oooglaree," call, this bird's call of, "Yiiiparee, Yiiiparee," seems to reflect our own joyous feeling on the turning to spring.

You may also be interested in Steven Apfelbaum's previous post about Stone Prairie Farm in Deep Freeze Mode. Nature's Second Chance was featured in the New York Times Currents section today.

Images of Stone Prairie Farm, February 13, 2009.

Image of Stone Prairie Farm from February 13, 2009

Image of Stone Prairie Farm from February 13, 2009

Image of Stone Prairie Farm from February 13, 2009