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Stone Prairie Farm: Green, the Truly Happy Color

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 bookPrescribed burned lands at Stone Prairie Farm were under a state of prolonged blackness, not just at night, but also during the day. After the burning in March, cold weather has encouraged little growth of even the cool season plants that usually grow quickly from the blackened landscape. This year, rather than the normal annual landscape metamorphosis from black to lime green and then darker green as plant leaves and stems mature, the black faded to gray and green just didn't budge from the earth.

That is, at least, until this week, particularly today; after several days of warm drizzle, living plants have returned. They have jumped skyward, in a few short days, to make up for the several weeks of suspense. And with this green comes other life.

Buds in the fruit orchard-- apples, peaches, cherry, pear, and plums have swollen and look like they will flower in a week or so, on target for early May. Yesterday, and well into the evening, I pruned to shed the abundant branch growth and ensure more and larger fruit. I watched hundreds of small moths drawn to the buds where they would land and lick up what I learned to be faintly sweet exudates. The taste test showed the apple trees to be the sweetest. The moths knew that.

Susan and I also seeded the garden over the last few days with the early greens: root crops including various potato varieties, planted onion sets-- hundreds of sweet red and white onions-- and prepared other beds for the coming tomato, eggplant, and peppers. Life in the soil was on the move; as we watched, dozens of scarlet red velvet mites (part of the decomposer team), earthworms, millipedes, and other creatures moving from the gaps made from our intruding pitch fork.

On the prairie, this green seemed to increase in lushness as the day lengthened. Rabbits enjoyed the new-found tender stems and each other. On several occasions, we watched several chasing each other around in hot pursuit, stopping to eat some more before the chase ensued again. Five perfectly camouflaged white tailed deer emerged from an area of the unburned prairie, crossed the hill in a sweeping single file, in full view over the western field, and then dropped down in a secluded side valley where they also stopped to eat.

The sounds of life are dominating the land once more. The returning birds waste no time in announcing their arrival. White throated sparrows are singing, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, and Peabody." Or, if you are Canadian, "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." I find myself hearing so clearly the first mnemonic and then I hear the second when I think of their summer nesting grounds in the recently burned forested areas of Canada's boreal ecosystem.

In the distance yesterday I heard the sweet, plaintive call of the Upland Sandpiper that breeds in the short grass prairies of the Great Plains and, occasionally, in hay fields around here. Stone Prairie farm is fortunate to lure a pair or two, and other increasingly rare grassland birds, such as Bobolinks. The call of Sandpiper and that of the Sand hill crane are distant travelers, designed to carry over the prairie ecosystem. The crane call reminds me of the historic connections that generations of these species have had with this land, a place we now call home. They called out with such exuberance well before we were here to appreciate it.

Western chorus frogs, spring peeper frogs, and American toads are singing during the night as their courtship flourishes in the forty two degree Fahrenheit waters of the pond and wetlands. On rainy or foggy days they continue with a special fervor and their melodious exuberance also travel miles over the prairies. There sure seems to be a joyous love of life in their call.

While the sap run and maple tapping for syrup production has ceased for the year, the running of suckers, pike and other fish up the rivers and creeks-- veins over the lands-- is in full swing. This time of year, I make a habit of stopping at every country road bridge crossing to look down into the crystal waters. At one stop, the water churned with the writhing backs of red horse suckers gathering at the base of a riffle, vying for spawning spots among the rocks. At another stream, the bright red coloration of hundreds of Southern red bellied dace minnows immediately caught my attention. Below them swam silvery brook lampreys, a very rare native fish, flashing as its body turned broadside and reflected the beams of light from the rising morning sun.

This is the greening season and green is the color playing out on the land. Green, interrupted with the punctuations of red in the streams, on the epaulettes of the red wing blackbird, on the crown of the Sand hill crane, and in many other locations. Yellow meadowlark breasts add one of the many additional colors now adorning the land here at Stone Prairie Farm.

I'd prefer not to project my happiness-- actually my thrill-- at the return of the greenness and colorful life to this land. But I'm as happy as an asparagus plant emerging from the nutrient washed soils, warmed and nourished by life-giving prescribed burning.

You may also be interested in Steven Apfelbaum's previous posts about burning the prairie, Stone Prairie Farm in Deep Freeze Mode and the Turning to Warmth on the farm. Nature's Second Chance was recently featured in the New York Times Currents section. Click on the picture below to view a web album of photos of the greenup at the farm.

Picasa web album of Stone Prairie Farm: April 22, 2009