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Observation Post
by Philip C. Winslow
Memorial Day Snapshots

Stone Prairie Farm: The Sights and Sounds of Late Springtime

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 ChanceDreaming about Stone Prairie Farm. 7:30 am, Saturday, May 31, 2009

This week I've been in Gainesville Florida on a project and right now, this beautiful Saturday morning, I'm waylaid in the Atlanta airport hoping to get back sometime today to Milwaukee, and then drive the several hours back west to Stone Prairie Farm. Gainesville's live oaks and pendent, draping Spanish moss, a relative of pineapple (not a moss at all), and the old stalwart loblolly pines create such a different ambience than the open prairies at Stone Prairie farm. When we drove by fields, even plowed up farm fields, my eyes and spirits perked.

These views over the landscape were more familiar, more like home, and I dreamed about the farm. While I've only been gone a few days, I'm missing those rare idyllic spring days and evenings, where the wafting fragrances of blooming phlox fill the air and remind me of how comfortable it is before summer's heat and humidity sets in.

Thinking and writing is being disrupted: "Any standby passengers needing a seat assignment and a boarding pass please come to the gate D5 immediately for flight 435 to Milwaukee." Computer and brain shutdown and I race to the gate, to home, to Stone Prairie Farm.

Soaking up Stone Prairie Farm. 6:30 am, Sunday, May 31, 2009

Picture of the farm house. Shadows enlarge southwestwardly across the green and lush growths of prairie from the rising sun, which is now coming in the windows on the north side of our home. The intense light oozes out across the prairie, where it is reflected from the millions of dew drops adorning each flower, leaf, and stem, sending quickly flashing sparkles as the vegetation begins to gently sway in the ever-so-slight morning breeze. Standing firm, brown, tan, or fire-blackened throughout the blanket of new green are scattered swards of last years prairie grass, cup plant, and other plant stems, giving measure to the new green growth.

The rewards of coming home to the farm are omnipresent, experienced on every deep breath of the fresh air. Today the early morning air carries the sweetness of the neighbors' fresh cut hay, green and lush and now dew covered, going in the wrong direction from the desired sun-dehydrated process necessary for baling.

The birds are calling with exuberance over the calm, damp landscape. Northern Orioles, bluebirds, house wrens, and robins are around the house while bobolinks rise and fall in the prairie. Like a steam kettle boiling over, they release their ebullient bubbly call at the zenith of each courtship flight, then float down, back to the ground, and disappear amongst the grasses and cobalt blue flowering spiderwort. The orioles ring loudly from the willow and ash tree tops, and appear to have each of the major trees scoped out as several males spar through song from adjacent treetops.

The garden at Stone Prairie Farm We are harvesting already from the garden lettuce, spinach, mustards, beets, cilantro, dill seedlings and asparagus. And on the orchard trees the portent of apples, peaches, cherries, and pears all but suggest many full bushels in the near future. The swollen, small fruit, some still ringed by a skirt of spent flower petals, tell of the pollinating success of our bees. Young broccoli plants have grown several inches weekly, and the leaves of onions and garlic plants have reached the necessary size to provide energy to plump up the tubers we will harvest.

Our statistical assurance for frost-free planting is right about now. During these last days of May and early days of June, the intolerant plants such as peppers, eggplant, and tomato will find a home in the garden. We have flats waiting for the opportunity to root deep in the fertile soils and beds prepared for their short but productive tenure and growth here at the farm.

Shooting Stars on the prairie. In addition to spiderwort, other spring flowers are in full and glorious bloom over the prairies: golden Alexander, shooting stars, some orange colored pucoons, birds-foot violets with their bi-tonal petals-- a pair of very light lavender above and deep purple below accented with a yellow flower center, very different from the completely dark cobalt blue flower of prairie violet. Spiderwort grows in clumps, scattered around in a dazzling number of translucent blue flowers across the landscape. This is an early morning and evening flower that doesn't last during intensely sunny days, such as today appears it will become. Each flower will shrivel up within a few hours time, revealing an inky blue drop where the petals hours before displayed, and accented by a feathery blue and yellow style, marking the center of the former flower. During overcast or cool periods, each individual spiderwort flower remains on display for days.

All is not perfect, however, at Stone Prairie Farm, as the invasive garlic mustard plant is going to seed now in the savanna restoration areas. Within the next couple weeks we will fill dozens of large bags with pulled plants, each grasped by hand, one-by-one, to halt the spread of the scourge. The change in soil chemistry once this plant establishes discourages native plants, which quickly decline. In addition, we are to begin looking for and removing the newest growths of multiflora rose and Tartarian honeysuckle, which appear magically ever year, dropped primarily as the migratory robins defecate after they eat the red rosehips and berries these plants hold up in skyward display, to lure these birds in for a meal.

Vegetation on the prairieThe textures of the various plant communities are clearly visible from afar. The sedge growths bordering the lush and now stable spring brook banks, where (before we restored the land) bare, muddy soil used to prevail, is deep olive green, reflecting linearity as the spring freshet of several weeks ago aligned the leaves downstream. The growth in the drought-prone, rocky, sandy ridge top soils is yellowish green, accented by a scattering of silvery green spiderworts. The prairie growing in the deeper, more fertile soils is leafy and lush, the pattern changing frequently depending on who grows where. I can see the large leaves of prairie dock and compass plants, some well over a foot in height, looming through the fine blades of bluestem and Indian grass. It is through this matrix that patches of swaying golden Alexander, with its airy and loose, intensely yellow bloom, punctuate the land. And the blooms that move around turn out to be male goldfinches and not plants at all. They bound like an intense yellow ball in the ever bright sunlight, in low flight over the prairie, stopping here and there to forage: flowers with wings and the will to fly.

This land-- just a few years ago-- grew corn, and while the fields held a neat and tidy appearance, they were lifeless. Life has returned to this farm and nary a minute passes where these isn't some sign of it that draws one's attention. My partner Susan is awed by the long legged crane fly insect that has landed on the dewy window, how it appears to be doing push ups, or was it stuck to the dew? Then a midge lands and walks across the morning paper she is reading. Life abounds in myriad splendor; from the beautiful, feathery antennae of the midge to the behavior of the crane fly-- the daddy long legs of the air -- all of life is so precious, endearing, and valuable. Thank you, Trans Air, for getting me home to this priceless prairie landscape.

Photos by Steven I. Apfelbaum. You can read his previous dispatches from Stone Prairie Farm here.

Deer on the prairie.