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Stone Prairie Farm: Fall Beginnings

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. You can read all of Apfelbaum's dispatches from the farm here.

Photograph of the farm house at Stone Prairie Farm in the early autumn. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of the immense animal, where its head and horns came into view as the grasses parted, and then the mystery pulled back and was gone. I was looking out across the distant, gently swaying mass of prairie grasses, tan and beige and increasingly rosy or chartreuse toward the towering upper seed heads, some plants well over ten feet in height. My eyes were drawn to the movements, and there were many, all occurring simultaneously. And there were sounds… a cacophony of sounds.

On such mornings, as the sun is coming up, igniting the grass with a flaming golden hue, the land appears to be on fire, and the activity of wildlife suggests they are escaping some intense conflagration. But some moved into the intensity, others away. Something, suggesting change, was occurring.

I watched the "v" shape convert to "u", then to a "w" as the flock of Canada geese attempted to move low over the land, to cross the windy landscape. They entered the sun's rays and also ignited, and my first reaction was that I was observing a flock of meteorites plummeting to earth. This changed as they moved in and out of the intense rays, and as the winds forced them through a swirling motion, each goose following closely behind the next over the rolling landforms of Stone Prairie Farm.

Book Cover for Nature's Second ChanceMy eye caught the erratic, unwinding flight of a fast moving mourning dove attempting to negotiate the air currents. From out of blinding sun rays, a Cooper's hawk stooped, spiraling from above and slightly behind, catching up with the fast moving dove, which responded with a very quick, dodging movement. I watched the dove continue and the hawk swing back up above and position for another stoop, in quick pursuit. Three more times the hawk picked up its pace, folded its wings and rocketed in an attempt to knock the dove from the sky. To my amazement, the dove had its tricks-- a dodge to the right, a tumbling downward just before the hawk was to hit-- and in each case the dove escaped. After the last of the stoops, the hawk stalled in the wind, then glided down to a sapling where it sat for a few minutes, perhaps regrouping after its failed attempts at literally plucking breakfast from the sky. The dove sharpened its focus and bulleted southward, and was gone in a flash.

Beneath the aerial sorties were Goldfinch; dozens were flitting in their bouncing flight pattern, calling out as they go, landing on wild sunflower heads, cup plant and compass, to pick the succulent seeds. Their yellow bodies bounced across the landscape and black wings occasionally flashed during flight and as they landed. They seemed oblivious to the hawk and dove.

The crescendo to a full, productive summer is this swaying mass of vegetation, each of the tens of millions of fecund insects emitting their buzzing, chirping and chewing sounds as their do their job of starting to reduce the towering plants back to elemental substances, back to the soils from when they came. Katydids, bumblebees, Monarchs being carried to Indiana (not south to Mexico-- oops) on the strong northwest winds; each with a voice, each in motion and active. The swaying vegetation and movement of insect life truly is symphonic and grand.

I walked this morning in the now spastic garden. The unpicked broccoli sprays of flower heads in every direction; formerly delicious leaf lettuce plants, now each with 3-4 foot tall fairytale-sized bean stalk attached and a fluffy white hat of seeds; asparagus spears turned to an orange thicket of full and bushy plants with showy red berries; tomato plants laid prostrate among what looks to be a car accident of riddled, squashed, hemorrhaging tomato parts; rabbit-chewed green bean plants, leafless stems with obvious teeth marks, and the straggler, unpicked, swollen and hard, yellowing super bean pods; and a mix of weeds and herbs growing everywhere, as though they were waiting for the gardener, me, to turn my back and attention to something else. Foxtail grass, lambs quarters, mallow or cheeses, dandelions, cilantro and dill volunteers… this is the tale of a well kept garden, which has been neglected for only a month.

My walk continued through the orchard, where I found missed pears and apples that now lay comingled on the ground with others, partly eaten by deer, rabbits, and meadow voles. I stopped to pick up what looked like a full and delicious pear, golden ripe. Rolling it over for inspection, on the underside was an excavation, and out slowly stumbled chilled yellow jacket wasps. Some had small morsels of pear flesh in their mandibles. A nice sweet motel: a place where you can literally eat yourself out of a room. I rolled the pear over and back in they went.

This past weekend I picked bushels of pears and apples. I used the front end loader on our farm tractor in place of a step ladder. This involved parking next to each tree and raising the loader bucket into position to grant me access to the sweetest of treetop fruit, some 15-20 feet off the ground. Once in park, I turned off the engine, climbed from the cab over the hood, and scaled my way up the arms of the loader and into the bucket. From there I picked everything within reach. One of our neighbors saw those pendant pears and volunteered to press cider; on my way to run some errands, I dropped off the fruit. When I returned home, several hours later, the porch was filled with fruitless bushel baskets, each with corresponding filled containers of cider. I had to sample each gallon, to taste the differences between Winesap, McIntosh, golden and yellow delicious, Wolf River, and Paula red apple varieties, and the several pear varieties. The tartness of the Winesaps and macs made me appreciate the sweet and steady taste of the pear cider. The Wolf Rivers and delicious apples were sweet but dull. They were quickly poured into the ceramic crock that we keep for making homemade apple cider vinegar.

A gunny sack contained pomace, the squeezed remains of the apples and pears. This was to be a treat for our honey bees, that extra sweet meal before closing them up for the coming winter. I carried the soaked sack to within a few feet of each hive and laid down a several inch height wind row of pomace. Within minutes, in the warming morning, the bees were flying to the piles, and I watched their tongues working the pomace in a feeding frenzy.

The other reason for getting the pomace was to entice a longer glimpse of that large buck. Beyond the bee hives was a mowed trail that ran directly away, giving me a long view. I spread pomace along the trail. I was also hoping that a viewing might occur when relatives with small children come visiting Stone Prairie Farm. Watching those big animals, with those "antennas," a name one child called them, can imbue a life long appreciation for nature in anyone, but especially impressionable children. I questioned the use of the word "antennae" rather then antler, and the child said "they need those to communicate with Martians." Maybe there's something to that…

With the empty sack, I walked back through the orchard to the house and started to remember everything to complete before winter. I needed to mow fire breaks should a passerby on perimeter roadways accidently toss a cigarette into our prairie; some fall pruning in the orchard; placing heavy layers of straw mulch over some garden beds; starting greens in the cold frame to extend the garden eating well into the winter; and filling the root cellar with vegetables. Cabbages, carrots, parsnips, apples, onions, garlic, rutabaga, entire Brussels sprout plants to hang from the ceiling, and so much more. This is the investment we make to live on Stone Prairie Farm, as the growing season begins to transition to the deep sleep season. Fall is a moving time of year.