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. Read all of Apfelbaum's dispatches from Stone Prairie Farm here.
It seems but a few evenings ago when the soft calming chirp of crickets gave measure to the warm breeze. That was early September. Now, in late November, only strong, cold winds blow across Stone Prairie Farm. And the crickets are burrowed in for winter and silent.
In the prairie, summer's gently swaying mass of vegetation is now being shaken and snapped back and forth by the wind. That green, growing plant life is replaced by columns of reddish tan prairie grasses that loom skyward ten to fifteen feet. Sounds are like that of a giant threshing machine; the swishing of grass stems beating against others, with each breath of the wind.
Every year around this time, I wonder where summer went. Why is it almost winter again, seemingly so soon? I haven't harvested honey, and the garden beds still need their warming blanket of straw mulch. Remaining crops also need harvest.
Some indecision belies this procrastination. I picked a few of the massive, oddly shaped oblong roots. Rutabagas look like crosses between a football and a beached whale. I'm not convinced the rest are worth harvesting. Just what would we do with these five to ten pound masses? The turnips are uniform, and the excuse there is time. My goal was to harvest all remaining crops--Brussels sprouts, arugula, potatoes, carrots and turnips, before the first snows. But I have failed.
Brodhead, Wisconsin-- our nearest town-- boasts having a snowfall predictor. This person is said to have remembered the criteria used by the Native Americans to predict the number of snow storms each year. Also the first snow. This year the first snow beat the odds a week before Thanksgiving. That early morning, as I rolled up the insulated drapes, even in the blackness, the early white covered everything outside the window. This was but an introduction to the coming winter.
This Saturday morning also happened to be the opener of Wisconsin's Deer Hunting "Gun season." This event is nearly a holiday. At that hour, every school kid older then thirteen was anxiously pulling on their long johns andSorel boots, while balancing a gun and trying to safety pin their hunting license to the middle of their safety- orange hunting jacket. More often than not, the young hunter was then waiting for Dad (and sometimes Mom) to finish their coffee and make the move for the door. I realized the snow would help the hunters and disadvantage the deer unless it discouraged hunters to hunt. Chilly openers keep some hunters in bed.
I knew an hour before the very first hint of daylight, about half an hour after rolling up the drapes, that trucks containing warm and cozy hunters would light up these dark country areas, as they drove and parked for the walk into the corn field or woods. They go to their favorite hunting places to sit, to keep a watchful eye and to listen for the movement of deer.
When I hunted, the chill and tiredness were overwhelming and at times, I hunted with one opened eye, and alternated in a daze between cat naps and hoisting cups of hot tea from the thermos. What I do remember most was how after even the slighted hint of daybreak, I became very serious about looking and listening for deer.
Feeling the day come to life was always my highlight. During calm nights, the wind often stirred with first light. The bark of enthused Austrian shepherd dogs starting the task of bringing in the milk cows was soon followed by milking machines starting up, and tractors firing up to bring in feed. These distant sounds were punctuated by the raucous crows and bluejays following the fence-row trees and flying out across the landscapes.
I can only imagine that morning, the tens of thousands of hunters hidden behind fence rows, trees, brush and even prairie grasses such as grows here at Stone Prairie, or sitting on cantilevered "deer stands," seats strapped some twenty feet up a tree trunk. Everyone's toes were wiggling to stay warm, hunters shielding their faces and blowing warm breath into their enclosed hands. Gun triggers are difficult to operate with frozen fingers.
I watched sunup this morning, a week after the snowy opener. All week and all night has been rainy. The streams are flooding, swelling beyond their banks. Here, at Stone Prairie Farm, the dense tall prairie vegetation is soaked. Droplets cover the windows and the laden, arched stems outside. I watched the wind stir and begin thrashing the prairie. A mist rose and I could only think about becoming soaked by spray.
The sounds of the simmering wood stove drew me to the next room, away from the windows and outdoors. There, I found our dog Willow, and my wife Susan cozy and enjoying the early morning hour. My introduction to winter faded as my hands warmed around a cup of tea.