Thursday, July 29, 2010

Don't blink

People who travel the rural Iowa roads are fond of saying about small towns, "Don't blink or you'll miss it."  A recent walk in the prairie was a lot like that.

Yellow dominates in terms of flower color, that's for sure. But a closer look reveals dots of blue and pink. And it's these smaller, delicate touches that are showing this week. These looked so different from the pictures in my prairie flower books that I sought help from Polk County Master Gardener Eileen Robb with identification. A BIG thanks to her for her rapid and helpful response.

This purple/blue spike is Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum.  Pick a leaf and smell it - the scent of licorice is clear. Put the leaf in your mouth and the taste of licorice is unmistakable. It's clear where this plant got its name.

Another blue spike was not far away, Hoary Vervain, Verbena stricta. This plant only has one flower spike, but I gather from looking at pictures of mature plants that it will have several flower spikes at some point.

And then there is this delicate pink bloom.  Showy tick trefoil, Desmodium canadense. The pink color is beautiful against all that yellow, but the flowers are so small it was one I almost missed.

It's easy to overlook these smaller plants in the masses of larger yellow blooms, but it's even easier to miss seeing new types of flowers that also happen to be yellow.  Luckily, this Oxeye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, bloomed right next to one of my paths. I may never have seen it otherwise.

And finally, there was this colorful specimen. You may have looked twice, as I did, to see that this is a butterfly camouflaged in the colors of a fading Blackeyed Susan.

When I walk in the prairie, I must be sure not to blink!

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's a jungle!

I shared my prairie with a four year old this weekend. We took about five steps down one of the wood chip paths I'd created and he exclaimed, "It's a jungle!"

"Yes it is," I said. "Can you find the way?"

Without hesitation he said, "I'm Tarzan. I have a knife. You follow me."  And he was off.

We explored every trail, backtracking on dead ends, forging ahead when the path disappeared in the undergrowth, searching with equal enthusiasm for butterflies and snakes. My young Tarzan's imagination was in full flower.

I was as excited as he.  This was exactly how I had imagined children responding to the prairie. Even though I laid these paths only a month ago, they have almost been consumed by the rapidly growing vegetation.  It is a jungle in there! With plants reaching six foot tall or higher, a youngster who stands only three foot tall could easily lose himself in the jungle and the adventure.

'Tarzan's' grandmother who followed along on this prairie jungle trek commented that she's been told children lose that active imagination by the time they reach third grade.  The structure of our educational system takes it out of them, she said.

If true, that's sad. But it makes me even happier that I created this prairie. Happy that I let a child's imagination run wild for one afternoon. Hopeful that the prairie planted a seed of memory that child may return to as he grows up. A memory of a prairie jungle where he and his imagination could run free.

Monday, July 19, 2010

But is it true?

"I would hope some of this is consistent with what actually happened," my friend said as we stood to stretch our legs during the intermission of Jersey Boys.  

If you haven't seen it, Jersey Boys recounts the founding and rise to fame of  60s sensation, The Four Seasons.  As the story is told on Broadway, the Four Seasons' song lyrics were a soundtrack for their life story. Did the events of their lives inspire the songs? Or was their story molded to fit the songs?

My friend's comment followed on the heels of a discussion of writing historical fiction at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this past week. How close do you have to stay to the facts? Is it only an issue if you're dealing with famous people? Is it morally acceptable to create a fictional story around real people?

The consensus at the Writing Festival was that you can create fiction for real people as long as what you write doesn't conflict with the known facts.  If an historical figure is known to have been in New York on a certain date and you write them into a scene in Tahiti on that date - problem. If two historical figures are known to have met from time to time and you create a fictional love affair between them - not a problem.

Much of what looks like facts is often our perspective in any case. Toward the end of Jersey Boys, the characters who play the Four Seasons make this abundantly clear as each of them takes center stage and tells 'what really happened' from their own perspectives.

So it was a good show, a good story, and stirring music.  And none of it conflicted with the known facts.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who was she - before?

My challenge today is creating a character analysis for two of the main characters in my novel.  As a writer of non-fiction, the idea of creating characters totally from imagination is a huge challenge.  For this exercise, I'm half way between.

My fictional characters are roughly based on my grandparents - my grandfather whom I never knew, and my grandmother whom I only knew as a stern, white-haired old woman.

When I catalog the life events I know about my grandmother - her father died when she was 10; her husband died when they'd been married just 4 years, leaving her with 2 daughters under the age of 3; she never remarried, supported herself and her daughters by cleaning houses, taking in laundry - I can imagine how one might became stoic, humorless.

But my novel happens before all this and I must assume that before life rained down a hailstorm of trials, there was a child who was happier, a young woman with dreams and aspirations.  What was she like? What was the narrative of her childhood? What was inside her from birth? What did she see and learn from her family that positioned her to keep going, to persist in working harder than she likely ever imagined she would have to?

Since I cannot ask her, I can only imagine. Creating a narrative for her childhood - a happier time in her life - all the while knowing the the challenges she will face, the sadness - it's an awesome task.  Wish me luck. Wish me wisdom.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eye-popping prairie blooms

The prairie popped with new flowers this week. Many  sent me scurrying back to my Tallgrass Prairie Wildflower book for help with identification.

This lilac beauty is one I knew - Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Wild Bergamot bloomed in profusion along the trail I often walked when we lived in West Des Moines. It's a member of the mint family. Good for making tea.

This exotic bloom - a triple decker that looks more like a Carmen Miranda hat - is Spotted Bee Balm, Monarda punctata - a relative of the Wild Bergamot.  The colors will be more intense as the flower matures and I'll post another photo as it happens. For now, just know that the true flowers are the pale yellow petals with purple spots that are tucked under the larger leaves, which are the flower bracts.

Canadian milk vetch, Astragalus canadensis, looked a lot like Partridge Pea before it bloomed.  Not surprising since they're both in the bean family (Fabaceae). The leaves are fern-like.

Just as a reminder, here is a Partridge Pea. These delicate little annual plants grow in abundance throughout the prairie and this week have come into bloom.

Another plant that is showing it's color is the Gray-headed coneflower, Ratibida pinnata.  This flower caused me to question my first identification. The cone is definitely gray at the outset, but as the seeds fill in, it becomes more brown. You can see this phenomenon on the flower at the bottom. There is a Yellow coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa, so I wondered.  At least one difference, though, is height. Yellow coneflowers are 2-3 ft. tall. Gray-headed coneflowers are taller. The book says 4 ft. The ones in my prairie are 5ft.+. So I'll keep looking for Yellow coneflowers.

Sweet Black-eyed susans are also blooming this week. In a photo, you can't tell them from Black-eyed susans. In person, the Sweet variety is much taller - 6 ft. - and the blooms are much smaller - less than 2 in. across.

With all these new blooms, the prairie is well on its way to showing all its color, but there's much more to look forward to. I've identified only 9 of the 37 species I planted last year.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Seeing horizontal in a vertical world

I learned of another approach to marking trails while doing research for an article for The Iowan.  "Before highways and road signs" was published in the May/June issue. I'm reprinting the piece here with permission. For other cool articles about Iowa, pick up a copy of the magazine. The July/August issue is on news stands.

Before highways and road signs

Before there were exit ramps and highway signs, people still needed to know where to go and how to find things. Native Americans - even back to archaic times - used a system of shaping trees into markers to serve that purpose.

"People learned to look for horizontal shapes in a vertical world," says Dennis Downes of Antioch, IL, who has spent the last 30 years researching Trail Marker Trees across the United States. "To be a successful hunter, you needed to spot the horizontal shape of a deer in the forest. An oak or elm tree shaped into a trail marker was another horizontal shape."

Trail Marker Trees identified the best places to ford a river; marked the way to find fresh water, mineral deposits, or medicinal plants; pointed the directions to find nut trees or hunting areas. "Europeans didn't know what the markers meant," says Downes, but Native Americans did. Trail Marker Trees were carefully groomed year after year, allowing people to pass knowledge from generation to generation."

Another type of arboreal architecture - Landmark Trees - served a similar purpose. One such Landmark Tree was the "Anderson H-tree" that marked a known Indian trail coming off the Skunk River near Story City.  Since succumbing to Dutch elm disease in the mid-1970s, the H-tree is seen only in historical photos.

Downes says Trail Marker Trees - now 200 years old - still exist in Iowa. Some live on only in photos taken by settlers who noticed their unique architecture.

If you spot a possible Trail Marker Tree, contact: For more information, contact:

Photo by Brian Bucholtz