Cluck, Cluck

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My first flock in Mesa, Arizona. When we sold our house in 2008 and moved to Minnesota, the sales contract stipulated that the hens would convey with the house. The purchaser, a young woman, was happy to have my hens.

I purchased my first batch of chicks on January 20, 2000, from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a wonderful purveyor of heritage poultry breeds based in Iowa. This for me was a promising way to launch the new millennium. The chicks arrived via U.S. Postal Service in a little cheeping box on February 21. I still thrill to get the phone call from a postal worker saying my chicks are ready for pick up.

We were living in Mesa, Arizona, a city founded by Mormons whose culture of practicality and self-sufficiency is reflected in city ordinances allowing homeowners to raise poultry and small livestock. We had a few neighbors who kept pigs, goats, and sheep. Backyard chickens are becoming more common across urban America. For example, since 2012 the Silicon Tour de Coop has sponsored a free, self-guided bike tour of chicken coops (and beehives and hoop houses) for a day in September around the Bay Area of San Francisco. The Food Policy Council of San Antonio sponsored its first chicken coop tour this spring. I am all for trends that inspire people to keep poultry and raise the food they eat. I’ve just always been grateful to have settled among Mormons who were more than a century ahead of this curve.

The purpose of this new endeavor was to have a handy source of eggs, but I quickly realized that hens, beyond producing daily orbs of protein, give their caretakers so much more in the realms of entertainment and unadulterated joy. Nothing calms me so thoroughly as looking out my kitchen window and watching hens grazing in the yard. And no object is so perfectly formed and so comforting to hold as an egg.

Chickens also teach their owners about the folly of attaching too much affection to what are essentially feathered dinosaurs, although I haven’t entirely learned that lesson. Chickens provide blunt instruction in dealing with mortality. We, by which I mean my husband, David, have euthanized chickens with fatal disease or birth defects, but more often we have lost chickens to predators—foxes, coyotes, hawks, or rogue dogs.

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Standard Bronze Turkey, a member of one of two flocks of heritage turkeys we raised on our farm in Embarrass

With the exception of a period in 2008, when we left Arizona and moved to our 80-acre farm in Minnesota, I have never been without a flock of chickens. Since moving to our place in the country, we have raised other poultry besides egg-layers. We often raise meat chickens (their lesson: never give names to creatures you are going to butcher). For two years, we raised heritage-breed turkeys. Yes, with the intent of eating them. They were a fabulously entertaining addition to our yard of free-range fowl. Great ambassadors, they would rush up our driveway gobbling and flapping their wings when we returned home or when friends dropped in to visit (some were a little panicked by the turkeys’ raucous greeting). Turkeys like music and mine would gather by a window if music was on the radio or I was practicing my accordion. One day they seemed particularly animated when they heard “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Turkeys are very hard not to get attached to and hence hard to dispatch.

One summer we had four runner ducks, which we acquired from Murray McMurray after seeing some the previous summer in the Poultry Barn at the Minnesota State Fair. We got them not just for their large, delicious eggs but because they are sleek, beautiful, and hilarious. On hindsight, it was a selfish indulgence on our part, because runner ducks are not acclimated to the sub-zero temperatures of northern Minnesota and they did not survive the winter. I have always felt guilty about the unintentional death sentence we inflicted on them and I sometimes imagine living somewhere like Oklahoma where having runner ducks would again be possible.

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Our much-beloved runner ducks

I make no apologies for the fact that I give names to my egg-laying hens. I named my first birds in Mesa for women in my sphere I admired. Almost twenty years on, I’ve forgotten what some of those names were, but I well remember Bertha and Lucille, who I named after the Aunt and Mother of my mentor in Texas Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. When we moved to Minnesota, my friend and neighbor Chuck Neil gave me a gift certificate for five chicks to start up my new flock. I named these girls after famous women chefs and cookbook writers—Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy, Alice Waters, and Lisa Yockelson. Julia, as I will elaborate, went on to brief stardom on Minnesota Public Radio.

As an experiment, I decided not to name the hens in my current flock, acquired as chicks in 2015. I have found having nameless hens takes some of the fun and intimacy out of the experience. So I will likely start naming the chicks I purchased this summer to replenish my flock. One already has a name—bestowed by a six-year-old who was visiting our farm with his parents and siblings. Kids, as a rule, love chickens. We were in the poultry room looking at the chicks, one of which is not afraid to be picked up. So my little friend was holding her, and I said, “Let’s give her a name. What do you suggest?” “Brave,” he replied, without blinking an eye. So now I have the first named hen in my newest flock.

I don’t have the interest or patience to train my chickens (I have an amazing friend who does), but I do attempt to get my hens to habituate to me, so they come when I call and so they don’t mind being picked up. This training, such as it is, helps me manage my girls, for instance when I want to herd them into the coop when we are leaving the farm for the evening and won’t be back until after dark when predators are on the prowl. They come running when I call “Girlies, girlies, girlies!” in a loud falsetto voice while proffering a plastic scoop of hen scratch to reward their obedience. So I can say most of my hens tolerate me, but in every one of my flocks, there are one or two who simply stand out, who have an uncanny ability to relate to Homo sapiens, who possess an effervescent je ne sais quoi of hen-ness. Three of my feathered dinosaurs have been particularly dear to my heart. Lucille, Dixie, and Julia.

Lucille was a Rhode Island Red in my first flock. This American breed, developed in the late 19th century, is much beloved among poultry owners. The hens are a rich, silky mahogany color and are prolific egg layers. Individuals often have great personalities. Chickens, for good reason, tend to be skittish and on guard for any sign of predatory behavior. Lucille was confident, curious, and confiding. She would jump in my lap when I was sitting outdoors and nestle down contentedly. If David or I were stooping to pull a weed or pick up something on the ground, she would often jump on board and sidle up to a shoulder as we stood up. She occasionally flew up and perched on David’s head. In Mesa, with its almost year-round balmy temperatures, we kept our back door open. It was not unusual for a hen to wander into the house occasionally. This habit bothered us not at all. David grew up in a cotton-farming family in the Mississippi Delta and had lived in rural Liberia when he was in the Peace Corps and I had traveled a lot in rural Mexico—all cultures where chickens are part of community and home life.

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Lucille of the Pillow Eggs

One day I found an egg in our bed. Our bedroom was in the far corner of the house, so whoever laid the egg had walked in the back door, through the den and kitchen, and down a long hallway to lay this egg. We soon discovered it was Lucille. Finding a hen in our bed—as if that were the most normal of events—was one of the pinnacles of my life with chickens and made Lucille all the more endearing. We called her daily offerings Pillow Eggs. We indulged her habit for quite some time, and then for some vague reason decided to start closing the door to the backyard. Lucille was to the manner—and to our modest manor—born. One sad day she was killed along with several other hens by a rogue dog that jumped our back brick fence.

Dixie was a Black Austrolorps, a stunning hen with the glossy iridescent black plumage and ruby-red comb that are the hallmarks of this regal Australian breed. She did not get a name until her mishap, which was the result of my mismanagement. My Mesa flock never roosted at night in the beautiful coop David had built for them. Our large backyard was a semi-tropical expanse of fruit trees and clumping bamboo and our hens preferred this semi-wilderness to the coop. They roosted at night in our orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees and laid eggs in the shady root masses of these trees and other plants in the yard. I did not take a regular census of my dozen hens (a task that is easier when hens roost in a coop), and it was several days, perhaps a week, before I found one of my Austrolorps pinned by the leg between the slats of our compost bin in a far corner of the backyard. How she survived that length of time without water I will never know, but she was alive.

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Dixie, when she had two legs and before she had a name, is one of the black Austrolorps in this picture. Lucille is feeding from my hand.

Her right leg was mangled. I felt terrible. I took her to our veterinary clinic, where as the owners of two dogs we were regular customers. One of the vets, Dr. Richard Funk, specialized in parrots and other pet birds, so he examined my Austrolorps and determined the leg could not be saved. Not a big surprise. The options were euthanize her or amputate. He assured me she would be fine on one leg. Driven by guilt and fascination with the possibility of having a one-legged chicken, I opted for amputation after consulting David about the cost and quickly getting his support. She went through surgery with flying colors and became quite the wonder-hen of the vet clinic. Dr. Funk kept a photo of her on a bulletin board in one of the exam rooms. I brought her home and named her Dixie.

As Dr. Funk predicted, mobility was not a problem—Dixie hopped around great on her pogo-stick leg—but her aberrant behavior immediately presented another dilemma. One unpleasant but evolutionarily hard-wired trait of chickens is that they do not tolerate freaks in their flock. My two-legged hens began to persecute her mercilessly, and it became immediately clear they were intent on killing her. So we segregated Dixie from her would-be assassins. We fixed up a private run for her—with a gate—in an ample space on one side of our house and for maximum security we put up fencing across the yard to contain the other hens. The DMZ was our patio space surrounding the swimming pool. Peace returned to the kingdom. When we were on the patio—which was often—we would let her out of her run to hang out with us. We spent many happy times with Dixie.

Then it all ended abruptly. David and I went on a trip—when and where I no longer recall—and one of his lab techs and her boyfriend stayed at our place to watch our dogs and chickens. David and my friends make regular fun of me because whenever we leave home I give our house and pet sitters explicit mandates about their responsibilities. I think I am being conscientious; they think I am being an obsessive worrywart. In this instance, I apparently was not worrywartish enough. I must have failed to sufficiently emphasize that Dixie had to be kept away from the other hens. It seems a gate was left opened. When we returned, Dixie was dead, a henocide. The house sitters were simultaneously remorseful and clueless. I was not vengeful but I was sad. I do not regret the decision at the time to amputate her mangled leg nor the cost to have it done. I doubt I would make the same decision now. The bigger cost, which I care not to pay again, was the emotional energy I spent on a one-legged chicken.

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Julia Child

Julia, one of five chef-named hens gifted to me as chicks by my friend Chuck in 2009, was a Black Star, a breed that can be sexed at hatching by its color. This is a very useful trait to assure a poultry owner that she is getting hens and not an unwanted rooster. (Roosters, besides the fact they don’t lay eggs, are often ornery and frequently banned by ordinances in towns and cities.) Sexing chicks, a service that hatcheries like Murray McMurray offer, is not a perfect science, and the accidental rooster can turn up in a purchase of chicks sexed as females. David dispatched one accidental and vicious rooster. Another, named after my cousin Becky until we realized she was a rooster, went to live with friends who lived in the country. Her name became Beckett. I have a strong suspicion that Brave, in my current chick flock, is an accidental rooster, a fact that should be borne out in a few more weeks. Fortunately, the friend who takes care of my hens in the winter when we are in Mexico wants a rooster in her rural flock.

Black Star hens are good layers and quite beautiful—bronzy black with golden feathers on the breast and hackles—and Julia possessed all the joie de vivre of her namesake. She genuinely liked being picked up and carried around in the crook of my arm. One summer in the lead-up to the fall member pledge drive for Minnesota Public Radio, a young friend of ours who is an MPR sound engineer tasked with recording testimonials, asked if David and I would be willing participants. I agreed with the stipulation that my chickens had to be part of my gig. Our friend was game.

My hens in fact listened to Morning Edition quite regularly as it wafted out the kitchen window to the nearby bed of ferns where they often gathered. So it was only fitting that they should make a “pitch” for MPR. Our friend, an excellent audio editor, taped several minutes of my spiel, a chorus of cackling for background, and a segment when I was holding Julia and talking to her and she was clucking back to me. The segment, condensed to less than 30 seconds, was hilarious. It closed with my saying, “Julia, you love MPR don’t you?” “Cluck, cluck,” she replied affirmatively.

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My retablo memorializing Julia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in West Saari Road

Is it asking too much?

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Fido says, “Sit, Lady.”

Is it asking too much of culpable females to not pee on the seats of public toilets?

You know who you are, and I have remained silent too long. I recently decided I’d had enough. My husband and I had driven from our rural home in northern Minnesota to the Twin Cities for a rare urban date. We had tickets for Mahler’s 4th Symphony at Orchestra Hall and we went to Barrio, a great tequila and small plates bistro, beforehand. I was in a euphoric mood—a night on the town! I went to the women’s room. My guard was down. I sat on a pee-splashed seat.

I gave way to an outburst. When I exited my stall, three young women were walking in. I said, “Someone peed on the toilet seat!” The young women looked at me with horror. I could interpret their expression in one of two ways. Either they shared my disgust or they themselves are among the guilty. I will never know of course. I washed my hands and stormed out of the bathroom back to my husband, a scrumptious little plate of pork-belly tacos, and a well executed margarita. Bravo to the bartender and the cooks in the kitchen. I regained my composure.

I try to make a habit of inspecting toilet seats in public places before using them but sometimes I am distracted or I mistakenly think to myself, “This is an upscale place. Surely the clientele knows better.” Not.

As long as I can remember, I have randomly encountered pee-splattered toilet seats all across America and in all manner of public restrooms. I can say from much experience this is not a socioeconomic issue. This I believe is an irrational germ-phobia issue. Perhaps the most disheartening place I’ve had to deal with the problem was in the employees-only bathroom of a world-renowned healthcare institution where my highly educated female coworkers, who of all people should have understood germ theory and disease transmission, regularly peed on the toilet seats.

I have long thought about getting little stickers printed up that say PLEASE DON’T PEE ON THE TOILET SEAT to post in toilet stalls. I have wondered countless times if the woman before me must pee on the toilet seat why can’t she wipe up her mess before exiting the stall? Why should she foist the proof of her germ phobia on the next user? It is hard for me to fathom such rudeness. I fume more because the perpetrator is never outed for her imbecility and bad manners.

Why are so many women so fearful of sitting on a toilet seat in a publicly shared bathroom? Have they ever heard of any illness or epidemic contracted and spread via buttock skin? Do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ever issue warnings about butt-borne disease? If you think about it, female buttocks are frequently bathed, rarely disrobed, and well protected from airborne germs. I venture to say our buttocks are cleaner than our hands. People who sneeze and cough in public and do not cover their mouths—or, equally gross, cover their mouths with their hands and then touch everything and everyone around them—constitute a well-known public-health problem. Speaking of the hazards of germ-laden hands, a 2015 article in The Cut (“Everything We Know about Human Bathroom Behavior,” by Clint Rainey https://www.thecut.com/2015/05/science-of-us-guide-to-bathroom-behavior.html) brings up the prevalence of people who use their cell phones while going to the bathroom. Yikes! Rainey quotes a 2011 BBC News article about a British study that examined 400 cell phones and hands and found that 16 percent of phones and 16 percent of hands were contaminated with Escherichia coli, bacteria found in the human gut. It should be noted that most strains of E. coli are harmless (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/general/index.html) and E. coli is often used in studies simply as a marker for the presence of fecal matter. Nevertheless, this is the take-away: In public restrooms—indeed, in the world at large—it is our hands, not our butts, that spread around germs. Toilet-seat-splashers should really be more concerned about whom they shake hands with and what surfaces and objects they touch.

My indignation is nothing new. Swirling endlessly in the whirlpools of Internet search engines are numerous essays like mine—and not a lot of current objective data on the subject. Although my observations are anecdotal, I see no signs the problem is abating, which indicates to me that my fellow indignant essayists and I are not changing any behaviors. We are merely venting. I take it as a positive sign that public restroom pee splashing, while disgusting, is really inconsequential in the realm of public health research. There are vastly more important topics to be focusing research on—like flu pandemics and the overprescribing of antibiotics. I don’t need scientists to spend their precious time and resources trying to determine the percentage of women in the population who pee on public toilet seats. For me, one woman is too many.

Addendum:

Although out-of-date and with a small sample size, a research article that is still often cited in essays about the behavior of females in public restrooms is a 1991 study entitled “Crouching over the toilet seat: prevalence among British gynaecological outpatients and its effect on micturation” (K. H. Moore, et al., BJOG June 1991). The researchers asked 528 women who had come to a general gynecological clinic to complete an anonymous questionnaire about their public restroom habits. The results showed that 85 percent usually crouched over the toilet when using a public restroom, 12 percent applied paper to the seat, and 2 percent sat directly on public toilet seats. Journalists writing for popular audiences about this subject hone in on the lopsided numbers of crouchers (85%!) versus sitters (2%!). What I found more interesting about the study was the clinical significance of the findings. The researchers found that crouching over a toilet seat reduces average urine flow rate by 21 percent and increases residual urine volume by 149 percent. Again I emphasize the small sample size, but based on these findings crouching to pee is incredibly inefficient and incomplete. Women who crouch would do their bladders a favor by sitting down to pee.

Posted in West Saari Road | 2 Comments

Diablo

Diablo and Rosario, April 26, 2010.

Diablo has died.

The last day I saw him he was a skeleton in a black shroud. Dressed for his impending death. He was as usual shadowing Rosario. While Rosario stopped for a moment at our door to talk with us, I fed Diablo some stale tortillas. He listlessly ate a few bites until he saw Rosario walk on. He followed his virtually blind master, the ever-constant self-taught seeing-eye dog. I had a premonition I would not see Diablo again. He died a few days later.

Diablo was about ten years old. That he lived as long as he did is testimony to what a living organism can endure. As is Rosario, an ancient, at times obstinate, virtually penniless, solitary, sightless man who lives in a hovel. Diablo was the loyal companion of a destitute man. Not castrated, vaccinated, or medicated, he was a carrier of vermin and multiple canine diseases and he got into fights with other male dogs. He was forever gentle with us. I indulge myself by thinking he had a liking for me, because I petted him and cooed to him. I loved Diablo, and many times I imagined taking him away from Rosario for my own, a self-centered, dim-witted idea.

Diablo divulged a harsh truth about me: I have more sympathy for dogs than I do for certain of their masters.

 

Posted in Mexico

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

In the town where we live in Sonora, many women still hang out their laundry to dry. They drape the washing over barbed-wire fences or hang it from clotheslines on rooftops. Every day is a changing cavalcade of britches, blouses, underthings, socks, towels, sheets, toddlers’ clothes. This gives me joyous cause to remember on a regular basis one of the most beautiful poems in the English language, Richard Wilbur’s Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.

Wilbur died last year at the age of 96. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/15/obituaries/richard-wilbur-poet-laureate-and-pulitzer-winner-dies-at-96.html

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.

                                             The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

 

Posted in Mexico

Leverage

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December 23, 2017, on the Tetajiosa Road, Sonora

Over the last two weeks—December 23, 2017 to January 7, 2018—during our random walks in the arroyos and ranchlands around Alamos, we have encountered two gate-closers we have never seen in our almost twenty years of rambling in southernmost Sonora. The design is almost identical to the metal gate-closers that are common and characteristic of the Sandhills of Nebraska.

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January 7, 2018, gate-closer on La Luna Road.

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David Smith opening the gate on La Luna Road.

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La Luna gate-closer.

Between us, David and I have opened and closed Sonoran gates a few hundred times if not more. Most of them are simple stretch gates—barbed wire strung between a series of slender poles fashioned from one of the native trees. This floppy gate is secured by means of a wire loop that attaches to the gatepost, also of local wood. These gates vary in temperament. Some are easy to close and others almost impossible. The person provides the lever force, and for the harder-to-close stretch gates this can lead to pinched fingers and bloody barbed wire pokes, at least in my experience.

“The lever is a simple machine that changes the magnitude and direction of the force applied to move an object. It minimizes the effort required to lift the object. A lever
is a rigid bar which moves around a supporting point (pivot or fulcrum).”

The mechanical principle and virtue of the Sandhills—now apparently Sonoran—gate-closer is that it is the lever, thereby reducing the potential injury and embarrassment of the person who cannot close a difficult stretch gate.

The lever gate-closer, whether of metal or wood, is an elegant machine and lovely to behold. And added to the beauty is the mystery. Will we encounter more of these gate-closers in Sonora? How did the two we have seen come to be here? Did an ingenious Sonoran rancher or ranch hand simply apply the physics of leverage to make a better gate-closer? Or did a Sonoran spend some time on a ranch in the Sandhills and bring this technology back to his native landscape in Sonora?

 

Posted in Mexico

The man goes down to the river with his dog

For Dan Michener

The man goes down to the river with his dog.
He fishes. The dog runs arabesques.
The man is the prince of the river.
It is not a famous river but it is his river.

The trout writes verses in the water.
The man hurls stanzas in the air.
Nothing is said.
The dog runs arabesques.

The trout leaps.
It forsakes the power of its verse for the craft of the man.
For an instant the man is the king of the fish.

The force of the trout is his.
The man has won.
And then he slips the fish into the stream.
The trout has won.

All quarrels and wars should end so well.
The man and his dog go down to the river.

Posted in The Occasional Poem

Prairie

November 6, 2017, Platte River Valley, Nebraska. Photo by Kim Bontrager Helzer.

In the above photo—which documents the first bite of winter on the Great Plains in early November—I am with my husband, David Smith, on the left, and Chris Helzer, a colleague from my days with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska in the 1990s. We are standing in a restored prairie along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Isn’t it beautiful? The coppery grasses, pewter sky, distant picket of trees along the Platte, the guileless horizon.

The place we are standing was a cornfield when the Nature Conservancy bought the property. On a spring day in 1995, David and I were part of a group of folks who marched across the field hand-casting the seeds of roughly 150 species of native prairie grass and flowers in the fallow furrows. The effort was orchestrated by Bill and Jan Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, who developed some of the first techniques for restoring prairies on the Platte and continue to partner with the Conservancy on such endeavors. I remember vividly—and with pride and happiness—that day of coaxing back a piece of prairie. It is even more joyous to stand on that land twenty-two years later and know that it is part of 1,500 acres of high-diversity prairie that Chris Helzer and his colleagues have restored along the Platte River.

It was unforgettably windy that day—a wind of the potency and roar that contributed to prairie madness among pioneers on the Great Plains. In a photo from that day, as we leaned into the wind, we looked like living multiples of the Sower, the monumental statue on top of the State Capitol in Lincoln depicting a farmer sowing grain. Only our little band of sowers was bringing back a fragment of what settlers across the Midwest had obliterated in less than a century. One account of that statue proclaims, “Agriculture is the foundation upon which Nebraskans have built a noble life.” It wears me down that our culture casts nobility in terms of landscapes conquered, not landscapes conserved.

JPGB & W, famous 1994 prairie planting lineup

The prairie sowers. Photo courtesy of Bill and Jan Whitney, Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Chris has been on the Platte for 20 years. I hope he will stay another 20. He is now the director of science for the Nebraska Conservancy. He has intense focus, loves what he does, and has been able to grow and shape his career toward one purpose: bringing back prairie landscape health and diversity to benefit in subtle, often invisible ways the soil, its microbes and invertebrates, the flora, birds, insect pollinators, reptiles, amphibians, bison.

Chris and colleagues in Nebraska and other places across the Midwest are making swatches of the prairie fabric whole again.

He has written a book on the subject, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States (2010, University of Iowa Press) and he writes and posts wonderful photographs on his blog, Prairie Ecologist, http://www.prairieecologist.com.

After we left Nebraska in 1999, I basically put my prairie life on a shelf. We inhabit different landscapes now with their own beauty and riches. But on the rare occasion when I am back on the prairie, milling about, I feel like the prairie is where I belong.

Posted in Five Hundred Words or Less