To pass through a fire-ravaged world — eyes stinging in the smoky haze; feet sinking and twisting in the soft and shifting ash; lips tight against bitter, blowing grit — is to risk being consumed by irrational certainties: convinced, perhaps, that such desolation, such destruction, will last forever. Even when burns scheduled for prairie management have been carefully planned and implemented with precision, the sight of the bleak and apparently lifeless land sears the mind as surely as the earth itself has been seared.
Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, February 2, 2017
After weeks of fruitless horizon-scanning and radar-consulting, the roiling smoke plume rising over the southwestern horizon seemed promising. Before long, I’d found confirmation: a scheduled burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was underway, and the section being burned would be accessible by road.
I’d been hoping to visit a native prairie after a prescribed burn, and my opportunity had arrived. The January 31 burn, carried out under the supervision of the Texas Mid-Coast fire crew on 515 acres of land, would be accessible via Hoskins Mound Road, my usual route to the Brazoria refuge.
When I arrived at the refuge on February 2, a portion of the world I’d known there appeared to have been obliterated.
Pawnee Rock ~ George Sibley’s “remarkable rocky point”
Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.
Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.
My Iowa Autumn, 1949
Let big people call them leaves. My dollie and I knew them for what they were: piled-up heaps of love, colorful and crisp, raked and arranged, ready for fort-building, rolling, jumping, falling again and again into the safe, soft cushion provided by the trees.
It was a season of falling: falling leaves, windfall apples redolent of cider or sauce, drifts of smoke falling from chimneys and sloping around our ankles. We pressed fallen leaves between sheets of waxed paper, to hang in windows. We carried leaf bouquets to favorite teachers, and decorated supper tables for the pleasure of our families. We named their colors to suit ourselves and reflect our world: bittersweet, cornstalk, snow-fence brown.
And we traveled. Sometimes near and sometimes far, far beyond the boundaries of our maple and elm-filled yards, we gloried in even more dramatic autumn colors along the rivers and hills. Brilliant as sunsets, heart-rending in their beauty, the riotous mixture of oak, hard maple, and ash blinded us to the realities of a winter yet to come.
Lovely though the flower of the deep-rooted sedge may be, the plant often becomes invasive. When that happens, it deserves to be dispatched, but its very attractiveness can lead to a certain dithering among those who encounter it on their property. At such times, a variation on the advice offered by Peg Bracken, household management maven of the 1960s, proves helpful. “When in doubt, throw it out,” she liked to say. In the case of the unwelcome sedge, “When in doubt, dig it out,” would work just as well.
Like all good aphorisms, Bracken’s has endured over time and seems infinitely adaptable, even beyond the realm of plant management. I’ve grown fond of my own variation for writing: “When in doubt, leave it out.” It’s not only good editing advice, it’s far less harsh than, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Continue reading
Expansive skies, a far horizon, an open road and time to explore – what more could a woman want?
In my case, not much. I love a good road trip, and it’s been far too long since I’ve taken one. In a day or two, I’ll put the necessities in the car – a clutch of maps, some books, notebooks and pens, a few hand-written notes, a collection of tunes, a laptop and a camera – and head north.
Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri are guaranteed stops. I’ll visit friends and family, tour a museum and see a few historical sights that intrigue me. Then, I’ll head south and west from Kansas City, eventually picking up the Santa Fe Trail. I’ll spend time in Chase County, Kansas, memorialized in William Least Heat-Moon’s expansive “Prairy Erth”. In Council Grove, I’ll visit the places I’ve missed, and then I’ll bunk along the BNSF tracks while I explore the prairies. Continue reading