Monday, May 21, 2007

snapshots from a graduation celebration

Saturday, May 19

Foodladies — Grandmothers and mothers and sisters and aunts and nieces and daughters. They inhabit a one-hundredth meridian kitchen and cluster as they build food. Barbecued pork. Pigs in a blanket. Fruit (strawberries and watermelon and cantaloupe and grapes) skewered and then pic’d into the remaining watermelon half, as the picadors turn to fresh salads and marinated salads and homemade picante and creamy potato salad and more salads than I can name. As they work they talk about people, places and things I’ve never heard of. And I’m a world traveler. The kitchen, the animation of the Foodladies, the conversation, the purpose of the exercise — all are filled with laughter and fun and jokes and the occasional sting of biting sarcasm. I've seen it all before, in different kitchens and through different eyes. The core of the experience, the gravity that holds everything in place, is love. A long, bittersweet, loving moment. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m lucky to witness it. “Men now a-bed in England shall think themselves accursed...”

Cousins — twenty and more of them gathered in a single place. Little ones and medium ones and a few so very nearly grown ones. The Princess of the day is radiantly happy and glows with beauty enough to stop a beating heart. Yet there’s a bit of sadness there, too. The hourglass, which once seemed impossible to empty, is trickling out those few last grains, closing out the first chapter of a grand adventure tale. I see the tiny sadness there, lurking behind the gleeful zest of the day, because I know to look for it. But all is well, all is as it should be. As it has to be. Last year’s Princesses, ladies now but no less beautiful, smile and enjoy and wonder at the year that has flown by since they wore the crown themselves. They’ve learned a few of the secrets of life; know they have many more to learn. Not far below the regal calm of royalty booms the mad scamper of the little ones and medium ones, dashing here and dashing there, a whirlwind of excited motion. They seem to know the best secret — that playing all the play from the day counts for more than anything else.

Uncles — they sip beer and talk man talk and relax in the warm, muggy sun. They group aloof and independent, successful and self assured, with one ear always cocked toward the warble they’ve been trained to listen for (except for one, who seems to be slightly broken or something). Then they’re gone for a minute or an hour, carrying out an assigned duty, tweaking a nose here or there, making some adjustment. They return as if they’d never left, taking up beer and conversation where they set it down when the irresistible call came. They talk of life and kids and garage projects and old times, and they tease each other remorselessly (except for the slightly broken one, because they're not quite be sure how broken he is).

Football — It starts as an idea and moves forward ponderously as the sun plunges in the west. There was a game last year. There must be a game this year. A ball appears. Beers are slowly drained, and aging uncles slowly rise and stretch. The ball goes back and forth, is caught and dropped, soars through the twilight as it has since time began. Muscles warm and loosen and sweat rolls as momentum builds. Suddenly, the game has moved from yard to empty lot, and teams and rules snap into place without decision. There are near-even numbers of uncles and high school professionals and munchkins. Two-hand touch, six or eight downs to score. The purpose is lighthearted fun, but for all the players save one or two joyful munchkins, there’s a steely edge of competition simmering just beneath the surface. The game, the effort, the very real competition; they all matter. It’s a Nebraska thing. A crowd gathers along the field; grandparents and moms and dads and aunts and uncles and cousins. A big crowd cheering loudly at the fun and the audacity of the thing. The game is an entire family at play, generations deep, watching from the sideline or dashing about the field. The munchkins play for fun and their fun is tempered with the disappointment of being too little to be in charge. The high school pros practice skills they will use on the gridiron this fall. They seem surprised at the ability shown by the uncles, old men who should be past it. They know but don’t really understand that the uncles used to do this for a living; have often played the sun out of the sky; still retain the muscle memory to whip a pass and catch a ball. Plays are played until the last glimmer of sun is gone from the sky. There’s a winning team and a losing team, though no one’s quite sure of the score. The players good game each other and uncles tousle the heads of munchkins, praising their efforts and prowess. In shining smiles the uncles see that the seed has been planted, the real Nebraska game will carry on. Darwin might have commented on natural selection. More likely, he would have wondered at the ability of the unfit to survive.

Gifts — In the specially modified garage the family gathers beneath cool florescent light in muggy air filled with gnats and mosquitoes. The Princess and her attendants produce a monumental gift train. The opening reveals a treasure chest of vital college supplies; books and pictures and dorm-wall frames, linens and gift cards and cash, memories and keepsakes and tokens of hopes and dreams and futures. After a long, long day there is tired, contended love in the air. There’s an important page being turned and no one can stop the process, though there is both the urge to stop it and the will to let it play out. The grandparents and moms and dads and uncles (even the slightly broken one) and aunts smile with happiness for the Princess while the same kaleidoscope images play out behind each set of eyes, remembering when the Princess was only a princess and this day was far, far in the future.

Life — It marches on, and the future holds much in store. There will be triumphs and tragedies; hopes fulfilled and dreams smashed. The sun will smile and glower on each new day and all those gathered in the garage will move forward a step at a time until they move forward no more. The memory, and the importance of the memory, will live on though. Outside, in the close muggy darkness of the backyard, twenty little cousins bounce madly and laugh and wring the last of the play from an extraordinary day.

Update — The Princess Bride, circa 2013

the how and the why

May 21, 2007
I started this blog by accident. Clicked on the wrong hyperlink, actually. But blogspot is free, part of Google, and seems fairly easy to use. So how hard can it be, I asked myself?
The why of this blog is a bit more complicated, but still pretty straightforward. If you've read any of this, you may have noted how much I delight in wandering around the prairie. I grew up here and have experienced much of the natural beauty and wonder of the native shortgrass prairie. I'm out there daily, I take a lot of pictures, so why not share it? In a nutshell, that's how this blog came about.
If you're interested in seeing any of this stuff first hand, shoot me an e-mail (in my personal info). We'll figure something out.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

power rehab

May 12, 2007

I decided to put the hammer down today and really push my conditioning and Achilles rehab. I set a good benchmark a month ago and have been slowly increasing the pace, but I decided to push it today and see if I needed anything other than healing and strengthening. If there's a functional problem I'd rather find out sooner rather than later. Today I'm 90 days post-op. Yee-haa!

I dressed right and slugged down my pre-workout breakfast of a pint of V-8 with a pair of raw eggs spun in. Actually pretty tasty. Kind of like a tex-mex egg cream. Only different. Took naprosyn with that. Then I strapped on my expensive but oh so wonderful Danner tactical boots, good and tight, took up my gear, and moved off to my starting place.

Stretchies and groanies first, then I power hiked it, with my 22 kilo ruck and my rifle and camera, my standard load. I pushed hard and went up and down a bunch of heart-thumper hills both for the cardiovascular workout and because the provide just the rotation, flexion and extension loads I need for the Achilles rehab.

Oh, the prairie was beautiful today. So green and lush and simply awash with wildflowers. I saw at least thirty jackrabbits and as many cottontails, some of them teeny-weeny but fast for all that. I've taken to calling the jackrabbits "blackeyes," because they stand there in profile and look at you with that one huge, black eye. I saw groundsquirrels and a few skittering mice and the air was filled with soaring raptors. I saw one porcupine but he was not fast at all. The wind shifted from south to northwest about 9:30, then shifted back and got stronger. Probably 20 mph by the time I finished.

My route took me in a familiar direction, across lumpy and uneven prairie filled with hills and washes and big limestone outcroppings. I scrambled to the top of a big prominent ridge eight times, from eight different directions. Some routes were very steep and provided nearly too much workout.

I took very few pictures, and most of them near the end of my hike. I was there for a workout, after all. And I think I accomplished that goal. I'm pretty sure my heartrate was over 150 for at least a couple of hours.

It was relatively cool when I started but temps were in the upper seventies by noon. I soaked my clothes with sweat several times, especially climbing the lee side of the hills, but a few minutes in the breeze dried me right off. Still, my togs were stiff as cardboard when I took them off, crackling with the encrusted salt of honest sweat.

GPS is a wonderful thing. I dump the data log in my computer and it spits out a lot of cool numbers, graphs and charts. Todays numbers are good ones. 16,257 meters is 8.77 nautical miles, 10.1 statute miles, 17,779 yards. The vertical track is fascinating. My net altitude change was only 249 meters, or 817 feet. But the cumulative change was 3,562 meters, or 11,686 feet. That's about 2.2 miles of up and down, and probably part of the reason I'm tired this evening. Feels good, though.

Some folks thing Nebraska is flat. It's true that there are no real mountains here, but go for a stroll with me sometime and I'll disabuse you of the notion that the Cornhusker State is a billiard table. Click on the attached photo and you'll get a glimpse of what I mean.

All in all it was a wonderful workout. I was sure glad I could call it a day at the end though, and go relax. Those poor tough bastards in Iraq and Afghanistan do my 10 miles three times a day and have to be constantly ready to fight. Definitely a young man's game.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

viridis part two

May 10, 2007
It’s a Sunday morning and I’m finally taking the time to put aside the busyness of too many irons in the fire. I can feel the tension draining from my soul as I stride across the prairie, loaded down with rifle, rucksack and camera.
Walking the uneven ground feels good. My Achilles tendon rehab is coming along nicely, and while it’s still sore and gimpy, it’s definitely stronger than it was a week ago. My heart rate is up with exertion, muscles move smoothly as I motor along beneath the inverted cerulean bowl that is the enormous sky. Air moves in and out of my lungs the way it should, and the sweat I’m producing proves that I’m getting a good workout.
It’s coolish this morning and the Sun, hanging fat and fiery just above the horizon, hasn’t had the time to do it’s radiant warming thing. The air is still and close and filled with birdsong and the smell of a good spring; damp earth and growing grass and opening wildflowers. There’s a west breeze but it’s not annoying, no more than 10 miles an hour.
A grin grows beneath my nose as I take it all in. The wildflower eruption has happened, and I’m like a kid in a toy store, scurrying here, there, everywhere, looking and oohing and ahhing. Surrounded by an enormous quantity of sheer beauty, the realization of my good fortune strikes me with palpable force. How many people get to see this stuff?
I don’t know the wildflowers as well as I’d like to, so I’ve decided to record and describe them, then look them up so I’ll have the proper names. Watching me, an observer would think me mad as I dash about, shedding ruck and rifle and snapping pictures and scribbling descriptions. I have to admit it’s a comic dance, for after climbing back into my ruck and taking up my rifle, I seldom move more than 10 meters before ruck thuds back to the ground, followed (gently, of course) by the M-4, and out comes the camera and notebook.
I know, in theory, how to do the taxonomic descriptions of the flowering plants. I find myself absorbed in the details; type and shape of leaves, number of buds and blooms and petals, location of the plant, etc. No matter where I stop there’s an entire world of wonder at my feet. No worries about the twenty-first century can survive this sensual delight.
The Draba Milk-vetch, Astragalus spatulatus, is a riot of lavender and white, glowing, it seems, in the morning light. Perched atop a crumbling limestone outcropping, it's surrounded by puccoons, Lithospermum spp., ground huggers with fat, fleshy leaves and delicate orange blossoms. Everywhere I look I see the white flash and dark green of mountain lily, sometimes called star-of-Bethlehem, Leucocrinum montanum. I find narrow-leaf musineon or wild parsley, and the glowing yellow and sharp-edged leaves of the prairie buck bean, Thermopsis rhombifolia. My brother, the real expert, says he didn’t realize they bloomed this early. And nearly everywhere atop the crumbling limestone, are the little white, five-petaled flowers of Hoods Phlox, Phlox hoodsii. I wonder at the powerful beauty of such tiny jewels.
Far too soon I've filled one memory card in the camera, so I swap it out and move on, with only 16 Mb left to record any surprises. I catch something odd from the corner of my eye, something I've never seen here before, though I've tramped this particular native prairie pasture all my life. From my position downslope and to the west of a familiar outcropping, I see a flash of blue sky through a small blowout cave in the rock. "That'll make a neat picture," I say to myself as I scramble toward the opening.
The blowout is small and shallow, only about two feet wide and two feet deep. It's right at the crest of the hill, and roofed by a mere three inches of decomposing limestone, which has eroded through and left a jagged six-inch hole open to the enormous prairie sky. Thud goes the pack again, and I eagerly worm my head and shoulders and camera inside. I see a small burrow at the back of the blowout, and there is clear evidence that some creature has been spending time in there. "I'm glad it's not snake season," I think to myself, "because it would really be stupid to stick my head in here if it was."
I take my pictures, shrug back into the rucksack, and head for another outcropping a half-mile to the east. Something there I want to check out.
Last fall I stuffed an old ammo can with MRE's and bottled water and shoved them into another, slightly larger, blowout on this outrcopping. I was curious as to how they would stand up to the freezing temps of winter. So after five months, it's time to check. The blowout is filled with tumbleweeds, and I'll have to pull them out to reach the ammo can. As I reach in and grab the thistles, I think again how stupid it would be to reach in there bare handed if it were snake season. But it's not, right? It's early April yet and it's been pretty cool these last several weeks.
But the buzzing sound that booms from the blowout quickly changes my certainty about the date of onset of snake season. As I leap back, a corner of my mind notices once again how very different that rattlesnake buzz is from any other sound. I stand back and let my heart rate go down and wonder if I can clear this blowout a little, enough to photograph the snake, without getting bit or, importantly, without injuring the snake. This is a perfect opportunity to get some good pictures of the Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis viridis.
Fortunately, there is an old cedar fencepost nearby. I use it to gently pry the tumbleweeds from the opening, and soon I've revealed the ammo can with a fat, meter-long rattlesnake coiled up next to it. Cool!
The snake is quite concerned and buzzes away madly, rearing up in a defensive posture. His tongue flickers in and out, testing the air to find out what kind of idiot is bothering him. He's a lot more calm than I am, though, and doesn't even feint a strike when the fencepost passes inches from his snout. I fire up the camera and snap as many pictures as I can.
I can't help but marvel at the beautiful perfection of the snake's form. His mottled camouflage blends perfectly with the limestone, and I know from experience it blends perfectly with the shortgrass prairie, too. I'm close enough to see the thermoreceptive pits on either side of his snout, and marvel at their ability to sense warmth. From what I've read, the snake can sense temperature differences measured in thousandths of a degree. What a remarkable adaptation. He can combine his normal vision with the picture painted by his heat sensors for a kind of quadraphonic view of the world. From everything we know, he sees the world precisely, at least at short range, and can strike with pinpoint accuracy.
After about fifteen minutes, I decide I've bothered the snake enough for one day. I shrug back into my gear and stride off across the prairie, leaving him to his own devices. Only later does it occur to me that I never for an instant considered killing the serpent. And I was raised to kill 'em all. What a remarkable change.
As I march across the prairie I stumble upon a pair of ground bowers. One is cleverly built into the east edge of a cow chip, and filled with four purple-speckled white eggs. The other, along the bank of a dry draw, holds three brownish eggs, each lightly speckled with darker brown spots. I snap pictures of the ground nests too, and hope to be able to identify them later. Larry Snyder is kind enough to respond to my e-mail with the news that they are Horned Lark and Lark Sparrow nests. Thanks, Larry.
A week later I return to finally check the ammo can, forgotten in last week's excitement. As I approach I spot another rattlesnake, this one only a foot long and with just two rattle segments and a button. He must have been born last fall. He postures and buzzes too, and once again I snap some pictures. This young snake is exquisitely marked, and his camouflage blends into the limestone and dust so well that I'd have surely missed him had I not been looking. Considering how tasty prairie raptors (Swainson's Hawks, etc.) find young rattlesnakes, this one's camouflage seems perfect. My picture snapping finally bothers him enough that he slithers into a grapefruit-sized hole in the crumbling limestone. He glares at me and buzzes madly. "Go away! I'm very angry and I'm very dangerous!" Smiling, I take the hint and back off.
I look at the outcropping with new eyes, noting the many holes and burrows as if for the first time. Though I've clambered all over this mound for years, sat in the sun relaxing and even brewing coffee at times, the truth of the place never dawned on me. I realize now that beneath this nondescript limestone hump lies a snake den, a place snakes come to from miles around to shelter against winter's killing cold. Remarkable.
The location is a secret and I'll guard it well. I know people who would delight in tearing the den open and killing each and every snake. I'm not on a "save-the-snakes" crusade, and care little what people do in their own little worlds. If they gotta kill snakes, they gotta kill snakes. Just not on my property, not in my little world.
I walk away with a joyous song in my heart, my soul refreshed and at peace.


Apr. 29, 2007
I had an interesting conversation with a surgeon a year or so ago. I was having some trouble with an old lung injury and the surgeon was trying to figure out whether to clamp a persistently bleeding venule in my right lung or buy an acreage. Ultimately he decided to clamp the venule. I survived the endoscopic procedure, and I think he decided against buying a hobby farm, but that’s not the point of this yabber.
As the surgeon was thumping on my chest and looking at my MRI images, he noticed a bunch of healing scratches on my forearms, some worse than others. “What do we have here?” he wondered aloud in the distracted manner of surgeons the world over, and shifted his poking and prodding to my upper extremities.
I told him (probably rather smugly) the scratches came from fixin' fence.
At first he was astonished that barbwire could cause the number and variety of scratches I sported. I could tell he as wondering whether I might actually be a mentally disturbed “cutter” or if the scratches could be evidence of a murder I’d recently committed. He was about to call for a security backup and a consult with the psychiatric health department when I said, “You guys don’t get out much, do you?” I went on to explain, relatively briefly, the process of fixin’ fence, with an emphasis on the unruliness of barbed wire and the near certainty of collecting a good number of scratches. (I know, I know. Most experts never receive scratch one. But I ain't an expert. I'm a fence fixin' duffer. It's just something I like to do and I don't really mind the scratches. Go figger.)
At first he was horrified that anyone would have to perform such nasty, unpleasant physical labor in the twenty-first century. Then he was horrified that he’d forgotten to be horrified that I’d just admitted to doing such physical labor out in the middle of nowhere with a leaky vein in my lung. It might, after all, rupture, and I could bleed to death way out in the country, far from all hope of surgical care.
“I live in Kimball, Doc., which is in Nebraska, the next state over (he glances north, I point east), no, that way. In Kimball they have an excellent hospital, but it's a small, rural hospital. They have no chest cutter on hot standby. So whether I’m sitting on my couch or out in the country fixin’ fence, I’d have to call 911 if I start to bleed out. It’s 10 minutes to the hospital, or 20 if I’m out south of town. This thing gonna kill me in 20 minutes?”
“Well,” he said, “it very well could, but it probably will not. Still, be careful. Rush immediately to the emergency room if you begin to experience hemoptysis again.” (Surgeons talk like that when they get excited).
“Sure thing, Doc.”
I had a chuckle of recollection the other day when I got a dry-air nosebleed while once again fixin’ fence. I considered rushing immediately to the emergency room. “Oh, yeah, from the mouth. Sorry, my bad.” Guess you had to be there.
And we're already back to the tentative mental illness diagnosis, aren't we?
I had another chuckle later on the same day when I decided to tear out about 80 feet of fence and rebuild some corner posts at the apex of two pastures, a fenced-off shelterbelt, and a set of corrals. In doing its job, the shelterbelt had deposited 15 feet of snow atop this particular fence over the winter, and as some of you know, snow drifts can be hard on fences. I got the old fence down and old corner posts out just as the wranglers brought the cattle in to do some sorting and doctoring. The cows knew where they were going for the most part, but new calves skitter everywhere and their mamas get excited, so I had to do a quick, temporary repair to keep them in. It all worked out, but the whole thing was amusing. Guess you had to be there, too.
Sorting the cows (as usual) provided a fine example of how the best laid plans seldom survive contact with the first cow. One of the beasts was temporarily insane. We herded her into a small corral with four or five others and a half-dozen calves, then carefully closed and locked the gate, and turned to capturing the few remaining attention-needing cows still hangin' with the main herd. I glanced back just as the nutcase cow walked straight through the gate as if it wasn't closed and chained. At the end of the day everything got done, but it was a good reminder that we really build fences for our own peace of mind. The cattle don’t care one way or another about fences. Oh, they’ll stay inside one. But they weigh half a ton or more, and if they want to be on the other side of the fence, they’ll go to the other side.
But I digress. The cowlosophy is for next week. Ahem.
Rainy weather and a few other things have combined to shut me out on the fence fixin' fields for several days now, but I've still managed to build four solid (if not pretty) corner posts and get some snarled wire sorted out. And in the process I collected a good crop of scratches on my arms.
So last week I had a similar conversation (see first paragraph) with a different surgeon. The one who repaired my Achilles tendon, in fact. She understood. In fact, she'd been scratched by barbwire herownself. She already owns an acreage and hates working on fence, especially the scratches part. She did not admonish me to avoid physical labor, but we did discuss stapling technique. She cautioned me to work conservatively in light of my newly repaired tendon, but allowed that fixin' fence was probably excellent therapy for my recovery. It was an altogether pleasant conversation and she didn't mention rushing to the emergency room a single time. And she cleared me to push harder in strengthening the tendon.
Which is why Saturday morning found me striding across the prairie with a rifle and fifty pounds of gear strapped on. Now, that's not rehab like most people envision it, but I'm not most people. I wanted a good test, a good benchmark to measure my progress against, and I wanted to get back out on the prairie. It had been far, far too long.
I went about 7.4 miles, according to my GPS. I took it relatively easy but gave both my tendon and my cardiovascular system a "ruddy good gallop." It hurt, but rehab is supposed to hurt. Muscles need rebuilding, tendons need stretching, scar tissue and adhesions need breaking loose. No pain, no gain. In fact, at 46, I'm at the point where no pain (meaning no vigorous rehab work) means no return. If I don't rehab this thing now It'll quickly reach a point where I literally can't stretch the tendons or break up the adhesions. Permanent limpville. All the pain, the crutches, the dang transformer boot — all for naught.
I've got far too much invested to risk a wimpy rehab, and I'm not much interested in viewing the prairie from afar. At least while there's an alternative.
The prairie was a springtime delight. Last winter's snows have kept their slow release rain promise, and the cool season grasses are fairly exploding from the ground. Everywhere is green, and it's the green that only well watered shortgrass prairie can achieve. The first flush of wildflowers are coming along, and though you have to look close for them right now, they promise a lovely wash of color in the weeks and months ahead.
And it must have been a good winter for the animals, too, because you can't swing a cat out there without hitting some form of wildlife. There's no shortage of jackrabbits, and I've seldom seen spring cottontails as fat as the ones I saw scampering across the prairie Saturday. Native birds of all varieties were busy building bowers, and I kicked up eight fat mule deer does. They took a close look at me before scampering off over the hill.
These were all pretty springtime prairie visions I'd have missed if I wasn't out there, doing the unorthodox rehab work.
Halfway through my jaunt I stopped at a favorite stopping place, had a seat, and just took it all in. The fresh air, the sunshine, the growing plants and scurrying animals, and even the placid, lichen encrusted rocks.
If you're looking for a lesson in these words and haven't found it yet, you're not going to. If you have, I wish you the best in burning the day; in grabbing life with both hands and squeezing every bit of the juice out of it. This ain't practice.

Monday, May 7, 2007

small voices

Nov. 16, 2006
The Kimball High Civics Class put together another wonderful Veteran’s Day celebration last Friday. A lot of work goes into these productions, and it shows. Perhaps, though, all the hours, practice, effort and the final culmination of the event add up to more than they seem, more than a simple sum of all parts. The combination of respect and appreciation flows both ways at these annual celebrations, and that feels right and proper to me.
As some of you know, I am myself a veteran. I served in the 80’s and 90’s, a time of relative peace, but a time marked by the cold war, high operational tempos, and a number of short, sharp combat engagements. I lost a number of very close friends and an even larger number of acquaintances during my years of service. Those losses have been hard for me to come to terms with, and while the sadness and pain have eased with the passing of years, they will never be gone. Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day services always bring those memories to the fore in my mind and in my heart. Sometimes gently, producing a quiet, longing ache. And sometimes sharply, with a powerful and unanticipated upwelling of emotion. I never know ahead of time how I will react to the event. Sometimes it's relatively easy, and sometimes it's not. Either way, each celebration has a healing effect on me for which I'm very thankful.When the sixth graders sang a medley of service songs, and as veterans in the crowd sprang to their feet in turn as small voices sang the “Marine Hymn,” “Wild Blue Yonder,” “Caissons,” and “Anchors Aweigh,” I felt a warm sense of gratitude at the honor. As the fourth and fifth graders sang “Proud to be an American” and “Yankee Doodle,” I felt powerful sense of continuity in our shared 230-plus years of American history.
Colonel Robert Taylor, a native Nebraskan who served a pair of tours in Iraq with the Third Infantry Division, gave a wonderful talk on the history of the United States Army. For an historian, listening to the recitation of the Army story, from Lexington and Concord through the present, was very satisfying. The continuity of Army service in defense of our country is remarkable. The names of famous battles and campaigns are touchstones for a Nation which has always been a beacon of freedom. Gettysburg, the Marne, Anzio, Normandy, Okinawa, Pork Chop Hill, the A Shau Valley, Urgent Fury, Just Cause, Desert Storm, Anaconda, OIF. Those names remind us that there have always been, and are today, Americans who are willing to risk, and if need be sacrifice, their lives so that we at home may breathe freely and sleep soundly and without fear at night. And so those who are today crushed beneath the heel of tyranny will have at least the hope of a better day, have at least a glimpse of liberty.
Taylor, who introduced himself simply as "an American Soldier," also shared a slide-show of images taken during the liberation of Iraq. From my perch near the second graders, I got to listen to and watch as they reacted. There were the expected "oohs" and "ahhs" when explosions were shown, and as tanks fired their big tubes, and more than a few guffaws and giggles accompanied pictures of toppled statues. But the reactions tailed off to quiet, wondering silence as images of helmet-topped rifles and the tear-streaked faces of soldiers, themselves little boys, really, flashed across the screen.
It wasn't just the second-graders, either. I'd guess that a lot of folks in the auditorium were seeing these kinds of images for the first time. They saw stark, silent pictures, raw and filled with detail and emotion. Images not packaged for entertainment, without a light hearted, never-been-anywhere voice quickly explaining them away.
Some in that room had seen it all before, and our hearts remembered when.
I sensed that the kids were surprised and even a little shocked. But I also sensed, partly from their reaction and partly by virtue of having once been a second-grader, that they understood, at least a basic level, what it was all about. They understood that somehow, some way, a link exists between them, the pictures, and the uniformed men and women in the auditorium.
I looked around, and it was good to see them together, the veterans and the children.
A pair of high school girls played Taps. That melody triggers a personal slideshow for me. Doubtless it does the same for others.
A duet from the swing choir sang the Lee Greenwood Anthem "God Bless the USA." Most in the auditorium joined in, but somehow the small voices overcame the large. Small voices singing from the heart, which is the only place children know to sing from, filled the air with a warm blanket of magic.
Then the moment was gone, and the kids were dismissed to fill the remainder of their busy days. The crowd slowly dispersed, and handshakes were exchanged at the door.
The respect and appreciation lingered, though, as did the healing magic of small voices raised in song.

last, best day

Oct. 12, 2006
Every season has a last, best day. Summer’s comes in an annual collision with autumn.
Saturday – it’s warm and nearly balmy, with just a hint of north wind. The prairie wears an autumn coat; dull gray at first glance, remarkably alive and beautiful on closer inspection. The sky is blue and cloudless and towers incredibly high, the way only autumn skies can. The air is filled with the fragrance of fall, sumac and stink grass and sage. Slowly warmed by the sun, their odors waft gently and tug at visceral memory strings. Here and there soar birds of prey, Swainson’s hawks mostly, cruising majestically above the Earth, tracing broad oval paths through rising air.
The peaceful beauty of a warm October day steals gently into my heart. The frown of too much consideration of mankind’s troubles quickly erodes, replaced by a giddy, happy grin. An intense joy bubbles up from deep inside. I am indescribably blessed to be here, to be part of this wonder.
Is it indeed the last best day of the season? Who knows? I chuckle at my folly. It either is or it isn’t. I’m not here to tell the future, I’m here to mark the day, to sop up the wonder of it all. Being part of the here and now is far more significant, far more fulfilling than fruitless speculation. Being in the moment, unbound by yesterday or tomorrow, is potent medicine.
And it’s a medicine I crave. I once lived with the calm certainty that I’d never see 30. I suppose many of us do. I simply never imagined I’d walk an uneven prairie at 45, gimpy with a painful injury but alive and kicking nonetheless. The pain is okay, just a component of experience. If I’m willing, it can be a tool, reminding me that I’m mortal and limited. But without question my mortality and limitation exist in the context of a real and vibrant life. I breathe easily, my heart sends blood coursing through my veins, I bear the pain. I am far, far from my mortal limits. The pain is very small compared to that endured by others.
A melody echoes unbidden in my mind, “September When it Comes.” Written by Rosanne Cash and performed with he father before his death, Johnny’s lines go:
I plan to crawl outside these walls,
Close my eyes and see.
And fall into the heart and arms,
Of those who wait for me.
I cannot move a mountain now;
I can no longer run.
I cannot be who I was then:
In a way, I never was.
I watch the clouds go sailing;
I watch the clock and sun.
Oh, I watch myself, depending on,
September when it comes.
I understand those lines. As I slowly turn, looking at a complete prairie horizon and soaking in the soft autumn light, I am gently washed with peace. It may be October, with the Yanks out and the Mets in, but it’s not yet September. Re-centered, I go again in beauty, as the Dine’tah say. It is enough. Perhaps it is everything.
I climb to the top of the tallest hill in the area. The summit is not far short of Nebraska’s highest point, just visible to the southwest. Far to the north I can make out the tips of wind turbine blades slowly rotating on the edge of the world. I drop my gear and sit down, leaning back against my rucksack, rifle across my knees. The breeze is cooling, evaporating moisture from my sweat-sodden clothing. A muted growling of high bypass turbofans tumbles from the sky. The contrails are far overhead, stark white lines on a towering, inverted bowl of blue.
Fat, slow autumn flies buzz lazily around and a bumblebee cruises past with a deeper, more purposeful drone. Grasshoppers rattle in the sedge; I see that some of them are the season’s final generation, stub-winged and preparing to attempt surviving the winter. Many will, and I’ll see them again with the first golden shoots of a new spring.
As evening comes on I watch clouds billow up, creeping in from the west with the promised cold front. The white-hot Sun goes orange, then red as it nears the horizon, halfway through its annual march to the south. The sky darkens and a fat yellow moon peeps up in the east, halfway through its yearly migration to the north. I’ve just watched hours of reality. No television required. Time to go home.
My pickup radio tells me the Huskers lead at the half in Ames. Good. My VCR should be churning out a record of the action.
As I drive away the prairie sings her gentle evening song. I’m profoundly glad to hear it.
Sunday – it’s cool and cloudy and spitting raindrops that dream of being snowflakes. Tough old farmstead elm trees hold tight to deep green leaves, while every other tree (except the evergreens, of course) is naked or barely clothed in fading yellow. The sky is overcast, holding the horizon close in a moisture laden embrace. No raptors grace the air today, nor do any insects buzz or drone or rattle.
The prairie is hushed and hunkered down, ready for a preview of winter. Weather guessers promise solid phase precipitation, and the morrow may bring the grating rasp of snow shovels on concrete. But right here, right now, the day is sweet, the coolness a gossamer kiss.
Every season has a first, best day.

early autumn

Sept. 14, 2006
I've been told that the average first frost is Sept. 15 in these parts.
We had a tiny, patchy nip Friday morning, Sept. 1. No real surprise there.
In the last two weeks I’ve watched the millet ripen, tumbleweeds reach for the sky, kochia head out, and all the different thistles give up their seeds. Yucca, prairie royalty really, clumps now with, dry, open seedpods, bases surrounded by mahogany pips, a litter of color in the grass and scree to windward.
Chokecherry leaves started turning crimson in places weeks ago; their fruit, along with currants and rose hips, are being converted into winter-thinking birdflesh every day. If you get the chance, fight the birds for one or two fat, purple Buffalo currants. They're tasty.
One of my favorite prairie flowers, the pale yellow bloom of the prickly pear, is long gone now, replaced by dusky red fruits budding on leathery, spine-encrusted lobes. The fruits are good to eat, although seedy and a bit bland.
It's a few days early this year, but the annual changing of the seasonal guard brings a soft, colorful character to the prairie.
Last weekend, as I do many weekends, I hiked it, taking the time to look at autumnal changes. I started from a familiar place, dropped my ruck at a laying-up point a mile later, and tromped on south. There was something in the distance I wanted to look at, off to the southwest and about a mile away as the Meadowlark flies.
I meandered through a draw and dam bottom, past rusted car parts and other cast off items, crossed a fence took it west to the site of an old windmill. A fancy new ‘lectric pump squats there now.
I bent my trail south along the fence, crossed another, then another farther west and descended into a draw. I followed the draw around one dam and past another, then took a reliable cow-trail to my planned destination.
Another windmill there, with half filled tanks skimmed with bright green algae. Old trees, a prairie oddity, stood in the corner of a played-out corral. Leaves cast cool shade and a chance to pause and grin. I looked at my LUP, just a mile away, but I’d wandered two and a half or three miles just to reach this spot. That's fine, because the journey is at least as important as the destination. I enjoyed the shade and thought about all the cows that were gathered and doctored and branded and shipped from this place over the years.
I went on to another windmill, half a mile away. From the LUP the 'mills seem fifty yards apart. They aren't.
Forging on, I retraced part of my path to take advantage of terrain. Downhill wandering is good exercise, but it's hard to beat the long, uphill stretches of 30 degree slope for a heart pounder. The land is cut with terraces and gullies, three steps up, down, or around for every step ahead.
I headed for a saddle where I knew I could easily cross a fence. As the last one to fix that fence, I knew of a slightly wider span between posts, where the wire is olden and not too tight.
I crossed that fence, then trailed northeast, letting the terrain dictate my course and passing through the scattered EJE herd. Near the half-section fence line I walked past a big red bull. He was obviously off the clock, laying down near the fence and soaking up the sun in a completely relaxed bovine fashion.I doubt he'd ever seen a two-legged freak walking across the prairie before, so he stood up to watch and wonder in his uniquely bovine way. I think, though it’s probably just my tendency toward anthropomorphism, that he enjoyed the show. I walked within two feet of him, passing just in front, and murmuring in a low voice. I paused and stuck out my hand, which he snuffled at disdainfully. I walked on, and he quickly folded back into repose.
I crossed another fence up high, enjoyed the view, then walked down the broken swale to an east-west draw, followed it a ways, then power-trudged a kilometer north, up a steepening slope and back to my LUP. My legs burned and my heart pounded and I was very thirsty but boy did I feel good. I tossed down the thermarest and fired up the billy for a quick brew-up, then spent an hour in the southerly afternoon sun, sipping coffee and quietly pleased to be alive and free and enjoying the beauty of the shortgrass prairie in early autumn; beauty most will never see or even imagine.
I hiked again this weekend, in cool drizzle under darkening skies. Coffee boiled in a can tastes especially good in the chilly damp. Friday's rain came hard and with a lot of volume, frustrating wheat seeders but leaving draw and wash bottoms smooth and clean.
The grass was green and late-season wildflowers added splashes of color, some in unexpected places. I watched the evening come, and in the dusky dim of nearly night, I kicked up a jackrabbit. A Swainson's hawk stooped out of the gloom and secured late supper. But coyotes yipped in the near distance, telling a smart hawk to eat quickly or not at all.
Prairie rhythms are different than those where people congregate and build and live out their lives. Different is neither better nor worse, simply different. Those who venture out onto the plain with a willingness to listen to the rhythm and experience the prairie at it's own pace will delight in the wonder of it all. And come away, perhaps, with the knowledge that the Earth can get along just fine on its own. Hard to believe, isn't it?
May each of you find a way to delight in the simple pleasures of the real world.

Sunday, May 6, 2007


Aug. 8, 2006
I’m looking for rattlesnakes. I’ve tromped the prairies far and wide this year and while I’ve seen sleek earless lizards and fat horned toads and a bazillion mammals, I’ve yet to see any snake at all. I know they’re there, I just haven’t seen one yet, and they’re a touchstone. So I’m out looking.
It’s 4 p.m. and it’s hot. My fancy watch tells me it’s 105degrees. It’s the best time to look for snakes because, being ectothermic (cold blooded), they can’t regulate their own body heat and a core temp of 105 would kill them deader than a hammer. So right now they’re holed up in the shade, not moving at all, waiting for the sun to go down so they can slither out and pursue a meal.
I’ve walked five miles to get here, across the lumpy, sere prairie, which is anything but flat. I’m pleasantly winded and soaked with sweat. My muscles are limber and move easily, and the aches and pains of 45 years of hard living are bearable.
I throw my rucksack down and swallow another liter of water. A liter an hour to stay hydrated. I lean my rifle against the rucksack and cover both with a poncho. I don heavy work gloves and make sure my camera is secure in its belt case.
As I survey the rocky wash I’ve chosen to hunt, I think I must cast an odd figure. I’m wearing an old ballcap and sunglasses, a gray tee shirt and ragged khaki shorts, $200 boots and $20 socks. Gotta take care of them feet. They got me in here and they’re the only thing that will get me out. On my belt, in addition to the camera, is a utility tool, E&E bag with a first aid kit, mag pouch for the M-4, and a solid, worn, but eminently reliable Hi-Power.
I enter the wash and start my search. It's an exercise in patience. Before I move a finger I look carefully and hard and decide where I want to end up, where I'll place my feet and hands. No sudden grabs or movements. A rule to live by in close snake country. I know they'll strike if they feel threatened or cornered. I know they can envenomate me. I know I'm far from help.
There are no secrets in the wash. The snakes know I'm here. They "hear" movement by picking up ground vibration. Though they have no external ears, they have essentially the same hearing setup I have -- tiny bones and a fluid-filled canal and all of it wired to the brain. Oh, they hear fine. And they snatch molecules from the environment with their flickering tongues. They deposit the environmental news in their Jacobsen’s organ, which is something I certainly don't have. In line of sight, they peer at you through perfectly good eyes, too. Their eyes are adapted for night vision and close up work, but they see fine. On top of that, they view the world through the infrared with thermoreceptive pits located between eye and nostril. The back of each pit is lined with a membrane remarkably similar to the retina, but able to differentiate heat rather than light energy.
I carefully move along, looking for the shadowed crevice that will allow an approach and a good, long, safe study with neither snake nor myself in jeopardy. I finally find the spot, a relatively wide crevice on the southwest wall of the wash. There are scattered small rocks in front and a clean, nearly level limestone floor at ground level. I see where rainwater collects occasionally and see thousands of petrified univalves in the matrix of the sedimentary stone. This was sea bed some 65 million years ago.
Carefully I belly down on the hot rock and peer into the crevice and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness within. Slowly the dappled brown and black pattern emerges, and when my mind finally makes sense of what I’m seeing, I’m looking a fat prairie rattler in the face from no more than two feet. The snake is calm and does little but peer back at me, tongue flicking in and out. It’s body expands and contracts as it breathes, and the tail raises and gives a halfhearted shake, not even producing a buzz. A great sense of peace washes over me. The snake is in its element, exactly where it’s supposed to be, doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. I’m seeing a wonder of nature, on nature’s terms. As we gaze at each other, it occurs to me that there can be very few humans indeed who’ve had this experience. In many ways, it is a sacred honor.
I find that I don’t want to inject any more of my humanity into this place, this time, this experience. So no flash, no picture. There will be other opportunities. Carefully I back away, then slowly stand. My watch tells me I’ve been communing with the Crotalus viridis viridis for 45 minutes. My back is stiff and my jaw sore from clenching. My big, goofy smile hurts at first but is pathognomonically appropriate for the moment. I want to shout and clap and sing and celebrate but I do none of those things. “Thanks, snake,” I mutter, then carefully make my way back to my rucksack and rifle. On the way I spy a beautiful thistle, light green with closed white flowers, seemingly nailed in the center of another piece of one-time seabed. How can it grow there? Is there no end to natures wonder? Of course not. I capture images of this one and decide to see if the fellow at the Arboretum can identify it for me.
The five miles back to my classic beater is a joy. The walking is hard and it’s still hot and I’m still sweaty. But I’m loose and my tread is light and fluid and prairie joys abound. Jackrabbits lope and thirteen-lined ground squirrels skitter, hawks ride thermals overhead, and the sudden flush of a dove reveals a pair of brilliant white eggs in a prairie-grass bower. My rucksack is lighter by six liters of water, the M-4 a familiar, pleasant presence.
I’m not one with the prairie. I could never be, not in a million years. I’m too civilized, too human. But I’m closer than most people even know you can get.
The Arboretum fellow tells me the thistle is anything but a thistle. Rather, it’s a ten-petal evening star, Mentzelia decapetala. Saying I love this place doesn’t even come close to describing the song in my heart.