Monday, May 7, 2007

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment