The great naturalist John Burroughs once said that nature teaches more than she preaches. I can’t recall a summer where that rings true more than this one, for that old sun of ours truly taught us a thing or two these past three months.
It has been a brown season, a year of the withered and seared and thirsty, and it isn’t just because we now have a new roof on our house that I am hopeful for a wet, cool fall. Due to the recent rains, the landscape we see from our windows is a little less tired and worn than it was just a week ago, but we still hope our trees can soon prop their feet up to rest and store autumn color. I am descended from the English and the Welsh, so I think it’s my genetic disposition to hope for rain and mist and soggy ground. Yet, amid the realities of costlier food and lower wells and the depressing ugliness of scruffy weeds and scorched fields, I have been surprised by another of nature’s lessons: In the driest of years there remains beauty and color and life, even if it does barely survive under an umbrella of toasted leaves or grovels in the cracked earth of a ditch that last ran full in March.
In just the past few days, I have scribbled a rather impressive list of the living things I have spied among the dead and dying.
Our tall friend, the blue heron I wrote about a month or so ago, stood a good while and looked us over as we walked past the tepid pond he had staked out a few Sundays back. It was as if he had taken a number and was waiting for a turn in a line he didn’t want to abandon, so he just kept a wary eye on us as we sauntered by. We must be becoming friends, for I caught him fishing in our garden bird bath one day last week, too. An oriole, perhaps an acquaintance of his, flitted past me that same day. He provided a pleasant flash of orange and black that stood out in stark contrast to a field of crunchy brown clover, as do the lightning-quick goldfinches who go after our now-fading coneflowers.
It had already proven to be a field day of sorts, for I had stopped my truck in the road only a few hours earlier to move a big box turtle as he hot-footed it from ditch to ditch. With his long yellow neck extended, he, too, stared at me, all the while treading the air until I set him down in a patch of crunchy weeds. He went about his business without offering his thanks, but since it had been months since I had even seen a turtle, I didn’t mind his rudeness.
One of the few positives of our baked earth is that the moles have given up digging in my yard for a while. I can just see them with bruised snouts as they wait for hearty fall rains like the rest of us. Our bees, however, wait for nothing. Even as I last watered our garden’s coneflowers and day lilies and sedum, they buzzed in and out of the hose’s shower, enjoying the bath as they gathered and transported pollen. The wasps keep trying to build under my back porch door light, too, and it appears as though it has been a banner year for those big burrowing ground hornets, the B-52s of the insect world, for they are drilling and digging away near my garage like wildcatters in an Oklahoma oil field.
We have been visited also lately by a gregarious praying mantis. My wife has watched him as he travels from one our hummingbird feeders to another. Whether he likes the nectar or the ants who steal sips for themselves is yet to be determined, but his brashness seems to be wearing thin on the birds that hum about him. Joanie has had to brush him onto a porch railing as she fills the feeders, but before long he is arrogantly back to his perch.
We have had encounters with horseflies and grasshoppers and crickets lately, as well, but it is the swallowtail butterflies that are breaking up the monotony of our brown landscape the most. They enjoy the marigolds near my cabin, but they have to share the area with a furtive little skink that slips between and under the rock wall I built there.
Despite the lack of moisture, there is surprising life in the weed patches and fence rows and fields we wander past. Of course, we always hear and see the killdeer and the rabbits and the sparrows, and about dusk, we watch bats dipping and diving in the dying light. Just the other day, we found a big dragonfly droning away near the road, his deep blues and greens a real treat. There are wildflowers and weeds making it among the frail and the dead, too. For instance, we have watched a decent crop of field thistle mature along the roadway, its anemone-like purple blooms bursting from big thorny heads. Daisy-like fleabane and purple pokeweed prosper nearby, and if we look for it, we can always find thin sprigs of yellow sweet clover growing. Its tiny blooms smell like a new-mown hayfield when crushed between our fingers.
There are purplish-blue bits of rogue alfalfa growing in the ditches, too, and despite there being nothing all summer but a little morning dew to water it, bright blue lettuce and purple clover continued to bloom. So did the graceful Queen Anne’s Lace that, year after year, despite frequent mowing and dry stretches and herbicides, just keeps coming back. We have also discovered a stand of evening primrose, which this year grows alone while the grasses that normally obscure it bow at its feet, the nasty sun and dry wind beating it into submission long ago.
Despite it being intertwined with a healthy clump of poison ivy, which never seems to have a bad year, a stand of honeysuckle still blooms; Joanie and I smell it before we ever see it. Each night, as we walk by, I snatch a tendril of the stuff, and without missing a step, we take turns inhaling its perfume before we drop it to head on up the road to become observers of windblown foxtail and the sturdy spikes of yellow wooly mullein. We also have watched the Johnson grass mature. A “noxious” pest to farmers, it is, nonetheless, a pretty plant, and now, despite the heat, has formed a russet-colored flower head that will soon drop its seeds.
Just a few nights ago, as I stood in our back yard and despaired at my bristled brown grass and the condition of a wild cherry tree that may have been just days away from dying of thirst, I spotted a pileated woodpecker as he landed on the limb of a sycamore tree not 30 feet away. Showy, and as big as a crow, he was apparently in no mood to make friends, for he soon flew deeper into the woods and out of sight.
I stood on the hillside and waited a while, hoping he’d come back to give me another look at his dramatic red and black and white jacket and his long beak, but he never did. Like much of the beauty I have discovered this summer, I had to look hard and wait long. It has been worth the trouble.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.