Prairie Hill – Disturbed Ground

Along the Tracks - Turtle Creek in Autumn

My novel Prairie Hill takes place in 1980. A plot thread deals with the threat to one of the few remaining remnants of tallgrass prairie. I wish I could say we’re all enlightened now, thirty-two years later.

The other day I took one of my favorite walks. I slipped down the hill behind our house, crossed the flood plain and then climbed the short rise to the railroad tracks which follow the meandering course of Turtle Creek. A few warm days had melted the heavy blanket of snow and the sun tickled the old cap on my head and warmed the tiny insects out for a stroll on their version of a superhighway – the rust-tinged rails of a seldom used freight track. I heard a cardinal singing, the caw of a crow high up in a cottonwood across the creek, and the scolding quacks of mallards fighting their way upstream in a creek churning with snow melt. The gravel crunched as I ambled alongside the tracks. I looked to my right and then noticed something different. Someone or some thing had rudely hacked down the tree where the cedar waxwings like to congregate, calling out there ethereal whistling notes, socializing. It looked as if a giant had reached its hand down and snapped the tree in two.

Goodbye Cedar Waxwings

I glanced down the track and saw further destruction – brush, grasses, small trees, all mowed down, discarded on the creek bank or half in, half out of the water. Worse, nearly every larger tree displayed hack marks or great gouges meant to kill. At first, as I walked along, I wondered if we’d somehow had an invasion of beavers – I could forgive the beavers – but it had been years since I’d seen evidence of beaver and even longer since I’d seen the industrious animals swimming in the creek.

Damaged Trees

I remember when I first walked the rails, thick clusters of prairie plants on either side, a variety of golden sunflowers, the startling deep, rich, blue of spiderwort, pale pink-petal coneflowers bobbing in a stiff breeze. Best of all, there was a great variety of birds. In early spring you’d hear song sparrows and goldfinches, thrushes and thrashers, and a catbird trying out his best cardinal. One year, as I followed the creek, I suddenly felt as if I had a companion alongside me. I looked over and spotted a ruby crowned kinglet, flitting in the brush. It seemed as curious about me as I was of it and I felt that I’d made a friend. There were also the water birds, shy, skittish wood ducks I could never quite get close enough to before they exploded from the water in a mix of spray and beating wings, and the kingfishers speeding along the creek as if it was a raceway, making their clattering raucous call. Within a few years, I noticed this seemingly forgotten habitat under threat. The railroad people came through and sprayed chemicals on the vegetation, turning it into a wasteland which grew up again until further spraying. The wilder plants disappeared, replaced by opportunistic invasive species such as garlic mustard. Now they’re hacking it all down. I haven’t seen a kinglet in years.

I finished my creek walk and headed down Colley Road where I turned onto a fire lane/access path, headed for Leeson Park. This once peaceful, tranquil haven is another favorite walk under threat. So far the privately owned woods to the left remain undisturbed, a refuge for deer, fox, wild turkey and owl. Five years ago you could look to the right and enjoy mixed pasture and remnant prairie. Then the bulldozers tore up the ground, followed by the builders. What appeared? Not a country estate, not an “attractive” subdivision, but prefab warehouses. More than half the field survived initial construction, though its disturbed ground housed rough grasses and the beautiful but diabolical bull thistle. The new retention pond grew smelly, vividly hued algae but also attracted mallards, Canada geese, killdeer and singing frogs I can hear from my house. Now they’re building another round of prefabs and the field is down to a tenth of its former size.

Prefab with Wisconsin Clouds

Off in one corner someone had a bright idea. Why not plant a few evergreens on top of an artificial berm to hide unsightly cement pipes? As Hulda would say in Prairie Hill, “It looks downright silly.” Sadly, there’s nothing they could plant to hide the bigger mess they made.

Happy Concrete Pipes Taking a Dip

The Path to Leeson Park, 1993

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