A few months ago I featured several beautiful wildflower photographs taken by naturalist Rob Baller. Now, as flowers begin to carpet the Wisconsin prairie, I thought I would share some further gems, alongside an excerpt from my novel, Prairie Hill.
Prairie Hill unfolds from multiple viewpoints, but its two main characters, Jimmy Lathrop and Jenny Diggles, relate much of the tale. Nineteen-year-old Jenny, who works as a waitress at popular local inn, the Pullet Surprize, is passionate about wildflowers and heirloom gardening. Jimmy, a loner and a stranger in town, works at the Pullet as a dishwasher, while also serving as Cock-a-doodle-do, the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team. The following scenes take place at the remnant prairie they’ve discovered. The undisturbed virgin prairie faces destruction as part of the expansion of the local Prairie Hill Industrial Park.
For those interested in reading more, Prairie Hill is available as an eBook at Amazon.com. See Prairie Hill tab above for further information.
…Where to find Jimmy? I knew he liked to walk, but there could be a hundred places he’d go. I wandered the neighborhood nearby, since I remembered he’d explored it once before. No luck. I practically galloped down the railroad tracks, every minute thinking I’d spot his tall form loping along up ahead, or maybe hear the clanging sound of a far-tossed rock nicking the rails. I walked at least two miles and saw nothing livelier than a stalking cat on the hunt. So I mulled it over, tried to calm myself down, and backtracked all the way home, where I pulled out my bike and rolled away to try some country routes. If I hadn’t been in such a darned hurry I might have enjoyed the beautiful May afternoon, with baby corn plants pushing up in the fields, red-winged blackbirds calling and swallows darting after insects. But I kept my eye peeled for pedestrians and bikers and only chanced on a lone, puffing, sweaty middle-aged jogger. I crossed the creek and realized that I was nearing Hulda’s house. I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I’d see that awful sign in a couple of minutes. Would I feel the rumble and hear the roar of big diggers churning up unplowed earth? Would the hill and sloping field still be there?
I wound my way through woods and fields and found myself on the hill overlooking Jenny’s prairie, where I sat down. I call it Jenny’s prairie because when I’m there I think of her excitement and joy at finding untouched land with its rare plants and flowers. It’s a peaceful spot if you keep your eyes on the view straight ahead. Beyond the prairie and the road below, you see old farm fields cut through by lines of trees and a meandering creek. But I couldn’t avoid the constant whine and drone from the interstate a mile to my left and the noise of trucks stopping, starting, loading and unloading at one of the warehouses nearby. Nothing’s changed since workmen installed the sign way down below. The song sparrows and indigo buntings and monarch butterflies have no idea that their field of tall grass and sunflowers and milkweed is about to disappear forever. I told myself not to feel anything. Land grabs happen everywhere and the second you get emotionally involved, you’re thinking about it all the time and then it gnaws at your heart. I’ve had enough of that pushing and pulling of emotions over the last few years, maybe enough to last a lifetime. But there I sat anyway. Apparently, my feet didn’t agree with my mind. I watched the occasional truck or car zip by and finally a jogger who ran slower than he could probably walk it. Even that was more civilization than I wanted today. Just soak in a little more sun and then in a minute I’d look for an even remoter spot.
I forced myself to pass the thin stand of trees and looked left at the prairie, up the slope to the hill. There was a man up there sitting in the grass and I could tell it was Jimmy by his red checkered flannel shirt. It didn’t take him long to spot me. He stood up and turned as if he was about to head away, but he changed his mind and stood his ground. I dumped my bike and followed an animal trail up the hill. I couldn’t help noticing the long-stemmed blooming Shooting Stars and felt a quick flash of delight when I spied coneflowers and sunflowers and Black-eyed Susans coming up, though it would be awhile before they’d bloom. I wish I knew the names of the grasses – those at the prairie don’t look like anything you’d see on your standard lawn or baseball field, not even crabgrass.
When I reached Jimmy he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking tight and uncomfortable and with an unreadable expression on his face. “You’re a hard man to find,” I said. “I’ve searched all over town, every spot I think a Jimmy Lathrop might hang out.”
“You thought wrong about a lot of places, then,” he said, voice low and thick.
“I should have realized you’d be here.”
“It’s where I’d want to be.”
I sat down and he joined me, sitting about two feet away. “Jimmy, you said you’d found something out about the Extru-ThermaTec Corporation.”
It took him a long minute to say anything. “I was concerned for Hulda,” he said and I only half believed him. “She’s lived near here for a long time and it seems as if one by one the surrounding fields are going and she’ll have prefab on all sides.”
“Hemmed in,” I said. “She doesn’t want to sell her land, but the offers keep getting more and more attractive.”
“At some point, she may have no choice. Somebody might persuade the city to try eminent domain.” His hands tore at a stem of grass. “Anyway, I looked through about six months worth of papers at the public library, searching for anything to do with this property. All I found was a lot of hype about the industrial park and how pleased the city fathers are that the park’s stimulated new growth, including sale of property to the extrusion company. They gave them a whole lot of incentives to build here, too. Tax breaks, that kind of stuff. Buried way deep in the article they announce plans to break ground by mid summer with their facility opening by early December. Other than that, not a word. The paper obviously boosts this sort of thing – growth and expansion is necessary, they say. I thought there might at least be a letter to the editor from some concerned resident or other.”
“Not too surprising. Most of the farms are gone and the few country people around here are old.”
We sat in silence for awhile. I kept expecting him to say more but he didn’t or wouldn’t. I blocked out the man-made sounds and tried to concentrate on the sounds of a prairie in May, imagining myself back in time to when there were fields and fields for miles, no sounds from cars or airplanes or lawn mowers, no industrial hum or roar. A flash of blue startled me, and a bird settled on a bit of brush off to our left. Jimmy swore softly. “Bluebird,” he said. “See that reddish orange on its breast, a little bit like a robin. Same family. My father said he used to see them all the time when he was a kid and then they became incredibly rare. Supposedly they’re on their way back now.”
“I’ve never seen one. I guess they don’t visit backyards.”
“No, they’re field birds. They like open spaces. They used to nest in old wooden fence poles as well as tree hollows.”
“But now the fences are metal and everyone cuts down trees that aren’t perfectly healthy.”
“You got it.”
“So how come they’re reviving?”
“Well, they may not be coming back everywhere. I don’t know. But a lot of birders have set up bluebird houses, mostly wooden boxes, along fences out in the country. My dad liked to build them and I liked helping him set them up. We had boxes all around the perimeter of our property. Tree swallows liked nesting in them, too, but we’d see one or two bluebirds every year when I was younger.”
“You lived in the country?”
I waited, but he didn’t say anything else.
A few more cars had passed below. Now a brown car with county sheriff insignia on its door crept by, pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A man in uniform stepped out and peered up at us. He must not have had anything pressing to do because he hitched up his pants and began to trudge up the trail toward us. I stood up and after a moment Jimmy did too. “We could make a run for it,” I joked, but glancing at him, I was surprised by how serious Jimmy looked, concerned and troubled. He took a few steps toward the officer and I followed.
He was middle-aged and pudgy around the middle and the climb had broken him out in a sweat and he was breathing heavily. “Folks,” he said, though he addressed Jimmy. “Are you aware this is private property?”
“We’re just admiring the view,” said Jimmy.
“Well, we’ve got parks for that, you know. You don’t have permission to be here, you got to go. Sorry.”
“Isn’t it a lovely place, though?” I said.
The officer looked back down the hill and across the flowering and grassy field and nodded. “My wife would call this one big hellacious patch of weeds, but I see what you mean.” He pulled out a pad from his pocket, stared at it a moment and then put it back. “I should take down your ID’s, but we’ll let it ride for now. Just scram and don’t let me catch you up here again. There’s been vandalism in the industrial park, graffiti and so on.” He eyed Jimmy again. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”
“No sir,” he replied. “Alright, we’re out of here.”
We followed the officer down to the road. I picked up my bike and we headed back to town…