Making way for new – Prairie & Writing

We lost a grand old willow tree a year ago. Age and weather took their toll, and it finally had to be removed. Though losing the willow with all the associated memories was sad, the newly opened space made room to expand our prairie. As I’ve worked on this new project, I’ve seen many parallels to my writing life.

The willow made way for the blank slate of a new prairie patch.

The willow made way for the blank slate of a new prairie patch.

The idea of expanding the prairie has been simmering for some time. Yet, establishing the new area has not been as smooth as I’d hoped. Step one required killing off the grass. The herbicide we’d been using with good effect in other applications all of a sudden didn’t work. Ultimately, we invested in Roundup. One application and the grass was gone – along with all the prairie plant seedlings that sprouted in the spring.

Now that the grass is gone and new growth is coming on, I’m reminded of things I learned with my first prairie planting – and now must re-learn – with this new space.

  • There are plenty of seeds waiting for their chance. Even though I killed off all the desirable plants that emerged in the spring, more emerged mid-summer. Some may even bloom this fall, though they’ll have to survive the deer who relish these tender shoots.
  • Weed seeds are also waiting for their chance. Rounds two, three, and four of dandelions, pokeweed, and thistles keep popping up.
  • There’s always something new to learn in a prairie. At this point, the difference between invasive and non-invasive plants. An invasive species pushes out and replaces a native plant. A non-invasive plant may move in but won’t take over.
Mullien appear invasive at the moment, but they'll move on.

Mullien appear invasive at the moment, but they’ll move on.

Mullein, is one non-invasive plant. The new prairie is awash in these wooly-leaved plants. Even though they are plentiful now, I am not concerned that mullein will crowd the prairie next year for two reasons. (1) This season’s plants will not have time to seed before winter, and (2) Even though there were a dozen or more mullein plants in the old prairie last year, only one returned this year. Invasive plants like Queen Anne’s Lace will crowd out all else if you let it. Pretty though that flower is, I pull these out as soon as I see them.

Prairie & Writing Parallels

I’m at a point in my writing life where I’m looking ahead to what’s next. Looking at the prairie and my writing, I can make these observations:

  • Like the prairie seeds, there are plenty of new ideas waiting to sprout. In only a few minutes this week, I recorded half a dozen ideas for writing projects ranging from memoir to novels to children’s books.
  • As I work through editing my work in progress, I find weed seeds in the form of crutch words: “that,” “just,” “seem,” “very.” It takes diligent maintenance to root these out and keep them from marring an otherwise well written story.
  • In the prairie and in writing, I’m always learning something new. If I took up the children’s book idea, for instance, I’d be learning an entirely new genre.
  • Ideas for writing projects pop up and move on as do plants like mullein. In this case, however, I’m looking for that invasive idea – the one that will not let go of my imagination – the one that stimulates my writing passion. Unlike invasive weeds in the prairie, the writing idea with staying power is one I’ll nurture and grow.
    Prairie beauty - coming in two to three years.

    Prairie beauty – coming in two to three years.

Both prairie and writing take time and hard work. Both may yield beautiful results if I’m wise in choosing and have the patience to nurture.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about – in the prairie and with my writing life. What’s going on in your creative life? And how does nature inspire you?

Unidentified flying objects inhabit prairie

The prairie is a strange and wonderful place. Each time I visit, I discover wildlife from both the plant and insect kingdoms I’ve never seen before.

I’m not nearly as good at identifying the insects that inhabit the prairie as I am the plants, but as I explored the prairie this weekend, my eyes were drawn to the insects as much as to the plants because the air was a virtual O’Hare Airport of flying creatures.

It’s gratifying to see so many varieties of milkweed in the prairie and to see butterflies enjoy the blossoms. My prairie is only a patch, but I’m happy to do my part to encourage these insect beauties.

Here are a few insects I captured with my iPhone. Obviously, I need a camera with greater magnification (and either a steadier hand or insects that will sit still) to get better images.

Orange butterfly on Whorled Milkweed

Orange butterfly on whorled milkweed.


The first time I’ve spotted this little black & white beauty. Less than an inch long.


Monarch on butterfly milkweed. Finally one I can identify.


A lovely black and yellow dragonfly. Look closely to see how big the wings really are.


We never lack for bees or black-eyed Susans in the prairie.


Two Japanese beetles do what they enjoy most on a purple coneflower.

Japanese beetles


The second thing Japanese beetles do – make lace out of plant leaves.

Japanese beetles


Two insects in this picture. Very tiny. Very fast. This is the closest I could get.

I'm sharing this Rattlesnake Master because I love the make, how weird the plant looks, and it's the first time I've seen it this year. No insects visible. here.

I share this Rattlesnake Master because I love the name and how alien the plant looks, plus it’s the first time I’ve seen it this year. No insects visible.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this little visit to my prairie. If you can identify any of these unidentified flying objects, please leave the details in a comment. If you can’t identify them, leave a note anyway.

After the fire – Beauty

We burned our prairie this spring, and the fire my husband lit spread rapidly through the dried residue of the previous year’s grasses and flowers. Within minutes, we were left with nothing but a bare, black expanse.

The prairie was bare, but not barren. Within a few weeks, green began to show and now, only two month’s later, all evidence of the fire has disappeared. In its place are a multitude of flowers and grasses. After a burn, flowers are actually more plentiful. and we may see flowers we haven’t seen before. Here are a few prairie bright spots since the burn.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it's stunning.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it’s stunning.

This is the first year I've spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

This is the first year I’ve spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower - beautiful in combination.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower – beautiful in combination.

A common milkweed blossom.

A common milkweed blossom.

Fire is a necessary element of a healthy prairie, and we burn ours every four years.

Have you walked in a prairie? If so, what was your experience? If you have not been yet, I encourage you to do so.  The prairie offers infinite beauty.

Are you aging like the prairie?

As I walk my prairie this year, I’m struck by how it’s maturing. I was aware that flowers predominate in a newly established prairie while grasses take over in later years. This year, I’m seeing that reality. The contrast between new and mature prairie is clear and dramatic because this spring I let the prairie expand to another section of lawn.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The new section is awash in yellow – delicate partridge peas, profuse sweet black-eyed Susans, gangly maxmilian sunflowers, The young plants could hardly wait for me to stop mowing the lawn so they could take over. Their exuberance exciting, the brilliant colors irresistible.

Meanwhile, in the mature prairie, the brilliant flowers of youth have been replaced by graceful fronts of prairie grass. These grasses are strong and tall, able to withstand the winds of summer and winter blizzards. It took longer for grasses to appear in the prairie because they sent down deep roots that nurture them and provide a foundation for the future.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

The mature prairie has not given up on color though you have to look more closely to see it. Mixed in with the grasses are spots of blue and purple: wild bergamot, blue vervain, a few purple coneflowers.

As I move into the second half of my sixth decade, I think how the maturing I see in the prairie is similar to the maturing I see in my own life.

I long ago eschewed the bright colors of the psychedelic 60s for the grays, blues and browns of the business world. These days I’m still more comfortable in muted tones but I augment those muted hues with brighter colors in smaller doses. They brighten my attitude as well as my look.

Though not so flashy, the mature prairie is still capable of surprises and trying something new. This prairie put forth the first butterfly milkweed this year, the orange blossoms a bold statement that though it may take time, it’s never too late to bring out something new.

I felt bold as I ventured into writing and publishing my first novel. Do I say I took this up “late in life”? No. I prefer to say I took up novel writing when the time was right, when my roots were deep and my life experience ready to tackle this new adventure.

Things happen in their own time – in the prairie and in life. The prairie is aging gracefully. I hope to do likewise.

A prairie reminder: Patience

Six years ago, I prepared the soil and sowed the seeds for a native Iowa prairie. The seed mix I chose from Ion Exchange contained 37 different varieties of prairie wildflowers and grasses. I was so eager for my new prairie to take root and grow, I called Ion Exchange repeatedly to question one thing and another. Each time, I asked, “When? When will I see the flowers?”

Patience rewarded - Butterfly milkweed, 2014

Patience rewarded – Butterfly milkweed, 2014

Their counsel was that prairies take time. The man actually told me to go away for a couple of years. When I came back, the prairie would be there. I laughed, got the point, and stopped calling him.

As the years passed, I learned he was right. Prairies take time – and patience – something I’m remarkably short on. Each year, I identified the plants as they bloomed, marveling over each flower I hadn’t seen before and marking it off the master list. From Canada milkvetch to anise hyssop, dotted mint to rattlesnake master, New England aster to stiff goldenrod, the prairie flowers appeared. All except one. Butterfly milkweed.

I was so eager to spot butterfly milkweed. It’s the only prairie plant I know with an orange blossom. But it didn’t come. I speculated that the seed was not viable. Or maybe the prescribed burn we did at year four killed the seed. Or maybe it hadn’t been part of the mix at all.

Last year, I began to think about taking matters into my own hands and getting more of this particular seed to sow into the prairie. Time passed and I didn’t make the order. As winter turned toward spring, I thought of ordering  plant sets. I really wanted to see those orange blooms. But I didn’t get them ordered.

Then recently, as I walked by the prairie, a flash of orange caught my eye. I waded into the grass and there it was – butterfly milkweed! After all this time. As beautiful as I had thought it would be. And even more precious for the long wait.

Readers who have followed my journey with the prairie (search this blog for “prairie”) know I’ve taken many lessons from the prairie. One of them I apparently need to keep learning is to be patient. I may want what I want, when I want it, but if I am patient, the prairie offers up its beauty in its own time. 

What’s the life lesson you need to learn? And what reminds you?

It’s magic. Spring prairie emerges as old growth melts away

Spring in the prairie. New growth begins to displace the brown.

Spring in the prairie. New growth begins to displace the brown.

I tend to take fewer prairie pictures in the early spring. What’s to see? It’s brown. Tall fronts of dried prairie grasses wave in muted contrast to the new green of surrounding trees and grass. The seed heads of purple cone flowers and black eyed Susans are nearly bare, picked clean by birds over the winter. It’s all brown.

“What do you do with it?” asked my brother in law who visited in March.

“Nothing,” I responded. “Eventually, the brown just melts away.”

He was skeptical. As I was when a friend who’s had a prairie for longer said the same thing to me. But she was right. Eventually, the new growth comes on and last year’s dried out plant material disappears. As though by magic.

Golden Alexander

Golden Alexander

Now in June, the green of new plant growth is more evident. Particularly along the edges of the prairie where the plants enjoy more sun.

And if you look closely, you can find the first flowers. Golden Alexander and white foxglove.

Foxglove - one of the earliest prairie blooms.

Foxglove – one of the earliest prairie blooms.

I extended the prairie another twenty feet last fall. I didn’t need to spread any seed. The prairie had already done that. I only needed to kill the grass. The new area is full of prairie plants. Unfortunately, the deer have found these tender shoots particularly appealing. The tallest plants are neatly clipped off each morning.

Eventually, the deer will move on. And I have faith the prairie will persist with its spring magic.


Forging paths in the prairie and in writing

Hannah Prairie 3Since my granddaughters were born, I’ve taken them to the prairie every time they visit us. As little ones, they were carried in. As they grew older, I led the way.


On her last visit, I encouraged my oldest granddaughter, now four and a half years old, to take the lead. She hesitated. “You’re an adventurer,” I said. “I know you can find a way. You go ahead. I’ll follow.”  With that encouragement, she pushed ahead.


Her experiences in the prairie that day reminded me of my own journey in editing my novel. After an advanced novel workshop this summer, I got serious about editing my 118,000-word historical novel. Here’s what she learned about prairie exploration and what I’ve learned about editing.


Don’t be afraid. Just start. Seven-foot-tall prairie grasses and four-foot-tall flowers can be mighty intimidating to someone three-foot tall. The unknown can be scary, but once she got going, she thrived on the adventure. Having never edited a novel, I was hesitant about how it would go. But, really, there was nothing to do but start. Every day do something. The more I did, the easier it became to do more.


Accept help from someone who’s been this way before. When my granddaughter hit a wall of foliage, she looked back to me. I could point her in a new direction, just as other editors pointed me. While blogging about my “crutch words,” I learned about Sharla Rae’s list of “echo words.” Going word by word down her list, I was able to cut literally thousands of words from my manuscript. The result is infinitely better.


Trust your gut and affirm your own actions. My granddaughter might be blocked by the dense foliage, taking advantage of the paths made by other prairie visitors. or finding her own way, but the more she explored, the more excited she became. “I’m an adventurer,” she said with delight, happy to claim her title. As I launched into editing, another writer made an off hand comment: “It all comes back to the author to decide what she wants.” I’ve recalled that comment repeatedly as I learn to trust and act on what my gut tells me. I know these characters. I know the story I want to tell. I know when an entire scene needs to go. No one knows that better than I do. The editing experience affirmed me as a writer and as an editor.


Hannah Prairie 2Take joy in the moment. The prairie is a joy-filled place for my granddaughter, heat, bugs, scratchy plants and all. Editing can be tedious but there are joys to discover. Finding a really right word or phrase to replace the easy one I’d started with. Recognizing that letting one character use a word repeatedly creates a character trait; letting several characters use that word is lazy and the word loses its power. Discovering that fewer words can have infinitely more power.


Once isn’t enough. Each time my granddaughter emerged from the prairie, she was ecstatic. Then, she’d look for a way back in.When I finished one form of editing, like my granddaughter, I jumped back in with another approach. I searched out crutch/echo words. One at a time through the entire manuscript. After doing a word-by-word edit, I  read the whole manuscript through to see what had happened to the sense of it. More words and parts of scenes hit the cutting room floor. Then back to the beginning for a read-aloud edit. 


The editing journey has built my confidence, just as adventuring in the prairie build my granddaughter’s confidence. In the process, I cut 15,000 words no one will miss.


How about you? When you’ve taken on new tasks, whether they be editing or otherwise, what have you learned from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


A bird’s eye view of hawks

Two Red-tailed hawks in ta pine tree

Two hawks in a pine tree

Five years ago, we planted a prairie patch in our front yard. Since then, we’ve noticed an increase in raptors. We hear more owls hooting in the night. We see more hawks soaring high above.

Frequently, I can look to the dead branches at the top of the willow tree and see a hawk sitting there. The lunch-time picking is easy with the abundance of wildlife in the prairie below.

In recent weeks, the piercing “kee-yeer” call of hawks fills the air each time I walk down the driveway to pick up the paper or take my morning walk. I’ve been startled to have hawks fly out of the lower branches of the evergreen trees by our driveway, swooping in front of me at near eye level. I found it odd to see two hawks sitting on the edge of the driveway one morning.

All of these occurrences got me looking around more closely. When I saw several hawks in the willow tree, I determined that the increased food supply of the prairie also made this an appealing nesting area. I surmise that the two hawks flying out of the low branches and sitting on the ground are just learning to fly. The repeated kee-yeers are the adults and young calling to each other.

Juvenile, San Joaquin Marsh, Orange Co., 1-07. © John  C. Avise.

Juvenile, Red-shouldered Hawk © John C. Avise.

Yesterday, one of the hawks perched on the backyard playground set long enough that I could identify it as a Red-shouldered Hawk. My Audubon bird book says these hawks hunt “by sitting quietly on a low perch, then dropping down to capture snakes and frogs. They also eat insects and small mammals.”

Since my office looks out on the front yard, I have a first class seat for hawk watching.

The ones I believe are younger hawks spend a lot of time swooping back and forth from tree to tree. While adult hawks always seem to be high in the sky or at the top of threes, these youngsters spend most of their time flying less than 15 feet off the ground.

Recently, they practiced their hunting skills on a squirrel, chasing it from tree to tree. It appeared they were trying to corner it between them. At one point, one hawk landed in a tree to the north. The other hawk perched in a tree 40 feet to the south. The squirrel clung to a tree between them, looking back and forth, unsure which direction to go. The hawks did not go in for the kill and eventually flew off.

This situation reminded me of a video clip I’d seen recently recording the life of Bald Eagles. In the show, one young eagle snatched a duck off a lake and flew off. Other eagles joined him and they appeared to play catch with their prey, one tossing the duck and another swooping  in to catch it. The narrator commented that this was a big moment in the life of the eagles when they learned to capture their own food.

These hawks must be at the same stage in their development, learning the skills to hunt while still getting most of their food from their parents.

Until now, my bird watching has focused on the pretty little songbirds that frequent our feeders. It’s exciting to have this opportunity to observe the impressive birds of prey for an extended period.

In the morning light – A Prairie Update

Gray-headed Coneflowers reach for the sky

Gray-headed Coneflowers

The days are breathtakingly hot and humid nationwide this July. Yet in the early morning, as the sun crests the horizon, temperatures are more tolerable and the air still fresh. The more forgiving, early sun on the prairie caught my eye and sent me back to the house for my camera to capture these sights. 

The Gray-headed Coneflowers reach for the sky and lean to the south as though they can’t get enough of the sun that bakes the rest of us.

Partridge Pea

Partridge Pea

Delicate little Partridge Peas line the outer edges of the prairie where they find the hottest, driest ground and are free of competition from the tall grasses and burly Cup plants.

Still shaded from the morning sun, the lovely blue spires of Hoary Vervain show off against the bright yellow coneflowers. When the sun is full on them, these blue tones pale by comparison. Early morning is the best time to enjoy them.

Hoary Vervain with Gray-headed Coneflowers

Hoary Vervain with Gray-headed Coneflowers

Though these Foxglove Beard Tongues appeared early in the spring and are long past flowering, I’m sharing them because this is the very first time these pure white flowers have shown up in my five-year-old prairie. They deserve recognition.

Foxglobe Beard Tongue

Foxglobe Beard Tongue

Though other gardens may wilt in this arid July heat, the prairie is undeterred. And I am fresher myself from a walk in its beauty.

Thanks for joining me!

Celebrating spring and poetry

Does spring inspire you to write poetry?  April is National Poetry Month and we are finally seeing the signs of spring here in Iowa. In honor of both, here’s a poem I wrote. An homage to William Carlos Williams.

Prairie, GranddaughtersThe Brown Prairie

so much depends

a brown spring

beaten down by

through a child’s

* * *

I wrote this poem in response to the prompt “so much depends upon.”  If you’d like to respond, in poem form or otherwise, I’d love to know what images that prompt – or the green grass and flowers of spring – trigger for you.