Thursday, July 2, 2015

Cottonwood Forest

The old cottonwood trees are dying
Isaac B Werner had catalpa trees (See "Isaac's Catalpa Trees," 5-30-2012 in the blog archives), Osage orange trees (See "Planting Osage Orange Trees," 3-15-2012), and maples, but the greatest number of trees were cottonwood trees that he planted with cuttings (See "Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees," 12-2-2011).  Cottonwood trees were abundant in Isaac's community, but today the old favorites are dying.  I love cottonwood trees--the sounds of rustling taffeta as the breeze ruffles their leaves, the golden leaves against the bright blue of an autumn sky.  And, unlike most people, I also love the springtime snow fall of the cottonwood seeds drifting gently by.  Of course, that cottony fluff also clogs air conditioner compressors and collects in messy drifts to gather dust.  For me, the magic of the falling cotton is worth the resulting nuisance.

Cottonwood seeds on ground
Seeds still on branch
As our cottonwood trees at the farm age and fall to the ground (See "Threats to Timber Claims," 2-19-2015), we miss having them and have wanted to replant some.  However, all that we could find available from commercial tree nurseries were "cottonless" cottonwoods.  I considered the idea of trying to grow cottonwood trees from cuttings like Isaac did, but any tender cuttings on our old trees were too high for me to reach.

Our 'forest' of cottonwood seedlings
Spring of 2015 provided many successive days of rain at about the time the cottonwood seeds were falling, and it was the perfect environment for the seeds to collect along the edges of standing water, germinate, and produce seedlings. 

I noticed some little seedlings along the edges of the standing water, but never having noticed cottonwood seedlings before, I wasn't sure what the seedlings were.  I left them to grow so I could get a better look at their leaves.  For a time I was the only one who thought they were cottonwood seedlings, and even I wasn't sure.  Eventually the leaves began to take the recognizable shape and I was no longer the butt of jokes.  We had a wealth of seedlings from which to transplant potential trees.

I have now lifted a dozen of the seedlings into pots to see if 
Cottonwood seedlings in pots
they can survive being transplanted.  If they thrive, we will find a place for them, and the farm will once again have young cottonwood trees growing.  I'm sure most of our friends think we are a little crazy, planting what many have come to consider a trash tree, and what is worse, choosing trees that will produce the nuisance of cotton every spring.  But, judging from the number of followers of my blog who have expressed their affection for cottonwood trees, at least some of you will understand and will be cheering for our success in propagating these trees so popular with the early settlers of the prairie!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Preserving History

Original farm house
Writing history and restoring an old house have a lot in common.  Both require you to consider seriously whether what you are preserving is worth saving.  Both require a great deal of research and reflection to determine what should be included in the final version.  Both require severe editing and acceptance that what appeals to you may not appeal to others.

My husband and I have been restoring my ancestral home at the same time I have been editing and tightening my manuscript about Isaac B. Werner.  The picture at right shows the original house as it was built in the late 1890s, then doubled in size in 1907, and modified by my parents with enclosed porches in 1944 and the 1950s.  My husband and I rescued the house after years of vacancy in 2001 and are currently making some further modifications.  My love of history is apparent in the rescue of the old house, for it is rich in memories.  I thought you might enjoy seeing one of the projects I did to preserve the trim used in the original 1890s construction.

Original corner block & trim
Reproduction corner block
The front door of the 1890s original structure, with 2-rooms downstairs, 2-rooms upstairs and a kitchen separated from the rest of the house for safety from fires, had a staircase directly inside the front door, with the parlor to the right as you entered.  My Grandfather paid for the expense of 'fancy' wood trim for the parlor and the hall at the top of the stairs which could be seen when guests entered the front door.  As for the rest of the rooms used by the family, there was only simple trim around windows and doors.

I used one of the corner blocks from the original parlor to make a mold, from which I produced 88 plaster reproductions for the rest of the house.  I also designed two styles of smaller corner blocks for the narrower trim around several other doors and windows.  Our current construction has required me to make even more.

Latex mold for small block
Here is the process I used:  1.  I applied liquid latex with a brush to cover the top and sides of the wooden corner block.  It needed to be applied at about the time the previous coat was tacky but not completely dry in order to make the layers of latex adhere to one another.  I applied about 25 coats, setting the alarm during the night to continue the process.  2.  I made a plaster form to hold the latex mold so that it would maintain its shape when plaster of Paris was poured into the mold.  3.  Once the plaster of Paris was set, the latex mold was peeled away from the reproduction plaster corner block.

Small "bee" design blocks
The plaster of Paris does not take too long to set, so several blocks can be made in a few hours.  The two different designs I made for the narrow trim around windows and doors were first sculpted in molding clay.  The plaster form I made to hold the latex molds  allowed me to pour two blocks at once--a bee design and a bull's-eye design.  The image above left shows both latex molds, with plaster of Paris hardening in the bee design and the bull's eye design ready to have plaster of Paris poured into it.  The image above right shows a group of bee design blocks ready to be used.

Although my grandparents did not have corner blocks on all of their windows and doors, my reproductions and new designs now decorate the entire house.  Unlike the necessity to adhere strictly to documented events and descriptions when writing history, I can exercise some creative license in restoring the old Victorian house.  Although Isaac Werner knew both of my grandparents and their parents, he did not visit the house we are restoring, having died a few years before its construction.  However, he did visit their earlier homes.

I hope Great-grandmother Susan, my grandparents Royal and Lillian, and my parents would like what we have done!  I'm sure they would love the fact that another generation is enjoying the old house.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Classic Midwestern Barns

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
By now my husband knows to start slowing the car in anticipation of making a stop for photographs if a barn appears on the horizon.  As we returned from Red Cloud, NE after attending the Willa Cather Conference, we spotted this classic Midwestern barn surrounded by an ocean of still-green wheat.  My husband pulled off the road and got out his cell phone to begin checking message, for he knew my 'photo shoot' was likely to take a while!

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

There are many styles of barns across the American landscape, all sharing the common need to accommodate the weather and available materials of their locale.  Farmers built their barns to shelter livestock and whatever crops were grown in that area.  Sometimes the region of the world from which the farmers in the community had immigrated influenced the architectural style, and local custom also tended to develop within a community.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Preservationists and barn hobbyists often use general categories to describes the variations in barn styles:  Bank Barns, Round or Polygonal Barns, Tobacco Barns, English Barns, Dutch Barns, Crib Barns, and Prairie or Western Barns.  

I'm not sure exactly why this Prairie Barn stole my heart.  Perhaps it was its isolation, the farm stead that had almost certainly once been there long since replaced by crop land.  Or, it may have been the vulnerability of its opened doorways that bared its interior to the eyes of anyone who paused to look.  Somehow the clouds almost seemed to be an artists' contrivance to draw the viewer's eye to the abandoned barn.  

I know that many of you who visit my blog regularly have a special fondness for old barns, so I thought you would enjoy this one.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
These old barns are disappearing rapidly, and several that I photographed for this blog no longer exist.  Near cities they are disappearing to urban sprawl, but in central Kansas other reasons are more likely.  (See "Disappearing Old Barns," 1-15-2015 in the blog archives.)  Near our farm, the increasing size of farming operations has eliminated many former homesteads, and the barns were burned or allowed to deteriorate.  Few farmers keep horses, and fewer still keep a milk cow for the family.  Where there are dairy farms the changed sanitation regulations often make the use of old barns obsolete.  As farm equipment has increased in size, using old barns as storage sheds is often impossible, their doors too narrow to allow the passage of modern tractors and equipment.  Hay mows are of no purpose for the large 'round bales' that are generally stored outside and are too large to get into the old-fashioned hay mows if the farmer preferred to store them under a roof.  Grain bins in barns and wooden granaries have been replaced by metal storage.  (See "What Do I Do with My Grain, (Storing Grain), Parts I & II, blog archives 1/2/2014 and 1/9/2014.) 

Isaac B. Werner never kept cattle,  He built sheds for his horses, and sometimes he built a "self-feeding horse shed" from bundles of hay.  Probably the largest barn in his community belonged to his neighbor in Clear Creek Township, John Garvin, who held a Christmas party in his barn in 1888 attended by about 250 neighbors, including Isaac.

To read interesting articles about efforts to save old barns you may visit titled Preserving the Midwestern Barn by Hemalata C. Dandekar and Eric Allen MacDonald, and also 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Impossible Things

I only want impossible things.
The others don't matter.
--Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Mildred R. Bennett was not born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and perhaps it took the awareness of an outsider to recognize what long-time residents had come to take for granted.  Whatever the explanation, it was Mildred who became the driving force behind the foundation established to keep the heritage of being the home town of Willa Cather alive, a legacy enhanced by Cather's practice of using citizens and locations from her hometown in her writing.  Cather died in 1947, and in 1955 Mildred Bennett had collected enough other residents to establish the Cather foundation.

Sometimes it is amazing what small towns can do, and the growth of the foundation's mission over the 60 years of its existence is an amazing success story.

My husband and I visited Red Cloud not long after the Opera House had been restored.  Built in 1885 and restored in 2003 after having been closed in 1920, the Opera House is the heart of the collection of buildings in Red Cloud that were important to Cather's life and her writing.

Christine Lesiak, Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout
It is no secret that Cather is one of my favorite authors and that O! Pioneers is my favorite of her novels.  (See "What If Isaac Had Met Alexandra Bergston?" in the blog archives at 5-2-2013.)  I have shared the importance of opera houses in many early communities on the prairie.  (See "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House," 6-26-2014; "Stafford (KS) Opera House," 8-7-2014; and "Saving the Old Opera Houses of the Prairie," 12-11-2014)  However, saving Red Cloud's magnificent opera house and returning it to life with ongoing performances and exhibitions must have seemed one of those "impossible things" that most people would never have attempted.

The current exhibit in the Opera House is Regional Works of Grant Reynard, a Nebraska artist who met Willa Cather at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.  He was a familiar illustrator to those who read The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's Bazaar, McCall's, and Scribner's Magazine.

This blogger somewhere among the crowd
The annual gathering in Red Cloud has been something my husband and I have come to enjoy, but this year we were only able to attend one day.  Because it was the 60th anniversary and especially because it was the dedication of yet another "impossible thing" that the foundation has achieved, we felt we had to attend!  It was a day filled with the usual excellent sessions and great conversations with other attendees.

We arrived in time to hear high school senior scholarship recipients reading their winning essays.  That was followed by a wonderful panel discussion, "Awakening Young Artists:  Arts Education Then and Now."  The Cather Conference always attracts outstanding scholars, but this panel was exceptional.  The informal conversations among attendees are also an interesting part of every conference and seminar.  After lunch we enjoyed an excellent lecture by Kenneth Be, art conservator, on the subject of restoring damaged art, with an example of a restored oil painting mentioned in one of Cather's novels on display.

Co-Chair Jay Yost & new Cather Center
Next was the informal presentation at the Miner House (known as the Harling House in My Antonia) by filmmaker Christine Lesiak and editors of Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.  That was followed by the premiere of NET Television documentary at the Opera House of Lesiak's Yours, Willa Cather based on Cather's letters.  The opportunity to hear the filmmaker and the two editors discussing their extensive research and their personal feelings after working with the letters, and then to see the documentary was worth the trip!  The documentary was followed by the address of keynote speaker, Richard Norton Smith, an author and historian widely known by viewers of PBS NewsHour and C-Span.

Next came another one of those "impossible things"...worth doing!--the dedication of the nearly complete Cather Center.  We had the privilege of walking through the building with Jay Yost and his sister at a previous conference when the construction project was just beginning.  It certainly seemed like a monumental, if not impossible, undertaking.  Yet, with the support of 463 individuals, businesses, foundations, and public grantors the Willa Cather Foundation raised $6,390,060 to establish the National Willa Cather Center in the restored Moon Block Building.  Jay's co-chair is Ruth H. Keene, and the Honorary National Chair is Ken Burns, whose television programs have done so much to bring history to life.

Toasting the Cather Center!
A celebratory dinner followed the dedication, and we had the great fortune of sharing our table with Steven B. Shively, a member of the Cather Center Campaign Steering Committee; Andrew Jewel, co-editor of Selected Letters; Christine Lesiak, filmmaker; fellow Cather fans Deanna and Michael; and my special friend with whom I share book titles, Becky.

As wonderful as the programs and exhibits at the Cather Conference and Seminars we have attended are, the thing that draws us back year after year is meeting such wonderful people.  If you love Cather and you attend once, you will want to attend every year.  You will be welcomed into a large circle of interesting and accomplished people, and as my husband said as we drove home, "The Cather gatherings have become like an annual family reunion!"

You may learn more by visiting and you may keep up with current happenings at The Willa Cather Foundation on face book.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Shared stories of Bison

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
I never know what the comments and mail will bring in response to my blog postings, and last week's post about the American Bison brought some great surprises.  My husband shared this photograph taken at the Pratt, Kansas airport of Ted Turner's airplane with the image of a bison on the tail.  According to Turner's website, he has approximately two million acres of personal and ranch land, part of which lies south of Pratt in the vicinity of land Isaac B. Werner traveled on his potato trips to Sun City.  (See "The Trip to Sun City," 2-20-2014 in the blog archives.)  Reputedly the second largest individual landholder in North America, Turner advocates for progressive environmental projects and practices, which he practices on his own lands.  With George McKerrow, Jr. (founder of Longhorn Steakhouse), Turner established Ted's Montana Grill in 2002, with 46 restaurants in 16 states today.  On the menu, described as "American Classics," are a variety of bison entrees.

When our niece and her husband visited after having read last week's blog, they mentioned their own use of bison, preferring it over beef.  A quick check on the internet showed me that bison compares favorably in fat, calories, cholesterol and protein ratings, but cattlemen and steak lovers in Isaac's old community and elsewhere are unlikely to switch!  My husband and I were curious, however, and enjoyed a delicious bison burger, using meat purchased at our local grocery store.

I was very excited to hear from a follower in Idaho who shared the story of a buffalo removal project in which her son-in-law, Clint Sampson, participated.  A group of Biologists and Wildlife Officers flying in a fixed-wing aircraft located a group of buffalo in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah and called in a 4-person helicopter.  The helicopter herded the buffalo enough to tire them and then dropped a net to cover one of the bison.  Two men, so-called "muggers," then tipped the netted buffalo and hobbled its front and back legs together, putting the buffalo in a canvas 'bag' securely to allow it to be lifted by the helicopter for transport to a corral.  From the corral the bison was put into a horse trailer, where it was ear tagged and a veterinarian drew blood to check for brucellosis.  

Photo credit:  Clint Sampson
Photo credit:  Clint Sampson
 We have Clint to thank for this first-hand account of the project involving 35 bison the first year and 40 the second year he participated in the removal project.  The bison were transported to Antelope Island, and the two photographs Clint shared were taken recently at Book Cliffs.  His mother-in-law, Celinda Winters, was particularly interested because of the place to which the buffalo were relocated, for her great-great grandfathers, Lot Smith and Judson Lyman Stoddard worked with cattle there decades ago.  Once the buffalo reach Antelope Island they are held for about 30 days for further testing.  Clint has continued to check on the buffalo and reports that they are doing well.

You may have read the comment left by another follower at the end of last week's blog, which included the suggestion that I visit the face book page of his Canadian friend, Gord Vaadeland.  Gord works on Sturgeon River Ranch at Big River, Saskatchewan.  You may want to visit to get a taste of Gord's skills and the beautiful region in which he lives and works.  The photograph at the close of this blog was 'borrowed' from Gord's face book page.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bison on the Prairie

American Bison
When homesteaders like Isaac B. Werner arrived on the prairie, they found few trees.  They had not yet planted corn, the stalks and cobs of which they would in the coming years use for fuel (See "Corn Harvest, Then and Now," 9-18-2014 in the blog archives).  Lacking the traditional fuel sources, like wood and coal, these homesteaders found an unexpected source--the dried dung of the American bison, or buffalo as the bison were commonly known.  The dung, nicknamed 'prairie coal,' burned slowly and the odor was barely noticeable, according to contemporary accounts.

In the early years of settlement of the prairie, there were unimaginably vast herds of buffalo. Native Americans used the animal not only for food and hides but also found uses of other parts of the buffalo.  Because the buffalo was so important to Native Americans, religious rituals were often a part of the hunts.

A pile of American Bison skulls
As the plains were settled by people from other cultures, the animals seemed to be inexhaustible.  It was estimated that at least 25 million American bison roamed the United States and Canada, but by the late 1880s perhaps as few as 600 remained in the US!  They were often killed for their hides, the meat left on the prairie to rot, or they were killed simply for sport.  Sadly, they were also killed as a way to defeat the Indian populations, for slaughtering the buffalo meant less food and materials available for used by the Native American populations.  Cattlemen did not like grazing competition from the buffalo for their cattle's range.  However, it is also true that one method used by the Indians in their bison hunts was driving huge herds off cliffs to kill or wound them.

Fortunately, a few people recognized the importance of preserving this great prairie animal.  One of the earliest proponents of reintroducing the North American Bison to the region of its historic range was James "Scotty" Phillip of South Dakota.  He bought five calves roped during the Last Big Buffalo Hunt on the Grand River in 1881 and took them back to his ranch on the Cheyenne River.  When he died in 1911 he had a herd of over a thousand bison, from which other privately owned herds originated.

Painting by George Carlin
The Yellowstone Park Bison herd was formed from a few bison that survived the mindless slaughter of the 1800s, and the the Park's bison numbering over 4,000 are the descendants of those 23 hidden bison.

Today the US Department of Interior is seeking lands on which to move animals from the Yellowstone herd.  Because the bison migrate during winter, cattlemen outside the Park fear the spread of brucellosis to their cattle.  As a result, the government has allowed bison slaughters to avoid the risk of the disease spreading to surrounding cattle herds.

Some Yellowstone bison have been quarantined for years to make sure they are free from the disease, with the intention of moving them to appropriate areas outside Yellowstone.  Kansas is among the states with possible sites for these animals with the pure genetics of the original American bison.  The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was identified as potentially suitable for relocating these bison.

Small herds of buffalo can occasionally be seen in pastures in agricultural areas, but they are nearly always bison-cattle hybrids that lack the pure genetics of the Yellowstone herds.

Millions of acres of public lands have been leased to ranchers for grazing livestock, and the National Wildlife Federation has established a program to negotiate a fair market price with ranchers to retire their grazing leases and return these acres to the exclusive use of natural wildlife, including the bison.  Their program uses the catch line "Adopt a Wildlife Acre.  Give Bison Room to Roam."  

Perhaps there were a few American bison left on the prairie when Isaac Werner arrived in 1878, but for most settlers at that time the only resource left by the bison were their dried dung used for fuel and their bones, which could be collected and sold for use in fertilizer.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

More Historic Diaries

Leo Tolstoy
Continuing to share the history of diary keeping from Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, I was not surprised to see that writers and authors are often diary and journal keepers.  One example is, however, rather unique.

Sonya Tolstoy
From the beginning of Leo Tolstoy's courtship of his wife-to-be Sonya in 1862, until Tolstoy's death in 1910, Leo and Sonya kept diaries.  In her book, Johnson writes:  "A year into their marriage, Tolstoy decided they should share theirs.  For forty-two years, they read, wrote in and commented on the other's diaries."  Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, grew from a seed planted by a story he read in his wife's diary!

Fanny Burney (1752-1828)
Frances d'Arblay, known as Fanny Bruney, was a member of the literary circle that included Boswell and Johnson in the 1700s.  In 1768, when she was only fifteen years old, the clever girl began her practice of diary keeping with these words:  "To Nobody then will I write my journal since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved--to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart."

Dorothy Wordsworth
Like Sonya Tolstoy, another female diarist aided a famous relative.  In this case it was Dorothy Wordsworth who kept a diary to "give pleasure" to her brother, William Wordsworth.  She was twenty-six years old when she began in 1798, and William acknowledged that "She gave me eyes" through her journal entries.  The sketch of Dorothy is taken from her biography.

Alice James
Alice James, sister to novelist Henry and philosopher William, began her diary in 1889.  At her death in 1892, her brother Henry described her diary as "heroic in its individuality...Her style, her  power to write--are to me a delight."  Despite the praise of his sister's writing, he burned the diary!  We know what she wrote only because her companion had copies printed.

Anne Frank  (Fair Use)
War is often the inspiration for keeping a diary.  Perhaps the most famous war diary in the world is the one kept by Anne Frank.  Her second day's entry could not have been more wrong, for she wrote:  "Writing in a diary is really a strange experience for someone like me.  Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musing of a thirteen-year-old school girl."  Those musings, begun in June of 1942, ended August 1, 1944.  A noncombatant, young Anne Frank, kept one of the most read diaries about war that has ever been published.

Siegfried Sasson

World War I, with the horrendous loss of life as troops faced modern warfare in a way unlike past wars, produced a group of poet soldier diarists, among them Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.  In this 1916 diary entry, Sassoon wrote:  "As I sit in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings...Heaven is furious with the smoke and flare and portent of shells, but bullets are a swarm of whizzng hornets, mad, winged and relentless.  There are still pools in the craters; they reflect the stars like any lovely water, but nothing grows near them."

Mary Chestnut, age 13

Perhaps the most powerful diarist of the Civil War was a woman.  Mary Chestnut was the wife of a Senator, and when the War began, a Confederate soldier.  She had lived in Washington in the early years of Lincoln's presidency but returned to their home in the Confederate South when war came.  She was a sophisticated, well-educated woman raised in a slave-owning family, but as an adult the idea of slavery and the war being fought over that issue left her in anguish.  She socialized with men leading the South in the war that she questioned, and her diary became a place to express the feelings she could not speak.  On Spetember 20, 1863, upon seeing open railroad cars transporting sleeping Confederate soldiers, she wrote:  "...soldiers rolled in their blankets, lying in rows, heads all covered, fast asleep.  In their gray blankets, packed in regular order, they looked like swathed mummies."  Chestnut's diary was first published in 1905.  Historian C. Vann Woodward used her forty-eight copybooks, 25,000 pages that she had revised from the original diary, to restore and annotate what she had written.  His work was published as Mary Chestnut's Civil War and won the Nobel Prize.

Dame Ellen Terry
Alexandra Johnson ends her Brief History of Diaries with a chapter devoted to online diaries and blogs.  You may read my own blog on that subject at "Keeping a Journal," in the blog archives of 6-6-2013.  Johnson quotes Ellen Terry's definition of a diary:  "What is a diary as a rule?  A document useful to the person who keeps it, dull to the contemporary who reads it, invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it!"  Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), pictured at right from a painting by her first husband, George Frederick Watts, was the leading Shakespearean actor in Britain, and her respect for the English language can be seen in her wise definition of diary keeping.

Isaac B. Werner found his journal useful as a personal reference to aid in his farming, as well as an occasional place to vent frustration.  There is no evidence that he shared his journal with any contemporary, but I, more than a century later, have become a student of the era and community about which Isaac wrote, and his journal is certainly a treasure to me!

If these brief samples of diary and journal keepers over the years have made you curious, you may read more in Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief Histoy of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Historic Diaries

Isaac Werner's Journal
When I was a young girl I kept a diary.  Two of my diaries survive, both with faux leather covers and a flap from back cover to front with a metal closure secured by a lock that could probably be picked with a hair pin.  They contain the typical adolescent secrets, and my attempt to read one of them after I was an adult ended in disappointment.  Frankly, it was boring, even to the author.
Reading Isaac B. Werner's journal was another matter entirely.  Each day's entry was fairly mundane, but as one day built on another, I was transported back into another time.  His day-to-day chores and encounters allowed me to experience the era of my great grandparents and other settlers who had claimed homesteads on the prairie.  Isaac was influenced by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher, 12-7-2012 in the blog archives) and kept his entries free of most personal opinions and emotions, sticking to the weather and actual events during his days.

Queen Victoria
Isaac was not alone in keeping a diary in the 1800s.  England's Queen Victoria wrote almost daily for sixty-eight years, and her diaries constitute over one hundred volumes.  Isaac wrote daily from 1884 to 1891, filling 480 oversized pages, and the journal was labeled "Vol. 5th."  With the opening pages including entries from 1870-1871 and an unexplained gap of 13 years, it appears that four volumes were kept prior to 1870 when Isaac was in his mid-20s and volume five began.

Isaac's journal provoked a curiosity that led me to read a book title A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, written by Alexandra Johnson.  The author acknowledged the ancient keeping of journals and diaries, but it was her history of those kept in the 1800s and 1900s that I found most interesting.

Francis Kilvert
The words of an English country curate named Francis Kilvert writing in the 1870s particularly caught my eye because he was keeping a diary at the same time Isaac was keeping his.  Kilvert wrote:  "Why do I keep this voluminous journal?  I can hardly tell.  Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record...and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me."  I can't know whether Isaac shared Kilvert's anticipation that some future reader might enjoy his journal, but I certainly have enjoyed Isaac's record of his day-to-day life.

Charles Darwin

Alexandra Johnson also selected examples from travel and explorer journals and diaries.  One such example was Charles Darwin, whose notebooks and journals filled 2,070 pages and became the sources from which he formulated his theory of evolution and natural selection which led in 1859 to the publication of The Origin of Species.  

Cover art by Sophia Thoreau
Another explorer did not go far from home.  A reader of Darwin throughout his life and a friend of diarist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau's exploration was of Walden Pond, which was only a mile and a half from the center of Concord, Massachusetts where he and his circle of friends lived.  Yet, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847 he recorded his observations of nature and Indian trails while living in his secluded tiny cottage beside Walden Pond.  Those observations became the material for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854).  Thoreau explained his purpose for devoting himself to exploring and recording observations of Walden Pond and the surrounding environment, saying that he used his journals "to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  The cover art for Walden was done by his sister Sophia.

Unlike Thoreau, Isaac documented not so much the native plants but rather his meticulously kept records of planting, nurturing, harvesting, and storing the crops he introduced to the prairie's sandy loam soil.  Yet, he too wrote about the weather, the native birds, and nature's spectacles, such as eclipses, mirages, and sun dogs.

Next week's blog will continue sharing other examples of journal and diary keepers described in Alexandra Johnson's History of Diaries.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cemetery Iris

Isaac's stone in Neelands
The day that I first found Isaac Werner's grave in Neeland's Cemetery there were iris planted at the base of the stone.  Sometime later the iris tubers were removed.  (See "Finding Isaac's Grave," 1-13-2012 in the blog archives.)  We had a monument company correct the sinking and aligning of the stone and its separate levels, so the tubers may have been removed in that process.  Also, the cemetery board did a wonderful job of installing new fencing and grooming the grounds, and the old tubers may have been removed during that renovation.  I do wish I had been present when the tubers were removed, for I would have rescued the old iris roots and planted them at the farm as a remembrance of Isaac.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
Iris were a popular flower to plant around grave stones in old cemeteries, primarily because they survive without watering and send up their delicate blooms each spring without any gardener's attention.  The primary threat to the continued blooming of iris is blowing dirt, which gradually covers the tubers.  Blowing sandy loam soil is an ever-present condition in the area where Isaac claimed his homestead!  The tubers are not killed, however, and removing the soil or digging up the tuber and replanting it with the roots and bottom half of the tuber placed in the soil and the top of the tuber exposed will nearly always bring the iris back to bloom.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
I am a lazy gardener, so these undemanding flowers suit my personality perfectly.  Parts of the country, where winter arrives later and spring arrives earlier, allow re-blooming iris to produce flowers in both spring and fall.  That is when I fell in love with iris.  My mother loved her iris, but their short blooming period did not satisfy me.  Enjoying their flowers in both spring and fall won me over, and I began my collection.  Unfortunately, the tubers I dug from my collection to plant at the farm bloom only in the spring, although they are re-blooming varieties and have thrived with only the opportunity to bloom once a year.  I love them anyway.  Perhaps spring seems to arrive move quickly the older I get.  I am sharing photographs of some of my iris currently in bloom.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
I wonder what color the iris on Isaac's grave were.  Most of all, I wonder who planted the iris around the base of his stone.  My great grandparents, George and Theresa Hall, were friends, and they were caregivers of him in their home for a short period during his final illness.  Perhaps Theresa and her daughters planted the iris.  Or, perhaps it was his neighbor, Isabel Ross, whom he always called Mrs. Ross, a divorced lady who claimed her homestead as a single woman.  His journal gave no hint of a romance, but his many kindnesses to her and her children may have caused her to feel a fondness for her bachelor neighbor.  Maybe the ladies who were members of the Farmers' Alliance, in which Isaac played such an active role, planted the iris, or mothers of the school children who appreciated Isaac's constant efforts to keep the school house in good repair.  Whoever planted the iris, it makes me feel glad that someone cared enough to decorate Isaac's grave.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sand hill Plums Again

Webs on Sand Hill Plums
The popularity of my past sand hill plum blog posts has verified my feeling that sand hill plum jelly is as popular as it was in Isaac Werner's day!  (See "Plum Harvest," 6-14-2912; "Sand Hill Plums," 3-1-2012 in the Blog Archives.) Last year a frost damaged the sand hill plum blooms, but this year the blooms were abundant and beautiful.  I intended to take some photographs at the peak of the blooming season, but they had already begun to fade when I stopped to photograph what I spied from my car...web worms!  At least, that is what I thought they were.

I was fascinated by the webs, but I was on my way to a program in town, so I snapped several pictures and hurried along.  However, I was curious to research what the webs contained.

I found a post in the Back to the Past Archives written by Lois Guffy in 2004.  She wrote:  "We also had to fight the webworms that came early and formed a web on the branches waiting until the plums were large enough to enter."  She added:  "How sad it was, to see a thicket loaded with luscious plums and find them full of wormholes.  The worms were usually found embedded inside of the seed."

Since my photographs on this page were taken April 11, 2015 and it would be several weeks before there were plums, I wondered if Lois Guffy could be talking about the same webs I had seem.  I continued my research.

Caterpillars beginning to emerge
According to the Kansas State University website, it is the Eastern Tent Caterpillar that likes the native sandhill plum and choke-cherry.  They only produce one generation a year, depositing egg masses on the host plant to spend the winter.  The larvae emerge from the eggs in mid- to late-March and build their own 'nests', from which they emerge to eat the tender new leaves of the host plant.  Eventually they become moths that spend months laying the eggs on twigs and branches for the next spring's larvae.  While they may defoliate the bushes, they are not the culprits responsible for laying eggs in the fruit.

On April 2, 1889, Isaac Werner wrote in his journal:  "Catepillars webbing and hatching out with the advent of plum leaves ready to devour as fast as growing.  I went over my plum bushes about yard and cleaned them off."  Whether Isaac simply wanted to keep his plum bushes attractive or he, like Lois Guffy, also blamed them for damaging the fruit, he definitely didn't want them on his plants!

Life stages of the Plum curculio
The pest more likely to have spoiled Lois Guffy's plums is the Plum curculio.  The females are partial to plums, peaches, apples, pears, and other pome and stone fruits as hosts for their eggs.  They are a weevil native to Kansas and other regions east of the Rocky Mountains.  With their ugly snout and the ridges on their wings, they are a creature hard to love, and the fact that they are as wicked about destroying fruits as their appearance suggests makes it easy to find them despicable.

As long as the Tent Caterpillars only eat a few leaves, which should stop by mid-May in time for the foliage to return and keep the bushes healthy, I believe I will ignore the silky webs and hope the birds and wasps keep the caterpillars under control.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Poetry of the Prairie

William Cullen Bryant
It has been my habit during April Poetry Month to devote a blog to poetry.  You may visit the blog archives for past years in April to read those posts.  This year I will share poetry of the Prairie, beginning with the opening of William Cullen Bryant's long poem, "The Prairie."

These are the gardens of the Desert, these/ The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,/ For which the speech of England has no name--/The Prairies.  I behold them for the first,/ And my heart swells, while the dilated sight/ Takes in the encircling vastness.  Lo! they stretch,/ In airy undulations, far away,/ As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,/ Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed,/ And motionless forever. --Motionless?--/ No--they are all unchained again.  The clouds/ Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,/ The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;/ Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase/ The sunny ridges.  Breezes of the South!/ Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,/ And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,/ Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not--ye have played/ Among the palms of Mexico and vines/ Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks/ That from the fountains of Sonora glide/ Into the calm Pacific--have ye fanned/ A nobler or a lovelier scene than this? 

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
The style of this poem by Bryant, although rather archaic, captures the imagery of the prairie so beautifully that you may wish to read the full poem online.  It was written in 1832, as a result of his first visit to the prairies.  In a letter to his wife Bryant wrote:  "What I have thought and felt amid these boundless wastes and awful solitudes I shall reserve for the only form of expression in which it can be properly uttered."

Laurie Ricou opens her essay, Prairie Poetry And Metaphors of Plain/S Space with a quote from Stephen Scobie's McAlmon's Chinese Opera:  "Gertrude Stein says/ you have to have flown across the Mid-West/ seeing the patterns of the fields/ to understand modern painting./  What I say is/ you have to have walked that land/ a whole Dakota afternoon/ to understand modern writing."

Photo by Lyn Fenwick at Homestead Monument
Ricou's interesting essay examining the prairie influence and imagery can be read online, but I will share one more example.  I was particularly taken by Garry Raddysh's description of the wind, so familiar to all of us who live on or have visited the prairie:  "...the wind/ in agony/ as it struggles/ not to take root/ in the prairie."  I love the way he flips my normal way of thinking about the wind--as the thing that threatens to rip everything from its moorings on the ground--into something struggling against the power of the prairie.

It is the traditional power of wind that Myrae Roe depicts in her poem Udall, Kansas, May 25, 1955, about a powerful tornado.  "...homicidal winds bent on fostering hell./  Dawn covered the awful result with pale light./  Silence wandered like a ghost/ amid uprooted trees planted a hundred years ago... Reporters and cameramen hastened into the town/ to find their story.  Amid the ruins/ one of them wrote, 'The little town of Udall/ died in its sleep last night.'"    

Roe's poem was published at the poetry blog "Kansas Time + Place."  You can subscribe online to receive poems weekly by Kansas poets currently writing and publishing their poetry