Most writers will tell you that their characters, fictional or real, will begin to inhabit their waking lives, even when they are not writing. Sometimes the characters will invade their dreams. For the past few days, Isaac has joined me in the Kansas summer heat as I dig goat head stickers!
From 1878 when Isaac arrived on the Kansas plains to claim his homestead until 1886 Isaac was without a horse. His journal is filled with references to his ongoing battle with sun flowers and sand burrs, and most of the time his only weapon was a hoe. To get the benefit of better tools, he had to trade his own labor to borrow a neighbor's horse and plow. In August of 1885 he wrote, "...up to Stimatze about getting final 1 horse plowing in 6 acre timber's [timber claim's] sandburrs in exchange for work." Apparently Isaac was not able to barter his labor with Stimatze, for the next day he wrote, "...about done with tall sun flowers and sand burrs...(each tree is hoed).
The challenge for me is digging the entire plant and carefully lifting it into the trash can without knocking any of the stickers off to hide in the dirt and repopulate the area I just dug. When the trash can is filled, I take the contents to be safely burned. Otherwise, the plants will dry up but the tough sticker seeds will drop off and germinate wherever they were dumped.
It's hot, dry and windy in Kansas right now, so I was outside this morning before sunrise, an empty trash can beside me and a garden fork in my hands. The birds were serenading me, and the flies were biting as if I were the morning smorgasbord. Sandy loam soil can look like a child's sand box, but in dry weather it can also take on the hardness of plaster of Paris, so the previous evening my husband had watered the area where I planned to dig, and it was just right for jabbing the garden fork underneath the central portion of the plant and lifting the root section.
The objective is to reach down below the stems to the actual root and pull the entire plant out of the soil, leaving nothing left to regrow. Sometimes I find an old mother plant, nothing much left of her but the dry skeleton of her branches radiating like spokes of a wheel in a 3' or 4' span. Her dry carcass must still be dug and lifted with special care to avoid dropping the dried seeds clinging to the stems. My spiteful pleasure comes in digging all of her progeny clustered around the span of her reach, destroying everything she spent her life creating. The truth remains that dig as I will, I know that the soil contains more seeds waiting to germinate as soon as my back is turned.
The plants are actually rather pretty, with delicate, almost fern-like leaves and tiny yellow flowers. The circular pattern of the stems is highlighted with a peachy-orange color, the plant spreading discretely close to the ground where the mower blade will pass over without harm. Trying to rid yourself of them by plowing, as Isaac seems to have done, only turns the seeds into the soil, unless the plowing is done before the seeds set.
As the sun climbs on the horizon and the temperature rises, I am glad to take Isaac with me to my computer as I write this post. Tomorrow morning I will be back outside doing battle with the goat head stickers, and for many mornings to come, I fear. I know I can defeat them, for our lawn is finally free of them--although I must be vigilant for those that we have planted by tracking the stickers into the grass on the bottoms of our shoes. The work I am facing now is the result of my own negligence for having ignored that area of the farmyard the past two years while I researched and wrote about Isaac. It's only fair that I take him with me outside every morning to face the digging and bending and pricks of my fingers and sweat and bites of the flies. The monotony of the chore is abated by Isaac's company as I reflect on his life on the prairie and all the work he too did by hand. He used a hoe for his digging, but I think he would have had better success with a garden fork!