There is a place on my father’s land that we call “Rachel’s Prairie.” I love to take a lawn chair and sit in a clearing in the middle, between the red maple and the persimmon trees. It is a gentle rise above a man-made pond that my father constructed back in the late 1950’s. Today, the pond is wonderfully “unfinished,” bedraggled by cattails on three sides with towering pines on one side, a tall Scotch pine on the opposite bank, a cluster of willows that grow out of the standing water, with assorted shrubs and juvenile trees. It is a noisy spot, with the constant chatter, calls, whistles and songs of the red-wing blackbird. Occasionally a great heron will drop in, along with various raptors like the Mississippi kite, the red-shoulder hawk or the sharp-shinned hawk. A cooper hawk will sometimes intrude upon the scene. It is a busy place, if you wait long enough: deer, fox, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and coyotes.
And I will simply sit there for an hour at a time … and marvel.
My journey began when I was in junior high. Rachel’s Prairie did not exist back then because Rachel had not yet been born. She is my grown daughter. The “prairie”, as it was since the mid-60’s, was a routinely cut part of my father’s six-acre yard! It was a somewhat neglected part of the estate, but was domesticated nonetheless.
To escape civilization, I went into my father’s 24-acre wood behind the pond. There I would find an ideal spot, spread out a tarp and lay on the ground, gazing up at the canopy of tall hardwoods. And I would just wonder at it all. Where did it come from? How did it just come about? It was there I began to ask the deep questions regarding life and God.
In 8th grade I had a project in geology that studied the soil in the forest. I marveled at the tiny life forms. The rich humus was teaming with life: ants, beetles, centipedes, spiders. But at the microscopic level it was as if I had dived into the Mariana Trench! There were all sorts of translucent bugs. And if you added a drop of water the microscope would reveal communities of bacteria. Amazing that within this tablespoon of soil was a universe all its own.
As I grew into an older teenager I honed my outdoor skills and spent hours camping and hiking through wilderness areas in central Missouri. I still have fond memories of sitting in the door of my tent, puffing my pipe stuffed with cheap, smokey tobacco, a woodsman’s answer to bug repellent. It would be at such moments that I would learn about how wild nature could be. Owls would hoot into the night, along with the mysterious whippoorwill. Then there were the ton of frogs. The night air was practically an orchestra. And then there were the bugs. Missouri has tons of them and they reminded me that I was just a visitor to this place. I wondered how the natives coped with them. Yet for thousands of years people coped.
It was at such times I learned to be comfortable. People complain about Missouri’s weather all the time. Yet there was a time when the place was considered paradise. It is all perspective. I grew up without air conditioning. There were uncomfortable days where you could not escape the heat. But one of the things I discovered was if you went with the weather, rather than against it, it could be tolerable. Thus that spot under the red maple and persimmon tree. The shade, on its own, creates a gentle breeze. I choose a part of the day when the sun is not overhead and at its most intense.
Butterflies, bees and wasps seem to be at their best in mid-afternoon. They love the sun. I watch them move about Rachel’s Prairie sampling the abundance of wild flowers that have emerged. What emerged after forty years of routine cutting were an abundance of blue stem that reach five feet. Competing for the space are steady rotations of flowering plants, along with sedge and the unending intrusion of Japanese honeysuckle and Russian olive. I cut the intruders annually. But I ignore the recommendations of the specialists that suggest I douse the acre with Roundup to kill the man-planted grasses, and dope the stumps with killer to keep the shrubs from growing back. The prairie descends into the pond, and the last thing I want to do is destroy life in the pond.
So I just let it go and watch.
How is it that a patch of yard was designated as Rachel’s Prairie?
The art of sitting in the woods. Asking questions of where life began.