pasture heaven—davies wakefield—nov 2020
My right eyebrow raised and I looked at my wife when the owner said that it took 6-8 hours depending on how high the grass was. Twenty years ago, we were in the process of buying what we wanted to be our retirement home. When we first married in 1974, we saved up our money to buy an old 12.5-acre farmstead in Southern Illinois with the hopes of running an organic farm and raising a family. Idealism faded as work and a career in business delayed that dream but with this place, we had second, and probably last, chance to revive our dream. Three other bidders for the home lost out as we payed significantly more than the owner had asked for our 25-year-old dream.
The home is northwest of Maribel (now a bedroom community of Green Bay). We are at the end of a cul de sac on a tract of about seven acres that is 75 feet above a Tamarack swamp. The three forested acres are mixed hardwoods and soft woods with Aspen and Cottonwoods thrown in with Oak, Ash and Hickory. Down the slope, on the edge of the swamp, an animal trail winds along the edge of the property. In the spring I hunt the hills above the swamp for morels. Chanterelles, porcini and hedgehog mushrooms come up during June and July. We enjoy the spring flowers which include Jack-in-the pulpit, May Apples and Trillium.
The front four acres belied the rustic nature of the back three. The previous owner had all four acres in grass along with a spraying contract with, sardonically named, Spring Green. Not long after moving in we stopped mowing the east side of our long gravel driveway and canceled the Spring Green contract. The west side of the driveway was turned into an organic garden with three 75-foot strips of asparagus and a one-acre garden that we raised garlic, green beans, parsnips, salsify and fingerling potatoes sold to local restaurants like Chives, Rye and Hinterland Brewing as well as Stefanos in Sheboygan. We wanted to return most of the property back to nature and we started immediately.
The first year after stopping the mowing of the two acres on the east side not much happened. We just had two-foot-high grass. The second year we burnt off the grass and planted narcissus and daffodil bulbs, which over the last 18 years have naturalized giving us a spectacular spring display of blooms and aromas. We also planted some trees. Two maples and several ash trees were already planted but we started to dig up little oak striplings out of the forest and planted them in the fledgling lea. My wife Jean, who majored in Art in college, designed some twisting trails through the grass which allowed us to get close to our wild area. That first Oak tree we planted is now 38" in diameter at chest height. Back at the turn of the century nobody had started talking about carbon neutrality, but here we are in 2020 with not only a beautiful tree but also a “carbon storage unit" that converts sunlight, water and CO2 into cellulose. This October I planted three Hickory seedlings and an Oak seedling that had sprung up in our flower garden courtesy of the planting our squirrels do each fall. Each seedling is protected by a ring of hardware cloth to keep deer and rodents from chewing on the tender growth. In the wild, oak seedlings often languish for years at about a foot high as deer browse the new foliage each spring until the root system builds up enough vigor to push out over a foot of growth that is long and hardy enough to endure the deer feeding. We also noticed a Black Walnut and a Boxelder tree two years ago that we screened in with circular pieces of rebar to keep the deer from rubbing the felt off of their antlers. I found out the hard way in 2003 that they had to be protected when the beautiful (and expensive) Basswood tree I planted was destroyed by a buck in heat.
We planted five service berry shrubs and three high bush cranberry the fourth year we were here and both of them give us memorable shows of turkeys clambering into the bare foliage in the winter to eat the desiccated red fruit. We also started to see wild plants other than grass take hold. One of the first was Milkweed which spreads by underground runners as well as by seed. By the tenth year we had a Milkweed in every part of the plot and we started seeing Monarch butterflies. Today our pasture is filled with Monarchs returning from Mexico each June and that big oak tree is dripping with newly hatched Monarchs as they pause on their journey back to the mountains of central Mexico, in August and September. We also noticed that Beebalm had started to appear amongst the Milkweed which attracted wild bees and bumblebees as well as a variety of butterflies and skippers. One of my favorite butterflies is the Easter Tiger Swallowtail which emerges in late April and has two broods. The second brood emerges in July and lasts into September. In northeast Wisconsin the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail also occurs but only has one brood. Both are indistinguishable except to a trained entomologist. Both have interesting patterns of behavior, they come flying over the top of our forest and down into the prairie to feed on Echinacea, and Plains Indigo. Toward the end of these beautiful insects lives they look pretty torn up. The swallowtail wings are practically gone; probably preyed on by insectivorous birds like fly catchers. After years of watching them I noticed that they have a peculiar habit when flying down from the tops of the forest. Instead of flying directly down and out of the woods in a beeline to the flowers, they flutter down like the falling and twisting of a dead yellow leaf of a tree. Once down into the tall grass they resume a normal pattern of flitting from flower to flower drinking the nectar. I suspect that this odd behavior is a genetic selection that over the millennium has given them a better chance to avoid being eaten by sharp eyed flycatchers that I have watched zipping from fence posts to snap up a horse fly in midair.
It wasn't long before Goldenrod also came into the new wild pasture. While I put up with the ills of hay fever, it was worth the hassle in order to see the new life that was attracted to the yellow blooms. In late summer Goldenrod becomes the only food supply for the local wasp population which includes Bald-faced hornets that build the large conical shaped nests that have played a role in every comic strip and cartoon gag since newspapers started publishing. Paper wasps, Yellow Jackets and other small parasitic wasps appeared as well to feast on the Goldenrod before the frost killed them. The Goldenrod pollen is heavy and can be smelt when it first blooms. A small Hemipteran or “true bug" the Jagged Ambush Bug resembles a miniature Praying Mantis with forelegs that grasp unsuspecting prey. It is camouflaged by a broken color patter of yellow and black with the yellow matching the color of the Goldenrod. It sits quietly in the blossoms until a wasp or bee gets close enough to grab. It then injects its saliva into the wasp and liquifies the flesh which it ingests. Another interesting insect on golden rod is the Locust Borer. It is a member of the Longhorn beetle family. Locust Borers are mimics. The body has yellow and black stripes that resemble a yellowjacket wasp. What is even more interesting is the herky-jerky body motions and flickering of the wing covers that resembles the behavior of the wasp it mimics. It is such an effective mimic, that I have to look closely before trying to pick it up for fear of getting stung. Each fall for the last twenty years the vegetative growth has averaged about chest high and each winter snow knocks the dead plant growth down and voles field mice and other small rodents like the Woodland Jumping Mouse chew it up, make nests with it and eat the seeds; leaving another layer of humus that is gradually building up our new prairie.
The picture I took of the pasture I love so much fails to adequately capture the diversity of plant and animal life that now occupy it. There is a large population of reptiles and amphibians as well. Garter snakes hibernate under a pile of ice age rocks that cover and insulate a hibernation den. They have plenty of food in the new pasture and every once in a while, I'll see a large adult snake quietly digesting a large lump in its stomach that looks like a vole or baby chipmunk. We have a family of Fox snakes that lives near our compost pile and in the early summer I have encountered one of them coiled up in the compost bin waiting for a mouse or chipmunk to enter the bin looking for food. It usually shakes its tail like a rattler until I put the top back on the bin. We also see a lot of northern Red Belly snakes but purely by accident as they are pretty shy. Occasionally a five-pound snapping turtle out of the swamp will wander up into the pasture, after a heavy spring rain, to lay eggs. The pasture is also a new foraging ground for Northern Leopard Frogs and the Sandhill Cranes are aware of them because they now come into the pasture on occasion to feed on them.
I am not a native of Wisconsin, but I recently read Aldo Leopold's treatise on nature in Wisconsin A Sand County Almanac and I can't believe the eerie resemblance of what my wife and I have done with this little tract of land that evokes the spirit of Leopold's book. More than ever I believe that we are stewards of whatever land we happen to live on and I hope that we will leave this little 7.5 acres as wild and natural as the Wisconsin prairies and forest that were here eons before us. Merry Christmas.