Until I knew the prairies, mid-July was not my favorite time in Indiana. This time of year is hot and often wretchedly humid, and the colors of spring — so sweetly surprising after a winter unfolding mostly in grayscale — have all faded into a uniform green. The redbuds are gone, and spring flowers no longer carpet the forest floor. And anyway, hiking in the woods is no longer a reliably refreshing experience; stinging nettles and poison ivy crowd out woodland trails, and the respirations of the trees can feel superheated. Paddling may not offer an alternative, as the waters are too often warmish and clogged with algae.
The prairies in full bloom, as they are now, are different. The sun is still hot on a July prairie, but it does always set, bringing cooler air and sweeter light. Although everything else seems quieter, the birds are still noisy at dusk, swooping from flower to flower and chattering the whole time.
Large portions of northern Indiana were once covered with tall-grass prairie, the plants so high they could conceal a horse and rider. In some parts of the Midwest, a human being might see nothing but this tangle of grasses and flowers in every possible direction, clear to the horizon.
As we were walking through the prairie on Friday night, we startled a buck that had bedded down in the plants and he bounded away. I hope he found another good spot to sleep.
I took my son to the Badlands in South Dakota in late May, and it shook up my routine a little. Sean is avidly interested in snakes, and plans to work in venomous herpetology, so we spent fully one day and half of the next at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. So instead of sitting for a long time in front of a wild prairie dog town as I might have on my own, I spent a long time in front of Reptile Gardens’ prairie dog town. There was a real upside to this: this years’ pups were out, and they weren’t concerned with my presence. Here’s the collage.
Bunny hour, at least where I live in the Midwestern United States, at this precise time of year, occurs from about 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. (While I do understand that an hour is composed of sixty and not ninety minutes, I think we can use the shorthand in the interest of verbal efficiency.) During Bunny Hour, all the available rabbits in the immediate area emerge from whatever cover they had taken for the day. Here in Indiana, they sit out in the open, nibbling grass, taking in the waning evening sun, and from time to time, interacting with their rabbit colleagues. But if a human or dog approaches, they beat a hasty retreat across the yard, into the brush, or behind the bushes.
This is case for most of the rabbits I observe, except the ones I call Dumb Bunnies. Dumb Bunnies are always juvenile rabbits, born the most recent spring. Still green and inexperienced, Dumb Bunnies will often stand their ground even in the most ridiculous of circumstances, usually staring vacantly at whatever threat is approaching. A photographer can get far closer to a Dumb Bunny than their seasoned, more experienced elders. Everything is late here this year, but Dumb Bunny Season is typically from mid-June to mid-July. Because of the rainy, cooler-than-usual temperatures, it seems like everything is lagging by 2-3 weeks.
This weekend, I was at a state park in Indiana, and at the appointed time, the rabbit community held Bunny Hour on the side of the road, its representatives distributed about every five feet along the grass, as if the road were a parade ground. Accordingly, I was able to capture this portrait of a Dumb Bunny. This young one is sharper than most of its fellows, as it had the good sense to put its ears back, which I understand is Rabbit for “back off, wanker.”
On Sunday afternoon, as I stood in the middle of a stream, water running over my feet and then between tall, moss-covered cliffs on its determined way to somewhere else, I remembered – again – that my husband and I do the same thing for play now that we did when we were twelve: ply the creek beds. We’ve added some adult accompaniments to this pastime; I carry my camera, we notice more detail, we pay attention to dragonflies. But the basic activity is the same. Although as adults, we breathe more deeply and more consciously, because we are more aware of what we are trying to shed out here – the stifling noise of an urban setting, the pressures of a life trying to hold it all together.
I love the natural world, and being in the places where it holds the most sway. When I’m in one of these landscapes, fully engaged in it, I always get a feeling of transcendence. This feeling isn’t exactly the same in all the places I go, though. Just as the foods I love all have different flavors, so do my favorite natural areas. Some places, like the North Fork Wilderness in Glacier National Park, stun me into silence one moment, and the next have me joyfully sticking my parched head into a frigid meltwater creek. The Silver River in Florida is changeable: in the morning it’s blue, misty and serene as a cathedral. But when the sun comes out for the day, so do the monkeys, and as they shove each other into the water or fling themselves in from the trees, they instantly change the character of the river from reverent to mirthful.
This place – Fall Creek, in western Indiana, near the Nature Conservancy site Fall Creek Gorge, is soothing. It’s a clear, walkable creek, dotted with circular indentations in the bed that force you to slow down and watch every step, so you don’t snap an ankle. At this time of year, the green of the tree canopy shelters the creek, filtering the sunlight into long, luminous beams. The cliffs are covered in cool green moss, and groundwater drips through the rocks here and there. About a month ago, columbines growing from cracks in the rocks were in full bloom, but by last weekend they were gone. The sight of the columbines was replaced by the enthusiastic chirping of cliff swallow chicks, tucked safely into nests their parents had carefully built inside gaps in the rocks.
There are always – always – surprises on the banks of the creek – an electric blue dragonfly, a tiny frog, a small water snake. There’s a particular rock beach that always seems to harbor puddling butterflies as they take in their minerals. Once, it was a large group of yellow Eastern Swallowtails. This time it was a handful of Question Marks. On the way back, we noticed a small, prehistoric looking creature, almost like a tiny horseshoe crab, lounging in the sand, half-in and half-out of the water. On closer inspection, we realized it was a snapping turtle hatchling, probably only a week or so old.
There are always surprises.
After a day of this, my calves were on fire and my joints were angry — another adult accompaniment to the endeavor — but my mind had quieted. Nature does this, at least for some of us, the scientists say, but I still wonder what precise things different places do to our minds. I wish I could wire myself up during visits to various places and find out: What part of my brain lights up like neon in a cool, green place like this? What about the vast and lunar Badlands? The New Mexico desert in September? What about the prairie patches that run along the busy city street near my home, where I’ve come away with so many images of micro-wilderness?
Most of my brain doesn’t really care, in the end. These are feelings of well-being, and addictive, so I keep seeking them out.
As I was standing on Marineland Beach in north Florida after photographing some birds, I looked to the east and saw weather gathering on the horizon. As I watched, the cloud seemed slowly to reach a finger down to touch, and then stir, the water.
It was my first waterspout. It lasted no more than five minutes or so. But still, I stared it down intently, as I’ve been caught in a tornado once before and I had no desire for the finger to make its way onto the beach where I was standing. Fortunately, it was transient.
I’m not much drawn to soft focus or blur in my own photography, though I love to see it well done in others’. But when butterflies do this, you need to have both to tell the story of the interaction. Focus.
A good friend died this winter, as I’ve written before. He and I shared a common trait – you might even call it a value, or at least an organizing principle for our lives: we were both restless, driven, never-satisfied seekers of place. During his lifetime, he traveled widely. I have traveled widely in the U.S. and outside it four times, but my focus has been more on traveling deeply. As my writings show, I like to go back to familiar places many times to gain a deeper understanding of their people and natural features. We both believed that for us at least, a good life means not smothering your passions under the weight of others’ expectations. We understood that it’s a balance; but we also understood that given our countervailing traits – chief among them to pay too much attention to the expectations of others – we would have to err on the side of our dreams.
We were very alike in this way and many others. As he once put it, we “wash our laundry in the same machine.” We dated for awhile in high school, one of those sharp, youthful connections you sometimes have that marks you well into adulthood. My view is that our similarities both brought about that connection and, ultimately, severed it almost thirty years ago. We both chose to spend our lives with people who knew how to file down those edges, one way or another. My husband strikes the best kind of balance for me; we share the same passion for outdoor activities and travel, but he’s had a series of life experiences that apply subtle counter-pressure to my driven nature, without smothering it. And in turn, my driven nature has upended his assumptions about what is and isn’t possible. We keep each other on the balance beam. I’m endlessly grateful for that; that something is at the core of our marriage, and it’s what keeps my feet planted on the ground through the storms of long-term relationship.
But as it turns out, the similarities that snuff out an adolescent spark sometimes make for a deep friendship in midlife. My friend and I had no conscious awareness of any of this at 17 or 18; but when we reconnected seven years ago – on social media, of course – we couldn’t help but laugh at the similarities of the lives we’d crafted over the previous quarter century. And the mantra of our friendship was based in that shared sense of urgency about seeking, seeing, and recording the places we’d been, particularly in nature. We each enjoyed the other’s travels vicariously, and exchanged strategies and stories. I told him about the times I’d had in Montana and Oregon, and he shared his love for the Appalachian wilderness. Live now! Time is short! That was the common value underlying our friendship, and it only strengthened when he became terminally ill.
But even then, we understood the paradox of travel. As we sat at lunch one day, we discussed the reality I’ve long understood, which is that whether something is exotic is purely a matter of where you’re sitting. Travel is often about finding a thrill in another person – or creature’s – everyday surroundings. As we were talking, he said the first time he realized this was in Russia. “I looked down at my feet for some reason on Red Square in Russia,” he said, “and I saw the same damn weed I see in my yard.”
Still, there’s something about seeing as many everdays as we can during as many everydays as we are allotted.
But then, his death pulled me to the other side of that balance beam. The day after he died, I tried to do something in honor of our shared value of living and validating our passions; I took the day off, determined to go to the zoo and photograph the baby orangutan, perhaps. But I was moving through quicksand from the moment I woke up. I slept all afternoon instead. Not till ten days later was I able to get back to the work of nature and hiking, when I took yet another day off and went to Goose Pond, a restored wetland area, to photograph the migrating white pelicans.
When I went back to the Silver River in Florida a month later, everything felt flat. Things that used to send me into states of wonder felt out of reach. I couldn’t have the neat, predictable moment of feeling that thrill and remembering my friend; there would be no nicely, predictably constructed emotional moment. I did the things I usually do; I just felt like someone else was doing them. So I went home, feeling strange and drained, which is how I usually feel before a trip. I felt a little – not a lot, but a little – unable to live up to the ethic of a friendship I now occupied alone.
And then came the Badlands. I had put those feelings largely out of my mind, but the sense of flatness and indifference came roaring back to me, and I even panicked a little at them. It is unusual for me to feel most alive at a captive prairie dog town instead of a wild one, but that is what happened. Ordinarily I would be drawn to immersing myself in the vastness of the Badlands, but I wasn’t. It was as beautiful as always, but it felt like something I was watching on TV. In contrast, I stood for hours in front of the prairie dog town at Reptile Gardens, feeling like myself again – interested, engaged, amused, grateful; swimming in the stream of life and nature instead of blandly watching it. But even that wore me out, and Sean and I went home a day early.
The next week, I broke down and saw my therapist. True to form, what I saw as alarming, she thought was in line with the bumps and bruises of life. I’m always strangely surprised when something painful really, really hurts, and I guess this is no exception.
“You were exactly where you should’ve been in the Badlands,” she said. “The lessons of all this will become apparent later. But for now, it all just feels like loss.”
This makes sense to me, now, even as it didn’t while I was traveling through that magnificent landscape, seeing only a blur. My travels aren’t just about ticking off bucket list items, and they never have been. The reason I travel as much as I can, when I can, is because these trips peel my life’s onion in a way that almost nothing else does. They show me who I am, they teach me lessons, loosen up knots. Trips surprise me. They make me think when they pull the rug from under me. They remind me I’m human.
So I was living well, after all, when I drove all the way to the Badlands to find out I was hurting, still. And the friendship that reminded me of and encouraged the best parts of me is still showing me things, even as I carry it forward alone.
“I need a shower, mom,” my teenage son insisted late in the day. “I’m really dirty.” We were in the Badlands, and we were deciding whether to pitch the tent for another night or decamp to a hotel.
My right eyebrow lifted a quarter inch, just like my mother’s does when someone has tried to pass off some chunk of bullshit as truth, and she is not having it. Those five words, after all, rarely emerge from my son’s lips in close proximity. “I need [blank], mom,” is certainly a common verbal template in our house; it’s just that the word shower is never placed within it. This kid is the king of taking long, hot baths and emerging without a single wet hair. Soap is an irrelevancy; shampoo merely a decoration I keep in the shower stall. I’m not buying it.
“You mispronounced ‘internet connection’,” I replied dryly.
One of the downsides of having kids is that they are often as smart as you are, and your field of intellectual advantage, ample in the first decade while their brains are developing, narrows rapidly and dramatically in the second decade. We’ve almost reached the halfway mark of that second decade, and my child now has a commanding and nuanced understanding of how to use my own principles against me.
He did need a shower. He was really dirty.
Plus, he is not a tent person in the same way I am a tent person. The night before, we had stayed in a campground an hour east of the Badlands. My friend, Kathy, was staying there too. Kathy and her husband recently sold their business and their home in New York State, packed their lives into their RV, and headed out on the road. (She is writing about it with her customary wit here.) Through sheer luck, we realized we were going to be in roughly the same place at the same time. As soon as we arrived at the campground and pitched the tent, Sean and I headed over to Kathy’s RV, which captured Sean’s heart as soon as he walked in the door, and for good reason. I have seen homes on HGTV that weren’t as well-appointed as Kathy’s RV. It was genuinely beautiful, and yet compact in that way that makes RVs so ingenious. Sean was rapt. And after getting to know Kathy’s dogs, he asked the $64,000 question: “Does this have wifi?”
“We have satellite TV and wifi,” Kathy’s husband, Dave, replied.
Sean quivered a little, and his eyes widened. I was pretty sure he was having one of those moments we all have at one point during our childhood – and he confirmed this for me later – when we wish just for a moment that we’d been born into a different family.
After we visited with Kathy and Dave and their dogs, we wandered back to our tent, encountering three toads and a rabbit, which was enough for Sean to pronounce the evening worthwhile. As we ate some pizza in the campground store, he began a thorough investigation of what he had come to view, in the last half hour, as a family tragedy: Why We Don’t Have an RV.
“But why, mom? It’s the best way to travel!” he insisted.
“Well, there are a few reasons. I’ve been spending most of my money these last few years on funding your college account and maintaining a home big enough for three kids.* And RVs don’t come cheap. Also, tents are just how Travis and I like to sleep. We sleep indoors all the time. We love the feeling of being outside while we sleep, of feeling cool breezes and waking up to birdsong and the smell of campfires. Not everyone feels the same way, and that’s okay.”
There was more, of course. Travis and I like to see remote, lonely places, and typically, a tent or a backcountry hammock is the only available shelter when you’ve packed all your necessities into a lonely place. It’s the price we pay for going where we go; and it happens to be a price I like. When I was small, my parents took a notion to drag four of their children out to the Colorado Rockies for two weeks and camp in tents. I was hooked. I wasn’t even five years old at the time, and still I remember what cool, golden morning light feels like on your skin; I remember my mom making what we affectionately called “Tuna Slop” on the campstove, and my dad pretending to be the Boggy Creek Monster, his shadow looming eerily and yet thrillingly on the tent wall. (Family lore has it that I leaped into the tent door when he did that and cried “Phaser on stun!!” I’m a little less bold with big shadows on tent walls these days, thankfully.)
In short, tents were part of the happiest days of my childhood. That may be how things get wired into our brains. Or it may not; my sister and I are the only ones who retained a love for sleeping on the ground after those trips, and my parents mostly avoided tents afterward.
But as I was approaching the turn where I would choose whether to veer down the gravel road toward the Badlands’ Sage Creek Wilderness Area, or continue straight to the tourist trap town of Wall, and therefore a hotel, I remembered what it’s like to have your preferences validated by your parents, instead of dismissed. Sean will sleep in a tent when called for; I can allow him a bath and an internet connection in exchange. He’s almost fifteen, and right now, the person he is remains Not As Much A Tent Person as Mom. So I put the rope down. He was going to have the room to be who he is, and not have his self crowded out by a mother who wants him to be like her, all the time. So we slept under a roof that night, and ate at a restaurant, and he spent a lot of allowance money at the candy store in Wall Drug.
But I still probably won’t buy an RV. Yet.
*Also, photography gear and travel. But I left that part out.
(This post also appeared on Hoosier Pamphleteer, an Indiana-run blog focusing on policy and politics.)
Up until the late 19th century, there was a vast wetland in my home state of Indiana that stretched across five or six counties, called the Limberlost. The Limberlost featured now-unimaginable heights of biological diversity; it was home to huge numbers of plants, birds, moths, and other creatures. Full of life, the beautiful, terrible Limberlost was also notorious for its quicksands and its questionable characters. It must have been an extraordinary place.
A woman named Gene Stratton-Porter, born in the middle of the Civil War, made a life and a career in writing and photography on the edges of the Limberlost. She turned out more than twenty books inspired by nature as it was found there, including A Girl of the Limberlost, The Keeper of the Bees, and Moths of the Limberlost. Stratton-Porter mastered photography when it was still relatively new, after her child had gone to school and she’d done the daily work that was required, back then, for a woman to take immaculate care of her home and family. In her free hours, she plied the wetlands of the Limberlost with the devotion of a monk, dutifully recording, photographing, and observing its inhabitants and features.
As her life and career progressed, she was forced to watch as the Limberlost was, in her words, “cleared, drained, and ploughed up,” having “fallen prey to commercialism through the devastation of lumbermen, oilmen, and farmers.” The Swamp Act of 1850 encouraged the wholesale draining of swamplands throughout the country, and by the early part of the twentieth century, most Indiana wetlands had been decimated, including the Limberlost. There is nothing left of the original Limberlost today, though a tiny portion of it has been carefully restored by a few heroic souls. The Loblolly Marsh Preserve, located in what was once the heart of the Limberlost, now spans about 440 acres. The original marsh was more than 13,000.
When I first began reading about Stratton-Porter’s life, I wondered what it had been like for her to watch the source of her life’s work drained to its inevitable death, stripped of its lumber and converted to farms, as the moths and other life Stratton-Porter wrote about and photographed died out slowly.
I wondered about that again this week, as the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, a voluntary set of agreements designed to set the world on the path to ameliorating and slowing global climate change. I realized there is a good chance that will be the lot of my generation and those after me, all over again – to watch as the natural world I love is slowly baked into devastation or stripped and paved over. Already since my birth in 1970, a huge amount of wildlife – by some estimates, as much as half – has been decimated. As I write this, there is a massive crack forming in the Antarctic ice shelf – 11 miles of it in the last six days. Eight more miles, and an iceberg the size of Delaware will calve off, forever changing the Antarctic Peninsula. I wonder if the most fundamental lesson of our time will be that human beings were sufficiently sophisticated to create the technology sufficient for environmental destruction, but too tribal and cultish to find the will to avert it.
I hope that’s not the case. My usual tendency is to look for the hope in a given situation, but I’m not sure that’s justified or appropriate here. And anyway, hope isn’t entirely required or even relevant. We’ll do what we need to do, because it’s the right thing to do, and because there is no other choice. Governors and mayors will become more important in the absence of federal leadership on renewables. Business will continue to prepare for the inevitable policy changes that have been only delayed, not barred forever, because ignoring climate change has become bad for the bottom line. That’s why we saw the likes of Elon Musk, Tim Cook and other CEOs criticizing the Paris withdrawal. One reason for that is, simply, public opinion. That means the opinion of ordinary people, like me, who will continue to press for environmental responsibility, because I don’t want to watch the slow death of any more Limberlosts.
So progress will continue to be made. But we are in a bit of a race against time, and the certainty of the outcome can no longer be the most prominent factor in responsible environmentalism. We just have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
The Limberlost is gone. There will likely be a great deal of the natural world gone, too, by the end of my life. My state is just now beginning to ameliorate the environmental destruction that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as smaller restorations of prairies and wetlands, like the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands and DNR’s Goose Pond, pop up all over the state. There has been destruction, and then recovery and restoration, albeit on a much smaller scale, and much later. This seems to be the human way – we are often unable to stop ourselves before we’ve trashed the place, and while we often have restorations, or truth and reconciliation commissions, or war crimes tribunals – essential to the human process of learning and accountability — there is no way to recover the lost life.
As the Limberlost shrank, Gene Stratton Porter had to pick up and move to the north end of the wetland which hadn’t yet been drained, enabled to do so by the financial rewards of her earlier writing. But eventually, she moved to California, where she died in 1924. Stratton-Porter was fortunate that the environmental destruction she lived through was localized, and she had places to move. Future generations won’t be so lucky.
I was in the Badlands last week with my 14-year old, a rising high school freshman. It was quite a week.
I remembered sometime in the middle of the trip that I’d gone to the Badlands when I was six months pregnant, exactly 15 years before to the weekend. I insisted on sleeping on the ground and going about my business as usual, just with a thicker sleeping pad and a sturdier set of trekking poles. Back then, I was just trying to process how impending motherhood would fit in with my preferred lifestyle.
And last week, I was just trying to process how motherhood would fit in with my preferred lifestyle.
I learned a lot, about both him and myself, which is still unspooling. It wasn’t my ordinary “go smell gross and have absurd experiences” kind of trip. It was quieter, less unbounded. My usual intention on my trips is to shine a light into the natural world and the tendencies of humanity at large. This one turned the flashlight into the corners of myself, my parenthood, and my insecurities.
If the Badlands trip 15 years ago was about how to keep my self while trying to produce someone else, this trip was about how to surrender parts of myself and my own best-laid plans to provide space for the development of my son’s true self. He is not me; he prefers hotels with glass elevators to tents, and air conditioning to cool breezes. And yet, like me, he is obsessed with animals and wildlife. He just doesn’t want to sleep next to them. We did a bit of both.
He was open to my kind of experience, but oddly, I struggled to find the energy to show him. Our cruise through the Badlands also reminded me, gently, that I’m still recovering from some upheavals and pain. The last 18 months has seen the death of my beloved grandmother and the illness and death of a good friend. Other friendships ended, which while necessary, was painful.
I spent the first part of the week in a panic because I wasn’t feeling the way I usually feel about being in one of the country’s great natural areas. I had gotten used to doing this a certain way, but this trip decided to show me a different part of myself this time, and taught me — again, gently and slowly — that when you allow death to make you TOO panicky about living life, you get tired. The white rocks and the prairie dogs kept whispering at me to step back a little. I heard them, finally.
Not every one of my trips is a thrill, but they are always, always, a lesson.