Peeled Onions and Prairie Dogs

Sego Lily. 

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.

And the prairie dogs saw it all.

Making room

“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.

Eventually, they do sleep through the night. It doesn’t matter where.

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.

The Limberlost and the Paris Accords

(This post also appeared on Hoosier Pamphleteer, an Indiana-run blog focusing on policy and politics.)

Loblolly Marsh Preserve in northeastern Indiana

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.

Badlands, the Sequel

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.

Interspecies maternal solidarity: It’s a thing.

I’m in western South Dakota right now. A few weeks ago, I asked my son if he wanted to go with me on one of my trips. He said, “Sure. I’d like to see the Badlands.” That was more than all right with me, so off we went.
Of my child and step-children, the only one that comes close to being as comfortable in the outdoors as Travis and I are is my stepson, Deryk, who entered the Army last year and now sleeps in foxholes occasionally for a living — and therefore may now be disinclined to do it for pleasure. I don’t know; we’ll have to see.
But the other two, though they don’t subscribe to the “Shower? What’s that?” philosophy of trip-taking that Travis and I do, both focus their ambitions and passions on nature. My stepdaughter, Taylor, is an entomologist working at EPCOT’s greenhouses at Disney, and Sean, at 14, is obsessed with venomous herpetology.
I knew I wasn’t going to have my typical trip if I took Sean. There would be hotels mixed in with the tent-sleeping, which is how I am typing this up on my laptop right now. But it’s up-ended me a little bit, and I’ve felt somewhat disoriented and unable to get into my groove. That’s okay. It just means it’s time to expand my habits, and loosen up. This is good for everyone occasionally.
I took him to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City yesterday, where he zinged back and forth, fast as a black mamba, marveling over his favorite snakes: juvenile Gaboon Vipers (longest fangs and biggest venom payload in the snake world!); a calm and measured King Cobra; and a Coastal Taipan daintily dunking its entire head under the water for a drink. I mean, the kid knows a LOT about snakes for his age. He asked one of the interns if the Burmese Python was “gravid” and when she looked at him quizzically, he walked away in disgust in search of someone who knew the term. (It turns out the answer is no; the python is merely overweight, and used to be even more so before arriving at Reptile Gardens.)
After we examined every single snake and attended the snake show twice, I wandered out to — where else? The prairie dog town.
As I’ve written before, I’ll photograph animals everywhere I find them. I have a ton of wild prairie dog images, and many captive prairie dog images. But in addition to ease of access, this captive town offered a few more opportunities and props for the photographer.
As soon as I poked my head over the lip of the wall, I saw several miniature prairie dogs zipping about in much the same youthful way my son was taking in the “Death Row” exhibit of deadly snakes. Prairie dogs are born underground, and stay there for the first few weeks of their lives. Then they come topside to terrorize their mothers — much like human children who declare they are someday going to be the curator allowed to handle the mentally unstable Monocled Cobras.
Hang in there, prairie dog mom. It gets better. I’m just not sure when.
We’re going back again this morning. And then we go back to the Badlands.

Wandering with the monkeys of Silver River

There is a colony of feral rhesus macaques living on the Silver River on the outskirts of Ocala, Florida. I try to visit them once or twice a year, because why not? Although I didn’t spot any monkeys on the two trips prior to my most recent one, a paddle down the Silver River is a treat in itself. I’ve tagged along with otters, alligators, scores of birds, and tiny turtles on the Silver.  So I love it regardless of whether the monkeys are out.  The river draws me back every time; if I were a wind-up toy, I’d head to the Silver as soon as you let me go. That’s my wanderlust.

This time, I saw a monkey almost immediately, and he was contemplating a swim. Here is the process, from consideration, to alligator scan, and finally, launch. Too bad when he got to the other side, another monkey shoved him back in the river.





More on the monkeys — and how they got there in the first place — here.


On a backpacking trip in early spring, I noticed a group of swallowtails puddling in an area on the ground where something had recently rotted. I was photographing one of them when I noticed it had a co-pilot. We all need our minerals, I suppose. Surprise.


Pelican magic

Yesterday I was on the hunt: I was looking for hundreds of American white pelicans at a place called Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. For the last few years, these pelicans have taken to stopping off at Goose Pond for fish and frogs and other goodies, in the middle of their migration back to the Dakotas and Saskatchewan, where they go each spring to get their collective freak on and create many more small American white pelicans.

This trip accomplished a couple of things for me. First, I enjoy seeing big groups of migratory animals. Second, I made my first visit to Goose Pond, which is an enormous wetlands restoration southwest of Indianapolis, a magical place, and a finger in the eye of the relentless paving and monoculturing of my state. I frequently run off to other places to get my nature fix, but it’s important not to dismiss my own back yard.

The thing is, wildness typically exists in Indiana only on an attenuated basis — you have to kind of work to perceive it. But that’s not true at Goose Pond. A century or so ago folks here were busily draining wetlands, which were widely believed to be useless, for farms. A little more than a decade ago, a number of heroic souls reclaimed about 9,000 acres and converted them back to wetlands. Birds noticed this happy change almost immediately, and in the years since, have crowded the place in numbers that oustripped even the most optimistic predictions. These wetlands are now one of the premier birding destinations in the Midwest, and perhaps the entire country.

Life, it seems, remains the most insistent force there is.

Oh, and I found the pelicans, after a long hike through brush and muck. As always, the rest of the images are on the Trailhead’s Facebook page.