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Saturday, 11 June 2011

My partner’s daughter is quite a tough cookie. She’s been a diving instructor in the Bahamas, she rides horses that leap over large obstacles, she occasionally cycles across the Pennine Hills, the backbone of England, and she confronts, on a daily basis, thirty-one ten-year-old kids in her classroom. None of these are things that I’d like to do. But she has this thing about snakes – it’s called blind terror - and won’t read my blog so long as I’m posting photographs of nasty coiled reptiles.
So, no picture. But I must tell the story. I set off for a walk yesterday with no particular direction in mind. Even as I left the red house I wasn’t sure whether to turn right and go up the hill, or follow the trail around towards the ranch house and take it from there. I did neither, choosing instead to take the path that heads north through the tall cottonwoods, close to the river.

I say close to the river. In fact, it’s even harder to follow the river here than it is in the opposite direction. The curves are so tight, the loops so exaggerated, the draws so steep, that you have two choices: either try to stick to the river’s edge and spend half a day scrabbling up an down the bluffs while you make two or three miles’ progress as the crow flies; or look for a straighter course by skirting the top of the many draws that cut deep into the hills, which takes you well away from the water. I chose the latter option, but even so I ended up dropping and climbing, then dropping an climbing again as I tried to shave a few hundred yards off the distance. And before long, a always happens, I got into a steep narrow draw that took me down to the water’s edge.

The delight of such a walk is the huge variety of micro-environments you encounter, from dry, sunny slopes where parched grasses crackle underfoot to lush green spots beside the dense shade of a cedar thicket; from easy going along well marked cattle trails to steep descents down jagged scars in the soft rock. And all the time, on a day when the temperature never got above 68 and a stiff wind kept the  puffy white clouds moving swiftly across the sky, there was this constant alternation between being hot and feeling deliciously cool.

I didn’t really expect to see a snake, but of course I kept my eyes fixed on where I was going, always prodding the ground ahead of me with my stick. Even so, I think I heard this one before I caught sight of it, maybe three or four yards ahead and to my right, lying coiled in the sunshine, mouth agape, tongue flickering. It was making a noise that was somewhere between a hiss and a rattle. I stood still for a moment and checked. No, no rattle. This was a bull-snake, doing what people tell me bull-snakes do, impersonating a rattler. Later in the afternoon I would come across another one, some way away, out on open grassland. But that was with Matt and his dog, and the snake just slid quietly away down a convenient gopher-hole.

So, as I said, no photographs to unsettle the nervous. Instead, a few more wildflowers. I came across this single sweet-smelling rose after I’d worked my way down to the river and had to wade across, so dense was the cover on my side.

Soon the roses will be everywhere. Right now the odd sighting stops me in my tracks. I have to pause ands drink in the scent. It reminds me of home.

Not far away, in the long grass, I found another large and delicate bloom, which my book tells me is a Bluestem Pricklepoppy – aptly named, because when it’s not in flower it’s more like a thistle than anything else.

The other day I was talking about grapevines, and my hopes that I will be picking fruit in September. I did gather a few handfuls a couple of years ago when canoeing along a stretch of the Niobrara east of here, below Valentine, and I vividly remember how tasty they were. This specimen seems to be laden with flower buds. I remain optimistic.

When I’m hiking anywhere near the river I am constantly aware of the birds – or absence of them - mostly because the crows start up a panicky caw-ing as soon as I get near the trees, and relay the message ahead of me. Yesterday I had a hawk of some kind too, flying up and down the river, way over my head above the tallest trees, making a sort of kai kai kai sound. And I saw a pair of herons unfold themselves  from the undergrowth and take off up-river. There’s something primeval about those birds, always a thrill to see.

Back up on higher ground there are usually far more birds to see. Yesterday, for example, I scared a pair of grouse, the previous day a couple of curlews. And that got me thinking about ground-nesting birds. I have no idea what they were, but everywhere I went there seemed to be things the size and colour of sparrows, but with long tails, certainly faster in flight, and with flashes of white, either under their wings or on their bellies. By chance one got up from a patch of rough grass barely twenty feet ahead of me, and there, barely visible, was its nest.

Only when I got right up to it could I see the two tiny eggs – and if you look closely you can see that one of them is about to hatch.

Less than a quarter of a mile away I found this second nest – once more revealed when a startled bird got up a tried to distract me. Otherwise there’s no way I would’ve spotted it.

Well, I’ve had my porridge. Now it’s time for another of my great loves: listening to my favouriteAmerican radio show, Car Talk, with the Tappet Brothers, Click and Clack.

But before I sign off I need to add a footnote. Yesterday I had an email from the South Dakota rancher-writer Linda Hasselstrom, pointing out that the blue flower I’d shown a day or two ago (and foolishly suggested might be flax) was in fact a bracted spiderwort, botanical name Tradescantia bracteata. If there’s one thing I like less than being wrong it’s the exquisite pain of nearly having been right. In my original draft I’d put, ‘it looks like a Tradescantia to me’… and then I hesitated, and re-wrote it. Duh!

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