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Friday, 8 July 2011

I used to think I was quite a dab hand at plant recognition. At home, for years I would go on walks with an Oxford Book of Wild Flowers in my pocket and I could generally identify most of the plants I saw in my part of England. (I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning that I also drink beer and attend soccer matches?) Here in the Sandhills I’m finding it rather harder than I thought. I’ve tried blaming the books, which tend to highlight the flowering parts more than the foliage, but I suspect the problem is that I can no longer be bothered to I sit and study the plants the way I used to. There’s also the insect problem. Last night I could barely stay still for as long as it took to snap a photograph before I had to scamper away from a cloud of whining, whirring, biting demons. Do I exaggerate? I may be adding a splash of colour to the scope of the problem, certainly not my reaction to it.
I’ll come back to bugs in a moment. For now I want to reprise that peculiar tap-root A & I discovered on the banks of Leander Creek not so long ago.

It really is extraordinary, isn’t it? When we mentioned it to Ken Moreland, our neighbour to the northeast, he immediately said it was morning glory. I will be honest and say I found that hard to swallow. The guy does like to tell a tall tale. However, while searching for a totally different plant in the books this morning – funny how it always works this way – what did I find?

Bush morning glory: “The plant grows from an enormous carrot-shaped taproot up to 8+ inches in diameter and 100 pounds in weight… roots penetrate many feet downward and outward.” It goes on to list some of the uses to which the root has been put: as punk for starting fires, as an emergency food (although it’s not very nutritious), and for various medicinal purposes including the treatment of nerves, bad dreams, stomach problems and fainting.

Older and wiser. I believe I have mentioned before that my personal motto is ‘live and learn’. My dread is that just when I am old and approaching death I will have learned  enough, finally, to figure it all out. Such a waste.

Now, talking of flowers, here’s one I spotted yesterday which really gladdened my heart. It’s the first of my green bean plants coming into bloom. I decided to tempt fate and celebrate the event, even as the weather forecast spoke of a 60% chance of thunderstorms, possibly severe, in western Nebraska today.

Back to bugs, and a  surprise. Every time I go out on the range these days I have dozens of large dragonflies droning around me. I suppose they are emerging from down by the water.  I would never have expected to find them up on the dry grasslands. Last night, as the sun was going down, I came across a small cloud of them around this cedar tree. I should imagine you’ll have to look very, very hard to spot them, but trust me, they are there. Well, three or four of them at least.

There are now – and quite suddenly – far fewer flowers in bloom out on the range. I do not yet know whether this is a passing phase. There seem to be plenty more to come according to the books. The biggest disappointment just now is the soapweed. A week or two ago they were all sending up vigorous spikes; most of them around here have disappeared.  I know that cattle browse on them, but Matt’s beasts are a long way in another pasture. I can only presume it’s the deer – although last night I saw a porcupine scurrying away guiltily from a squashed, flowerless yucca.

Still, the sunflowers are doing their best. There are drifts of them alongside the track that leads from here to the ranch house, and scattered individuals like this one, really quite startling when you come across them in fading light.

The other thing that’s particularly noticeable just now is the way the sages, many and varied, are starting to alter the colour scheme.

Last night as the sun went down I tried, not for the first time, to capture the way the light shimmers on the seed-heads of the grasses. I’m coming to the conclusion that it may be beyond the scope of this camera. You have to be facing the light source – ie, the sun – to get the effect, and that tends to wash most of the colour out  of the scene. This is about the best I’ve managed so far, and it’s pretty poor, but I think it gives a general idea of the effect.

I made a start yesterday on the long piece of writing which, I hope, will be the product of this second half of my stay in the Sandhills. 1,088 words. All I have to do is keep that up for another eighty or ninety days. Who knows what will become of it? It’s not, after all, going to be a full-blown study or appreciation of the literary heroine who brought me here. It’s more an appreciation of a state – and a particular part of a state – that most Americans dismiss as flat, empty and uninteresting, but I cannot write that appreciation without dwelling on Mari Sandoz’ life and work. So she will be in there, as too will Willa Cather. I’m quite confident that I can produce a book-length piece that pleases me. Whether I can sell it – well, I long ago stopped presuming that I could place the work that best reflects the inner me. I make my living ghosting for a retired copper. I enjoy that work immensely and put a huge amount of myself into it. But there will always be this other material.

This afternoon I take off for Chadron and the Fur Trade Days. Brace yourself for action shots of Cow Chip Throwing, flint-knapping and - hopefully – a bit of guitar-picking.

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