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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Cooling off in the Niobrara river

I was lying on my back in the river, looking up at a blue sky. Sunflowers nodded on the grassy bank, dragonflies darted to and fro above the sparkling water. On the bank lay my clothes, with my straw hat perched on my walking-pole.

This was what I always hoped it would be like. Yesterday was the first time in a while that I’ve put on my boots and gone for any kind of a hike. When I drove up to the house to go online the sunflowers along the side of the trail shone bright against a grey sky. The veil of low cloud lingered for several hours, and even at noon the temperature was only in the mid-70s.

By the time I set off, about one, the sun was coming through and the clouds melting away. I felt more energetic than I have in some time. The insects weren’t particularly troublesome, the temperature just pleasantly warm, and a stiff breeze was blowing. Walking was a real pleasure once more. I hadn’t gone very far before I dived down one of the canyons, places I’ve been avoiding during the hot weather, and followed the creek slowly down towards the river.

As I mentioned yesterday, there are now a lot of dried-out gasses up on the hills, but sturdy warm-season ones are taking over, and new flowers keep appearing. For a week or two now I have been aware of this one, identified for me by my NRCS guide as annual wild buckwheat.

Also known as umbrella plant, it had some medicinal value to Lakota peoples, being made into a kind of tea for children with sore mouths, also as diuretic.

That little outburst of plant knowledge – yes, I looked it up – is merely a smokescreen for my near-total ignorance about the following items.

I’m pretty confident that this is a broad-leaved milkweed, and had I thought of it I would have checked by breaking the stem to look for the milky sap, but I didn’t, so I’ll leave it at that.

As to this exquisite little thing that I found in the shade, at the point where a cold water of the creek pours into the main stream, I have no idea. I have searched both my books and found nothing that looks remotely like it.

I instantly recognised this little pest, however: I remember it all too well from previous visits to this part of the world. It’s the first of the sand-burs which will soon be plaguing me. As I recall, they have been particularly successful in colonising the area outside the red house – and finding their way inside.

After lozicking in the river for half an hour or so – ‘lozicking’ is a word we use in Yorkshire; I suspect that its nearest American equivalent would be ‘lollygagging’ – I put my clothes on, strapped my boots around my neck and crossed to the north bank. From there it was a short walk across ungrazed pasture back to the house, cutting short what would have been a long circular walk had I re-traced my steps. As I approached the river again I was delighted to see this old friend – and surprised that it should flower so late here.

The elder is very widespread at home. Some people consider it a pest. It is renowned, amongst other things for being impossible to kill – or to burn. But I don’t know why you would want to do such a thing in any case. I think it’s a truly remarkable tree. Its leaves have a pungent, unpleasant smell – although to tell the truth I like it, and always pinch one and sniff it as I pass. That’s mainly because I still marvel that the same plant can produce a flower, in June, with such a gorgeous smell – and flavour. I’ve never yet made wine – or the more popular champagne - from elder-flowers. It’s on my list of things I really must do. But for many years when my kids were young we made a cordial. The recipe came from  Sweden. As I recall, it involves steeping the flowers in a pail of water for a few days, boiling up the liquor with sugar and lemon, bottling it, and sealing it. It would last all summer. Pour an ounce or two into a glass, add cold water, ice – or even better, carbonated water – and you’ve got a delicious, refreshing drink.

Matt came by last night and was talking seriously about this upcoming roof job. I took it as a hint that I should do what I said I’d do, and slap some red paint on the bare patches at the front of the house. Maybe it’ll take my mind off the wasteland that was once my bean-patch.

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