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Field Sparrow

July has come to Dane County, Wisconsin, and Aldo Leopold begins the chapter with his daily (good weather) ceremony on his 120-acre farm:

“At 3:35 (a.m.),” he writes, “the nearest field sparrow avows, in a clear tenor chant, that he holds the jackpine copse north to the riverbank, and south to the old wagon track.”

Leopold then continues to describe the daily symphony of birdsong as they all call out their territories, ending with a bedlam of birdsong at dawn as grosbeaks, thrashers, yellow warblers, bluebirds, towhees, cardinals, make their claims. When the bird songs are no longer decipherable, Leopold heads out for his morning walk with his dog.


by Charles W. Schwartz

They never know what will turn up on their walk, Leopold notes. It could be a rabbit, a coon, or a mink; perhaps a deer returning to the thickets, a heron caught in the act of fishing, or a wood duck trailed by her ducklings. A tractor roaring to life recalls them to the fact they are not alone in this early morning world, and they return home for breakfast.

Most of the chapter on July is dedicated to the once ubiquitous prairie plant know as Silphium or Compass plant (because its leaves have an east-west orientation).

July-Silphium by Frank Mayfield

Silphium by Frank Mayfield

“Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm,” Leopold writes.

This cemetery is ordinary, he says, except, “It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.”

Leopold spies the blooms on July 24, a week later than normal, but when he drives by again, on August 3, the fence has been removed and the corner of the cemetery mowed down, along with the Silphium. He then laments the world in which, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.

He compares the number of wild plant species growing on this farm to those that grow in the suburbs and the university campus where he works–226 versus 120–the price of progress. We are confronted by two alternatives, he writes: “either insure the continued blindness of the populace, or examine the question whether we cannot have both progress and plants.”

“We grieve only for what we know,” he writes later.


by Charles W. Schwartz

“Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas?” he asks, then posits, “I once saw a farmer turn his cows into a virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo’s pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.

“It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.”


by Charles W. Schwartz