By Charles W. Schwartz
“The same logic that causes big rivers always to flow past big cities causes cheap farms sometimes to be marooned by spring floods,” Aldo Leopold writes in his opening to his chapter on April. “Ours is a cheap farm, and sometimes when we visit it in April we get marooned.”
Later, he continues, “The enthusiasm of geese for high water is a subtle thing, and might be overlooked by those unfamiliar with goose-gossip, but the enthusiasm of carp is obvious and unmistakable. No sooner has the rising flood wetted the grass roots than here they come, rooting and wallowing with the prodigious zest of pigs turned out to pasture, flashing red tails and yellow bellies, cruising the wagon tracks and cow-paths, and shaking the reeds and bushes in their haste to explore what to them is an expanding universe.
“Unlike the geese and the carp, the terrestrial birds and mammals accept high water with philosophical detachment.”
Continuing on the subject of the April floods, Leopold writes, “The spring flood bring us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms.”
Among those pilfered items are boards: “Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests.”
“I know of no solitude,” he writes, “so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.”
Another April sign announcing the coming of spring is a small flower.
“Within a few weeks now Draba,” Leopold writes, “the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms.”
He continues a bit later: “Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible wooly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance–just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.”
Bur Oak savanna in Wisconsin hill country.
“Each April before the new grasses had covered the prairie with unburnable greenery,” Leopold writes, “fires ran at will over the land, sparing only such old oaks as had grown bark too thick to scorch.” And thus a battle between the forest front and prairie was ignited, each vying for each other to take over the land.
Later, he continues, “But the average battle line between prairie and forest was about where it is now, and the net outcome of the battle was a draw.
“One reason for this was that there were allies that threw their support first to one side, then to the other. Thus rabbits and mice mowed down the prairie herbs in the summer, and in the winter girdled any oak seedlings that survived the fires. Squirrels planted acorns in fall, and ate them all the rest of the year. June beetles undermined the prairie sod in their grub stage, but defoliated the oaks in their adult stage.”
“In the 1840s,” he later writes, “a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms.”
John Muir grew up during this era, and in his Boyhood and Youth he writes:
“The uniformly rich soil of the Illinois and Wisconsin prairies produced so close and tall a growth of grasses for fires that no tree could live on it. Had there been no fires, these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forest. As soon as the oak openings were settled, and the farmers had prevented running grass-fires, the grubs [roots] grew up into trees and formed tall-thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them, and every trace of the sunny [oak] ‘openings’ vanished.”
“I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May,” Leopold writes.
“The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up one minute later each day until 1 June, when the time is 7:50.”
“The stage must be an open amphitheater in woods or brush,” he continues later, “and in its center there must be a mossy spot, a streak of sterile sand, a bare outcrop of rock or a bare roadway.”
And then: “Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.
“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. . . . Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
“It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show.”
Woodcock by Charles W. Schwartz
Leopold concludes: “The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.”