Sunday, July 13, 2014


The Archives Research Center with Prairie
A  FEW WEEKS AGO I TOOK MY CLASS ON A PILGRIMAGE, as I do every semester, to the Student Life Archives. There we explore artifacts from past students, some objects as old as the university. Ellen Swain, the archivist showed us the old apple warehouse in the heart of the building where the artifacts are stored when people aren't examining them. It is three stories and climate controlled, to keep the artifacts from degrading. We have a chance to examine old yearbooks and newspapers, meeting minutes so ancient they were typed on a typewriter. I found myself explaining what a ditto machine was. I described the clacking rhythm as you cranked the drum, sheets of paper flying off with pale lavender print, the smell that wafted up from our worksheets when the teacher passed them out, the paper still a little damp from the spirits. We also get to look at non-text artifacts, like dance cards, footballs, megaphones, and a letter sweater that looked like it was hand knit for an unbelievably slender athlete. All of these help us see what student life was like in the past. It's always fun to go over there, but this was the first time I'd taught in the summer, so I got a special surprise.
False Sunflower
Over the past few years I've noticed a slow transformation in the front yard of the archives building. The Student Life Archives is housed in the old Horticulture Field Lab. Since it is a couple of miles from my office, I ride my bike out to the archives. The Horticulture Field Lab is near the President's house, and set back from the road with a large field in front of it. A few years ago it was a big empty lawn, and then it became a No Mow Zone. I've noticed signs around campus that alert us that the lack of mowing is intentional, part of the University's sustainability plan. When it became a no mow zone, I would take my class out in early September and it was full of the usual weeds you expect to see if you simply stop mowing: grass, goldenrod, thistles. I preferred those weeds to the monoculture turf that was there previously, but the end of mowing was only the first step.

Some stands of plants have markers.
 Each semester when I visit the archives I chat a little with Ellen while we wait for my students to arrive. I can't remember which semester I noticed the plantings, but Ellen told me that people were working hard on it. I've since watched it evolve, but visiting for the first time in the Summer semester, I got to see the plot in its full glory. The prairie restoration project still has a lot of work, but right now the field is ablaze in color. Pale pink Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa,) the deeper pink of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea,) the yellows of Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata,) and Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea,) and fire orange of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa,) are putting on a lovely show right now, but there are other, less showy, but no less important prairie plants. Biking out a little early gave me the chance to wander the paths that are cut so we can walk out into the heart of the prairie and get a close up view. The field is abuzz with life, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Some stands of plants have markers, identifying both common and scientific names, so walking out there is also an education.

Purple Coneflower
Ellen knows I'm interested in prairie plants, so she put me in touch with John Marlin, who coordinates the work as a volunteer. Last week I met with John, and Jessica, one of the student workers. They gave me a guided tour of the Prairie, and next week I'll tell you about our conversation. But for now, I'll just tell you one of John's main points: Prairie plants are a beautiful way to landscape. I didn't need convincing, but if you do, stop by the corner of Florida and Orchard in Urbana and take a little walk. John said that careful walking on the mowed paths is okay, but no motorcycles, and no going off trail. The plantings look lush, but some of the more delicate plants are not yet established. Parking is limited, but you will find metered spaces in front of the Archives building (still labeled the "Horticulture Field Lab"). Even if you just drive by, you will be able to see the rich diversity of plants, but do get out and walk if you have time.
A Diversity of Colors
I like the idea of a Prairie Archive in front of the Student Life Archives building, to archive the original plants that evolved here, in this soil, alongside our native animals and insects. The Prairie Restoration Project at Florida and Orchard is a physical reminder of our very roots in this land.

Plant in Beauty; Archive Peace; Blessed Be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


And That's How He Earned His New Name: Houdini

WE'VE BEEN LUCKY WITH RAIN IN BIRDLAND. The whole yard is green and the cucurbit that sprouted volunteer where the old chicken coop was, has become a lush patch with leaves the size of platters and big, trumpeting orange flowers. It is vining out into the yard and green bulbous egg-sized fruits have set on. Maybe it's pumpkin, maybe squash. I can't wait to see. I did plant a pumpkin patch for my sister where the old compost pile was before we spread it out in the vegetable and flowerbeds. I planted both pie pumpkins and big ones for Jack-o-Lanterns. My sister wants to have a harvest festival in October, and we have to plan ahead. These seedlings are just emerging from their hills.

The Whole Yard Is Green
Last week I got an email from Mary in Bement who offered me a rooster. Now, as much as I love chickens, I have turned down many generous offers of roosters. A nicely balanced flock has one rooster for every dozen or so hens. Too many roosters will fight with each other and exhaust the hens. We already had 2, and everyone was getting along, but this one was a Lavender Orpington. If you have never seen one, you should look it up. They are grey with a rosy tint. Orpingtons are gentle by nature, and these are just lovely. I agreed to try to integrate Mary's rooster into my flock. We put him in a cage after she brought him over, just for the day. We would wait until after dark to introduce him to the coop. Sometimes chickens will accept a new member in the dark, and by morning forget that they were ever strangers. Well, the first thing that happened is that he got out of the cage. Ellis walked out to the car and saw the rooster in the crate by the garage. My youngest was going out on the town. He started driving away, but saw the empty cage in his rear-view mirror. He parked and came to tell me, and we were able to catch the rooster and put him back. After the flock returned to the coop for the night I snuck the new rooster into the coop. In the morning, I let everybody out but him, hoping a day in the coop would teach him that this is his new home, or at least that this is where he can find food and water. But by chicken-dark, he was gone again. Again we didn't know how he escaped. That's how he earned his new name: Houdini.
Integrating him into the flock didn't go well. With chickens you are always going to have pecking order issues. Mean Mr. Mustard, our old, one-eyed rooster is the big cheese, and he took issue with his new coop-mate, chasing him away when Houdini went near a hen. Houdini lost most of his tail feathers in the scuffle. To make matters worse, Ursula chased him, too. My dog learned long ago not to chase chickens, but who was this new bird of a different color and smell? Whenever Ursula saw Houdini, she would tear after him. The poor guy took to hiding under the cedar tree. My best efforts to stop the terror were fruitless. Finally I decided that Ursula wouldn't go outside unless she was on a leash. I thought I could train her to leave Houdini alone if I could immediately correct her. The problem was, Houdini was already so terrorized that he would head for the hills every time he saw Ursula coming, so we could never get close enough for me to correct the chasing behavior.

The Chicken Didn't Know This
That day Michael came home with a new idea. At work my husband had lamented about the chicken chasing behavior to a friend who had a solution. It was simple, but so silly, I didn't see how it could work. His friend had said, "Let Ursula smell the chicken's butt." The idea was that Ursula was just trying to check out this new member of the Birdland community by sniffing his butt. The chicken didn't know that, and would run away, thus a chase would ensue, and the problem just kept getting worse.
Sniff in Beauty: Foster Peace: Blessed Be.
I went out and easily caught Houdini. Michael was waiting inside with Ursula. It took about 3 seconds. I offered Houdini to the dog, butt out. Ursula sniffed. She sniffed again, and then walked away. I put Houdini down on the floor. He walked around cautiously. Ursula went into the other room to look for her ball. The crisis was over. It was anticlimactic. Now Ursula can go back to stealing sandwiches, and Houdini can go back to asserting himself into the flock.