Last Summer, Still Looking for Monarchs
Last summer in Wisconsin we saw vibrant greens and blues, lit by golden sun through clear pleasant air. I kept watching for the sharp accent of orange and black of the Monarch butterfly, and for a long time I didn’t have much luck. Even on that valley farm so beautiful that we used the word “paradise” with abandon during our stay there, even there – my butterfly count required only one hand, and then not even all the fingers.
It wasn’t that the milkweed had been trimmed away. On this farm, we mowed around the milkweed and let wild mingle with domestic in the flower beds. Still, I wasn’t seeing many Monarchs.
Things were beautiful but not complete… The summer felt diminished to me, tinged with sadness.
But the summer was not over. At the end of our visit in the valley, Michael and I headed out, crossed the Kickapoo River, crossed the West Fork and drove up and out across the ridge.
Ridge and valley country, the Ocooch Mountains in southwest Wisconsin are a Driftless gem surrounded by the corn and forest of the upper Midwest. In the valleys, there are clear running springs and streams, rich bottom land with the protection of hills on all sides. On the ridge, you can see forever, looking out across the land that long ago, long, long ago, was the bottom of the ocean that covered the heartland of North America. We enjoyed our valley time, but in our hearts we are ridge dwellers, and we were eager to get home.
On to Bakke Farm!
It felt good to be back in the old neighborhood, say hello to old neighbors, say hello to new neighbors, find our way on the old trail into town and back, stock up at the food coop, meet folks, pick up news.
“You going to Bakke Farm?” neighbors asked. Then they laughed, “That’s a wild life sanctuary back there.”
We wondered what we would find.
With no people living in the house, the yard around got smaller and smaller, and the territory of the wild creatures expanded. We drove down our long driveway, stepped out of our vehicle and felt ourselves embraced by the pulsing beauty of a multi-layered living landscape.
The air was filled with birdsong. Swallows swept the sky and soared in and out of the machine shed. Birds perched on the windmill, in the branches of trees, and on the wires that channeled electricity to the house and barn. The sounds of insects mingled with the breeze to fill in spaces around the birds, and we felt what our neighbors had proclaimed: here indeed was sanctuary.
The prevailing tone on the summer day of our arrival was gentle, wild and full. Even the woodchuck, stepping out of the tall grass by the garden, looked appropriate. He seemed surprised to see us, and ambled off with little haste to shelter behind the corn crib.
Feeling embraced by the natural beauty that met us, I wondered: would there be butterflies here?
But I didn’t really have time to ponder. My searching eye was carried in my human head, and we had work to do. If we didn’t make our fence respectable, my beloved mare Oakley wouldn’t respect our fence, and Oakley was on her way. I would have to watch while I worked.
Wild plants grew thick between the electric tape that marked the perimeter of the horse paddock, post to post.
Oakley hadn’t been home in quite a time, and I wanted her to feel welcome. The goal: a viable fence marking an enclosure with just the right amount of safe foods for a horse to eat. I planned to keep tansy off the menu.
I kept being distracted by beautiful pictures, but our mantra was : “we have purpose here, too” and Mike and I can be purposeful with a job at hand.
Nettles and the thistles demanded clearing. We needed to cut down noxious weeds before we could make our way unscratched and unpoisoned from house to stable. Tansy and burdock don’t belong in a horse pasture, so we had to cut that down.
So yes, work gloves, cutting and clearing tools in hand, we moved in to subdue nature, cut back the untrammeled growth in the horse paddock. But I kept falling to distraction, touched by the form and color of amazing plants that grew with lush vigor. Everywhere I turned, my resolve weakened.
“We can’t cut down the burdock,” I called to Mike. “The bees like it.”
Did Michael roll his eyes? Maybe. “There’s more,” I heard him say.
But I didn’t see. I was down on my knees in the jungle of plants going for the burdock stalks with my loppers. Each plant fell like a tree, and I stayed low to keep the beautiful purple flowers from getting near my head. I had to keep reminding myself: you don’t want those burs in your hair, you don’t want those burs in your dog’s coat, you don’t want these burs in your horse’s tail. The bees can move over a few feet to the burdock behind the house.
The vegetation growing in our horse paddock met my delighted eyes, and I felt I was breathing enriched air. I kept stopping my work to marvel at the beauty. Every cut I made seemed to diminish the vibrancy of the scene.
“Let’s just take the burdock,” I said to Mike. “That has to go, but let’s leave the rest.”
But then the question: where would the horse live? We continued to chop.
I’d cut an area and then haul out the stalks, adding them to the growing compost pile I was building by the Clubhouse, and Mike was busy following the fence line, clearing growth from under the strands of electric tape. Every step brought a new picture of abundance to my eye, chickweed in a patch three feet wide and deep for easy picking, Queen Anne’s lace, burdock blossoms, other flowers whose names I didn’t remember, so long since we had met, with small flying creatures moving busily from flower to flower.
“I’m sorry, you”ll have to move over,” I told them all, motioning toward the other side of the fence. “We’ve got horses coming”
And then I saw my first Monarch of the summer on Bakke Farm.
It was there, in the full crop of wild plants in the paddock, feeding on the burdock. Quite a lovely sight, the Monarch butterfly. I felt as though we had received a blessing. “ Stop!” I cried. “We really can’t take the burdock. Bees and a butterfly, too!”
Bakke Farm, Michael reminded me, is rich in burdock. And how much harm can two people do, really, with hand tools? Day after day we cut and hauled. We considered fire. We got out the tough stalks and took the scythe to the grasses and slender stalked companions. My compost pile was really growing. Our trails turned to areas and at week’s end the chickweed was trampled, the burdock gone, nettles and thistles mostly out of the way, and the tansy…
The tansy kept reappearing.
One day, finally: “There, I think that’s good.”
“Look! There’s another tansy plant.”
I am looking for a lucrative use for tansy, it does so well on our farm. But I knew too much to feel good about deliberately leaving it for the horses. So back we went, until finally we had found all we could find, and the day was at hand for Oakley to arrive.
She was hauled in style by an angel with a truck and a trailer who happened to be sitting at the kitchen table of a horsewoman I didn’t know and whom I had mistakenly called in my search for a ride for my horse across the county to Bakke Farm. That’s how things go, angels sometimes appear.
And when Oakley entered the paddock after her short trailer ride, she gave it a cursory look and set to grazing. She and I had some riding to do, but there was time for her to settle in.
I had seen three Monarch butterflies while we were clearing out the paddock. I wondered how many more we would see riding the farm.