Saturday, April 17, 2010

Simple gifts, Great Possessions

Two books are never far from hand here, usually findable in a place where books rise to the surface then sink again (a favorite bird-watching book poked its nose out from under a pile of papers last week, but now is gone).

Both are by David Kline, a gifted naturalist, keen observer and eloquent writer. One, first published in 1989 and arranged seasonally, is called “Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal”: the other, published in 1997 and arranged by theme, “Scratching the Woodchuck: Nature on an Amish Farm.” Each is a collection of essays, many written for publication in what could be called the “plain” press. I come back to “Great Possessions” seasonally and to either when I want to learn more about a topic Kline has considered --- or just feel the need to calm down.

Both are written from the perspective of someone who has spent much of his life plowing, planting, cultivating and harvesting behind a team of horses in cooperation with creation, family, friends and neighbors.

Neither is preachy, although Kline is bishop (substitute pastor if “bishop” makes you nervous) of his Holmes County, Ohio, church district (congregation) and, unless I’m misinformed, has recently led that flock from New Order Amish to an Old Order Amish affiliation.

It is rare to find an Amish voice in the mass marketplace, not because eloquence or writing skill is lacking in that community, but because putting one’s self forward is considered prideful. And while Kline has published no book recently, he remains active in the production of “Farming Magazine” and in demand as a speaker on sustainable agriculture.


Kline’s “Great Possessions” essay titled “Wings of Spring: The Canada Goose” drew me back this week as our great white pelican visitors lorded it over the usually dominant Canadas down south of town.

Even the honks have seemed more subdued this week --- and overnight Thursday and Friday the pelicans invaded one of two nesting islands in the east pond, covering its western end but hopefully not tromping goose eggs under big flat orange feet.

We take the Canadas for granted around here because they’re almost always with us, in abundance at Pin Oak and elsewhere, likely to appear on almost any body of water with suitable shoreline.

During mild and dry winters, unlike the one just past, they’ll stick around as long as some water can be kept open and grazing areas are free of snow. Even when they migrate, it is only far enough to find open water and food.

“The giant Canada was thought to have become extinct around 1920,” Kline writes. Some scholars believe that it never existed and lived only in the minds and legends of old-time gunners who boasted of having shot twenty-pound honkers. However, in 1951 Jean Delacour, working from extensive notes left by earlier naturalists, became convinced it did indeed exist at one time and named it Branta Canadensis maxima. But even he doubted that it was still around, for several years later he said, “The giant Canada goose appears to be extinct.”

“Imagine the surprise and consternation of the skeptics,” Kline goes on, “when Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey announced in 1962 that he had rediscovered the giant Canada goose in, of all places, a city lake in Rochester, Minnesota. A remnant population was also found nesting in almost inaccessible cliffs along the Missouri River between St. Charles and Jefferson City, Missouri. After carefully studying and surveying these flocks and others, Hanson estimated that at least fifty-five thousand of these large wild geese were in existence!”

Midwest departments of natural resources used the Minnesota flocks to re-establish the giant Canadas throughout their former range, according to Kline, and that includes southern Iowa, where they now thrive.

I’m sure our Canadas will get back to the business of being top geese on the pond when the pelicans depart and will be around for many months more to observe and enjoy. And when you see them, think for a little bit about the miracle of survival and regeneration that they represent.


Occasionally, when frustrated by the land, my dad would mutter “should give it back to the Indians,” something the Ioway, Sauk and Meskwaki might appreciate but that seems unlikely to happen --- although the landscape might be better off.

On the other hand, visiting last week with Meg who lives now on the old homeplace south of Russell, she reported the discovery of a bobcat denning with kittens in a hollowed-out area of a partially fallen giant maple in the east pasture.

So the giant Canadas, the bobcats, the eagles, the occasional trumpeter swan and even in places prairie chickens are making a comeback. And it’s good to see.

Occasionally I try to memorize scenes so that I can recall them later when I want or need to. Certainly this morning it was the sight of flight after flight of these great birds lifting off from the pond, circling again and again until they circled out of sight. Presumably, they were moving off to feed elsewhere although after a full week here, time is nearing for the trip farther north to continue.

A couple of the human kind also were at the marsh this morning and I took the south trail to south shore and the wooden dock so as not to disturb them. But there were only three of there. I'm always surprised when wonders like this fail to draw a crowd the size Elton John is supposed to attract to the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines this weekend. Of course I'm selfishly glad to be alone with the birds, or nearly so.

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