Friday, November 16, 2012

The Prairie, Luminous

Afternoon sunlight at Weldon Springs

Here's the thing about nature: there's always something more to see. It's like magic. You can rush along a trail, listening to your ipod or texting your buddies or what-not, not seeing a thing and, perhaps, thinking how boring it all is, or you can walk slowly with your eyes open and stop every few feet in amazement at what you see. And it's the same trail.

When I say this, I speak from personal experience. I used to be a rush along with a Walkman-type person (I know, I just dated myself). In my mid-twenties, I lived for several months on a military post in north central Texas (Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, in case you're curious), and every other day, I ran the six-mile loop around the perimeter of the base. It wasn't very interesting: a flat, barren landscape, with lots of cactus. That's what I remember. But around and around I ran, listening to music with every step to alleviate the monotony, and although I enjoyed the experience more than I would have running laps indoors, I wasn't really focused on my surroundings.

In retrospect, I could kick myself. For one thing, I suspect that a few "life birds" might be skulking in the scrub lands I so doggedly ran through, and yet I can't remember seeing even a single bird. Not a single bird! Talk about a wasted opportunity....

I'm sure that if I went back today, I would walk that same six miles in a state of amazement. Sure, it would take me half a day instead of the hour it used to, but the experience would be so much richer for it.

I had a demonstration of this just this afternoon. I work a half a day on Friday, and was delayed even more this afternoon as my employer was injecting me with botulism toxin in lieu of a Christmas bonus. [Yes, I was a willing participant; luckily my life is not some sort of horrifying "torture porn" film where people chase me around with needles against my will, or the like the movie I keep torturing my mother Sunwiggy by telling her about, The Human Centipede...and how's that by way of a digression? Back on topic!!]

So was late afternoon by the time I got out for my nature stroll. Due to the season and time of day, I wasn't expecting a lot of action, bird-wise, but since I am taking an Internet class on nature photography, I had a homework assignment to complete. Where to go? What to focus my camera on?

I chose my favorite place of late, the Old Farmhouse trail at Weldon Springs State Park, a lovely prairie that has been my solace and inspiration over the past year. But to be honest, I wasn't expecting to find much to photograph. It's November; everything is brown and boring.

You've probably already surmised how wrong I was! I managed to take 187 photos, and only headed home a couple of hours later when the sun had started to set. Just a few feet down the trail, and I was captivated by a milkweed pod....

The thistles were also quite interesting.

But mostly what captured me was the sense of space and light.

Space: many people diss my new homeland, "The Prairie State," as being flat and boring. And it's true, there's none of that dramatic beauty to be found with mountains or oceans. Having seen both, my first impression of Illinois was, indeed, "flat and boring." Flat? I thought it looked like a steam-roller had traversed the land, reducing all to a single, ginormous cornfield. And boring? What could be more boring than looking across a ginormous cornfield?

But as I went out, again and again, to look for the birds of the flatlands, I came to appreciate the unique beauty of the prairie. Indeed, it is now one of my favorite landscapes, so much so that I wish to go back to school for a Master's in Biology (and, who knows, a PhD in Ornithology), and devote my studies to the birds of the prairie (more specifically, the sand prairie....but that's a topic for another day).

Light: today it was more enchanting than ever. The late afternoon light, on a mild autumn day, made everything seem as if it were lit from within, literally glowing. My camera and I had a hard time keeping up. In fact, the photos that capture it best are, from a technical perspective, horribly over-exposed, and a good example of why I am taking this class...

I really didn't see any birds at all: house sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, black capped chickadee, European starling, one northern harrier soaring over the grasslands, and a flock of American tree sparrows...yep, that's it...

But still, the walk was fascinating; I snapped photo after photo, seeing everything as if for the first (or at least the second) time:

A Country Road...cue John Denver, right?

And I call this one "The Two Trees," like the poem by William Butler Yeats. Or the haunting rendition set to music by Loreena McKennitt.

I took a lot (A LOT!) of photos of trees. There's something very powerful about trees. I call this group "The Five Sisters"...don't they seem like they're together?

I was completed fascinated by the stream on the Old Farmhouse Loop:

I hope this inspires you, whoever you are and wherever you live, to grab a camera or binoculars or just your own two eyes, and go to a park or natural area or even just your own street, and look around. If you truly look, with a sense of wonder, I promise you, you will be amazed by what you see.

And if you do go out, and see something interesting, I would love to hear about it. That's what comments are for!!


  1. What beautiful photos! I love the light! Doesn't a camera's eye help to focus one's own? I especially like the photo called "The Two Trees". You should photograph a creepy bur oak; those are scary trees. Now I can't wait to get a new camera. MOM

  2. There are no creepy trees at Weldon Springs...would have to go to Funk's Grove for that!