— by Marybeth Lorbiecki
Editor’s Note: Marybeth Lorbiecki’s new book, The Prairie That Nature Built, stems from a childhood love for the open spaces nearby. We are pleased to offer her lovely, autobiographical essay, first published in Stories from Where We Live: The Great North American Prairie, (Milkweed Editions, 2001)
I have a kindred spirit bird. A golden throated, lyrical songster. It’s not something I ever looked for, or expected. It just kind of happened.
I grew up in a city in the waistband of Minnesota, flat country that boasted granite under the belt and fertile fields as its everyday dress. In town, houses lay across plains like dotted Swiss, and trees decorated the lines of its rivers, the Mississippi and the Sauk, giving the cityscape its shape.
I knew nothing about the history of the place except that this was my mom’s hometown, and she had been a homecoming queen. Not much to go on. Also, about a mile from us, past the big Fingerhut Factory on 8th Street, was a sign that you could read on your way into town over the Sauk bridge: “St. Cloud, All American City, pop. 42,000.”
I lived in a neighborhood of crackerbox bungalows with green Lego-block lawns. Once I’d reached the age of street crossing, I found my stomping ground as exciting as stale saltines. I wanted to EXPLORE, to find new lands, to discover new creatures—WILD creatures. So whenever Mom would let me, I’d follow my older brother, Mark, on my bike three blocks to the open fields behind the new North Junior High. There we’d stash the bikes and head out. The tall grasses burred our socks and swished our legs as we waded through. This was our wilderness.
Rumpled with little hummocks that I thought had to be prairie dogs holes (Mark said they were just gopher holes), it rolled out before us, a mix of sweet cloverlike smells wafting up as we walked. I’d grab old woody stalks and point them at Mark like swords, or run and chase the monarchs, or collect striped caterpillars in my pocket. I found flat stones I was sure were Indian arrowheads (Mark said they were just rocks) and gouges in the earth that had to be dinosaur footprints (Mark said they were just dried puddles). Plenty of other treasures caught my attention, too: box turtles and frogs, garter snakes (I can still pick up a garter snake with ease!) and salamanders, grasshoppers, and beetles. That’s not to mention the Archie comics, old newspapers, and dirty magazines we found, and the stack of mismatched pieces of wood for a fort Mark and I commandeered. On any given day, we could be pioneer sodbusters, Indians hunting buffalo, spies, or Johnny Quest and his enemy.
Our land of adventure stretched all the way from the busy street, 12th, to the Sauk River, the old broken down Boy Scout bridge, and the airport. I loved tramping as far as that and then circling back for our bikes, then on through the vacant lots on the other side of 25th Avenue. I knew nothing of the plants that I passed as we walked. To me, they were all weeds, but interesting ones—some with thorns to avoid and others with flowers to collect for Mom.
Though this was our wilderness, it wasn’t our home. Always keeping an eye out from different points in the fields were the stout, tenacious little stalkhangers, the western meadowlarks. This was their territory, and the meadowlarks would make that clear, singing their national anthems in floating flutelike warbles. Perched on a swaying swash of grass, white backs cloaked with a spattering of mud brown, each would proudly display its gilded throat and belly adorned by the shiny black V necklace. I thought they were great—troubadours for a queen (Mark said they were just meadowlarks.)
But as impressive as each robed musician was to me, the bird really was a mere commoner. There were too many of them around to merit much attention (spotting a cardinal could give you points; but a meadowlark rated somewhere between a robin and a field sparrow.)
As I grew, my wilderness changed. Houses rose up like baking cupcakes; first
there was a scoop, a darkened mound, and then, pop, a whole house would appear, bare earth all around that would soon be frosted over in a shade of astro turf. Soon followed the sidewalks and the cul-de-sacs, the community center and the ball fields, the churches and convenience stores. Each time a new building sprouted, my world shrunk, the edges getting thicker and tighter until not a single unspangled lot remained.
That’s when I started wondering where the meadowlarks went. I also realized I suffer from an odd breed of claustrophobia—not of small inside places, but of small outside ones. In order to breathe properly, I discovered I need some unmade areas in the landscape around me—wooded ravines, abandoned railroad beds, wild edge rows to fields, unmowed meadows, or untethered grassy slopes, undocked beaches, untamed bluffs.
I’ve heard that when the Navajo make blankets, they deliberately weave in a mistake or an empty spot, an opening in the pattern so that spirit is not locked in, but can flow in and out. Whether that’s true or not, I seem to seek out places to live where there are one or two undeveloped spots, spaces that are not empty and not full, places in the middle, doorways for the spirit.
After I went away to college in the Twin Cities, I stopped visiting vacant lots, pastures, farm fields. And I stopped seeing meadowlarks. At first, I didn’t miss them. I had my bits of wilderness in the woods on campus.
But when I’d travel, my eyes would naturally scan the land, seeking out my sunshine-breasted friend. I’d never see one. At least not up close. The few I’d manage to spy were always on a fencepost or an electric line as I rushed past in a car on the highway. I never got to hear one. It was like seeing a silent movie with no subtitles or musical score. And my imagination had no hope of creating anything like a meadowlark’s melody.
Rumor had it that besides fewer prairies, open fields and lots for habitat, new farm machinery had made it possible to plant earlier in the spring and harvest earlier in the fall. This meant fields swept clean first of nests and later of the plumping-up food required for the meadowlarks’ autumn migration. More and more of the birds weren’t making it. Perilous stuff.
Then I took a trip to Nebraska. On a short trek at dawn, I was greeted by a dazzling, yellow-throated, black-spangled male atop a fencepost only three yards from me. He tossed back his beak and sang as if performing for only me. Such incredible dips and trills! He went on and on for a full ten-minute performance. He even drew a crowd of six, standing around him awed, and rather than being frightened, that meadowlark puffed himself up like an opera star and sang all the harder, his throat wobbling like a cat were caught in there. He was the cockiest, most handsome bird I had ever met. I was enchanted. I was in love. Just what he wanted.
But I am fickle, and I could not sit there all day. So I eventually got in my car and drove away.
But I did not forget. I had caught his song on a little tape recorder I had brought along for interviews. The tape could not do him justice.
Not long afterwards, I asked my husband, David, to design a logo for my freelance writing business. He’s an artist, so I thought he would create something that smelled of ink and paper and books. That’s when fate stepped up for notice. The logo David unveiled was a meadowlark crafted in black ink, like an old-fashioned woodcarving, with my name linked to it in space. The bird’s head was tipped and its tail long and fanned, like that of a mythic bird set to carry me away with song—my siren. “Why a meadowlark?” I asked, wondering what it had to do with writing.
David shrugged. “It seemed right.”
And it did. I looked at that little guy on my calling card and thought, “It will make my card memorable if nothing else.”
Inside, though, I knew why we had been paired. We both loved the same kinds of spaces, the out-of-the-way spots, far from the crowds, filled with tall grasses and bordered by trees. We didn’t quite fit in the run of the mill places, and we didn’t want to talk, we wanted to sing—do things our own way and do it with flourish!
A little while later, it became clear that all this stuff about loving wild lands and having a kindred spirit was not a free ride. I was asked to help work on a project to preserve 20,000 acres of prairies and grassland in Polk and St. Croix Counties. Our goal? To save these spots for the future and protect the disappearing prairie and grassland wildlife species whose habitats were being built or paved over. Guess who was one of these species? The western meadowlark, of course. Its population had declined 90% in 30 years.
Almost as if touched by a charm, I was transformed into the president of a citizens’ group, the Western Wisconsin Prairie Project.
And who I did start seeing (more than anyone else did I’m sure) on power lines and country fence posts? My friend the meadowlark, calling away at me, cajoling, reminding, beseeching. In fact, I was beginning to find him a bit of a nag, since this citizens group was no easy deal: meetings, phone calls, letters, presentations, brochures, contests.
Of necessity, the summer transformed into a crash course on the meadowlark’s original home – the prairies. My spirit bird was presenting to me a cornocopia of delights: purple wands of blazing stars, yellow sparks of partridge peas, nodding round faces of bright sunflowers, winking blue-eyed grasses, crimson torches of cardinal flowers, and the majestic grasses turning rippling shades of blue, purple, rust, and wheat in autumn’s crisper.
Having made the acquaintance of some of the prairie’s flowers and plants, and their beauty, the richness of my early wilderness hit me in a new way. I wished I could walk go back in time and walk those fields behind North Junior High again, just for the thrill of it (especially with my brother Mark so this time he could be the tag-along and I could be the smart aleck). Had those furrowless fields been prairie remnants? I wished I knew. I wished too, that I could zip even further backwards in a time machine to see the past life of my first wilderness, the wildlife and the peoples who had come to before me, the Sauk, the Dakota, the Ojibwe, the voyaguers and the settlers.
Since I can’t live in reverse, though, I’ve started reading a little area history and planting prairie species in every blank spot in my world: front yard, back yard, side yard, boulevard—a new obsession from my feathered sidekick. And I’ve cheered from the sidelines as some kids in Clear Lake, Wisconsin cleaned up the abandoned, littered land behind their school and planted a new prairie future, one complete with meadowlarks, we hope.
As for my project, the Governor of Wisconsin recently signed the Western Wisconsin Prairie Habitat Restoration Area into reality. Over the next years, the state will make partnerships with landowners, land trusts, parks, and others to make permanent homes for the meadowlark and the other grasslands wildlife in our area. My two young prairie-loving daughters, Nadja and Mirjana, frontline workers on the project, each received one the Governor’s commemorative pens. I hope they will always remember the parts they played in putting aside some grassy spirit holes for our prairie pals. Perhaps they’ll even find that one of those birds or butterflies or frogs or snakes picks them to be their kindred spirit.
As for my kindred spirit, it flies on before me, resting on fenceposts and singing till I catch up. Looks like I’m in for a lifetime of prairie adventures, whether I’m ready for them or not.