Alice D’ Allesio is the winner of the 2017 Paul Gruchow Contest for her essay “Tending the Valley.” Congrats Alice. She is a Middleton poet whose poems often reflect the wonder of the natural world, and/or the environmentalist’s vision. Social/political commentary and family/love relationships are also favorite subjects, rendered with a serious or light touch. Her poems have been published in the Wisconsin Academy Review, Earth’s Daughters, North Coast Review, Ariel, Free Press, The Kerf, Fox Cry Review, Verse Wisconsin, and others. They have won awards from The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and Wisconsin Regional Writers, and she was a runner-up in the Wisconsin Academy Review Poetry Contest in 2002.
Tending the Valley
About 30 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, the hills get steeper and the valleys narrow, as though someone took a map of Wisconsin and rumpled one corner in his fist. The glacier that scraped and flattened the rest of Wisconsin missed the southwest corner, leaving a rugged landscape ribboned with streams and spiked with cliffs, known as The Driftless Area.
Here in early 1960, John and Sally Marshall found a hidden valley, pooled with mist, patchy with wildflowers, surrounded by high wooded hills. Since reading Aldo Leopold, they’d been looking for some wilderness land, and were particularly attracted to the Driftless Area. The 80 acre valley was owned by an elderly woman named Henrietta Cross, who inherited it from her father. It hadn’t been farmed since before the turn of the 1900’s. They were able to convince Mrs. Cross that they would care for her beloved valley, and she sold them the land in 1963. They later bought an additional 35 acres.
When John and Sally died, the land was passed on to their three children, Jan, Laird and Owen, who visited it occasionally to picnic. But they were busy with their own lives and unfamiliar with concepts of restoration. Hunters and coyotes, birds, field mice and invasive plants claimed the place as their own.
I remember the day I first saw the Valley, in May 1983. It was gray and drizzly
when Laird drove down the long rutted driveway, creeping slowly around steep hairpin turns in his rattling old Volvo. When we had met, some months before, he told me about the land his parents had bought, but I had no way of imagining how spectacular it was, and how important it would become in our lives.
We emerged from a deep tunnel of woods, beside a faded and shabby shack. Wood-sided, paint-peeling, it was shuttered and forlorn. A large roofed deck jutted out in front, and we climbed the three or four steps to this platform and turned to our left to look toward open fields and the high ridges that surrounded them. As though curtains had been pulled back, the Valley emerged. At that moment I felt the same mixture of awe and delight that I have felt each time in the years since, when I’ve climbed those steps and made that slow, half-circle turn.
Whatever the season, the impact is the same: an expanse of field – maybe 15 acres – always changing. Yellow-green, yellow-gold to brown, to white in winter, then March’s discouraging brown again. It’s a patchwork of black after a burn, and then suddenly, a new bright green, and on, into a multicolored summer and the festive streamers of fall. Above it, on all sides, are the steep hillsides, thick with pine or oak, hickory and walnut, and the wide-open sky, like an immense canvas, waiting for the watercolor fantasies that will play across it during the day, or the blue-black night with its saucer-sized stars.
That first day we wandered over much of the 110 acres – up and down hillsides, across streams and through woods. We were enchanted with the rock outcroppings layered in soft colors, with the hidden caves, and above all, the giant white pines at the top of the north ridge. The thick carpet of needles, and the whispering of the wind, that barely interrupted the silence.
At the end of our rambles, when the rain became more persistent, we returned to the deck for shelter, and from there, ventured inside. I think the cabin wasn’t locked, or if it was, we forced a lock on the rotting door-jamb to get in, where we made a different kind of discovery.
The cabin had been neglected for years. Deer hunters had made themselves at home in the basement. It was dark and damp, with seepage from the back wall; mouse-litterings were everywhere, dirty frying pans and dishes added to the smell.
Upstairs a narrow hallway led from the newer bunk area to the original cabin. Probably over a hundred years old, it was a three-room farmhouse, approximately 19′ by 13′ in size. Here the condition of the interior was just as appalling, though with the large front shutters removed, the space was at least light. Laird’s parents had apparently used this area as sleeping quarters, and had built a linen closet and two wooden bunks, quarters for countless generations of mice, past and present. The floor was littered with gnawed sheets and towels, along with old newspapers and magazines. The walls had been pink plaster which crumbling off in places, adding to the debris on the floor.
And yet, and yet… in the midst of the disorder, the smell and the aura of abandon, I sensed the promise. The windows framed the same view as the deck – of distance, wild, varied and intriguing. We could wake to a ridgetop horizon of white pines. The sun would ease above them and slant into this window!
“Maybe just looking and listening is the real work. Maybe the world, without us, is the real poem.” Mary Oliver, from The Leaf and the Cloud
Looking and Listening
At first, just exploring the Valley was enough. A first, the learning and the naming, the delight in finding caves and grottoes, the sweaty exertion of climbing higher and higher, scaling sandstone cliffs to the tallest pines. Velvet mosses cushioned us, soft and damp. Lichen was green lace on rocks. We listened to the hushed sough in the pine tops. That was enough.
Then we bought books and gradually identified what we were seeing: a tall, fringed orchid along the stream, masses of shooting stars in the woods, and nodding trillium. Marsh marigolds were baskets of gold in the marshy area, and on the dry hillsides, puccoons echoed the same intense color with their flat-four-petalled faces.
The fields between the two hillsides had patches of native grasses among the sumac and gray dogwood and goldenrod. At first, we casually scattered big bluestem, hoping it would spread. But one day as we looked out across our field we dreamed the prairie that was gone. This green and golden, thistle-dotted, butterfly-speckled field was not enough. We wanted that prairie back!
From then on our relationship with the Valley began to change, slowly and imperceptibly at first. It was no longer simply a tranquil retreat, a rustic hideaway
for friends to gather and enjoy good food and drinks on the deck, and perhaps a stroll to look at beaver dams, wildflowers, morels. No. Looking and listening were no longer enough. At least, not for me.
The Real Work
The more I read, the more I learned. The more we learned, the more I felt an obligation to the land. Laird told me his parents had intended restoration work. Unfortunately, they died young, before I knew them. But we felt duty-bound to follow their intentions.
I re-read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. His words and those of others who have written on restoration and stewardship of the land fired me with a passion that changed my life. I became obsessed with giving back to the Valley its rightful heritage, restoring native species and eradicating exotic or invasive species. I wanted it back the way it was 200 years ago, before lead miners burrowed tunnels, before the wheat and cornfields smothered the prairie, before sheep and cattle grazed off the Indian grass and coneflowers and liatrice.
The undertaking I proposed was, of course, more daunting than I had any idea!
It didn’t help that we lived 35 miles away, and were both employed during the week. Aldo Leopold made it all sound easy, but then, he had sturdy children and graduate students to help him. One of my friends pointed out that, at an acre a year, my quixotic mission would take me 110 years.
Nor could I garner wholehearted enthusiasm among my closest friends and relatives.
“I don’t like to come out any more because you’re always working”, said Laird’s sister. “It looks nice and green from up here on the deck. Why don’t you let it alone?”
“Honeysuckle is pretty too,” said his sister-in-law. “Anyhow, why do you want
a prairie? Just let natural succession take place.”
Even Laird, although he subscribed in principle, admitted that he would rather sit on the deck and read than tackle an acre of Canada thistle.
And how can I explain why it’s important to me? Why was it a thrill to see little bluestem thicken into a tawny blanket on the dry prairie hillside; how it created a rippling backdrop for the tiny harebells, downy gentians and liatrice that became more abundant with each spring burn? I don’t know. Can anyone explain his/her passions?
In the Beginning
…there was so much I didn’t know! But I asked questions, attended workshops and listened to experienced professors and naturalists. At one conference, either The Prairie Enthusiasts, or The Invasive Plant Association of Wisconsin (IPAW), we were honored to hear Paul Gruchow, a well-known Minnesota naturalist, speak. I had a chance to talk with him and bought several of his books.
We also invited naturalists from the Nature Conservancy and Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin to our land, picked their brains and took notes, compared ideas with the growing cadre of friends who were involved in the same endeavor. I bought handbooks, workbooks, guidebooks and identification books. I had to have them all. I was like a kid who has just discovered baseball cards.
I made mistakes. I thought if I liked a plant, all I had to do was plant it where I wanted it to be, and it would grow. We planted pasque flowers on the dry prairie and half a dozen of my favorite prairie smoke. I fenced them, watered them, crooned to them. And they died. I scattered the seeds of the butterfly weed so beloved of monarch butterflies in an area that seemed ideal. They never germinated.
So I bought butterfly weed in pots and planted them, once again fussing and watering, the way I would with my garden at home. I pictured their bright orange July blossoms, swarming with monarchs. Yet my tiny pale green plants with their narrow leaves grew spindlier and droopier. Like patients with a terminal disease,
they finally shriveled away completely.
Laird and I bought 10 turk’s cap lilies to plant along the stream, and even fashioned little wire cages to keep squirrels from digging them up. We buried them in the moist earth, close, but not too close, to the willful stream. We got nary a bloom. Oh yes – years later several turk’s cap lilies appeared magically along the path, far from where we’d buried our bulbs. If plants could thumb their noses. this would be the gesture.
One truth became clear. We were not in charge. There is a very complex interrelation among prairie plants, one with another, between plants and soil, climate, microorganisms, deer, insects – and of course weather – so many variables that we could not control.
Burning was the one tool about which everyone seemed to agree. Burning a field at the right time sets back the cold season, or invasive grasses and plants, and gives the warm season, or native plants, a better chance to compete.
The following April we organized our first burn. We called in experts from the DNR, and were well equipped with humidity gauges, flappers and waterpacks, a drip torch and rakes. Our trousers were tucked into sturdy boots; we were gloved, hatted and scarved. We were ever so cautious.
First we burned a five-foot wide swath along one edge – the windward edge – and down both sides, carefully smothering or spraying stray sparks. When we had a U-shaped fire break blackened, we lit a line of fire across the remaining edge and let it burn. With the wind blowing against it, the fire crawled slowly and purposefully down the length of the Valley and stopped when it reached the break at the far end. On the way, tall grasses and weeds flared up in plumes, thickets would crackle wildly in a sudden firestorm; small pines and blackberry bramble sizzled and crumpled.
Then it was done. The fire sputtered and went out, leaving feathers of lazy smoke to rise in the cooling late afternoon air. Like a blackboard in a classroom, our blank field was ready for us to devise plans, to create something wonderful. (knowing, of course, about the seed bed that still remained in the soil). It was a totally satisfying experience, and we congratulated ourselves as we rested on the deck with our cold beers and chili.
Within two weeks, the field was green. Only a slight smoky smell as we walked into it reminded us that there had been a fire. That summer the field was more lush than before. We searched it for new species, cataloging our discoveries. A swath of liatrice at the far end was easily four feet tall – slender dancers in fringed fuchsia; culver’s root and mountain mint were thick. Bottle gentians peered out in profusion, each stem crowded with its intense blue, closed blossoms. None of these plants was new, of course, but they were certainly more vigorous.
Still, despite the success of the first fire, it was very obvious that most of the field was still in goldenrod, sumac, blackberry, and other less desirable plants. We had made a small, but very small impact. Although we now referred to our field as “the prairie”, no naturalist would dignify it so.
There were many years of fires ahead, fires and reseeding, and mowing sumac and blackberry, uprooting honeysuckle and Autumn Olive. And there were many days
of frustration when I would want to succumb to that chorus of voices: Why do you bother? What does it matter? Leave it alone.
The Standing Folk
Although the prairie was the first area we tackled when we re-discovered the Valley, it was the wooded areas that really captured my heart. My love affair with trees goes back as far as I can remember. In the fifth grade I recited Joyce Kilmer’s poem in front of the whole school for Arbor Day, believed the words of the poet, loving the trees more than poetry, even then. In the 8th grade I announced that I would be a writer or forester – preferably both. I imagined myself living in a lookout tower deep in the woods, watching for fires and writing novels.
At the Valley, about 80 acres are wooded. On the north-facing slope, not susceptible to fire, is what botanists call a pine relict – a remnant of forest more typical of northern Wisconsin, with a mixture of white and red pine and an understory of shrubby plants like huckleberry, shinleaf, wintergreen and Canada mayflower. The white pines are so tall it hurts your neck to seek their tops. Probably 150-200 years old, they cling to steep cliffs and sandstone outcroppings. Archeologists believe there is Native American rock art somewhere under the lichen-crusted rockfaces and shallow caves, but we’ve never found it.
The south-facing slopes, presumably burned – whether by lightning or man – are thickly wooded with white and red oak, basswood, pine, cherry and hickory – a disorderly parade of veterans, leaning toward one another or away, carrying their fire scars and broken limbs with pride, telling their stories to the occasional foresters who visit. Young trees struggle for their share of light. In the fall, we gather acorns and walnuts and as we wander in the woods we bury them in likely places, just as the squirrels have always done.
Laird always says I married him for the Valley. And I deny it, knowing all the while that within the complex intertwinings that bind us, there is a fiber of truth in what he says. Here in this small slice of Wisconsin I feel a sense of being truly at home.
This Land Owns Me
When you have a cabin on 110 acres, with no handyman or friendly neighbor farmer, you have work. Lots of hard, physical work. Friends tell me how lucky I am to have the cabin as a getaway, to write undisturbed. They don’t understand that it’s harder to write at the Valley than it is at home.
I wake early, with the birds. We sleep out on the deck to take advantage of every sight, sound and smell, and love the way the air seems to pool on our skin like a cold hand.
The sky is gray and misty, and my perverse brain goes into high gear, thinking up chores for the day. I must go back and find the two multiflora rose – a major noxious weed – and eradicate it before it builds itself a stronghold of snarly. impenetrable thickets.
The morning continues to lighten; a swath of pink appears above the nearest pine bluff. The breeze foretells a fine day. The hummingbird arrives at the feeder and dips his head twenty-two times to drink nectar. The finch feeder on the poplar is alive with yellow finches, a pair of indigo buntings, a grosbeak and a couple chipping sparrows.
I would like to write. I would like to luxuriate in a silence punctuated only by birdsong, and let my eyes watch the distance change in subtle shades as the day takes hold, nudging us onward. When the sun slides above the east ridge, there will be a sudden stream of gold, down across the pines, pooling in the prairie. Why must I seek permission to contemplate and record this glory?
And then the day reels out, and we tramp and cut and chop and spray. We are sweaty, muddy, and ache in the knees and back. But strangely enough, it is a good feeling. We are at peace. We have accomplished some little part of what we set out to do.
So many things are going wrong all over the world. Our government fumbles, and acts as though the environment were just one more colony ripe for exploitation.
Here in the Valley there are good guys and bad guys, but we get to say who wins.
“Next time,” I say to Laird, “we’ll just take it easy and read all day.” He laughs. His laugh sounds like a resigned sigh. We are slumped in canvas chairs on the wide front deck, viewing our restored prairie in the rosy light of evening. A doe and three fawns go tip-toeing toward the stream. We are drinking gin and tonic and snacking on crackers and cheese.
“My god we’re lucky!” one of us says.