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In praise of fields

Everyone loves the ocean. But how many people love the ordinary midwestern fields?

Courtesy of John Toren

Everyone loves the ocean. Most people love the woods. Some people, including me, love the high deserts of the American Southwest. But how many people love the ordinary midwestern fields?

If you’re feeling the need to expand your appreciation, this would be a good year to do so. The summer of 2013 arrived late, violent, and wet. At one point, following a torrential windstorm, more than a fifth of Minnesota’s families were without power. That’s close to a million people.

One result of this combination of factors is that now, as we ease our way into midsummer, the rural vegetation is as lush as it’s ever been. Or at least as lush as I can remember it. (Perhaps that isn’t saying much.)

A few weeks ago we were out in the Minnesota prairies, exploring the rich, somewhat treeless countryside around Lac Qui Parle. A week later we were at Sibley State Park, north of Willmar, wandering the horse trails on foot at sunset, admiring the grasses, the oaks, and the dragonflies.   

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Last Sunday we took to the Sakatah Singing Hills Bike Trail west of Faribault, and we were enraptured by the plant life. Some of the fields alongside the trail are under water, it’s true. Well, they probably shouldn’t have been planted in the first place. In any case, the egrets are loving it. I saw six of them in one field alone. I suppose that means there are a lot of frogs jumping around out there. 

Parking our car in a small gravel parking lot just west of Warsaw, we were immediately accosted by a grove of walnut trees full of golf ball-sized green nuts. If you get close, they smell like wood, and also like lime. (Hilary advised me to take a whiff.)

In the next few miles the trail runs through intermittent patches of sun and shade, with open fields on either side, and the trail is lined with a veritable cornucopia of summer wildflowers. The cow parsnips haven’t flowered yet but the sumac is turning red. The dogwood flowers are fading, the elderberries are coming on, and the purple flowers of the vervain are half-way up their stalks. Bee balm and bindweed appear here and there, white and yellow sweet clover is common. One stretch of open grassland just off the trail was covered with leadplant, though that was the only place we saw it. Butterfly weed was sparse, though milkweed was all over the place. All the same, we only saw two monarch butterflies the entire three-hour trip.

But you don’t need to drive for hours to make contact with the glory of the fields. If you’ve got a morning free, and a bicycle, why not head up to the best urban/rural bike trail n the metro area, at Elm Creek Regional Park.

We always approach the park from the SE, taking Hennepin County 81 through Osseo with a right turn on  Zachary Lane. We park in the fire station lot near 98th Street. From there it’s a short jaunt up to the bike trail running into the park. Avoiding all visitor centers, this route saves you 30 minutes of drive time and bypasses a lot of recreational clutter along the way.

The loop around the park perimeter is 16 miles, I think, and it invariably takes us about 90 minutes.

(OK, so we stop a lot.)

We admire the vast islands of sumac that rise from the fields, and we noticed just this morning that a new generation of locust trees has sprung up at one point along the trail. We missed the plum trees this year, but spotted a very healthy wall of prickly ash. We also noticed a vine we couldn’t identify.

The trail passes through deep woods, but never for long. More often we’re screaming past fields of grasses with oaks and maples beyond. The landscape rises and falls, and one of the great features of the park is that though we’ve ridden it any times, we never know quite where we are at any given moment.

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The trail crosses a few gravel roads, and it crosses Elm Creek twice. It’s a skanky rivulet, let’s admit it. But it’s an important part of the landscape; it reflects the sunlight admirably, and establishes a focus and direction that the rolling fields largely lack.

We hear clay-colored sparrows buzzing from the nearby bushes as we pass. And field sparrows trill. Catbirds send out their irresistible junk. (Maybe they should have been called “scatbirds.”)

The shadows of the deep woods belong to the eastern wood pewee, high-pitched and forlorn. The open, marshy lakes provide a home for swans, though we didn’t see any this morning.

No, it’s the grasses, the marshes, the fields, the clouds, the sky. It’s the rhythm of the hills, the sweep of the vistas. 

And when we’re through, it’s the lemonade and Sun Chips from the gas station out on Highway 81. 

This post was written by John Toren and originally published on Macaroni.

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