Sawyer Creek, Oshkosh, Wis.

Dad-in-law and Nancy live near Sawyer Creek near where it drains into the Fox River. So that’s a natural destination when we go out for walks. I went out walking around Sawyer Creek this morning, starting along the north side near Eagle Street, crossing the creek at North Westfield, then following along the south bank through Red Arrow Park. Quite a few plants were in bloom, including attractive but invasive flowers Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides). Purple Crownvetch (Securigera varia), another invasive species, were everywhere, with their feathery leaves and clover-like pink-and-white blossoms. I was interested to see flowers of the invasive species Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus), a plant I’d never seen in bloom before. Actually, most of the flowers I saw were invasive species.

Invasive species Purple Crownvetch (Securigera varia) in full bloom

I did see one or two native species blooming. There were some elderberry (Sambucus sp.) in bloom, which were probably native. And some of the small scrubby willows (Salix sp., prob. Salix interior, or Sandbar Willow) growing along the south bank of the creek still had some catkins in bloom.

Sandbar Willow (Salix interior) with catkin

In the early evening, I went fishing along this stretch of Sawyer Creek. I couldn’t see any evidence that the water was flowing. The turbidity was high, and in some places the acquatic plants were pretty thick. I found a place with few plants, and at my first cast a small Yellow Perch (Perca flavescens), a native species, chased the lure right up to the bank. It was so small that it couldn’t actually get its mouth around the lure. I could see I wasn’t going to catch anything, and that was fine with me. I spent a happy half hour trying to read the stream, casting, and changing lures every once in a while. For me, fishing is better than mindfulness meditation: it clears my mind, and I have no concerns about whether I’m engaging in Whitened Buddhism.

My iNaturalist observations for June 29.


I thought I overheard someone say, “The Supreme Court backed coaches preying on the field.” Preying? You mean, preying on children and teens…?

It took me a moment to realize that the Supreme Court was not supporting child-molesting coaches, but was instead allowing coaches to offer supplication to their deity before and after sports games.

Sadly, given the ongoing sexual abuse crises in some conservative Christian denominations, my momentary confusion is somewhat understandable. Even I — and I should know better — subconsciously associate organized religion with unsavory unethical actions of male leaders.

Oshkosh, Wis.

What we learned from our road trip so far:

Driving just five hours a day means you have two or more hours each day for a visit with a friend or relative, or a hike in a park or wildlife refuge. Much better than driving 8-10 hours a day, as we used to do.

When you go hiking, use insect repellent. Then check carefully for ticks before you get in the car.

The Best Western motel in Chamberlain, S.D., has really fast internet service.

Widespread acceptance of videoconferencing means you can do the following on a road trip: attend a civic meeting; lead a General Assembly workshop; attend a committee meeting; attend a professional conference.

Driving with a canoe tied on top of your car lowers your gas mileage by about 15%.

If you have a soprano ukulele in the car, whoever’s sitting in the passenger seat can play it while you sing together. Much better for staying awake than audio books.

Albert Lea, Minn., to Oshkosh, Wis.

We made only one stop on today’s drive — aside from short stops at rest areas or gas stations — and that was at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Necedah N.W.R. is best known because Whooping Cranes have been reintroduced there. We did not see any Whooping Cranes, though we did see a dozen Sandhill Cranes. We also saw Trumpeter Swans, which breed here.

Trumpeter Swan, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The poor image quality is because this bird was at the limit of the telephoto range of my pocket super-zoom camera

What I most enjoyed about Necedah N.W.R. was seeing eastern bird species I haven’t seen since I was in Massachusetts last summer. Seeing a Chipping Sparrow, for example, hopping on the sidewalk outside the refuge visitor center was a thrill for me — though they’re so common in the east they’re almost boring. I suppose after a year or so I too will be bored by Chipping Sparrows.

Chipping Sparrow on the sidewalk near the visitor center, Necedah N.W.R.

Also next to the visitor center, I saw a Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). This is a common eastern lizard, but for someone who’s spent the last dozen years living in the land of Western Fence Lizards, it was a thrill to see a Five-lined Skink.

Five-lined Skink in the grass next to the visitor center, Necedah N.W.R.

After leaving Necedah N.W.R., we drove straight through to Oshkosh, Wis. We’ll be staying here for a week, visiting Dad-in-law and his wife Nancy. Seeing them this evening was the highlight of the day!

Update, June 28: Yesterday and today, we’ve found 3 dog ticks on us or our clothing. So that’s yet another species of organism we found in Necedah NWR.

My iNaturalist observations for June 27

Chamberlain, S.D., to Albert Lea, Minn.

We left Chamberlain at about 9:30, and headed to Yankton, South Dakota, to see Carol’s Aunt Rose. Our route took us off the interstate highway and onto a two-lane state highway. We passed through one or two small towns (with populations of a few hundred people), but mostly we drove through an agricultural landscape. We still saw cattle being grazed, but we also began to see vast fields of soybeans.

Field of soybeans, near Parkston, S.D.

This is not an idyllic pastoral landscape, as it may first appear, but rather an industrial landscape. Monocultural agriculture requires large inputs of chemicals: fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Self-sufficient family farms raising a variety of crops have mostly disappeared — as evidenced by the many abandoned barns and farm houses in the landscape — replaced by impersonal agribusiness devoted to commodity crops like soybeans. This is the culmination of a trend noticed by Henry Thoreau back in the 1840s. Thoreau noted that the emergence of agriculture and farming in his day replaced the old values of “husbandry”; the former devoted to extracting the maximum dollar value of crops from the land, the latter devoted to stewardship of the land. Implied in this distinction is a vast difference in ethics: the ethics of agriculture and farming prioritize the maximizing of immediate profit for the individual landowner; the ethics of husbandry has a much broader understanding of the value of the land.

We arrived in Yankton in time for brunch. Aunt Rose cooked a lovely brunch for us. While we ate, Carol and her aunt talked about family. It was the highlight of our day. As we left, we apologized for taking Aunt Rose away from church, but she said she didn’t mind because everyone was busy planning her church’s vacation Bible school that starts tomorrow.

Soon after leaving Yankton, we crossed the border into Minnesota. We stopped at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, Minn., for a hike. The park includes an escarpment of red Sioux quartzite that’s as tall as a hundred feet in places, as well as over a thousand acres of tallgrass prairie. A small herd of bison lives in a fenced-in area of several hundred acres of prairie. We did see the bison, but they were so far away that they appeared as little more than dark splotches.

Bison through a telephoto lens, Blue Mounds State Park, Minn.

A thousand acres of prairie sounds like a lot. But seeing the little herd of bison stuck in that patch of prairie gives another perspective.Two hundreds years ago there would have been millions of bison roaming over millions of acres. From that perspective, the park seems small. Only about 1-4% of the original tallgrass prairie still survives in North America; the rest of the land has been turned to agriculture.

But I enjoyed myself in Blue Mounds State Park. Pricklypear cactus (Opuntia sp.) were in bloom, as were native roses (Rosa sp.) and sumac (Rhus sp.). Western Meadowlarks sang throughout the grasslands; this could be the last time I see and hear Western Meadowlarks on this trip, for soon we’ll be in the range of Eastern Meadowlarks. In fact, we’re already seeing the transition to eastern North American species: Stellar’s Jays have been replaced by Blue Jays; Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) has been replaced by Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans rydbergii — turns out this was Western Poison Ivy, which does grow in the east, and in fact interbreeds with Eastern Poison Ivy, T. radicans).

We spent a couple of hours walking through the park. Maybe that was too long, because it was after ten when we arrived at our motel in Albert Lea, Minn. But we both felt we needed a long walk after all the hours we’ve spent driving in the past week.

Dickcissel singing, Blue Mounds S.P., Minn.

My iNaturalist observations for June 26

Chamberlain, S.D.

We spent the day in Chamberlain so I could participate in an online workshop for General Assembly, the big annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists.

In the morning we headed to the Akta Lakota Museum, which reportedly has one of the largest collections of Lakota artifacts. The collection includes late nineteenth and early twentieth century artifacts, as well as more recent works by Lakota people.

By mistake, we first wandered into an exhibit about St. Joseph’s School, a Catholic mission school for Lakota children. The museum is actually hosted by this mission school. It was a well-intentioned exhibit, but nevertheless hard to look at. The school took in children from kindergarten through eighth grade. One display talked about how early on, in the 1920s and 1930s, school life was highly regimented; they explained this away by saying there weren’t enough nuns and priests to maintain order unless everything was highly regimented. As an educator, I wasn’t sympathetic; I felt they were trying to justify regimentation when actually their educational model was essentially flawed.

Then another nearby display told how it was against the rules for children to speak Lakota, and that speaking Lakota was considered a major discipline problem. This makes me think the problems with maintaining order had as much to do with harsh and ill-considered rules as it did with staffing shortages. While I can sympathize with the positive intent of the school — to provide educational opportunities for Lakota children — the educational philosophy, educational methods, and school organization seem to me to be fatally flawed.

In fact, I got so angry at this poorly conceived educational venture, I left before I went through the whole exhibit. So I don’t know if the exhibit addressed the child sexual abuse scandal at St. Joseph’s School (read about this scandal here, and here). In any case, I didn’t think the exhibit adequately addressed the stories of people like Zigmund Hollow Horn who at age 65 recalled, “If you spoke your language [i.e., Lakota], they held you down, put a bar of soap in your mouth.” I don’t see how that kind of poor behavior by adults can be justified under any legitimate educational model.

The main exhibit was less self-serving. There were some fine examples of Lakota material culture on display. However, the exhibit as a whole looked like something out of the 1970s — artifacts placed together in cases without a clear organizing principle, meager labels, not enough supplementary cultural information. I also felt that some of the artifacts needed conservation, and were displayed in such a manner as to exacerbate existing conservation problems. Take, for example, the birch bark canoe that’s on display. The forward thwart has detached from the gunwale, allowing the hull to splay out. I felt this serious conservation problem may have been exacerbated by a poorly designed display cradle which tends to push the bottom of the boat up thus aggravating the tendency for the gunwales to splay.

Lakota birch bark canoe, Akta Lakota Museum — notice the detached thwart and splayed hull

I understand that the primary mission of St. Joseph’s School is education, and they may find it hard to justify paying to conserve the artifacts in their museum. But if that’s the case, then admit that adequately maintaining the museum is outside the scope of the institution’s mission, and give the artifacts to someone who can adequately conserve them.

It wasn’t long before I had had enough of the main exhibit, and walked out. I felt an excellent collection of artifacts had been ruined by outdated exhibit design and lack of adequate conservation. I couldn’t help but wonder what the museum would look like if it were adequately funded — and if the exhibit had been designed by Lakota curators rather than by well-meaning white school officials.

After leaving the museum, we ate lunch. I spent the afternoon preparing for, then helping lead the online workshop at General Assembly. So about half the day was really a work day.

In the evening, we walked around Chamberlain, a lovely small town with a population of about 2,200 people. It was a perfect summer day: in the seventies, windy, clear. We looked out over the river at the green bluffs rising up on the opposite shore. We both agreed this would be a pleasant place to live. As the sun set over the western bank of the Missouri, we walked back to the motel to get ready for bed.

Great Plains Yucca in full bloom on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River

My iNaturalist observations for June 25

Gillette, Wyo., to Chamberlain, S.D.

We got a late start (again), so this will be a short post.

Heading east from Gillette, Wyo., we left the Far West behind and entered the Great Plains. It’s still spring, so the grasslands were brilliant green. As we entered the Black Hills of South Dakota, we saw how they got their name: in contrast to the grasslands, the hills covered with conifers appear black.

The Black Hills of South Dakota as seen across the grasslands

Carol asked a pleasant man at the visitor center just over the South Dakota border if there was anything we should see. He recommended the auto tour route through Badlands National Park. The more popular viewpoints were pretty crowded, with many overweight tourists. We decided to hike part of the Castle Trail. Within a half mile from the trailhead parking lot, there were no other people. It took an hour to go two miles, because I kept stopping to take photos of flowers (Plains Pricklypear, Sego Lily, several flowers in the legume family, etc.) and birds (Rock Wren, Say’s Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, etc.) and even a few photos of the dramatic landscape.

Along Castle Trail, Badlands National Park

By the time we got to the Saddle Pass Trail, the sky was looking pretty dark. Lightning flashed in the distance.

Dark clouds from Saddle Pass

We headed back as quickly as we could; the return trip took a little less than half an hour. A few drops of rain starting falling as we got into our car.

Light rain continued most of the way from Badlands National Park to Chamberlain, S.D. And right now, the rain is coming down in buckets, pounding on the roof of the motel. “We got here just in time,” Carol just said. “It would not have been fun driving in that.”

My iNaturalist observations for June 24

Rock Springs to Gillette, Wyo.

After driving for about 80 miles, I decided I needed to stretch my legs, so we took Exit 184, Continental Divide Road, and turned right onto a dirt road that led to some wayside markers. One of the signs explained how Henry Bourne had an idea for a cross-country auto road. But, as usual, I was looking at flowers, and I followed my gaze down a dry wash. By chance I looked up, and there was a Pronghorn Antelope staring at me. I got out my super-zoom camera in time to catch a blurry photo of the antelope running away from me.

Pronghorn Antelope running away

Our next stop was Rawlins. Carol wanted to go to the library there for an online meeting she had scheduled at two o’clock. We arrived early, and walked around the downtown. Carol stopped to admire a piano on the sidewalk that was painted with a Van Gogh design. A friendly woman came along and said, “Play something for us!” It turned out she was the economic development director for downtown Rawlins, and she told us about some of the city’s accomplishments. I noticed that she often spoke about involving children and teens in city projects, and asked if she used Search Institute’s Developmental Assets model for supporting the healthy development of children and teens. She said that she did indeed use that model.

After Carol’s meeting was over, we headed to Gillette. While Carol drove, I got out my laptop and worked on a PowerPoint presentation that was due today. The slide deck was hosted on Google Drive, so I used my phone as a hotspot as we drove across the high plains of Wyoming. Working remotely has become so easy that you can do it on a cross-country trip. I’m not sure this is a good thing.

We stopped at Independence Rock Historic Site. Independence Rock is a huge outcropping of granite that served as a landmark for the Oregon Trail. We walked around the base — me looking for flowers as usual — and then we climbed partway up the rock.

Carol on Independence Rock

It was so windy that we decided not to climb to the top of the rock. We walked all the way around Independence Rock, and as every tourist does we admired the nineteenth century grafitti scratched into it.

But for me, the highlight of our stop at Independence Rock was seeing a Plain Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha) in full bloom.

Opuntia polyacantha in bloom

We arrived in Gillette after dark. We’re both pretty tired. It’s time for bed.

(Random facts from today’s trip: We crossed the continental divide three times today. The highest point of our trip was when we crossed the continental divide on U.S. Highway 237, at an elevation of 7,174 feet above sea level. Our gas mileage for the second half of the day was over 36 miles per gallon, even with the canoe on the car — this afternoon’s gas mileage was higher than usual because we were driving downhill from the continental divide.)

My iNaturalist observations for June 23

Wendover to Rock Springs, Wyo.

Our room in Wendover looked out onto a rock outcropping which rose up a hundred feet or more behind the motel. After a quick breakfast, I went out and followed an ATV trail up the outcropping. Soon I was fifty feet above the motel, on a level area below the summit of the outcropping. From there I could see the Union Pacific rail lines heading east. A long train squealed slowly around a loop of rail, heading towards the main line. The main line was a straight line across miles of white salt flats, paralleling the interstate highway, both disappearing into the distance. I spent a quarter of an hour on the level area looking at the desert plants there — ephedra (Ephedra sp.), with no leaves to speak of, just stems with chlorophyll; prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), with a red blossom just gone by; saltbush; sagebrush (Artemisia sp.); and so on. Once again on this trip, I spent far more time looking at the world at my feet, rather than looking up at the awe-inspiring landscape around me.

Prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia sp.)

We stopped in Salt Lake City to meet Sandy, an old friend of Carol’s, for lunch. I was fascinated to hear them reminiscing about their days in middle school and high school: the hierarchies of their schools; the track coach who years later would be arrested for molesting his step-daughter; a favorite English teacher, Miss Mountford; the differences between their two families; and so on. I felt they both must have been nice teenagers.

I was especially interested to hear that Sandy serves as a translator for her church’s worship services. She’s fluent in Spanish, so she can translate for English speakers when the sermon is in Spanish. I asked her about the mechanics of translating the sermon, and she said she’s in a sound-proof booth, speaking into a microphone; those who need or want the translation wear an earpiece to listen to her. Maybe someday some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations will be able to do something like that.

I drove as we left Salt Lake. Carol dislikes twisty mountain roads, and the road from Utah into Wyoming is definitely a twisty mountain road. We pulled over at a rest stop at about mile 170 on I-80 for a mid-afternoon snack. There were picnic tables up a steep paved sidewalk, and up another even steeper paved sidewalk was an observation platform. Behind the rest area, a plain dotted with sagebrush sloped up to peaks above.

A sign on a fence said that this land was a wildlife management area. I walked through the fence, and out onto that sagebrush-dotted slope. There were flowers everywhere. I spent a happy half hour looking at flowers and taking photographs, until my cell phone rang. It was Carol asking where I was. “You don’t have to hurry back,” she said, “I just wanted to know where you were.” I took her at her word, and spent another quarter of an hour looking at flowers. My favorite was the Sego Lily: three white petals marked with yellow and deep red at their bases, over three cream colored sepals.

Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttallii)

When we got to Rock Springs, we followed the signs to the “Historic Downtown” area, parked the car, and walked around. We saw some people cooking something outdoors. “Want to go over?” Carol said. At first I said no, but I realized I was hungry, so then I said yes. A talkative woman greeted us, and pointed to a whiteboard with the menu: hot dogs, Kronski’s, and funnel cakes. We asked what “Kronski’s” were, and the woman told us that they were sausages that were made here in Rock City, in fact they were made in the building that we were all standing in front of.

I ordered a Kronski, and Carol ordered a hot dog. A man — who, as it turned out, was the woman’s brother — cooked the sausage and hot dog for us, and the woman gestured to the tray of condiments. We both put sauerkraut on our meat. The man invited us to sit at some tables behind him, and offered to turn off the Ozzy Osborne he’d been listening to, but we said we liked Ozzy. We had a long chat with the two of them. They had just started out this new business, and were trying to figure out how to make it work.

When we finished eating, we thanked them, and finished our walk around the historic district. It was getting dark, so then we drove back to the motel.

My iNaturalist observations for June 22

Fernley, Nev., to Wendover, Utah

We drove past dramatic scenery today: the Forty-Mile Desert, the green Humboldt River valley in between sagebrush plains, towering 11,000 foot mountains…. But what stays in my mind are the flowers we saw blooming near Pequop Summit.

We parked in the Pequop Summit rest area, elevation 6,967 feet above sea level. We walked over the cattle guard to a dirt road cut into the side of the hill, and then I saw a flower up a fairly steep embankment. I scrambled up to look at it. There was a small Single-leaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) just beyond it, then a pale yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) above that, and then some purple Hooker’s Onions (Alium acuminatum) above that. “Be careful coming down,” said Carol from the dirt road twenty feet below me. I decided that going up was easier than trying to slide down, so I scrambled up to the top of road cut. By now, I was more than thirty feet above the highway, so I must have been over seven thousand feet.

It was beautiful up there. At seven thousand feet above sea level, it was still springtime. Flowers were blooming everywhere. In some places you couldn’t move without stepping on a flower. In among the pungent-smelling sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), sprightly yellow Groundsels (Packera sp.), like tiny little yellow daisies, grew next to low-growing Lava Asters (?) (Ionactis alpina). The Mule’s Ears (Wyethia sp.), with their leaves like the ears of mules and their flowers like little sunflowers, were mostly past their prime, but in the shade of some big sagebrush bushes a few sheltered plants were still in full bloom.

The yellow flowers are Hawksbeard (Crepis sp.), the red ones are Paintbrushes (Castilleja sp.), and the small purple ones are Hooker’s Onion (Allium acuminatum)

In addition to the flowers, small grasshoppers were buzzing and jumping all through the scrubby growth. Birds sang throughout the sagebrush, and as I approached them were apparently surprised that a human was walking through their territories.

All this was happening within sight and sound of Interstate 80. Most of this was happening below the level of my waist. I was so fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that I never even looked up to admire the view from Pequop Summit, if there was indeed a view.

Eriogonum sp.

Earlier in the day, we had stopped for a rest break near Oreana, Nev. This was at a much lower elevation, and I didn’t expect to find any flowers in bloom. But I walked a little way down a dry wash, and there found two or three clumps of Desert Prince’s Plume (Stanleya pinnata) blooming. Pollinators swarmed around these flowers, including a Western Pygmy Blue butterfly.

Western Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis)

In Oreana as at Pequop Summit, I barely noticed the grand landscape scenery around me: my attention was on the small, intimate landscape at my feet.

My iNaturalist observations for June 21