Yes, yes, I know, once you saw a Disney movie in which a deer was killed and now you can’t eat venison. However, from an ecological standpoint, deer are a native species that fill an existing ecological niche, unlike the soybeans in your tofu which are invasive exotic species raised in monoculture fields that wipe out countless acres of habitat. And if you’re a small farmer, like Carol’s friend Eva, deer are an herbivore pest in a landscape that now lacks large carnivores to keep their population in check. So eating low-fat, free-range, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, organic venison that is untouched by American Agribusiness is actually an environmentally sound act that lets us humans fill the ecological niche of the large carnivores we have mostly extirpated from North America. It’s nice when we humans can play a positive role in the ecosystem, instead of just replacing the existing ecosystem with our own suburban and urban ecosystems.

When she stayed with us earlier this week, Eva gave use part of a haunch of venison. Carol stir-fried some chunks of venison with onions and greens; it looked really good, but I decided I wanted plain venison. I sliced it thin, and gently fried it in a little butter for a late brunch.

Venison cooking

After gently frying both sides, I covered the pan and let it steam for a minute until the meat was just well-done, with no red in the center. It was fabulous: lean, tender, and very tasty. I re-heated some of the “Warthog” wheat berries in the pan drippings, and the combination of the nutty wheat, the butter, and the meat drippings was the perfect addition to a satisfying brunch.

Macedonia, Ohio, to Joliet, Ill.

I got up at 6:30 and went to the gas station across the street from our motel to buy a newspaper. They stocked three, and I got a copy of each — the Akron Beacon Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and USA Today — and went to the Bob Evans restaurant to spend an hour eating breakfast and reading newspapers.

The lead paragraph of one of the front page articles in the Beacon Journal declared: “Amid sirens and cheers, the 77th Annual All-American Soap Box Derby kicked off its weeklong festivities with the opening ceremony Monday.” I remembered seeing a small black trailer hitched to a car in the parking lot outside our motel, with a sign that Kara’s something-or-other soapbox derby team. Sure enough, just as I was coming out from the restaurant, the car and trailer drove past me. Someone had taken white chalk and written on the side of the trailer: Honk for Luck!” I was walking so I couldn’t honk, but I silently wished Kara (whoever she may be) the best of luck in the world championships.

We left Macedonia and drove along Interstate 80 until we reached Illinois Route 53 — also known as Historic Route 66 — and headed south a dozen miles to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Midewin was established eighteen years ago on what used to be the old Joliet Arsenal. The prairie is still being restored by the National Forest Service, which maintains huge seed beds of native prairie plants, protected from deer by nine foot high fences. I stopped to look at a bed of Wild Bergamot (Monardo fistulosa) in full bloom.

Seed beds, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Above: Seed beds with Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

We walked along an access road lined with trees to get to the trailhead; stopping to eat some perfectly ripe mulberries. It was hot and humid, too hot to walk in the sun. We headed down Prairie Creek Trail, one of the few shaded trails at Midewin. When we emerged from the woods an hour later, the sun was partly blocked by clouds, but it was still too hot. I walked slowly, paying attention to the birds — that was my excuse for walking slowly. Carol pointed to a Ring-necked Pheasant walking along the trail behind us. A Sedge Wren called from the top of a shrub. A bright blue Indigo Bunting landed on a fence, not fifty feet from me.

Carol walked faster than I. She disappeared out of sight into the shaded access road. I stopped and turned to look out over the prairie and the woodlands. Even though I could hear the constant rumble of trucks along nearby Interstate 55, I felt as though I were far from that world.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Above: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

After we checked in to our motel in Joliet, we went out to eat at a little Chinese restaurant in a half-abandoned mall. That big empty mall parking lot resembled the tallgrass prairie in an eerie, slightly sinister way — the way the Fetch of Irish folklore resembles a living human being.

Mall in Joliet, Ill.

Above: Mall in Joliet, Ill.

Stow, Mass., to Fredonia, N.Y.

We left Stow, Massachusetts, at nine o’clock this morning. Stow lies on the edge of the coastal plain of southeastern New England, and we drove west through the hills of central New England, into the Berkshire Mountains, through the Taconic Mountains of New York, up the Mohawk River valley through the dramatic gap between the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south. I said goodbye to the last little foothills along the freeway.

Mohawk River valley

Above: The Mohawk River along Interstate 90, looking north towards the last of the Adirondack foothills.

We will see no more mountains — nothing but plains and rolling land — until we reach Wyoming, some 1,500 miles from here. We stopped at a rest area near Waterloo, New York, and already the landscape began to look like the Midwest or the Great Plains: a big field of legumes, a line of trees in the distance, some farm buildings, and a big outlet mall on the other side of the interstate.

Nine Foot Road, Waterloo, N.Y.

Above: Farm off Nine Foot Road, near Waterloo, N.Y.

When we got to Fredonia, N.Y., where we will spend the night, we took a long walk from our hotel to the campus of SUNY Fredonia. Although the university was founded in 1829, it obviously saw a big building boom beginning in the 1960s, when lots of big bland institutional brick buildings got built. I imagine it can look pretty bleak in the long gray winters, but everything was beautifully green today.

Fredonia obviously has a big student population. Lots of the attractive older houses in the center of town have been split up into student apartments, and we saw lots of evidence that this is a university town: a peace sign in a window, a poster proclaiming allegiance to Bob Marley, and a lovely garden with a handpainted sign that read “GROW FOOD NOT LAWNS.”

Garden in Fredonia, N.Y.

Above: Garden in Fredonia, N.Y.

Asheville, N.C.

Carol went off to visit her co-author Dave, while i wandered around downtown Asheville. I liked Malaprops bookstore, and I liked the public library (which has a good used bookstore), but the rest of downtown Asheville seemed to me to be dominated by two kinds of people: white middle-aged and overweight tourists who lumbered from gourmet restaurant to fancy gift shop, and white twenty-somethings who asserted their individuality in anxiously loud voices.

Carol picked me up, and we began to drive back to our motel when we saw a huge garden, half an acre or more, in front of Grace Covenant Community Church, Presbyterian Church USA. We decided to stop and walk through the garden.

Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

Above: Community Garden at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

We saw tomatoes, squash, beans. A woman who was also walking around stopped Carol and said, “What is that?” Carol looked and said, “I think it’s watermelon — something in the squash family, probably a melon.” We asked her if she were part of the church, but she said, “No, i just love looking at this garden, and since I had a few free minutes, I thought I’d walk around in it.”

I went in and asked in the office about the garden. Leah, one of the church staff members, told me that seventy percent of the harvest goes to alleviate food insecurity in the region. It is a cooperative project with church members, and members of the wider community. She gave me the email address of someone who was instrumental in making the garden happen.

Just outside the church office was a “World Garden,” a demonstration garden showing tire gardens and bag gardens to grow a lot of food in small spaces.

World Garden at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

Above: “World Garden” at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

We made one more stop before we went back to the motor court for dinner: the giant Goodwill store in Asheville. We skipped the furniture outlet and went in the retail side. I looked at their used books while Carol shopped for t-shirts. They had an eclectic mix of books: a book on choral conducting, several copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book about schnauzers, a children’s book of train stories which I had read as a child; I bought a cheap science fiction paperback.


Above: Interior of Goodwill retail store, 16161 Patton Ave., Asheville, N.C.

Death, and violence in the skies

Like me, Howard, the sexton at church, keeps a pair of inexpensive binoculars at work. We trade stories of the birds we see at the church.

This morning, Howard said, he was walking out towards the dumpsters when he saw what looked like a pair of falcons flying over the parking lot. One of the birds was carrying something big in its bill, and the other bird was diving at the first bird. There were also some crows flying around, and attacking the raptors every now and then.

Howard saw the first raptor drop something as it flew over the parking lot; none of the other birds seemed to notice. Howard took me over to where it landed, right next to someone’s minivan: a long naked tail, with bits of skin and tendon still attached to the root end. The fur was grayish-white; it could have been a rat, or a small opossum. After the first bird had dropped the tail, Howard said that it and its followers flew off somewhere else.

(What kind of raptor was it? Howard couldn’t get his binoculars in time to be sure. But at about this time in past years, I have seen Cooper’s Hawks hunting over and around the church grounds; and Cooper’s Hawks are known for being skillful fliers.)