Monday, February 27, 2012

It is Not Just a Bunch of Weeds


In perfect keeping with the strange winter we have been experiencing, yesterday's temps were in the very high forties, affording us the perfect opportunity to hike out over the prairie. Trudging through slush and tall grass is vastly preferable to stomping on a treadmill, so I didn't even bat an eye. Steve was even game, which is unusual for him in the cold!

Nachusa Grasslands is the perfect prairie in which to hike, because, unlike most state parks and recreation areas, they are no rules about sticking to a trail, staying on the path, avoiding the best places on the prairie. In fact, they promote "freestyle" hiking at Nachusa, and the only real trails they have are the two-tracks on which the vehicles drive when need-be. Coupled with the fact that all we have to do is duck under the fence to be on Nachusa property, this is very convenient for us.

I love the prairie. Growing up in Vermont, the landscapes of my childhood were a lot of trees and forests, granite spills and verdant fields. Grasslands were a foreign concept to me until out arrival in Illinois in 1997. I still remember the day I fell in love with the prairie...

I was driving up the long, winding road that leads from the main road to the Forest Preserve building and museum. I had heard they offered preschool classes there, and since I was in the market for one for Phillip it was time to check it out. When you top the hill and make the turn into the parking lot, you are on one of the highest spots in Byron, and the prairie open up at your feet! The Nature Center and Museum squats atop the hill and overlooks the prairie like a grounded sentry, and I was instantly smitten. When the wind dances through the grasses is like being at the ocean again; an ocean of grass. And no one can call it boring; the russets and golds and browns combine to create the most freeform and dynamic quilt you might ever see. Tall-ies like compass plant, Indian grass and prairie dock offer texture along with the short-ies like little bluestem, prairie clover and goldenrods.

Now, being here in this home, we have come full-circle, so-to-speak. It is a matter of steps to bring ourselves in intimate contact with a unique and diverse ecosystem. As Steve and I head across the grass, I am always looking down. Not only must you watch where you are walking lest you turn an ankle, there are so many fascinating plants to see and discover, even in winter. I readily recognized leftover Round-Headed Bush Clover, Grass-Leaved Goldenrod and Bergamot among myriad others. Even after a winter of wind and moisture many of these plants can be plucked from their stems, crushed between your fingers or rolled between your palms, and they will still release their pungent and earthy fragrance. In addition, there are about seven distinct types of habitat and Nachusa, and a lot of cross-over among them, as well. The terrain varies from very easy to extremely rugged in places, lots of rolling hills, wetland areas, woods and savannah.

Our first steps are high on a “knob,” or hill, of sorts. Where the soil is poorer or drier the plants become shorter, more conservative and cautious. Little bluestem abounds, but the high places can also be where you find some of the coolest and rarest prairie plants. It is easy to walk through shortgrass prairie, for there is little to hinder your movement. You must watch out for patches of wild raspberries, though! My heart rate increases right away because I am still so out of shape, but that is good. Feel the burn! Burn those calories! We stride across the shortgrass for quite a while before the way starts to drop. Where the shortgrass is careful and cautious, the tallgrass is exuberant, reckless…uninhibited. Plenty of moisture allows the inhabitant plants to throw their roots deep, sometimes as deep as 10 feet! A massive root system allows for tremendous top-growth, hence the name “tallgrass” prairie. Some of the tallest species are ten feet tall! This is where walking can get tricky. Much of the plant material is already flattened down from wind and snow, but you must pick your feet up high to avoid tripping. It is also a good idea to walk with an arm before your face, to avoid getting smacked in the eye by grass. We trudge through the tallgrass. Ascending another knob, the grasses go short again, and my heart really starts to pound as we clamber uphill…yes! Feel the blood pumping through my veins, the crunch of dry grass beneath my feet, recognition of leftover (but rotted) prickly pear cactus as the grass gives way to rock. Massive outcropping of sand stone and St. Peters limestone dot the prairie, and even these rugged places provide a unique environment for very specific plants like shooting stars, stiff aster and gentians.

On our way back down the knob we pass an infant savannah…an area of combined grassland and minimal trees. Whichever trees survive prairie fires and browsing by deer will create their own little open forest-like area. Here are a few 15-foot bur oaks surrounded by their children, in various stages of life and death. Their corky bark is uniquely suited to sustaining the whoosh of a prairie fire and the drying winds they encounter. Their twisted limbs reach for the sky and out over the field of oak-children, ancient even in their youth.

As we climb back over another ridge and head back toward the house we pass by some of the sedge meadows, wetter places that offer their own protection from those who do not wish to get their feet wet or stuck. Some really elusive birds live in the sedge meadows in summer, like the bobolink, sedge wren and swamp sparrow. Their songs and calls taunt you from their dense hiding places, well-protected from the prying eyes of humans and predators.

Finally, we climb Schafer knob just before reaching the house again. Schafer is a highly diverse area, a good portion of which has never been plowed and probably minimally grazed in the centuries since man has been here. Prairie Dropseed and side-oats grama grasses live here, among the little bluestem, silky asters, thimbleweed and, if you are really lucky and looking carefully, some native orchids. This is a precious place.

I am always a little sorry to reach and be ducking under the fence back onto our little homestead property again. Time out on the prairie can come to a standstill of sorts, where the clock means nothing, but the rising and setting of the sun means everything. I have escaped into another world for a few precious minutes, and now it is time to come back to reality. But this is home, my sanctuary and shelter. My husband is beside me; what more could I want?

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Diet and Exercise

Among the many reasons I am inspired to blog again, tracking my journey to health again is a major player. I have known for years that my diet is not good, that I am overweight by at least 35 pounds and that I was playing Russian roulette with my sugar intake. Now the chickens have come home to roost, (figuratively only, since we are still preparing our coop for REAL chickens) for my really little, young, cute, mother-of-two doctor has informed me that my LDL cholesterol levels are much too high and my blood-sugar numbers are at pre-diabetic levels. Therefore, I am faced with a choice: diddle around at pretending to get healthy and fit, or do it for real. Let’s just say that the thought of injecting insulin and pricking my fingers multiple times a day is not particularly appealing; I will opt for dietary changes and the addition of cardiovascular activity. Ready? Go……!

Ugh. This sucks! 1500 calories a day max? Seriously? That really sounds like a lot until you really start tracking your intake. I signed up (for free) at myfitnesspal.com, where you plug in your personal stats and weight-loss goals, then they tabulate for you the numbers for calories, carbs, fat and protein you should hit each day. I always drank my sweet, chocolatey coffee guilt-free because I figured a little bitta this and a little bitta that didn’t really add up to much. Well, it does. ONE cup of my favorite morning beverage is equal to nearly a tenth of my total caloric intake for the day. Again, not really that much until you consider that the average healthy meal is still three- to four-hundred calories. Count in snacks, and not even any non-water drinks, and you are finished. Kaput. Done.

Fortunately, I am, so far, doing okay with this. Sometimes I really crave something sweet, and my evening routine has nearly always included some sort of crunchy, salty, fatty snacking. That is difficult when my evenings are not busy. Yesterday I blew over all my limits by about exactly the calories, carbs and fat in the little, tiny (eensy, really,) Jr Frosty I ate at Wendy’s.

I only regret it a little. I am very determined to get back to a place where granny bras are not my only option, and to have the energy and fitness level my life goals now require of me. In addition, I reeeaaalllyyy want to be on the fire crew at Nachusa this year, and you must pass a fitness test to do so. Being able to walk two miles in 30 minutes, while carrying a 25-pound pack is NOT easy, and I am not yet able to be at that level. If I hammer hard I can do two miles in 30 minutes, but I am wasted and sore. I know I can’t do it with a pack.

I will continue to walk, I will swim at the rec center, I will even do the orientation required to get onto the fitness machines. I will adjust my eating habits, learn to like vegetables, and discover new and healthy ways to get a fix for my sweet tooth. And I will rejoice at the meeting of every small goal. Baby steps, after all.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If You Really Wanna Know….(part two)

Today’s post is the second of two featuring an interview with Shannon and helping chronicle the gap years between the last blog and the beginning of the new one. Shannon has graciously agreed to be interviewed by herself…let’s see where they are….

Interviewer: Good morning, Shannon, nice to see you again!
Shannon: Good to see you too!

Interviewer: I could hardly sleep last night for thinking about your Big Event in the Fall of 2010. Let’s get right on it.
Shannon: Fire at will…

Interviewer: Okay, so something big happened….what was it?
Shannon: Well, we…bought a house!

Interviewer: {…..}
Shannon: (grins like the Cheshire Cat)

Interviewer: (clears throat) Okay? That’s it? That’s the Big Deal of 2010?
Shannon: (eyes glinting) Yes…but it wasn’t just any house. It was THE House.

Interviewer: Your first house?
Shannon: (chuckles) Oh no, certainly not. We have moved quite a bit in the span of our marriage.

Interviewer: How many times are we talking, exactly?
Shannon: Well, let’s see…including our first apartment and The House, we have had thirteen different addresses in five different states. Remember, Steve was in the Navy for the first seven years of our marriage. Once he got out we spent additional time trying to find the right fit for what we hope will be our “until we die” house.

Interviewer: And you think you have found it, finally? I am starting to see how the purchase of this house could be so meaningful.
Shannon: God willing, we have found our home. See, while Steve was recovering from his foot surgery he had not much else to do but peruse the real estate ads. We were living in town at the time, in a very cute house in a wonderful, small community. We knew, however, that our hearts were really in the country, even after a disastrous experience with our last country home.

Interviewer: That sounds like it could be an interesting story!
Shannon: Yes, it is…but one for another time. A part of me never wants to look back at those times again, but we learned so much and went through so much. Now we recognize that we needed to go through that to find our contentment now. So, we played around a little with looking at properties. We even went so far as to enter negotiations with a seller for a small rural property, to no avail. Now we are SO glad that never happened, because Steve ran across the ad for this house two days after it hit the market. Economic times were just starting to hit hard in our area, and the property was a foreclosure. Steve hobbled out to the van, demanding that we drive straight over there to drive by that same evening.

Interviewer: Does he do that kind of thing often?
Shannon: Let’s just say that I am used to it. And also that he does not, anymore. At all. *winks*

Interviewer: Okay, then…tell me about the house!!!!
Shannon: Well, when we got there he insisted I drive up the driveway to the top of the hill where the house sat. He knew it was empty, so I trusted him and did. We had to drive past two large outbuildings on the way up the drive, and at the top was a circle drive in front of the house. Before I even had the van in park, my heart started pounding. I scrambled out of the van as fast as I could, and by the time Steve had hobbled up alongside I had already burst into tears.

Interviewer: Was the house just that lovely?
Shannon: The house? No…I wasn’t even looking at the house. (pauses) See, when we reached the top of that hill, our view opened up over thousands of acres of restored Illinois prairie, a Nature Conservancy property since 1987. If you have ever seen the sun setting over the prairie in September you know it is a sight you will never forget. The brilliant gold of the sun set the russet-colored bluestem grasses ablaze with color. The breeze was perfect and caressing; the birds were singing their evening lullabies. I knew I had to live there. Now, I am not normally given to such extravagant shows of covetousness, but I KNEW in my heart we belonged there.

Interviewer: Surely you didn’t purchase the whole property just for the view?
Shannon: Surely you have not seen it, or you wouldn’t be asking me that. (winks) However, no…we did make a sound and sensible purchase. Our realtor came out the very next day for an official showing, on Labor Day even, and our offer went in that same afternoon. The house was small-ish but everything we needed, well-maintained, and obviously well-loved. The icing on the cake was the barns. One was completely ready (after a little cleaning) to house livestock of about any kind, and the other was a nice, big open shed ready to claim our junk and our equipment. All that was missing was the fencing before I could bring my horse home. We moved in the beginning of November, three whole days before the horse came home.

Interviewer: Wow. So it wasn’t even wrecked in the typical way that foreclosures can be?
Shannon: Nope, not one bit. The major mechanicals needed replacing, except for the furnace, but that was it. We were very grateful.

Interviewer: So what are your plans for the place? Five acres, is it?
Shannon: Yup, on the nose. Our plans are to partake in some self-sufficiency-type activities like growing some of our own food, raising our own eggs (and maybe meat birds) and maybe a couple dairy goats. We have also begun the process of replanting our front acre-and-a-half back into prairie from pasture. The folks at Nachusa Grasslands have been a tremendous help and support in this endeavor.

Interviewer: So that should keep you pretty busy.
Shannon: Yes, but we have learned over the years to pace ourselves, and not get in over our heads as far as projects go. I will be building my own business this year, we have become unit stewards at Nachusa, I have started volunteering at church again, and I have re-discovered my domestic roots, so-to-speak. I have come back to enjoying cooking real meals at home, sewing and stitching, gardening. There are a lot of things to do, and a lot of world to see. We don’t want to get to a place where this farm is a drudgery. So we prioritize and take it slowly.

Interviewer: Sounds wonderful! I will look forward to hearing more about your passions in future posts. You surely have a lot about which to blog! It is also my understanding that your family adventures aren’t quite over at the time you moved into the new house.
Shannon: No, not by far. We moved in early November, like I said, then celebrated the wedding of Matt and Jeanette in January! It was a busy but joyous time. Their wedding was simple and uncomplicated but moving and beautiful. I think they were BOTH radiant! (laughs) Then later that Spring Phil graduated high school, I graduated from college with my AAS in Landscape Design and another in General Horticulture, I took on a new job for a small landscaping/retail business in town, also worked for myself, left the job at the business, took a temp job collecting seeds for Nachusa and saw Phil start his college career here locally. We rented out our town house, started a garden, lost our old dog in early 2011, got a large-breed puppy, hung real fences, got another dog…yeah, we have been busy!

Interviewer: Well I guess so!
Shannon: But Steve started a new job at the nuclear plant in early 2010, finally getting transferred out of operations and into an instructorship. This has done wonders for him, as he loves the work, and the hours are mostly straight days. We are thankful every day for the blessings God has sent our way, as un-deserved as they are.

Interviewer: What would you most want your readers to take from these interviews?
Shannon: Gosh, that’s a hard one to sum up. I guess it would be that we have learned a whole lot on our journey to this physical, mental and emotional state we occupy now. The factors that brought us to this place are varied; some are very good, some are frighteningly bleak. We have come to understand how to learn from hindsight, to be more relaxed about the future, and to live in the moment when the occasion calls for it. I think that maybe others might benefit from our triumphs and struggles, too.

Interviewer: It sounds like there are a lot of undercurrents behind these vignettes you have offered us.
Shannon: Oh, yes…that is an understatement! Stories of joy and agony, of faith and family. But there is plenty of time for those revelations.

Interviewer: This interview has run on a little long. Any regrets about that?
Shannon: No. None at all.
Interviewer: (smiles) Good. See you on the blog?
Shannon: Indeed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

If You Really Wanna Know...(part one)

If You Really Wanna Know….(part one)

As I stated in my previous post, a lot has changed in the last three years. I thought it might be most efficient to sit down with an eminent interviewer (me) and lay it all out there. What transpired is as follows:

Interviewer: Thanks for sitting down with me today Shannon; may I call you Shannon?
Shannon: Of course! Some call me Mama G, but Shannon is just fine.

Interviewer: So, Shannon, what exactly HAVE you been doing these last two-and-a-half years?
Shannon: Wow, well, let’s see: In 2009 our older son graduated high school, of course, and that Fall he headed off to Indiana Wesleyan University. He had a tough couple of semesters, some was his fault some was not; like a bout of appendicitis and a ruptured appendix at finals time.

Interviewer: Wow, that doesn’t make it easy!
Shannon: No, certainly not. He never quite recovered academically so he came back home to attend a local community college. That summer he started dating Jeanette Marian Kaminski.

Interviewer: First girlfriend?
Shannon: Indeed! We knew she was special right off the bat. So, that Fall of 2009 I went back to school and plugged away at my degree. It was sometimes very hard to be a mother of two teen boys and a full-time student, but I knew it was temporary. During the Summer of 2010 I began again at Prairieview Golf Club, and even got to hand-pick my own intern! I soon discovered that the job wasn’t really a good fit for me. Plus, I was picking up some of my own business on the side and wanted to devote myself to that.

Interviewer: How do you like working in landscaping?
Shannon: Well, it is hard work, to be sure. But I love to get my hands dirty; I actually enjoy weeding and cleaning up an area. I especially like the design process, and seeing a project through from beginning to end. My favorite part is when the customer is pleased with what I have done.

Interviewer: It sure is important to like what you do. Let’s talk about the Fall of 2010. From what I understand a sort of vortex of events took place at that time.
Shannon: Yeah, you could say that! (laughs) Let’s see….that Fall we planned to take a family hiking trip to Colorado, and each of the boys were given permission to bring someone along. Matt brought Jeanette, and Phil brought his friend Joey from school. Unfortunately, mere days before we were to leave, Steve (my husband) tripped on some stuff on the basement stairs and broke his foot in two places. We were devastated!

Interviewer: Oh, what bad timing! Right before a hiking trip, too!
Shannon: Yup…really bad timing. Steve wanted to go anyway, so off we went, in two cars nonetheless since we had so many people along. He had on splints and a walking boot for protection, and a pair of sturdy crutches. Since he would have to wait for surgery until the swelling went down it seemed natural to go anyway.

Interviewer: Man, I give that guy credit for pressing onward!
Shannon: Eh, he’s a trooper. (shrugs) It’s what he does. On our way to Colorado, the car carrying Steve and Jeanette, and being driven by Matt, was rear-ended in Nebraska. Everyone was basically fine, in our car and the one that hit us, but the car was pretty wrecked up. We limped along to Colorado and got the repairs started out there. We ended up renting a van that would be with us for a good two months until the car was repaired and shipped back.

Interviewer: Did you think about turning around at that time? To press on seems a little insane at this point.
Shannon: (heavy sigh) Yes, yes we did. It was probably foolhardy, but we went anyway. The trip was vastly modified from what we originally planned, but we had a good time anyway. The weather was good, our cabin was comfortable, and Joey and Jeanette got to see the Rockies for the first time. The trip back was pretty uneventful.

Interviewer: Soooo…then what?
Shannon: Well, I went back to school, the kids went back to school, Steve got his surgery, and Matt and Jeanette got engaged!

Interviewer: (laughing) Wow! Is that all?
Shannon: (also laughing) No, actually, that is not all.

Interviewer: No! Say it isn’t so!!!
Shannon: God’s truth! It was a biggie, too, a pivotal moment.

Interviewer: Bigger than an engagement?
Shannon: No, certainly not. We were very excited to be gaining a daughter-in-law, and were busy helping to plan a wedding for a mere three months hence. Nothing could top that! But the next event changed our world, hopefully for the better.

Interviewer: Sounds big; let’s take a break and pick this back up tomorrow. One more question, though, and I do feel it my duty to ask the hard questions: Do you wear bifocals?
Shannon: Wow, ouch! (laughs heartily) Well, no, I don’t. But the truth is I am ready. I was nearly ready last year and did not adapt to the Progressive lenses. Now I know I am ready. Shannon, I will look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.

Interviewer: Likewise, Shannon! Sleep well.
Shannon: God bless.

Hitting the blogging trail...once again!!!

I dropped my last blog three (THREE!) years ago, for various reasons. So much has changed in the last three years that I felt it was entirely pointless to try and pick up where I left off. In fact, I am an entriely different person thatn I was three years ago, in an entirely different place as a mother and wife and have even moved! My goals are new and different, my interests have changed, my work is now different. A lot of crap has come down in the last couple years and in the last few months in particular; I am at a fresh beginning, a renewal of heart, mind and home.

For those that are interested, here is a link to my other blog, the one I will no longer be updating. I was reading back a little and was quite entertained, lol! Also dismayed and encouraged. Interesting...


I can't wait to see what is next...stay tuned!