The Bluff Spring Fen

Back again on September 2. Labor Day weekend is no time to do work, if you can avoid it.

When in doubt, go to a dictionary. If one isn’t enough, go to two or more. First, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, print version. Fen: “Low, flat, swampy land; a bog; marsh.” Next, Merriam-Webster, online version. Fen: “Low land that is covered wholly or partly with water unless artificially drained and that usually has peaty alkaline soil and characteristic flora (as of sedges and reeds).”

I found myself wondering about the exact definition of a fen when walking through a fen the other day. The Bluff Spring Fen. It was clearly a low wetland, and I’ll say this about a fen in August, especially in a rainy year — there’s a lot of characteristic flora.

Bluff Spring FenBluff Spring Fen, August 2014The only visible work of man is the footpath through the fen, which isn’t very visible, except in those few spots where wooden planks cross extra-low, extra-damp terrain.

Bluff Spring Fen plankThe fen is next to the Bluff City Cemetery, described yesterday. Toward the bottom of the bluff, in fact, and accessible through the cemetery grounds. The web site of Friends of the Bluff Spring Fen gives a more complicated definition of this particular fen: “Bluff Spring Fen is a 100-acre Illinois Nature Preserve in Elgin, Illinois, named for its rich, calcareous fens. These rare wetlands are fed by springs coming up through the ground bringing mineral-rich water. This alkaline water comes out of the ground at about 50 degrees, keeping the springs and streams flowing year round, and supporting animals and specialized plants that are adapted to these conditions.

“The Fen is not just the wetlands. It is a myriad of habitats including prairies, savannas, wetlands, and woodlands. Each one of these groups can be broken down further into subcategories… Rare and endangered species can be found here, such as the Small White Lady’s Slipper Orchids, the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies, and the Elfin Skimmer Dragonflies. To date, over 450 plant species, 57 butterfly species, more than 20 dragonfly species, and almost 100 bird species, including 33 nesting, have been recorded at the Fen.”

I don’t know if I saw any Elfin Skimmer Dragonflies, but I did see a lot of dragonflies. Squadrons of dragonflies. All beating their wings, causing typhoons in the South China Sea. Or was that butterflies? Saw a fair number of them, too. But not as many mosquitoes as I expected, fortunately. Always a good thing when you’re out in the middle of a fen.

The Bluff City Cemetery, Elgin

At Costco the other day, I was waiting in line at the keep-’em-in-the-store food service window, which is across from the row of check-out stands. The line was about eight people deep, and had started to snake toward the check-out stands, partially blocking the flow of people and shopping carts as they headed for the exit.

“Please move the line against the wall,” a Costco employee told everyone in line. It was a reasonable request, and we all moved away from the check-out row. A few seconds later, a man wheeled his cart past us in the line, and said, “Thanks. There’s no more Thermopylae.”

Did he actually say that? I wondered. I decided he had. I didn’t particularly feel like we were holding off a host of Persians, but I chuckled anyway. That’s someone who’s read his Herodotus. Or more likely, watched 300.

I spent some time one warm day recently at the Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin, Illinois, which has been a municipal burying ground since 1889. It’s a large place, 108 acres, and unusually uneven for Illinois terrain. My guess is that as a rolling bluff, the site wasn’t good for much else, so it became the cemetery.

Bluff City CemeteryBluff City Cemetery, August 2014A lot of mature trees, a lot of stones. Not a lot of funerary art, but I did see some examples, such as this figure, atop a monument to people named Hanson, and holding what looks like a chain attached to an anchor. I’ve read that anchors were early Christian symbols of hope, and are sometimes found on funerary art, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen one before.

Bluff City Cemetery, Elgin, Ill.The cemetery also sports a few burial vaults built into the hillside.

Bluff City Cemetery, August 2014There are some small mausoleums as well. I liked the Snow mausoleum, with its ivy.

Bluff City Cemetery, August 2014The Snows are under a large oak tree, and the entire time I was there it spat acorns at the ground near me.

A National Champion Red Ash

Not long ago I was tramping around a small section of Spring Valley that I’d never visited, and I found a plaque I’d never seen. That’s a minor thrill. Guess I’m peculiar that way about plaques. It says:



Planted here April 29, 2001

The 450-year-old parent tree is in Dowiagiac [sic], MI

Schaumburg Park District

Alas, the park district misspelled “Dowagiac,” which is a town in southwest Michigan, in bronze. Further investigation reveals that this particular tree has descendants elsewhere, including on the grounds of the Pentagon. Sen. Carl Levin spoke at the planting of a red ash there on September 10, 2002, as a memorial. Excerpts from his speech:

“The tree we plant this morning, like the other eight planted over the weekend, are actual parts of the largest – and probably oldest – red ash tree in America. That champion tree is located in Dowagiac, Michigan.

Buds from that tree were taken and propagated by the Milarch Family Nursery in Copemish, Michigan, which seven years ago launched an inspired initiative called the Champion Tree Project. The purpose of the project is to take buds from America’s “champion” or historically significant trees and propagate them in “living libraries” throughout the country.

“ ‘Champion’ trees are the largest of their species. There are 826 species of trees in this country; Michigan has 49 champions.

“The champion red ash that these trees are part of is 95 feet tall. The trunk is over 21 feet around. It weighs somewhere between 160 and 200 tons. Most impressively, the tree is estimated to be about 450 years old.”

Here’s the Spring Valley red ash. It’s got a ways to go to be so tall and so heavy, but maybe it will as the centuries pass.

Red Ash, Schaumburg, August 2014Apparently, the Champion Tree effort is still going on, though known as the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

Meanwhile, far from all red ash trees, large and small, I was happy to read the following from NASA yesterday: “The Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has traversed the orbit of Neptune. This is its last major crossing en route to becoming the first probe to make a close encounter with distant Pluto on July 14, 2015. The sophisticated piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in January 2006, reached Neptune’s orbit — nearly 2.75 billion miles from Earth — in a record eight years and eight months. New Horizons’ milestone matches precisely the 25th anniversary of the historic encounter of NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989.”

Jupiter and especially Saturn are show-offs, but Uranus and especially Neptune have a quiet majesty. I remember well seeing the pictures of Neptune’s blue orb in the pre-Internet newspapers and magazines of 1989. These days, of course, you can find images of Neptune easily.

RIP, Wayne Grothe

Dark clouds most of the day promising rain, but not delivering, at least not as of about 6 p.m. Cool air did blow through, however, ending a short series of humid days. It felt like the tropics out there for a while.

All too often, I see spontaneous memorials beside the road. Their frequency is sometimes haunting, such as the white crosses every few miles along some highway stretches in the Dakotas. A few days ago, I stopped to take a closer look at a memorial that’s at an intersection I often pass through. In fact, I would have passed through the day of the fatal accident – July 28 – but the road was closed.

Wayne Grothe memorial Aug 2014Next to the road, another sign.

Start Seeing MotorcyclesAll I know about the accident is what I’ve read: “A motorcyclist killed in a crash with another vehicle in Schaumburg Monday afternoon has been identified by Schaumburg police,” said the Daily Herald the next day.

“Wayne Grothe, 23, of Hoffman Estates was riding a motorcycle when it collided with a four-door Taurus driven by a 77-year-old Schaumburg woman just before 1 p.m. near the intersection of Roselle Road and Hartford Drive… The female driver was taken to Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove with minor injuries.

“Roselle Road between Weathersfield Way and Wise Road was closed for several hours while police investigated.

“No charges have been filed in the crash and the investigation continues.”

Summer of 1969. Maybe.

Terrific storm early Saturday afternoon. I watched most of it from the front entrance of a Schaumburg Park District facility, outside the building but under a sturdy overhang. We didn’t want to venture out into the parking lot for a while, so strong was the lightning and fierce the rain (though not much wind, oddly). One crack of lightning – right at the beginning of the rain, and unexpected – seemed like it was just across the street. I was looking directly at it. A woman crossing the parking lot was even more startled that I was, but it didn’t hit her.

About 45 years ago, my mother, my brothers and I went on a driving vacation around  the South. I was eight, and I’d been staying with my uncle and aunt in Ardmore, Okla. for a while previously (arriving there the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon), so the trip might have been late July, early August.

My mother and brothers came up to Ardmore, and from there we headed east through Arkansas and Tennessee, getting as far as Chattanooga. Then we returned to Texas by way of Georgia (briefly), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This must have taken about a week. I remember staying in a motel somewhere west of Memphis, and a five-story hotel in Chattanooga. We also stayed with relatives in Philadelphia, Mississippi. We must have stayed with my mother’s friend near Houston, too, but I don’t remember that, or any other place we might have stayed.

We went to Shiloh and Chickamauga, and the Hermitage in Nashville, and I don’t remember where else. We saw a lot of signs that said some variation of SEE ROCK CITY. According to this site, there are only about 100 of them left. Tennessee and some of the other states involved ought to pony up some funds to help preserve what’s left, since it’s a part of Southern heritage.

There seem to be only a handful of images from the trip. Jay took this one outside some eatery. I used to dislike the picture, but I like it now. Look carefully under the “O” and you can see a reflection of Jay taking the picture.

1969This is at a Texas welcome center. I’m on the left, my brother Jim on the right. Taken when we returned? That’s what I assume, since the only time we crossed a Texas border together was on the return. Before that I’d been in Oklahoma. Hard-to-see detail: on the other side of the highway is an ad for Esso, complete with a tiger.

TexasborderJay tells me the following two pictures are the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, which is just northeast of Tulsa. I’m not entirely sure we visited there in 1969, but it’s also entirely possible. I have no memory of the place.

aug1969.1An equestrian Will. Fitting for a man so adept at rope tricks, I suppose, though you’d think he’d be holding a lasso.

aug1969.2Here’s one I can’t pinpoint in time or space, and Jay can’t either.

aug1969.3I’m with Jim, in front of what seems to be a WWI-vintage cannon. It’s clearly summer. That’s about all I can tell. All the back says is Summer 1969, but even that’s suspect, since I wrote it sometime in the mid- or late ’70s. It’s easy to misremember.

Team of Rivals

Rain early in the morning, again in the afternoon, and more promised for Friday morning. You could call it a rainy spell. Just when the grass and other flora were looking a little thirsty from the intermittent August heat.

The other day I picked up Team of Rivals at a resale shop. Hardcover version, in decent condition. Cost: $1.75 plus tax. Considering my known interest in presidential history, it’s about time I got around to reading some Doris Kearns Goodwin. I haven’t gotten far yet, but so far so good. I’m looking forward to a detailed account of the Republican Convention of 1860. Remarkable how history turns on such seemingly small events.

And I’m going to wonder, where did I see Goodwin speak? I know I did, at some real estate convention or other in the early or mid-2000s, back when I used to go to such things more regularly. Can’t remember exactly when or where, though. Speakers I saw at one time or other included her, but also the elder George Bush (post-presidency), James Cavill, Newt Gingrich, James Lovell, and Colin Powell.

Not a Multi-Legged Creature

Returning from my garage this afternoon, I discovered this clinging to one my sleeves. It startled me for a split second. “Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.”

burr, August 2014It’s a burr from a large volunteer plant that grows next to our deck. The picture I took distorts the thing itself, as pictures often do. The burr measures only about an inch and a half in each direction.

It’s from the same plant that’s been growing there for years – here’s an image from June 2007 (and the plant’s slightly visible in the day before yesterday’s pic, behind the US flag). By late August, its stems and leaves are browning, leaving behind a lot of burrs. They’re gentle burrs, just grabbing onto your clothing, but not sharp enough to stab you. The Velcro of the plant world.

Water, Water, Water

It might be the summer of pouring a bucket of ice water over your head – which will probably be remembered in the way flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing are – but I’m not participating. The first I heard about it (ice water pouring, not flagpole sitting) was yesterday as I was driving Lilly and her friends somewhere. They were talking about it. But I would have heard about it today anyway, since I noticed something about it online at a place I usually visit.

I spotted peewee football players practicing in the park visible from my deck today, instead of baseball players. Some baseball will still be practiced and played in the weeks ahead. But peewee footballers mean the end of summer is nigh. So does the beginning of school. Lilly starts Thursday; Ann next Tuesday.

Even so, it’s still summer. This is the kind of thing you see during that season.

water truck

Not long ago, the village replaced some turf they’d dug up at the edge of my front lawn. Every now and then, a water truck shows up to water it.

Come and Take It

There probably aren’t too many Come and Take It flags flapping in the Illinois wind, but there’s one in my back yard. It’s along with a Stars and Stripes, one of many that a Realtor posted on our block – all near the street – for the Fourth of July this year.

Come and Take ItIt’s the flag I bought as a souvenir of my visit to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site in April. It was a little long to take in a suitcase on an airplane – and it’s a little pointy, just the kind of thing that might alarm a literal-minded TSA agent and who might indeed take it – so I left it at Jay’s house, intending to pick it up in July, when I could take it back in my car. Remarkably, I remembered to do just that, though it’s been in the car for a few weeks.

Nothing like an obscure historic flag of defiance to brighten up your deck. Unlike the Gadsden Flag, it hasn’t been co-oped by anti-government radicals (anti-government, except for their Social Security and Medicare).

O-Bon 1990

Things I Did During O-Bon (August 12-19)

Saw the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi on August 16 in Kyoto. I parked myself on the banks of the Kamogawa River among a large crowd also there to see the event. Sure enough, not long after dark, the first of the bonfires came to life, a 大 shape, “dai” or large, defying a bank of rainclouds that occasionally cut loose on the audience. It looked a little distant, but it was worth seeing once.

[The Japan National Tourist Board tells us that “although there are several interpretations as to the origins of this event, it is generally regarded as a fire set alight at the gate for seeing off the souls of ancestors after commemorating the welcoming of their souls. The character of “dai” (meaning “large”) on Mt. Daimonji, and those of “myo” and “ho,” which make up the word “Myo-ho” (wondrous teaching of Buddha) on Matsugasaki Nishiyama and Higashiyama mountains are famous.”]

Took some long walks in Osaka and one in Kyoto, from the Kenkakuji (Golden Pavilion) to the Nijojo Castle. The latter was closed by the time I got there [I eventually visited the Nijojo.]

Visited a few museums, including the Osaka Municipal Museum; the Kyoto National Museum; and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics. [Some years later, I told an acquaintance of mine who’s a gifted potter that I’d been there, and he was clearly envious of the experience. I liked the pottery well enough, but his instincts were right. It should have been him rather than me, in terms of who could appreciate it best.]

Also spent time at the National Museum of Ethnology, which has all kinds of interesting artifacts, such as a yurt, Polynesian vessels, African masks, lots more. The museum is at Expo Park, site of Expo ’70, the world’s fair held in Osaka that year. That’s probably the first time I’d ever heard of the city. Other relics from the fair include the enormous outdoor sculpture called “Tower of the Sun,” looking very much like something created in the late 1960s. [By Taro Okamoto, who died in 1996. I had no idea there was anything inside the work.]

Discovered a second-run theater in Osaka, admission only 600 yen for two movies. Good place to go for air conditioning, a traditional reason to go to the movies. This week saw Lair of the White Worm and Salome’s Last Dance, a sampler of Ken Russell’s recent twisted visions. Before seeing them, I’d mostly known his movies by reputation. Altered States, which I did see once upon a time, was much worse than either of these.