Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pasture Tramping

Eastern Black Swallowtail in Dotted Liatris
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

Whew!  Its been a bit warm and humid for us lately!  But the summer marches on and things keep evolving and finishing out - you have to keep up!

A couple days ago Georgie came in the studio to let me know there was some butterfly activity going on out there, so I grabbed the camera.  There were a couple Monarchs in the pasture and a sulphur or two, but what really caught my eye was an Eastern Black appeared to have just recently emerged because of it reluctance to take flight and its flawless marking - no frayed edges or worn markings.

I also realized the heat had spurred the Dotted Liatris (Liatris punctata) into a peak bloom.  Things can get by a person around here if they get too busy!

Eastern Black Swallowtail on Stiff Goldenrod
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

The late summer forbs are now all moving along quickly here, the most dominant this time of year are the goldenrods - we are over run with Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) unfortunately...oh it is striking and a nectar favorite for all pollinators, but it is much too aggressive and is crowding out some very nice plants. 

 Monarchs on Stiff Goldenrod in our pasture on 09-02-2009
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

At this time of the year we are usually over run with Monarchs, especially on the Stiff Goldenrod, but have only been managing one or two ever day or so...this is a disturbing  situation all over the country where they usually migrate through.  This subject is worthy of a blog entirely of its own I think. 

I've left another subject hanging in the background for a few weeks and just wanted to say that it is now "officially" proceeding.  I'll explain in a little more detail but don't want to make this too much of a soapbox as this blog is more about our place in the prairie and about my endeavors in a creative process with my artwork. 

Clean Line LLC is a corporation building large transmissions line around the country.  They are not a utility company in the states they are building, until they become franchised.  Once they become franchised in Iowa, they will have the same power of a utility, and in our case that means eminent domain.

They are building what they call the "Rock Island Clean Line".  They have been talking to the counties in NW Iowa for about 3 years or so about their proposed transmission line, so there is quite a bit of invested time for local governments and this corporation.  I only mention this "time investment" to give a background on the support for this endeavor by the county officials here in O'Brien County.  I am in the minority here if I do not support it, well I don't, so-be-it.

This transmission line would be the largest and longest to pass through Iowa.  It will be a 600kv line; would carry 1.3 times the equivalent power of the Hoover dam past our home and pasture each year.  Many things are unclear about this project, even though the "official" public informational meeting was supposed to clear things up. 
This is a "merchant line" (my words), the line is not coordinated with any existing grids in Iowa, even though it travels across 16 counties to the state of Illinois, it ties into no existing grid - it is solely being built to pick up electrons from wind power generated here in NW Iowa and sell it at higher rates in northeastern states. They do not have contracts with any wind farms in NW Iowa either; this is being built with the philosophy "if you build it they will come" in mind.

 "Waterman Morning"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)  
* This is an actual location that will be clear cut in our valley
"if" the proposed line does go through.

I first heard about this line last fall when I read an article in the paper...I thought it odd at the time that we were allowing a line to be built just to take our produced power somewhere a couple thousand miles away.  Didn't we have use for power produced here ourselves?  We, after all, are so dependent on western coal for our local power...wouldn't our own wind power be beneficial and responsible for us and our region?  Then I read a quote by a county supervisor in the article.  The supervisor responded to a question or supposition by someone asking whether someone might object to the line going through their property, the supervisor responded by saying  (I'll paraphrase) "There's nothing in the county that a transmission line would bother."  That really got my attention!  I wrote Clean Lines LLC right away and asked them to please not take those supervisor words to heart - that there was indeed much in the SE corner townships that a transmission line could hurt or disrupt!  These two townships carry 99.9% of the entire county's natural heritage.

 Great Blue Heron
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)  
*The largest rookery of these birds in the state of Iowa (west of the
Mississippi River) will be disrupted "if" the proposed 
line does go through.

I thought at the time that this line was a done deal...the media reported it in that vein.  Well when we got a certified letter this July, telling us the transmission line would have its easement on our south pasture and would be 466 feet from our house, and pass across the valley past the largest Great Blue Heron rookery in Iowa, west of the Mississippi River, and through the northern most prairie remnants still found in this county - I began researching the corporation, its goals and its "behavior" and opposition in other states it is running through. I have serious doubts now as to how much "checking around" the local county officials did themselves with this corporation. 

Clean Line LLC has been working in Illinois much longer at trying to receive a "franchise" status than it has in Iowa, because Illinois' utility regulations are much stricter than Iowa...they have been having quite a time there and the dockets in the Illinois testimony records are quite a read.  But this is the early stage for Iowa - out of the 16 counties it will pass through, there are still 10 counties that have not heard of any routes...there are still a lot of people who are unaware of their property's potential future.  

We are talking very large poles and/or towers.  They would all require blinking aerial lights.  The registered documents required in Illinois state that they could use grid towers of "200-240 feet or more"...a definite flight hazard for herons in a rookery access path and a definite "footprint" hazard for any prairie remnant in its path. (Just for reference - the statue of Liberty is 150 feet tall)  Oh, we were told at our public meeting on August 20th that this would have no affect on our property value...Uh...ya, the county will still tax you "as if" the transmission line and tower didn't exist, But...try convincing someone to buy that tower and huge lines too, when you try to sell your house!  Also, our studio is very much a "destination" business and that would inevitably suffer as well.

The corporation could not give any clients listed to hook onto their line when questioned at the public meeting.  They used the "patriotic American" card when asked why we could not use our area's wind farm electron production for "our region".  Is it unpatriotic to produce enough electrons for 1.4 million homes and not use it in our own region?  It certainly isn't "clean" energy when we have to use western coal here and not our own wind energy - its especially not clean to have to ship our electrons east when they are already needed here!!!

A large wind farm that was about to build in this area was just bought up by Mid American Energy (a franchised Iowa utility).  They just announced plans to build 600 or so wind towers.  Are they hooking up to Clean Line LLC?  No - they upgraded existing grids and are transmitting it themselves.  That makes perfect sense.

I won't dally further in this discussion, it is deeper than I've taken you so far, and its obvious where I stand.  If you are an Iowa resident and are possibly in one of the 16 Iowa counties or would just like to help us keep truly "clean" transmission in this state and our region - you can fill out an Objection Form with the Iowa Utilities Board using their electronic filing system online at or by clicking on the link on their web site at  You can also support the grass roots organization which is forming across the entire state - The Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance...become a member or just make a small donation to their cause - their link is here -    You can e-mail me if you have any questions about this at all. 

Thank you for being patient with me.  And thank you for your support.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Trying to Keep Up!

"Little Sioux River Valley Sunrise"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view

Its been very hard keeping up with everything lately!  Life is more complicated than we give it at face value, isn't it!?  The work in the studio and around the acreage is keeping us on our toes lately...this is always a busy time of year.
I've also been trying to keep an eye on our pasture here because I often can use it as a gauge as to when things might be at their best on the prairies nearby.  I had been noticing our Dotted Liatris (Liatris punctata) and Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera) beginning to look pretty good, so I thought I'd run off to Waterman Prairie this morning where I know these things are in good number...see if I could catch them before they get past their prime.
When I got up everything was really socked in outside; I actually woke a few minutes before the alarm rang - a Coyote out front of our place woke me with its yowling; sounded like it was missing someone or feeling left out!
I procrastinated a bit, not sure if the fog would lift enough for some decent images, but eventually talked myself into getting in gear and heading down the road.  I went to the O'Brien No.1 site again; this is where I'd been watching some decent locations for late summer prairie blooms.
When I arrived it was so thick I decided to just walk to the ridges above the Little Sioux River, figuring I could scout some along the way.  There's a hanging valley there...I'm sure I've talked of it in the past.  The farmers who access fields down below the prairie there use it as an access road...its actually an ancient river bed left hanging along the edge of the hillside.
No sooner had I reached the ridge top the sun popped out of the fog and the curtains down below me were opening to expose the river below.  I scrambled and got a few shots before the river and valley below were gone again...if I'd been a couple minutes or more later I would have simply missed out!  It was truly a "WOW" moment! Serendipity?
I walked around checking for late summer liatris but the majority were still in tight bud...some years you get lucky and they all go at once - that would be nice!  But no such luck this morning. 
 "O'Brien No. 1 Sunflowers and Big Bluestem"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)
I kind of did a mental inventory of plants as I slowly walked back to the road and did see some surprises; for one there was still Spiked Lobelia (Lobelia spicata) in bloom!  That's nearly always done by early August in my own pasture, and this year I couldn't find it; I suspected because of the drought we'd been experiencing again.
The Sunflowers were way ahead of our pasture here as well, but the stand I stopped to photograph is in a low lying wet area so that may be the reason.  I was seeing three varieties, may even have missed one.  there was Maximilian (Helianthus maximiliani), Sawtooth (Helianthus grosseserratus) and Showy Sunflower (Helianthus laetiflorus) in bloom intermixed with some good clumps of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also in bloom!
A good morning for a wet walk, ya the air was 100% humidity - even my glasses kept fogging over trying to look through the camera's viewfinder.  But a beautiful morning on the prairie!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Still August...Still Hanging In There!

"Sunrise at O'Brien No.1"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view

Its surprising how quickly this summer is flying by...but August has been different in some ways.  Kind of like slow motion, yet at the speed of "life" if-you-will.  We've had events of great joy, some not and some yet to happen, it makes for a suppressed level of creativity...I talked sparingly about this in my last blog.  But I have been tending to business and yesterday morning (Saturday) I kicked myself out of bed early and drove down to a spot I hadn't visited for some time.  The sunrise wasn't overly spectacular but very pleasant; a quiet/still dew laden morning with low lying fog in the valley below.  I have talked about this area on occasion in the past; it is part of the Waterman Prairie complex but I refer to it as O'Brien No.1 because the person who first identified it as a prairie of importance gave it that identification in her report.  

Ada Hayden was the first woman botanist at Iowa State University, she has been credited with publishing the best native flora survey of any part of Iowa. And she campaigned for a system of prairie preserves, two of which were later named the Hayden and the Kalsow prairies.  

"Wild Rose hips from O'Brien No.1"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

Hayden received a grant one summer in the early 1940's to travel the state, make a census of remaining tallgrass prairies and make recommendations for preservation.  O'Brien No.1 was her identification for this site and she recommended its preservation to the state.  It took a while but in the mid 1990's the location was finally purchased by the state as part of the Waterman Prairie complex.  Ada is one of my heroes (OK "heroines") of our nearly vanished Tallgrass Prairie...I have several but she is definitely a kindred spirit at the top of the list.

 "Early Light on Dog Creek"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

Its getting into the later part of August and the landscape and plants are showing the signs...I'm beginning to see swelling flower buds of Liatris aspera, the Solidago sp., and the color of wild rose hips are taking on a bright red hue...the warm season grasses are in flower or finishing up.  There is even a hint of yellow in the Cottonwood leaves along the creeks and streams in the valley.

Here at the studio we are seeing more hummingbirds than just our resident nesting pair, the Red-headed Woodpecker's off-springs are sporting their strange black heads, and we're overrun with the fresh crop of youngster Orchard and Baltimore Orioles.  

The dawn chorus had changed permanently till fall; I do not like that.  I already miss the overlapping cacophony of bird song beginning at predawn.  I still catch the Song Sparrows, Sedge Wrens and Dickcissels in the early morning walks or evening respite, but its a sign of change from a season that is just too short even more so at this youg'uns will understand clearly someday.

The other change I led into in the last blog has not changed.  The transmission line process will be a long one, it will shadow us for at least the next couple years.  I will speak more on it after the required "public meeting" next week.  Until then - savor each moment left of summer!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

August in the Valley

"Hidden Pool"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

Its a mystery to me how summer vanishes before our very eyes.   Oh it hasn't yet by any means, but it just began a blink ago; and here it is August in the valley.

This morning the sun found me south of the studio two or three miles, walking the "edges" of the Waterman Creek valley.  I had planned on walking the creek, because it is so low that traversing and wading is not a problem right now...we're having another very dry summer here.  

This section of the Waterman is embraced in what I'd describe as a "bowl" or "basin".  I've walked the creek on this section several times but never explored the edges surrounding it.  It was a pleasant surprise when I came upon this small woodland pool on a ridge above the creek.  Some Wood Ducks , likely in molt, paddled towards the opposite side of the pool, softly expressing their displeasure or concern.  The duckweed gave the pool a soft green blanket; a convenient salad breakfast for the "Woodies".

As I had hoped, the air was still as the sun broke; this always helps with closeup landscape photographs like this...leafy branches hold still for a longer shutter speed.
This image is a bit deceiving, as it is mere feet away from the valley opening below,  and this creates a perfect edge habitat for Orioles, Eastern Bluebirds and Field Sparrows.  The Field Sparrows were doing that wonderful trill; its a beautiful song and I was so happy they were still present with their notes!  Soon many of our birds will be in that transition mode into fall and the familiar favorite songs and calls will be absent until returning next spring.  I always regret seeing this transition come.

There are other transitions coming to us here, I won't get into it too much at this moment as I'm going to hold off until I can gather more information.  But it involves a "possible" change for our valley and for our personal lives here.  A very large (it will be the largest in Iowa) transmission line is applying with the state's utility board to run through our property and across the valley past the Waterman Creek Great Blue Heron rookery.  This is a 600kv(+/-) line system to cross the entire state and into will cross 16 counties "if" it is approved, and it will be carried by 200-240 foot lattice work towers.  

We aren't really the masters of our destiny as we so often find out.  And this isn't written in stone yet.  We have joined forces with an association of landowners to do our best to see that this does not happen, and hopefully 16 counties worth of landowners will find a voice to prevent it...but this will be a shadow for a couple years or more before we know what is happening, or not happening.  This has been a unfortunate interruption to the creative flow of work here at the studio, needless to say.  I am now doing my best to direct research and followup time for this specter, to a smaller part of my day, trying to keep things in perspective. I am hoping to stay out of its shadow and into the sunlight so I can still create and enjoy this beautiful gift we have treasured since coming here 11 years ago.

I will write a little more in depth about this the meantime it is August - grab summer by the collar before it s gone!