Love, grief, wildflowers

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford
Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

After my happy sojourn in Missouri, I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a family reunion. My brother and one of my sisters live there, and both have large families, so when we gather, that’s the sensible place to do it. Nineteen years ago, after another reunion, I’d gone to Madison to see the oldest restored prairie in the world, and vividly remember standing among grasses and flowers so tall I was staring up at their tops. Naturally, to go along with my prairie summer, I wanted to see it again.

The work on Curtis Prairie, part of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, started when the university bought the land in 1933. Aldo Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists of the twentieth century, was part of the team that launched the project. A third of the land was too wet to plow, so it was remnant wet prairie. The remaining two-thirds had been plowed and cultivated for a century. For years the team experimented with everything they could think of to bring back the prairie. Plowing and seeding, seeding and then discing, burning and then seeding. Transplanting, growing plants in sods and transplanting those. The goal was to foster the natives, figure out how to get rid of plants that didn’t belong there, and how to keep more from invading.

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford
Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

This work is never finished. Invisible among the full-grown grasses and flower stems are 1,000 metal stakes, marking out grids that are studied to this day, looking for diversity, abundance, invaders, and the results of practices meant to affect all these. From these constant efforts have grown the protocols that restore and maintain prairies today. It was at Curtis that fire was discovered to be the most powerful tool for creating and maintaining the ecology of a restored prairie.

Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford
Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

I made the ninety mile trip from Milwaukee to Madison twice. The second time I was able to get out into the prairie itself, walking its paths, squelching through its boggy — and mosquito-y — spots, eyes level with flowers and the feathery heads of grasses. It was late in the season for the full glory of prairie flowers, but late members of the Asteraceae family, pictured here, were luminous and beautiful. The grasses, growing into their russet fall color, were gorgeous, the day full of golden, early autumn light.

On my first trip, I took my brother, Perry, but we weren’t able to walk those grassy paths. One of the most vital men I have ever known, he is now struggling with a rare degenerative neurological disease. The body that once climbed trees for a living is slowly failing. The grass trails were too unstable for him, so we chose instead the paved paths of the prairie demonstration gardens, behind the visitors center, where we found not only grasses and flowers but also the trees he has devoted his life to.

thanksgiving-1952We were the first two of five children. He was here, sixteen months old, when I arrived sixty-five years ago. We were babies together, and cohorts through a challenging childhood. We have always been close, though we’ve never voted for the same person, and our ideas about religion rarely mesh. We seldom talk about our deepest feelings. But there have been many times over the years, sometimes to my surprise, sometimes even in a passing comment, when I realized I was seen and understood by someone who has been lovingly watching me from birth. I hope I have given him that same comfort.

Though we started fifteen years and a thousand miles apart, we both had landscaping businesses. Legacies, likely, of early childhood years spent in a wild and beautiful place. So there we were, wandering the graceful curves of the garden, talking about the green world we love. I talked about flowers, he talked about trees, our usual division of landscaping chat.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford
Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

When I turned fifty, an older friend said that the difference between our fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays is that from the latter vantage point you can see the end on the horizon. It may still be a long way off, but it’s visible. And then, and often suddenly, it’s very visible. Watching my beloved brother walk — with as much courage and grace as anyone can muster — into the valley of death, knowing he will have a hard time on that journey, breaks my heart afresh every day. I knew, as we wandered those paths, that he would tire quickly, and need to get back to the truck, that he would sleep on the way home. I knew that this might be the last time we made such a trip.

Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford
Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

God is love, many say, and though that is not my language, I am drawn to the idea that there is an overarching energy that our private loves tap into, that gets channeled through us. Here is a woman who has loved flowers since she picked violets in the cracks of suburban sidewalks as a child. Here is a man who fell in love with the idea of working in trees while watching a crew prune them at our childhood home. Here are two people who love each other because they have shared life together, since the beginning. Our various manifestations of love are mysterious and beautiful. They make life worth living, and hard to leave.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

And yet, despite the anticipation of sadness to come, we were happy, surrounded by plants, talking about their intricate beauties, being with each other. Relishing those moments among the rustling grasses, which surrounded us with the proof of earthly immortality: plants producing seeds in boundless profusion. Neither of us will be here to see the current crop of acorns become spreading oaks, but we are part of that process, the endless renewal of life on earth. Our personalities will fade, but the energies we embody on our passage through life are ever here. There are times, as we face heartbreak and loss, when that is small comfort. And other times, when the bonds of love and the voices of trees connect us to the deepest mysteries, when it’s all that matters.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) taken in Hither Woods State Park, Montauk, New York by Betsey Crawford
A girl in the Garden of Eden
Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) with California poppy (eschscholzia california) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford
Wild abandon: the mystery
and glory of plant diversity
The prairie dog is a point of contention between local farmers and Smoky Valley Ranch, a Nature Conservancy Preserve in Kansas by Betsey Crawford
Smoky Valley Ranch: preserving a prairie



26 thoughts on “Love, grief, wildflowers”

  1. Hi Betsy,

    What a beautiful sharing, poignant and tender, and woven together with the prairie flowers. Where I grew up in Illinois there are prairie plants also, flowers and varieties of grasses. They are represented and
    celebrated in the Courtyard Garden of our Center here.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Mary. Since I never saw a prairie until I was an adult, I’m not sure why they feel so part of me. Grasslands in general, really. I would certainly love to see some pictures of that garden!

  2. Dear Betsey,
    I felt such a pain in my heart when I saw the lovely photos of you and your brother, since I knew what was in your story right away. We have such parallels in our lives, as I too have an older brother whom I love dearly and is my soul mate. I am so sorry for your loss and thank you for your beautiful writing about it.

    1. Thank you, Ellen. I miss you, too. What a strange and both otherwordly and yet very worldly time this is. Sending love in return.

  3. I had to dig around a bit to find this today, Beloved Friend… There is nothing like a brother, or – in a brother’s case – a sister. You and Perry have walked together, through grasses and trees, and through much more before that. I rode with my brother in his pickup truck when he had to haul a refrigerator out of one of his rental units when it changed hands. We did this kind of thing, so many times. It’s all the same, isn’t it?

    I loved being my brother’s “sidekick,” over and over again. I loved knowing a little more, each time, about who he was.

    Maybe he learned a little more about me, too, each time. I hope so. And I think he did.


  4. Betsey, I have been thinking of you and Perry lately and am so glad to have seen this and taken the time to read it and understand what is happening with Perry — and you. Also a gentle reminder to tend to my siblings as we grow older. Thanks and love to all the Crawfords, Gina

  5. Thank you so much for putting this experience into words, however painful! Not sure whether you meant to in particular, but it is fitting you wrote about this primal relationship on something of the date of its genesis – our parents’ anniversary.

    Like Carol, I cried too… and very early on. Anything written – or painted, composed, or otherwise rendered into art – can’t help but bring up distinct reactions to whoever is reading/seeing/hearing it. So, as child #3 in this brigade of siblings, when you wrote “We both had landscaping businesses, though nothing in our childhood would have predicted that. We started fifteen years and a thousand miles apart, and have never figured out why it happened that way.” – I had a very strong impression. In “the old house,” as we always knew it, we were completely surrounded by nature in its natural form, save for the mowed lawns (upper and lower) in front of the house. In “the new house,” the landscape around it was perpetually untenable: the steep hill that defied any and all attempts at beautification, and the back yard filled with saw-toothed rye grass in which one would never consider lying down. From that perspective, to me your choices seem perfectly logical – propagating a mix of natural growth and comfort from which humans can enjoy it! As was my reaction in its own way … to be surrounded instead by lots of pavement!
    When you wrote “It was at Curtis that fire was discovered to be the most powerful tool for creating and maintaining the ecology of a restored prairie.” – it reminded me of the prairie fire in one of the “Little House” books. The cause of it in the book was unknown, but it was noted that sometimes the “Indians” (Native Americans to us now) would set them on purpose. As always … they were so far ahead of us! It also reminded me of how the only way new redwood trees grow is by fire bursting open the pods (? Pinecones? whatever …) that disperse the seeds for the new trees. It evoked thoughts about how renewal is not always quiet and evolutionary, but can also be borne of forces that are explosive and finite.

    1. Thanks for this long and lovely comment, Sue. I love the connections you made to the ‘old house.’ In an early draft I’d started to write about it, but it seemed too large an issue to include in this piece, so perhaps it will one day be its own. I certainly agree that being surrounded by and always wandering in nature for those years had a profound effect. And it’s a very interesting thought that the utter lack of landscaping at the Morningside Drive house would have made us yearn to provide landscaping for others. Lots to think about!

      I am, as I often am, amazed at your memory of the details of the Little House books. Now that you remind me, I remember the fire. I’m going to have to go back an reread that. Yes, the Native Americans were way ahead long ago, by the simple expedient of paying deep attention to what was happening around them.

      After the Christmas tsunami in the Indian Ocean some years ago there was a fascinating article about how such ‘explosive’ forces as earthquakes are responsible for the change and renewal that allow our planet to be lush and green. Small compensation in the moment, of course, but over the long run they create the planet we can thrive on.

  6. Your beautiful “email gift” so often touches me deeply and wells tears in my eyes. You managed once again, and I thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Beautiful words and images. Thank you for doing this blog. It is truly life enriching. Thinking about you on your journey.

    1. Thanks to you in return, Ellen, for such a lovely comment. I’ll be in California soon, and we can start talking about awe.

  8. I have printed this out because of its beauty. Having recently had a fall and injured my ankle, ribs and knee and have been slow to recover, your writing soothed me as I increasingly view that distant, fast approaching, horizon. Biking may become a distant pleasure for me. My character faults may never eliminated. Yet, my optimism about seeing my granddaughter graduate from college and forging confidently into the future remains. As my spouse-provided wrist band reminds me… “Jamais Abandonner” …”Never Give up”.
    And that is my plan.

    1. Thank you for this heart-filled comment, Bruce. I’m so sorry to hear about your fall. I know how I’d feel if my ability to hike were threatened, as it one day will be. Love to you.

  9. I always love to read your blog, and it always reminds me of of how much you taught us about gardening. The pool and garden you helped us create is a constant reminder of your wonderful talents.
    Today’s blog was very moving and I thank you for sharing your walk in the prairie with your brother. It was just beautiful.
    Thanks for for the much needed respite from the insane politics of our time.
    We think of you often as we view our garden and miss your presence.


    Nils and Elena

    1. It’s so great to hear from you, Nils. Especially if you’re going to say such wonderful things! Thank you so much. I think of you two, as well, and miss our great conversations in your beautiful house. I was going to come back to visit this year, but it didn’t work out, at least so far. But I’ll be sure to be in touch when I have a plan.

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