Intense, Vivid, Saturated

Main Hall

Lawrence University’s Main Hall, a view on my way to Reunion Convocation

Note:  I was asked to give the toast at my 20 year reunion at Lawrence University this past weekend.  People seemed to enjoy it, so I’ve reprinted the text below.

 

It’s always so magical to get back here and grapple with the simultaneous reality of permanence and change.  I am always happy to be reminded, too, that Lawrence is, at it’s very core, just a place. That is in contrast to the many permutations that Lawrence has taken in my dreaming mind since graduating.  That Lawrence is some sort of Stranger Things Upside Down that I need to get over.  Here are some things that I still have dreams about:

  1. I parked my car somewhere and now can’t remember where I parked it.  It is usually winter. It might be under one of those unidentifiable snowdrifts.  
  2. I forgot to drop a class and have been registered for a mysteriously titled class, usually in Main Hall, the entire term.  The final is tomorrow. I have never attended and don’t even really know how to find the classroom because it’s in Main Hall.
  3. I haven’t checked my mailbox the entire term and can’t actually remember how to open it.  This is a variant on the high school “can’t open the locker” dream
  4. I can’t lock my dorm room and when I come back it’s been
    1. Ransacked
    2. Emptied
    3. Taken over by squatters
  5. My dorm room has a secret annex that I never noticed that includes among other things a small kitchen, deck space, an atrium, and a full appliance package.

 

sage hall

My friend and I chose to stay back on campus for reunion, perhaps adding fuel to the fire of my dorm-related anxiety dreams.

So in my dreaming life, apparently Lawrence serves as little more than a conduit for all of my waking anxieties.  Because these anxieties are numerous, I rotate these Lawrence stress dreams with other favorites, including the one where all of my teeth fall out one by one like one of those Hillbillies on Hee Haw.

 

These weird dreams stand in stark contrast to my actual daytime memories of Lawrence  They’re so very vivid and numerous. Vivid, intense, saturated. I think for most of us gathered here, some of our most purely distilled emotional moments happened on these 88 acres.  My fiercest friendships grew up here. My most mind-blowing realizations. The shell of my small-town existence was chipped and ripped away here. We loved wholeheartedly, idealized unjadedly, grew unrestrainedly.  We have never been so terribly hung-over either before or since. It was intense, vivid, saturated. And so, like you all, I come back to take a restoring sip from the fountain, to bring back into focus the moments from the faded photographs, to make out the echoes of laughter and tears and oratory in these walls.  

 

So, with that common, perhaps terribly sentimental thought in mind, let’s all raise our glasses:  

 

May our lives continue to be blessed with intense loves and vivid moments.  May our lives be saturated with Light, More Light!\

Veritas Est Lux

Nostalgia for the Present

nos·tal·gia
näˈstaljə,nəˈstaljə
noun
  1. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

The word nostalgia is learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος(nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.

 

So-this-is-my-life.-And-I-want-you-to-know-that-I-am-both-happy-and-sad-and-Im-still-trying-to-figure-out-how-that-could-be.

 

Today is the last day of elementary school for my oldest daughter.  My social media feeds are swamped with “look back” photos.  The teachers sent out an album and video last night.  I looked at the pictures;  a bunch were of the gang from Kindergarten.  I went back to Facebook.  People are doing the “first day of Kindergarten / last day of sixth grade” thing.  I’m a mess.  I’m afraid to even OPEN the teachers’ video, because I know what it will be.  A series of charming pictures that might push me over the edge in the static form.  But set them to music and gently dissolve between shots?  I will be rendered a hopeless mass.

Some of this is clearly plain old nostalgia for the past.  The platitudes are so universal at this point that they are almost meaningless:  blink and they’re 16!  slow down, time!  boom, they’re graduating!  I wonder if the ease and ubiquitous nature of photos these days makes these comparisons almost too easy.  It only took me about 30 seconds to locate the picture of her starting Kindergarten.  Slap it next to this morning’s picture and I have a recipe for parental nostalgia.

Does everyone suffer this way?  I really don’t deal well with the passage of time.  I’ve written about it before, and practically every days affords me an opportunity to be ripped from the moment and reminded that this, too, is fleeting.  As I attempted to recover from my Facebook reading this morning, I settled on a phrase that I think captures this particular affliction well:  nostalgia for the present.

Lo and behold, a simple search of this phrase reveals I’m not alone in my pathology.  Sia’s first tour was named “Nostalgia for the Present.”  It’s been used as a title for a book on postmodernism and a Berber village.  It is the subject of thoughtful essays on digital media and modern life.  Apparently this is even a field of study in the social sciences where it is termed “anticipatory nostalgia.”

In an attempt to wrench myself from a sobbing fetal position, I read a review article by Krystine I. Bacho, PhD,   It’s titled “Missing the Present Before It’s Gone,” and it did a good job helping me to unpack my feelings this morning.  She talks about work on people, apparently there are more like me, who suffer this affliction.

Recent research suggests that people who have a greater need to belong and less assurance of social acceptance are more prone to anticipatory nostalgia.  It isn’t clear whether a tendency to consider the future can mentally distance a person from ongoing social interactions or whether feeling less integrated encourages one to consider the future.  According to current research, anticipatory nostalgia is neither dissatisfaction with the present nor a gloomy view of the future, but a reluctance to let go of the present.  -Bacho, Psych. Today, 2016

 

Check, check, and….check.  “A reluctance to let go of the present.”  I clutch fiercely to those moments that, as I experience them, I know they will be the snapshots that comprise the flipbook of my life.  The CliffsNotes version of the full story.  The only bits of the constant thrum of daily life that I’ll even be able to recall at the end of it all.  How can I not miss them before they are finished?  Who doesn’t mourn a good book when you arrive at the last chapter?  The last morning of vacation?  The first day of summer?  The good stuff is still happening, but the shutter is clicking.

The writer of this article touches on whether this nostalgia for the present is, essentially, a good thing or a bad thing.  Does it help one in the present, or prevent one from truly experiencing it at all?  All I know is my own experience.  If it weren’t for this heartbreaking affliction, there’s no way I would be able to write.  It stinks to always be a little bit melancholy, but I suppose it’s the trade off for whatever bit of an artist’s eye that I have.

Thank God for poetry.  My searches also led me to a poem by Jorge Luis Borge, a fully fledged, similarly afflicted soul.  It’s so comforting when someone can disassemble your current state, identify its constituent parts, polish them and render them precious, and assemble them into something greater and more universal.  Perhaps you fellow parents suffering from both nostalgia for the past and nostalgia for the present can find solace in his words as well:

Nostalgia for the present

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

-Jorge Luis Borges (from the Spanish)

 

Oh well.  If that doesn’t work, I’m pretty sure that’s also why they invented wine.

 

 

 

 

I Went To The Woods To Live Peripherally: Random thoughts on sixth grade camp

Last week I chaperoned sixth grade camp.  This is a thing wherein all of the 350-odd sixth graders in our school district’s five elementary schools are combined prior to heading off to middle school, where they will officially become one class.  The kids are carefully assigned to cabins and groups so that maximum mixing of unknown variables occurs over the time period.  They do a lot of camp-ish activities, but I’m pretty sure that the main goal is to meet new people and break down the elementary school tribal barriers.  In addition to geocaching and a preferred method to tie-dye, here’s a few things I learned:  

Sixth graders still make friends by kid rules, i.e., easily and quickly.  The first day, the kids stuck fiercely by the people that they knew from their own schools, come hell or high water.  Unlike adults, however, they had pretty much gotten over themselves by the dawn of the second day. At the end, when the camp leader asked for everyone who had made a new friend or met a new person to raise their hand, every hand was raised.  Phone numbers were exchanged and, much to my locked-down-phone daughter’s chagrin, Snapchat handles were shared.

They make friends quickly, but the taxonomy has already been established.  I don’t mean to suggest that camp consisted of one big, happy, homogenous, kumbaya group.  The other thing I was amazed by was the sorting that happened. See, the whole bunch of kids were shaken out of their standard school social groups, dumped in a big bucket, shaken around, and then dumped back out.  The less jaded among us might hope that friendships would then coalesce randomly. Far from it.  All of the usual groups that were there when I was in school?  They were reformed and replicated almost as soon as the proverbial bucket turned over.  I especially noticed this among the girls, although to be fair it could be that I’m simply better able to identify the calling cards of girl social groups.  The socially elite, all wearing the same hairstyle and striding confidently in a clutch through camp. The sporty girls, all slightly differently yet similarly attired;  they seemed to be the girl group that had mastered interacting with the boys in a social setting most effectively.  The solid middle class, which would have been my people, mostly sticking to themselves but having fun.  The confident outsiders, banning together and wearing their weirdness proudly. The oblivious. The lost. It was hard for me to see my own daughter and her longtime friends from way back re-sorting in this way.  I settled on my message for the inevitable re-sort: I don’t care if you are best friends with everyone, but you better darn well be kind to everyone.

sixth grade camp Sean

Frenemies with Sean since 3K….

sixth grade camp canoeing

they paddled back safely.

I’m not sure why I work so hard on meals.  I don’t make something gourmet every night, but I try cook seasonally and thoughtfully.  I consider myself a moderately accomplished home cook.  My daughter requested that I start cooking more like camp, which I guess means heating up individual pizzas and making institutional mac and cheese.

 

Sixth grade girls are very into personal hygiene, and yet they kind of aren’t.  I had girls scanning their schedules as soon as we arrived, planning when they were going to shower.  They discussed which showers they were going to use, and planned showering dates with friends with the urgency of a debutante ball.  They compared notes on what they’d wear to and from the shower, and compared the scent of overwhelmingly fruity scented products in the impossibly steamy bathrooms.  So, yeah, they were into it. (Aside: I was reminded why I don’t love dorm style showering. I attended a residential college, so dorm showers were my lot for four straight years.  And I’ll still have an occasional nightmare about showering, ranging from arriving at the shower area without any products, to the general condition of the showers come Sunday evening after a day and half without janitorial attention).  But they don’t really have the details down. For example:  removing one’s wet shoes and socks before they are allowed to ferment on one’s feet over an entire day. They didn’t quite master that detail.  The smell that greeted me upon returning to the cabin that second night was just rank.  We immediately banned any and all footwear to the outdoors, and the girls attempted to mitigated with fruity scented products. It helped…a little. I can only imagine the situation in the boys’ cabins.

sixth grade camp shoes

Ewwwww

Sixth grade is a time of great leaps of maturation, both physically and otherwise.  

sixth-grade-camp-height-e1527621077513.jpg

I managed to capture this shot one night during game time–these are both sixth graders!  The range of physicality in the room was astonishing, from kids who look like they still need a booster seat to ride in the car safely to those that I wouldn’t bat an eye at if they showed up as my Uber driver.  Along with the size, boy does a lot of change happen during this year. I don’t even know how to describe or capture it exactly, but some invisible divide is crossed, imperceptibly for most of them. For example, back in October when parents were asked to volunteer to chaperone, I swear that my daughter gave me an enthusiastic “yesyesyes.”  However several weeks ago, I was met with mild eye rolling and “Okaaaaay.” Same kid. Same trip. Same mom. Six months. I can barely keep up with where she’s at mentally and emotionally. Parenting through tricky moments feels like a craps shoot–I never know who I’m going to get! Which reminds me to point out:  sixth grade teachers an amazing breed.  Those that have stayed with it are so nimble with these kids, they seem to be able to meet them wherever they’re at, sometimes this means addressing different audiences in the same actual audience simultaneously. It looks exhausting.

 

sixth-grade-camp-molnar.jpg

sixth grade camp Molnar 2

Mr. Molnar, the guy in the blue shirt, has this crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

 

I have found my spirit animal and she wears a green khaki shirt.  One evening we had campfire time, which was led by a no-nonsense, extraordinarily loud woman with a practical gray haircut.  I’d put her in her early 60s. She’s been doing this for over 30 years, and she had it down. Sure the kids rolled their eyes at the overly dramatic enunciation of the campfire songs, but by golly they all learned the words!  And all but the most jaded were forced to laugh and participate in the end. She even taught me a few I didn’t know, which is amazing. Then she ran the most militarized s’mores situation I’ve ever witnessed. It took 10 minutes to debrief the kids on the exact steps necessary to accomplish getting s’mores into 85 kids without anyone being burned or impaled.  But again, by golly she did it. Afterward Natalie informed me that she knew that’s what I’m going to be like someday. Well, CLEARLY.

sixth grade camp smores'

Note:  all s’mores are to be cooked from A KNEELING POSITION.

 

The adults really can’t hang.  We need ice. We need more sleep.  We need ready access to toilet facilities.  We need to not be awoken late at night because our cabin is having a farting competition and then, shockingly, needs to be chaperoned to the bathrooms to poop.  We need sleep! It felt like how I used to feel after 36 hours of call during intern year, complete with interludes on a desperately uncomfortable mattress with half-sleep punctuated by periods of being jerked awake.  By the last morning we looked rough. The adults started to perk up, however, when the countdown to camp ending reached the minutes phase. I got home and slept for three hours. My daughter watched a little TV and launched into a Memorial Day Weekend of a full social calendar.  

muppet.gif

Another mom shared this accurate portrayal of the final morning’s mood amongst the parents

 

So, I was exhausted.  But I’m so glad that I got to go.  For one, I had a Big Emotional Moment with my daughter.  This girl is as even keel as they come. She doesn’t enter into a whole lot of negative drama, which is great.  But she doesn’t give me a whole lot of positive emotion either, aside from the automated “love you’s” that echo my own.  On the last day, she spontaneously gave me a little half hug and told me that “you’re not the worst mom here.” Seriously, cross-stitch that on a throw pillow, because it made it all worthwhile.  On a less personal note, I got a real sense of where my daughter’s at and the social milieu that awaits her when she enters middle school. I felt like I got to see the last glimpse of these kids, many of whom I’ve known since they were three, for the last time, at least as a group.  As they milled about in a scrum waiting for their buses to take them back for what will surely be the eight most useless days of school of their lives, I teared up. It’s the end of an era.

sixth grade camp selfie

She finally agreed to a selfie

sixth grade camp

Stepping up to the invisible divide.

Like A Book

things-that-annoy-mom.jpgNatalie forgot to make me a mother’s day card.  This wasn’t a big deal, though, because she made me a little sketch during church service.  Our church kindly provides little cardboard card stock slips that are meant to be used for newcomers’ to fill out.  I believe that the bulk actually are used by small, bored children.  I always keep pens in my purse, including some of those cool “four colors in one” pens that haven’t changed at all since I was a kid.  Between the card stock, the quad-color pen, and her own ingenuity, she came up with something far better than a standard card.  She made a visual representation of things that annoy me.   And holy cow, does my 11-year-old have me pegged.  Here’s what she came up with:

things-that-annoy-mom1.jpg

People who don’t know how to work four way stops.  Heading north out of our subdivision I hit two heavily trafficked four-ways in rapid succession.  And it’s rare that I exit them without muttering and cursing under my breath.  The most annoying to me are the sneaky people who get to the intersection before you, even though it happened three cars before you’re both to the front of your respective lines.  They keep track and assume that, once you’re both to the front, they get to go first. Now, if I happen to pull up to empty intersection concurrent with or a bit after someone who’s been in line for a few rounds?  Clearly they get precedence and can go out of the “my turn / your turn” order.  But those jackasses that attempt to sneak out out of turn because they happened to have been waiting in a longer line than me?  Nononono.  I hope you understand my explanation, because if you attempt to argue with me, it’s not going to go well.

 

Things that annoy mom

Chalk.  This isn’t so much annoyance as pure revulsion.  I know there was a time when I looooved to be called to the front to write on the black, slate chalkboards of St. Mary’s school, preferably with white, not yellow, chalk.  Something has changed, and now I hate thinking about it, seeing it, and I really hate touching it.  The thought of drawing with chalk sends me into apoplexy.

 

things-that-annoy-mom3.jpg

When the dog vomits up underwear.  I’ve shared this previously, but I can’t remember if I told you that he’s vomited up at least 6 pairs at this point.  I don’t think that this particular dislike is unique to me, but I like the drawing.

 

When the dog jumps on the bed.  Obi attended puppy training when he was about 3 months old, and we’ve sort of winged it since then.  We enrolled in a formal obedience class about a month ago, and the instructor is big into all of the environmental controls and cues that should be instituted to remind the dog who is the head of the pack.  One of these is keeping the dog off the bed.  Some of us are buying into this philosophy more than others, and it’s not so much the dog getting on the bed, but when it’s coupled with said non-adopter hanging out on the bed with the dog.

 

 

When the girls sleep on the floor next to the bed.  It’s not so much their being there.  I admit that I relish those nights when everyone goes to bed easily, in their own beds, on the first request, and sleeps there all night.  Those three nights were great.  But I accept that due to fear or a strange desire to hang out, they like to sleep in sleeping bags on the floor of our room on the weekends.  Fine.  But they shuffle directly next to the bed and squeeze in there in such a way that my nightly trip to the bathroom is way too tricky.  I don’t need a Double Dare Physical Challenge at 2 a.m.

 

Things that annoy mom

When the girls ask me about food.  This includes constantly begging to stop at Starbucks as soon as they enter the car, asking what’s for the next meal as soon as the previous one was finished, complaining about said meals, and requesting a different meal than what is already being cooked.  Stop talking to me about food until you’re asking “where can I take you for dinner, mom?”  This is one of the big benefits of cooking in a crock pot:  they can easily identify what’s for dinner early in the day and begin to complain about it in advance without needing my input.

 

Things that annoy mom

The never ending stream of Amazon boxes.  I have to admit, I am a fan of the Prime.  However, Jimmy has a problem.  I have opened entire shipping crates packed to accommodate a single bottle of salad dressing.  This doesn’t seem necessary.  Or he accidentally buys in bulk:  a case of 36 car-compatible tissue boxes.  Or he buys a giant inflatable yard Yoda.  The one that pushed me over the edge, though, was the time I opened a large box to discover a 2-foot high vinyl replica of a bust of Shakespeare in which the head could be raised to reveal a safe.  This is apparently a nod to something from the original Batman TV series.  To me, it was a crazy thing to arrive on a random September day.  The neighbors joke about us and are slightly concerned that the constant traffic is illegal in some way.  I always say, though, if this is his worst vice, I can live with it.  I just take every-other-day trips to the recycling center for all of the flattened boxes…

So, that was my mother’s day card, highlighting all of my best, most charming traits.  Once I realized what she was doing, I asked that she draw just as many items that make me happy as she had items that irritate me.  I hoped that my daughter’s image of me was more than a summation of a list of things that rub me the wrong way.   I hoped she’d come up with all sorts of sweet things  like “being with me” and “warm hugs.”  As we’ve already seen, she knows me far too well.  I’m apparently quite bitter and jaded, because she barely came up with the requisite number, but they’re pretty spot on, and I’ll take what I can get.

“Things that don’t annoy mom:”

  • The Great British Baking Show
  • Laughing
  • Flowers
  • Family Tree / Genealogy
  • FB 24 / 7 (soooo not true)
  • Piano
  • Korean Soap Operas
  • Cooking
  • My Cup of Coffee

 

things mom likes

Good neighbors don’t need fences

Making friends as an adult is a tricky, tricky proposition. If you’ve got kids, that’s a good place to start.  I’ve found it useful to identify potential friends among my kids’ parent group by complaining about something and seeing if anyone joins in.  Just a little bit, I mean they have to know what they’re getting into.  I like to make sure their kids aren’t too clean or perfectly well behaved, because I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life.  And then there’s the whole thing of being on your guard in case someone seems like potential friend material but then it turns out they just want you to join their multi-level marketing scheme or cult or something or group that actually stays out after 10:00 or something.   There are so many awkward stages, it’s almost worse than dating, because it’s highly unlikely that at any point in the proceedings, you’ll get to break the tension by making out.  I mean, not impossible, but highly unlikely.   So, yeah, tricky proposition all in all.

I wish that I could have just keep all my best friends from all of my stages of life with me as I moved from place to place and job to job.  Create some sort of nomadic caravan of friends that I’ve collected.  That way all I would need to do would be to pop out of the door and wander over to their tent or whatever.  But alas, that’s not the way our world works, and they remain scattered, accessible on a daily basis only through a computer screen. It was so easy back in college, when all you had to do was wander into a dorm hallway and start banging on doors.  It’s harder now, but having a neighbors as best friends sure makes things easier.

DSCF4718.jpg

The neighborhood keeps me sane

 

My healthiest relationship and longest neighbor friendship is with Vicky.  I was reminded today of how much she means to me because we had a stupid argument, and that’s what got me thinking. Don’t worry–it’s all fixed up and better, not two hours after it happened.  On the rare occasions when we irritate each other, we argue like professionals.  Seriously, we should be used as a model for couples counseling.  For example, today I said something rude to and insensitive and made Vicky mad.  Then she called me back and, using “I” statements, told me how she felt. Then she allowed me to respond. I took ownership for my mistake, explained my point of view.  She listened. Then I said that I was sorry and asked for her forgiveness. Then she forgave me and we talked about other things and signed off by saying “I love you.” We should take our game on the road, I think.  She is honestly the ONLY PERSON that I argue with correctly!

Vicky and Me and the Kids

Here we are taking the girls to vote in the 2016 election.  It was good to have a friend after that…

 

To wrap up my little musing on adult friendships, here’s a little something I wrote three plus years ago when a couple of our other neighbor friends moved away.  The feelings hold true today, as new clans fill in the empty spaces of our neighborhood circle:

I like things the way they are.  Maybe not everything, but I love my neighborhood the way it is, and I weep to think of losing it.  I like that our kids have known each other since they were in diapers.  They lope home from the bus each day, secure in the comfort of each other.  Games and imaginings sprout up at a moment’s notice in the backyard tree fort, sunlight dappling the most ethnically diverse locality in all of Franklin, people with the brownish-whitish souls that belong to us.  I like that they belong to US.  I don’t care whose house they are in—they’ll be fed, and scolded, and loved, and entertained, and secure in the knowledge that they belong.  I like that my ugliest secrets belong to these three women and they don’t care.  They are some of the only friends who don’t need anything from me but me.  When I grant them kindnesses or favors I do so not to uphold some carefully crafted image or façade, but just because that the way it is.  I like that our backyards and the lollipop of a street are enough of a world for our kids in the summer, that they can subsist on endless popscicles snuck from freezer after freezer all summer long.  I like that we’ve cried together and even more so laughed together.  I like that my girlfriends are my family, and that we’ve created a magical little village for ourselves that is so rare in today’s world.  I guard it and speak of it with pride and knowledge that it inspires envy.  –me, Friday, April 17, 2015

Four of us

We were always too busy to get better pictures.  Miss this.

Just Not One of Those Moms

I like having the house all to myself.  It soothes me to get it straightened up and, for some hours of the day, to know that the state of order won’t be constantly eroded.  I wasn’t home alone this past weekend.  And I hit a mothering breaking point.  It kind of embarrasses me, but I’m hoping that some commiseration and like-mindedness will improve my sense of self worth.  You see, unlike the mothers in those commercials for paper towels, I just can’t handle out of control messes–AT ALL. 

 

paper towel ad

 

You know the ads.  The kids are baking and, OOPS!, they spill a bag of flour all over.  Hahaha, no problem!  Let’s dab it on eachother’s noses and throw in some eggs for good measure!  I have some awesome paper towels that will make it all better instantly!  Oh you kids, nothing you do can make me lose my temper! 

I hate that prototype.

I know that patience is a virtue and I try, really I do.  I’m patient about other things–listening to music lessons, reading long books.  That’s really about it, I guess.  But something about in-your-face messes just gets to me.  This is why I often suggest that to keep mom in a good mood, having the area just inside the garage door neat and tidy will go a long way.  Create a jumbled heap of shoes and bags and coats and papers and rocks for me to step over–I’m going to be surly.  I just am.   So to actually stand by and WATCH such a gory mess accumulate? Not in my skill set.   

Now, baking with the girls?  Love it.  I control the counter top and we stay ahead of the mess.   But lately they’ve wanted to bake all on their own.  Again, I know in my brain that this is a good thing, but my symmetry-loving, clear-countertop-relishing gut refuses to fall in line.  This weekend’s bake-a-thon was extra special as the baking happened while I was attempting to cook some dishes to take to a neighbors informal pot luck later that night.  Where’s my counter space, huh? To gild the guilt lily, it actually involved a moment that should have made me proud. Natalie invited the five-year-old neighbor to come and bake with her, a lovely, heart warming, mature gesture.  But.  Not only did Natalie have to get the baking completed from start to finish, but she had to shepherd a preschooler at the same time.  

Natalie is an enthusiastic, exuberant, terribly unfocused baker. I frequently find myself intervening before a teaspoon of baking soda becomes a tablespoon, or she forgets something like flour altogether. And the mess, oh sweet Jesus the mess. There is no attempt to keep one’s work space clean as is extolled on those TV cooking competitions.  Lids are left off of all ingredients, measurements routinely overflow and pool around the mixer. Eggshells drip their contents over the counter and onto the floor, where they are mashed into a slurry along with spilled dry ingredients and then crushed underfoot and spread throughout the kitchen and the rest of the house. But she got the job done, and sort of even cleaned up the dishes after herself.  

That’s when Evie announced that she too wanted to bake something. I was already at the end of my proverbial rope, so she really bore the brunt of frustrated mommy.  Oh well, she got her No Talent Cake (actual name as written on the recipe from my mother.  Self esteem issues anyone?) in the oven, and I hightailed it out to take a drive to the grocery store.  My car was an oasis of calm, and I left vague yet threatening instructions about getting the kitchen back in order before I got back. Those poor kids. But I just can’t believe that every other house is inoculated against the panic that child-led cooking brings about, just because they own brand name paper towels. It can’t just be me, can it????

Valentine Bier: Settling in on the Rock Prairie

[Note:  I’ve neglected the Valentine Bier story for too long.  When last we checked in on the family of yore, they were improving their lot at various rented farms in Rock County.  The family’s next move would make all the difference:  they are about to begin farming on the Rock Prairie.  To discuss the significance of this move from a geologic and soils perspective, I’ve invited my brother, Major Pete Bier, to contribute as a guest blogger.  Take it away, Pete]

Pete Bier family

Pete Bier at his recent promotion ceremony, along with his lovely wife Mary and their two children.  Also pictured are my mom and dad, Tom and Janice Bier.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard members of the extended Bier family go on and on about how the Rock Prairie is some of the best farmland in the entire world. Growing up, I knew there were a lot farms in the area, and they all seemed to be prosperous. But the Biers also never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  So I chalked all the “best farmland in the world” comments up to the spinning of a good yarn.  Some years later, while studying for my Master’s in Soil Science at UW-Madison, the hyperbole quickly became rooted in fact.

So for those that don’t know, the Rock Prairie is a term that locals from eastern Rock County, WI, like to use to refer to the land roughly bordered by County Road A to the North, Highway 14 to the West and South, and the county line to the East.  During my graduate studies, I investigated if the Rock Prairie’s soil could actually make it more desirable agricultural land than other local areas. Soils are very complex, and more often than not, they exhibit very little homogeneity spatially. One can be in a field studying a particular soil, and 10 meters away there may be a completely different soil series or even a different soil order.  This is not the case for the soils of the Rock Prairie. As seen in the below picture, the soils of the Rock Prairie are unusually homogeneous. In an approximately 3.25 kilometer-wide swath running east-northeast to west-southwest from the Rock County/Walworth County border to Highway 51 south of Janesville, a strong dominance of a single soil series, Plano Silt Loam, can be seen. North and south of the Rock Prairie, a more usual heterogeneity of soils can be seen.  So, Rock Prairie soil is unique, but what makes it unique?

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Soil Survey Staff. 2016. Web soil survey: Soil data mart. USDA-NRCS

There are five factors that go into the formation of soil: climate, organisms (flora and fauna), relief (topography), parent material (what the soil is made of), and time.  Now, three of the five factors are pretty equal across southern Wisconsin. The climate is generally the same, organisms are relatively similar, and the time – glacial and other geologic processes are such that the soil of southern Wisconsin is roughly the same age.  The relief and parent material of the Rock Prairie are what make it special.

In the picture below, we can see that the Rock Prairie is extremely flat.  Although the areas to the north and south of the Rock Prairie do not appear to be mountainous by any stretch of the imagination, there does exist a greater disparity in elevation and relief than on the prairie itself, which shows very little elevation change at all.  This tremendous flatness of the area likely prevented erosion and movement during soil formation and allowed one soil series to form, which cannot be said regarding areas in the vicinity, where relief, although minor, could have played a bigger factor in soil formation.  During formation, the Rock Prairie also may have acted as an area of deposition for clay and silt particles (preferable for farming) from the surrounding areas.

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Esri. 2016. ArcGIS Online. http://arcgis.com

 

The final soil forming factor, parent material, plays a tremendously significant role in what makes the Rock Prairie’s soil distinct from the areas around it.  The Rock Prairie was not glaciated during the late Wisconsin glaciation (35,000-11,000 years ago). The terminal moraine of the glacier is just to the north of the Rock Prairie, which causes the rolling terrain that can be seen in the above photo.  The Rock Prairie was glaciated during the Illinoian glaciation (191,000-130,000 years ago), which helped to influence its flat topography, but it was not glaciated during the Wisconsin glaciation.

 

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(Syverson, K.M., and P.M. Colgan.  2011. The Quaternary of Wisconsin: An Updated Review of Stratigraphy, Glacial History, and Landforms. In: Jurgen et al., editors, Developments in Quaternary Science 15. Elsevier, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. p. 537 – 552.)

Although the Rock Prairie was not glaciated, the Wisconsin glaciation did influence the area.  It is distinct in that outwash dominates the area and thus is rich in sorted sand and gravel. The surrounding areas are either terminal or ground moraines and comprised of an unsorted mix of materials much larger than sand and gravel.  This means that the Rock Prairie will have adequate drainage for farming and will not be too rocky (I know, a bit of a misnomer).

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Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey: University of Wisconsin-Extension and State Planning Office: Wisconsin Department of Administration. 1976. Glacial Deposits of Wisconsin: Sand and Gravel Resource Potential. Land Resource Analysis Program

After the glaciers retreated, parts of the Midwest were covered with wind-blow loess (dust-like particles that were blown annually from dry riverbeds to the West.  In covered areas, loess becomes the true parent material of the soil). All areas were not covered equally though. Parts of Rock County received a deeper covering of loess than other areas.  Specifically, the Rock Prairie is covered with a deeper loess layer than surrounding areas. Loess is desirable due to the fact that it has a high nutrient holding and water retention capacity.  In laymans terms, it’s good for farming.

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Enter a captionBlack: 8-16 feet thickness, maroon: 4-8 feet, red: 2-4 feet, pink: .5-2 feet, and white: 0 – 0.5 feet.  Yellow indicates eolian sand. (Schaetzl, R.J., and J.W. Attig. 2012. The loess cover of northeastern Wisconsin. Quaternary Research 79: 199-214.)

So, the Rock Prairie is comprised of one soil series, generally flat, has glacial outwash as a substratum, and is covered by 4-8 feet of wind-blown loess.  

The Rock Prairie hit the geologic lottery. This is a farmer’s dream.

The loess provides soft soil that is easy to plant in that has the ability to retain sufficient moisture and nutrients for crops.  The outwash provides drainage during large precipitation events so that the soil will not flood or pond. The flatness allows farmers to worry less about erosion, terracing, or strip cropping, Finally, the fact that it is one soil series means that farmers can generally use similar practices across their entire field and achieve similar results.  This is not the case when fields are riddled with diverse soil series.

Now, is this the only place in the world that had all of these factors come together so nicely? More than likely it is not.  However, when combined with the fact that the area receives adequate sunshine and precipitation to grow crops without irrigation, the list narrows considerably.  But most importantly, the Rock Prairie sustained my family for nearly 100 years and 4 generations when the Biers were farmers and many of my friends make their livings off this wonderful soil today.  So you know what, as far as I’m concerned, the Rock Prairie is the best farmland in the world, and always will be.