September Gilds the Fenlands

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Three miles south of Middleville, Michigan, lies Upton Road Fen. That is the name I have given the place for convenience to provide some sense of location. In reality, the fen is nameless. Rarely do wetlands in Michigan have an actual place name, and in the case of this wetland, that is just as well, because the name "Upton Road" hardly does justice to either the magnificent sweep and diversity of the fen or the loveliness of the sandy forest trail that winds through archways of hardwood past the fen's northern border.
A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

Prairie fens are a rare and unusual kind of alkaline wetland, rich in plant life, and Barry County is a bastion for these beautiful and fascinating ecosystems. Upton Road Fen may well be the largest of its kind in this part of the state. If not, it is certainly one of the larger ones, stretching three-quarters of a mile from corner to corner and encompassing a wide palette of fen habitats, from drier cinquefoil fields, to sedge meadows, to a wet, reedy seep, to a floating mat on the lowest, southeast end.  Pitcher plants grow here, and wild orchids, and blazing star, and deep blue fringed and bottle gentians. Tamaracks rub shoulders with red cedars, and here at the end of September, poison sumac shrubs dot the periphery of the fen, glowing incandescently like fiery rubies strung across a vast necklace where the wetland meets the woods.
Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

I have come here on this bright, late afternoon in search of gentians, and I am not disappointed. They are here, fully open, batting their fetching blue lashes at the slanting September sun. Little coquettes! Gentle, sweet wildflowers, flirty yet shy, like teenage girls just discovering their charms. I have intended to get photographs, but my camera's battery is lower than I realized, and it dies on me after just a few landscape shots plus some odds-and-ends closeups. The latter include this old seed pod with one tufted seed still clinging gallantly to it. I don't know what the plant is--it's actually a shrub of some kind, and far be it from me to venture a guess as to its identity. I'm just not much of a shrub man. I walk cautiously, keeping an eye out for massasaugas. In the many times I have visited this fen, I have never seen one, but I am told they are here and actually plentiful. I would love to see one, but not today--I left my heavy boots at home, and I wouldn't care to have my first encounter with Michigan's only rattlesnake result from my stepping on one with these old, threadbare athletic shoes I'm wearing.
Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Fortunately, my snakeless record remains pristine as I head back to the car. It has been an all-too-short visit on this radiant afternoon, but I have things to do and it is time to go. I am grateful, though, for these few minutes here, beyond the grasp of the frenzied world, where time slows down and invites me to do likewise long enough to see the smile of my Father. He is a loving Creator who has much reason to look upon these works of his hands--these golden fields, this sun-gilded fen stretching luminously beneath the September sky--and call all of it good. Yes, very good indeed.

Evening of the Gentians

Welcome to September Land. It's not a location you can pinpoint on any map, but it exists just the same. It's a place of being; a juncture of time and mood; a coming-of-age of the summer when the sun's lengthening rays gild the late-day hills, clown-colored maples stipple the forests, and yellow hues infiltrate the long, green rows of corn. September Land is where the year goes to receive its golden crown of wisdom; and where, as the hazy, blue sky of early autumn stretches, glowing, over meadows filled with asters and birdsong, you and I arrive to contemplate with nostalgia the months that lie behind us, and to quietly adjust our souls for the ones to come. Now is the season of the gentians. Here in mid-September, they dot the wetlands with pointilistic splashes of purest blue, as if God had strewn pieces of sky like confetti over the fens. I love the deep purple asters, the burnished goldenrods, and the bright, butter-yellow wild snapdragons. I've been a sucker for wildflowers ever since I can remember. But of all the autumn flowers, I like the gentians best. A number of species inhabit my state of Michigan, but the fringed gentian is the one I see most often, and the one I fell in love with as a boy roaming through the wetlands of southern Kent County. The fringed gentian opens only in the sun. On bright days, it quietly unfurls its cerulean gown, and, like a shy young woman unaware of her own breathtaking beauty, captures the eye and heart of every beholder. Among the many who, over the years, have been smitten by the gentian was the 19th-century poet William Cullen Bryant. Like me, he sought for words that could pay adequate tribute to the gentian's loveliness, and set them down in his jewel-like poem, "To the Fringed Gentian": Thou blossom bright with autumn dew, And coloured with the heaven's own blue, That openest when the quiet light Succeeds the keen and frosty night. Thou comest not when violets lean O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen, Or columbines, in purple dressed, Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest. Thou waitest late and com'st alone, When woods are bare and birds are flown, And frosts and shortening days portend The aged year is near his end. Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye Look through its fringes to the sky, Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall A flower from its cerulean wall. I would that thus, when I shall see The hour of death draw near to me, Hope, blossoming within my heart, May look to heaven as I depart. Here in Caledonia, Michigan, the woods of September Land are not bare nor are the birds yet flown. As I write, the hummingbirds still flit about the feeder out on my balcony. But frost has already visited counties to the north, and in these shortening days I, like Bryant, sense that "the aged year is near his end." Yesterday, Lisa and I enjoyed a spontaneous picnic out at Gun Lake State Park. With Labor Day behind us, the crowds of summer were gone and we had the park to ourselves. We sat at a picnic table, eating and talking and watching a great blue heron patrol the shoreline a stone's throw away. Then, after strolling a bit through the southern tip of the park's peninsula, we hopped into the car and headed back toward Caledonia. However, I had one stop-off to make in Middleville: a small but diverse prairie fen on the south end of the town. While Lis drowsed off in the car, I hiked down the trail into the fen with my camera to photograph fringed gentians. With the sun waning and occasionally disappearing behind tufts of cumulus, many of the gentians had closed. But a few flowers remained open. I set up my tripod next to a likely looking cluster and began snapping photos. This page contains a few of them. Click on the images to enlarge them. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow," said Jesus. "They don't work themselves to a frazzle, nor do they weave clothes for the wearing. Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed like these humble wildflowers." (Matthew 6:28–29, my rendering.) I suspect that if gentians had been at his disposal, Jesus would have pointed to them as his object lesson of the grace God bestows on quiet, lowly hearts that look to him. In these times of great national and worldwide distress, may you and I, like the gentians, learn to turn our heads upward with trust and a willingness to let God determine for us what life is truly about--and in so doing, find a peace rooted in something, in Someone, far more steadfast than the changing seasons of this world.

A Walk in the Middleville Fen

Yes, I do have a life outside of jazz saxophone and storm chasing, and from time to time I like to let it leak out. While Stormhorn.com focuses on the above two interests, it's good to break away now and then. So join me on a leisurely stroll through one of my favorite nearby natural areas: the Middleville Fen. Orchids are in the forecast, along with golden evening light filtering through tamaracks, dancing on a dimpled stream, and stretching long rays across meadows of rippling marsh grass. Early June is the time when the showy ladyslipper, Cypripedium reginae, unfolds its creamy pink-and-white blossoms. Also known as the queen ladyslipper--hence the Latin name reginae--this plant is indeed a regal beauty, presiding in stately splendor over the Michigan wetlands. Like most wild orchids, it is selective about its haunts--but then, finickiness is the privilege of royalty. Remember the story of "The Princess and the Pea." You can't expect a queen to rest her roots just anywhere. However, six miles down the road from me she has found a satisfactory place of repose among the red osier dogwood, shrubby cinquefoil, and marsh asters. The trail into the Middleville Fen begins at the north edge of a park on the south end of town. Walk in 100 feet or so, look to your right, and you'll see the queen ladyslipper holding court among the shrubs. Look, admire, but don't pick. Like every wild orchid, C. reginae is uncommon and protected in the state of Michigan. For that matter, you're smart to not even touch her. The hairy leaves and stems are known to cause a nasty rash similar to poison ivy. The showy ladyslipper is unquestionably the drawing card of the fen in early to mid June. But other, subtler attractions abound: tiny, insectivorous roundleaf sundew plants crowding the stream banks. Feathery tamaracks arching across the trail. In the autumn, fringed gentians nestled pointillistically among the cinquefoil like fragments of September sky. A few years ago, purple loosestrife threatened to take over this magnificent little jewel of a wetland. But thanks to a tiny beetle with an appetite for loosestrife, released into the fen by a wetland conservation group, the invader appears to have been repelled and the Middleville Fen remains a diverse and beautiful haven for unusual plants and wildlife. The trail is little more than a quarter-mile long and easy to hike, with a picturesque wooden boardwalk and bridges to keep your feet from getting wet. Bring your camera, a half-hour or so of your time, and an eye for nature. Your sense of wonder will be awakened and rewarded. Especially now, when the queen is in her royal robes.