The artic air hangs on me like a heavy cloak, stealing my body’s warmth. I sip the frigid air in shallow breaths through my nose, hoping to avoid shocking my lungs. It’s a welcome sight to see the sun, even though it’s masked by a thin cloud layer. Occupied with a stubborn wheelbarrow and my hearing bombarded with the sound of crunchy snow underfoot, I almost miss the “putt” sound coming from behind me. I freeze. “Did I really hear it?” Doubt sets in briefly, but it doesn’t linger. I hear the “putt” sound again and spin around. I’m not alone!
Wild turkeys are everywhere. They’re standing on our driveway, on our deck, on top of man-size snow piles and on scattered rock outcroppings protruding from the steep slope behind our house. The Eastern wild turkeys have flown down from their roosts - ancient bur oak trees above our house where they have been holed up for the last couple of weeks waiting out the weather. With the snow too deep for them to travel without expending precious energy, they’ve decided to take advantage of a “pseudo” sun day and hang out in the only snow-free areas they could find.
Concern grips me. We need firewood, but I don’t want to force these turkeys to expend any more energy than necessary. I consider how I might sneak back into the garage without disturbing them. The turkeys make the decision for me, and one by one they laboriously fly off to some distant rock outcroppings.
As I make my way with the wheelbarrow through our driveway “courtyard” in route to the wood shed, turkey sign is everywhere. They’ve scratched through the ice and snow to get to the gravel below. Feathers lie scattered about. A few prairie plants extending above the snowpack such as round-headed bush clover, Indiangrass and leadplant have been mauled by turkeys hoping to find something – anything – to eat. One typically frequent sign is nearly absent, however. There’s little excrement – a sure indicator the turkeys have eaten little over the last few days.
I pause at the door to the wood shed. Hanging precariously above it is a huge snow cornice. Perhaps I suffer PTSD from my mountain climbing days, but I play it safe and pound on the gable end of the building to ensure the cornice is stable. A cottontail rabbit emerges from a little snow cave along the wall of the shed. I can read its thoughts: Please leave me alone; it’s too cold to run. I step through the door. The rabbit doesn’t move.
With a wheelbarrow full of firewood, I wish the rabbit good luck and head back to the house. I see a flash of color in a nearby plum thicket and recognize the bird as a Northern shrike. Shrikes hunt small rodents and birds, often impaling their prey on a thorn for later use. Wild plum thickets in grassland settings are excellent winter habitat for shrikes.
I see another bird sitting on the ground on the south side of the plum thicket. It’s a male ring-necked pheasant. The pheasant is taking advantage of the sun’s meager warmth, hoping to save some of its rapidly draining energy resources. Plum thickets in grassland settings are also excellent winter habitat for pheasants. The woody-to-prairie grass transition areas create many nook opportunities for a pheasant to nestle into a snow cave and hole up for the worst of winter’s weather.
My fingers, toes, nose and ears ache as I stand near the wood stove. The bone-warming heat of the fire recharges my battery. In the glow of the warm flame, I think about how human’s ability to harness the power of fire has allowed them to dominate the earth. Fire is earth’s battery, from the molten core below to the sun above.
Native Americans cultivated the land with fire. It was the touch of fire on the landscape that provided them with food resilience. Fire promoted more flowers and hence more fruit and nuts. Fire provided more grazing land, which supported more game. Fire provided more animal and plant diversity, and with it a greater chance there would be food during all weather conditions, such as droughts, floods and blizzards.
Recently, restoration practitioners, are relearning about fire. Once again, the touch of fire on the landscape is setting the pathway to a greater diversity of native life.
And today, during this Polar Vortex, it’s these lands cultivated by fire that give its inhabitants a fighting chance to survive. The energy of fire is stored in a diverse array of seeds, nuts and animal prey species. These little battery nuggets of life are spread across the landscape in every nook and cranny. Whether it’s a wild turkey finding a round-headed bush clover seed, a shrike finding a vole, a rabbit munching on wild plum bark, or a pheasant eating cup plant seed, fire has had a part in it.
Fire. Life’s battery.