Wetland Birthday

Jerry McAllister.

“From April to September an average of ten wild plants per week come into first bloom. July 15, I eagerly watch for a prairie birthday.” -Aldo Leopold

There is a narrow elevation along the north shore of Big Sissabagama Lake in northwest Wisconsin – home to a road of the same name and to me and my 85-year-old log cabin home – where the ridge stretches wide in some parts but for the most is narrow, as wetlands encroach generally.

A couple of hundred steps west of my cabin along this narrow is a large bog and “a pinpoint reminder” of the transition between lake and bog that existed long before the advent of lake cabins around 1920 and their accompanying roads.

A stand of showy lady slipper orchids with their pale purple petite slippers and white socks protruding out the top, decorated by a large white bow, grew for years (decades?) near this bog.

The orchid, once prolific across Great Lakes, is now rare. My stand lies under conifer bows which grace the entire 15-foot-wide shoulder strip between the asphalt and the lake, their feet in water for most of the year.

A showy lady slipper orchid. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN JACOBOWSKI

‘What have the orchids looked like’ to black bears who have scurried along the narrow elevation for centuries?

Each June sows with their cubs and yearlings still move down our elevation to cross from the Chippewa River watershed to the St. Croix River. My lake separates the two watersheds with exits to each. Food sources must drive this migration. The bears take some pains to hide themselves from walkers and vehicles on the asphalt. Did they notice the slippers in their journeys before the cabins?

The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe have resided continuously in an area stretching from Big Siss Lake to the north for some miles. European settlement was early in the 18th Century. They battled the Sioux for many years to retain their possession. Ojibwe moved back and forth between the two watersheds for 300 years. The orchids saw their annual food gathering movements as well as those of attacking Sioux in 1745 and 1795.

This past July saw no showy lady slipper orchids on the narrow elevation near my cabin. On September 26, 2022, the road crew from the local township arrived with two front-end loaders and a pair of dump trucks loaded with gravel.

Over-hanging conifer bows were cut. Shoulder dirt was removed to the bog and to within a yard of the conifer trunks and replaced with gravel.

I had hoped, without avail, that two or three of the orchids nearest the trunks would survive for another birthday. They did not.

I have a bit of culpability in the funeral. The narrow elevation holds the road, the strip of conifers and a private primitive boat launch. Crappie fishermen commandeer the boat launch and road shoulders every March. The road becomes one-lane for a few hours daily and often larger vehicles cannot safely pass the congestion. A group of neighbors including me approached the local town board and asked that No Parking signs be used to move the congestion away from the narrow.

Instead of signs, we got a new 16-car parking lot and the death of a stand of eight showy lady slipper orchids.

“I doubt whether” 10 of the combined Ojibwe gatherers, Sioux marauders, Big Siss cabin residents, or the current 50 or so daily passing cars saw those orchids.

Aldo Leopold wrote of a similar circumstance: “This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.”

Leopold, an Iowa native and father of American conservation had his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949. In the July chapter, he provides an essay entitled “Prairie Birthday” where the plight of a single prairie compass plant is traced from the arrival of European settlers to its demise by a Wisconsin road crew in the middle of the 20th Century.

The individual compass is a stand-in for all native prairie plants which once stretched from Wisconsin to the arid lands of the Great Basin.

My column today is an effort to do the same for a stand of lady slipper orchids that grew on a township road shoulder some steps from my lake cabin and some 200 miles northwest of Leopold’s compass plant in Sauk County. I have included phrases and a single long quote from Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

Change comes for us all, I know. But sometimes it comes for more of ‘us’ than we could ever have anticipated.

Jerome McAllister is a retired chemist, writer and avid outdoorsman who lives in northwestern Wisconsin on Big Sissabagama Lake. Once upon a time, he completed post-doc research at Iowa State University. All seven of his grandchildren – college age down to a baby born in 2023 – are growing up in Iowa.