BURR OAK VALLEY VISIT
by Don Miller

The creek was dry on my last visit, but it crates a watery division through the Valley during this stay. The rocks once again look like a friend describes them, “green-haired elves wet with moisture in an enchanted land.” The series of hill prairies are brilliant with colors of numerous plants calling these rocky knobs their home. As I descend the third of the hilltops, I find a showy orchis. Of the orchids found in our area, it is one of the most common. I cautiously use the word common, because the plant is not prevalent in numbers and common is no word to describe the beauty of this flower. My floral find is in bud now but would display its full attractiveness to others on some sunny day not far off.

In my previous tours I didn’t get a chance to explore the green valley along the creek. I had always spent time on the “goat” prairies. On this evening, by myself, I will seize the opportunity to explore the Valley proper. I head west to discover a new world to me. I think many believe they need to go to the tropics to make new discoveries, to explore uncharted territories. Not so for me, there will always be places for me to seek adventure and make new discoveries in my backyard of northern Illinois. I was on my way,

I’m sure to solve some nature mysteries when I saw them. Coming at a fast pace directly toward me from the other end of the Valley were two kids. I ventured a guess they were elementary age. Surely when they see a strange man (me?) in an isolated location, they would turn around and head for home. That is where I was wrong! They kept coming closer. I was trying to ignore them. I kept peeking out of the corner of my eye to see their reaction, when they did finally notice me. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids, but on this evening, I was hoping to enjoy the solitude of the Valley. Then it came echoing through the Valley this loud voice.

“Hey mister, what ja doing?”
“Ummm, I’m counting plants.”
“How many are there?”
“Actually, I’m not really counting the number of plants. I’m writing down how many different kinds I can find.” “Oh?” a disappointed voice replied.

Obviously, these kids missed out on the “don’t talk to strangers” lecture. They were here to stay with this stranger for the duration. I crossed the creek by balancing on a log that made a nicely arched natural bridge. While teetering over the highest point of the wooded bridge and probably over the deepest section of the creek, the smaller of the two boys asked if I was afraid.

“Not of falling, just being embarrassed in front of you guys if I did. But then you don’t know my name or know who I am, so I guess it wouldn’t matter much.”

“I’m Andrew. I am in third grade at Stone Creek School and this is Matt. He is in sixth grade.”

“Oh…I am Don and I work at Severson Dells.” They both had heard of the Dells and related experiences they had there. Great, now if I fall they can tell all their buddies that Don, that guy from Severson Dells fell in the creek. Andrew and Matt followed my lead across the log bridge. No one fell in, no stories to tell.

“Well, guys, I guess I had better get going.”
“Don’t you want to go explore the dragon’s tail with us?”

“The dragon’s tail?” This kid certainly knew how to lay the bait out there for me. “Where’s it at?”

“Just over there below the campsite. I’ve never really camped there but it would be a great place to stay all night and watch the moon. (I like the way this kid thinks.)

“What’s that plant, Don?”
“Ah, that would be a Dutchman’s Breeches; see how it looks like upside down pants?”
“Cool,” while looking at another plant in question.
“Mayapple,” I volunteer.
“Looks like an umbrella plant to me,” Andrews states.
“No argument from me.”  We had to cross the creek again to get to the dragon’s tail. Andrew assured me he knows which moss-covered rock to step on for a safe and dry passage. I followed the young leader with all the confidence I could muster. Matt was behind me. He didn’t talk much, but he carried a big stick.

On the way to the dragon’s tail, we stopped several more times to give names to plants that were at the end of Andrew’s pointer finger. I tried to throw a little folklore in to make it all more interesting. Andrew had somehow transformed me into one of his third-grade classmates that just seem to have an abnormal amount of knowledge about plants. We climbed up the dragon’s trail. It was a steady steep incline with natural tiers eroded into it. I saw the dragon’s tail! I am compelled as we walked by the showy orchis to share it with my new buddies. I played up the sighting as if was more of big deal than it was. Andrew picked up my feelings of the importance of the moment with these words, “Your secret is safe with me, Don.”

“How ‘bout Matt over there?”

“He don’t talk much. Don’t worry ‘bout him.”

We climbed the dragon’s tail and arrived on the back of the dragon. It was here we visited a beautiful hill prairie decked out in all of its flowering best. Will this postage stamp of a natural prairie become only a tale, like that of the dragon, to be passed on from generation to generation in stories alone? It was from this botanical back of a mystical creature we heard the alarm cries of a bunch of crows.

“Know what that means?”
“Yeah,” says Matt, “there’s a bunch of crows over there.” “Yeah, but they have discovered a roosting owl.”
“No way!” says Andrew, “I’ve only seen owls in cages. Do you think we could find it?”
“Sure!” Down the dragon’s tail we go, to get back on the other side of the creek with the owls and crows.
Half way down Andrew jumped up as if he had almost stepped on a poisonous snake, but before he lands he clicks his heels.

“What was that?” I inquire.
“Just a leprechaun hop. Can you do it?”
I tried and almost tumbled down the rest of the dragon’s tail. Realizing that I am not a third grader I say, “Guess I am too old.”

“No that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Matt can’t do it and he is a sixth grader. You’re just too slow of a hopper.” Without making eye contact with Matt, we followed the happy hopping leprechaun down the dragon’s tail. Life is good when on the back of a mythical creature.

On the other side of the ravine we had to climb up a steep ridge while at the same time keep our noises held within. Some of us struggled with this more than others. It was here that Andrew asked me if I had ever been to Australia.

“Australia?” I ask with furrowed brow.

“Yeah, you look like an explorer type of guy who would like a good Australian adventure.”

I did my best Steve Irwin, crocodile hunter imitation for him. I’m not sure where Andrew was going with
the comment, but I thanked him because I took it as a compliment from my new young friend. It was at that instant the owl flew out of its hiding to escape the raucous noise of the crows. On silent wings it sailed right over our heads. The silence was balanced immediately by the loud noises of the gang of crows, disappointed their target of harassment had escaped their wrath.

“No way! Was that ever cool!” “FIRST EVER! I can’t wait to tell my mom!” Andrew said hopping around with more energy than my year-old golden retriever puppy displays. Even though Matt didn’t make a comment, he gave away his excitement with a dropped jaw.

Andrew and Matt were thinking they were going to be late getting home. The early darkness of night was approaching in the Valley and I had a soccer player to be picked up. None of us had a watch. When you are exploring, you don’t need a watch, time doesn’t matter and neither does age.

Rachel Carson in her classic book, The Sense of Wonder, wrote, “If children are to keep alive their inborn sense
of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it with…” I don’t want to mess with the words of one of the masters, but I think I might like to alter the quote to read…If adults are to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one child who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in, Terry Tempest Williams refers to this as “Earthplay.” I hope you have “Earthplay” within yourself and pass it to whomever you can.

The world needs more “Earthplay.”

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April is National Poetry Month and we are celebrating by sharing with you throughout the month some of the poems (and prose) from our own nature themed anthology called NATURAL VOICES: CELEBRATING NATURE THROUGH OPENED EYES. There are 14 authors in the book and one author’s name will be drawn randomly each time we post a poem or prose excerpt from the book until all authors have been represented. Check our news blog regularly for the poem/prose posts.

Read more about National Poetry Month here: https://poets.org/national-poetry-month

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Get your copy of the anthology here: https://www.naturalland.org/merchandise/