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Secret Summer Garden of the Ozarks

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June 4, 2012 by Joseph C. Neal

I can’t decide what is best: swamp milkweed with masses of reddish-pink flowers well-attended by lady beetles and butterflies? Big colonies of what in later summer will be 8-foot tall sawtooth sunflowers attended by goldfinches on yellow flower heads, sky scraping sky blue? Or the buttonbushes, blooming right now, deep green with perfectly round white spheres of flowers, attended by monarch butterflies?

This is on my mind, from a recent hike through what used to be a bottomland hayfield, too wet often to plow. Thousands of milkweeds are blooming there. I hear familiar bubbling, see a male Red-winged Blackbird atop a buttonbush, then up pops a late migrating, and impossibly immaculate, male Bobolink, white-black-gold, bubble-singer atop milkweed.

Underfoot there’s this constant irregularity: telltale, densely-packed mounds of terrestrial crawfish and crayfish parts. This is crawfish country. It’s real muddy here when it rains.

I’m here because a friend casually mentioned “thousands” of swamp milkweeds, something of a rare flower in Arkansas, and saw a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a rare bird in our neck of the Ozarks. So today our schedules have lined up and we stand among heavenly milkweeds and surprising Bobolink.

Across the field, near a clear water springfed stream, there’s a sycamore with a Warbling Vireo singing, but I can’t see it; bright orange Baltimore Oriole atop; no trouble seeing that.  Three of us just touching fingertips won’t circumnavigate the girth of an old walnut, the fencerow monarch.

So where is this secret milkweed garden, Shangri-La of Ozarkian botanical and ornithological treasure? It’s private land. I’m not allowed to tell the location. I’ve been within a mile or two of it during three decades of trips in pursuit of Great Blue Heron rookeries along this very stream. And it wasn’t just ignorance that kept it hidden. There used to be cows here and anyway, three decades ago I didn’t grasp the relationship between terrestrial crawfish, swamp milkweed, Warbling Vireos, a crawfish eating night-heron. I wouldn’t have known the place if I owned it. Older now, I realize it’s golden.

A male Yellow Warbler sings from willows lining a braided channel associated with the creek. Down in the channel, prairie cordgrass, more milkweed, and witchy-witchy songs of a Common Yellowthroat. Cold clear water here. An ordinary cobble is extraordinary with attached homes of an aquatic insect, tiny bits of colorful rock glued together forming a protective shell.
Later, from bridges over the stream, we spot the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on a gravel bar, plus Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, and a Wood Duck pair.

IF I am a gazillionaire looking for environmental absolution, IF I am of the latter-day wealthy, well then, ipso facto, I hereby spend some of my cash to buy this place, open it up for all who are world weary and need a place like this. I hereby anoint this place chapel and refuge for our oft-crucified human spirit. I wish.

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