Sigrid Sanders

An Old Field in summer

The road that leads to the subdivision where I live in Oconee County, Georgia, is a dead-end strip of crumbling pavement that used to be a part of U.S. Highway 441. Cut off when the highway was re-routed a few years ago, this fragment of road now runs for about a fourth of a mile past a large old weed-covered field, and ends abruptly in a battered red and white striped wooden barrier and a litter of broken glass. At this point, you can stand at the edge of the pavement and look down a rutted slope of tall, rough grass and red clay, past a couple of billboards and a land-for-sale sign, between clumps of kudzu-covered pines, to the busy new highway below.

I walk along this stretch of road almost every day, usually early in the morning or early evening, partly for exercise, but also because I like to see what's happening in the old field. There's always something. Several rough acres overgrown with weedy grasses, shrubs, vines, briars, and clumps of trees, it's a common sight in this part of the South, an anonymous patch of land that for one reason or another has been left alone for a while to grow whatever it will. A power-cut runs through part of it, with wires strung on tall poles where a red-tailed hawk often sits.

Old fields like this are so much a part of our landscape, so familiar, that we take them for granted and don't pay much attention to them. But here in this county, only about an hour's drive from Atlanta, they're disappearing fast, and I suspect that's true in a lot of other places too. As they disappear, we're not losing pristine landscapes, for sure, but we are losing land that's still alive; land in the first, struggling stages of becoming a forest again; and land where plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife can still find a kind of refuge in the increasingly bleak, paved desert of suburbia.

On early summer mornings last year, as I approached the field, I could usually hear the percussive chick-perchickoree-chick of a white-eyed vireo - a small grayish bird with pale yellow sides, white wing bars, yellow spectacles and distinctive white eyes - that hangs out in the deepest thickets in the field. Mockingbirds sat on the wires and sang, or chased each other around the shrubs, white wing patches flashing. From a small, dark, finch-like shape perched at the top of a tall bush, a bold series of paired notes rang out repeatedly, and if the shape took flight, I might catch a glimpse of the intensely blue feathers of an indigo bunting, lit by the morning sun.

The early summer field was a wild mosaic of vegetation in dozens of different shades of green, with streaks of brown and flecks of yellow, purple and red, in the shapes of spires, blades, hearts, curls, needles, lobes, laces, feathers and other variations. Tall grass with wide, sharp blades and feathery red tops grew lushly in the middle of the field, mixed with the bushy spires of horseweed; the fragrant, feathery stems of dogfennel; and a white dusting of common yarrow and daisy fleabane.

Crowding the edges of the field and sprawling across it were thorny blackberry thickets, spotted with hard red fruits and weighted down with masses of Japanese honeysuckle. The lanky shafts of pokeweed bore loose, leathery leaves and long spikes of small white flowers and green berries. Cedars, pines, persimmons, chinaberry, wild plum, young water oaks and sweet gums were scattered throughout the field.

And then there was the kudzu, its rope-like vines and big floppy leaves already beginning to spread over the ground and many of the small trees and shrubs, and threatening even the larger oaks. Later in the season, kudzu would spread across the field into an evil shroud of huge, overlapping dark leaves that blotted out much, though not all, of the vegetation.

In early June this year, before the kudzu had gotten up to speed, the field erupted in the purple blooms of hundreds of thistles. Some were five or six feet tall and showy, with intense, deep color and fierce leaves covered in thorns. Others were shorter, with blooms a paler purple-pink or lilac or rose. Small black and yellow bumblebees and other, tinier insects crawled over the flowers, wading deep in miniature meadows of tender purple petals.

Along the roadside about the same time, several different kinds of grasses and grass-like plants created a surprisingly beautiful mix of textures, shapes and subtle color on the edge of the field. Crabgrass, goosegrass and Bermuda grass grew in awkward clumps or slunk across the poor red dirt, crowding together with other plants to create a rude mob of green blades. Bracted plantain sent up spires of silvery green flower heads that, frosted with dew, looked like soft masses of tapered candles. Mixed among them were furry pink clouds of rabbit's foot clover, polka dots of yellow dandelions, branching stems of coral-colored wild sorrel, the dusky white of Queen Anne's lace, the long-legged, wiry, flower-tipped spikes of blue vervain, a few ox-eye daisies here and there, and the brilliant purple speckles of stiff verbena. Small congregations of false dandelions raised their round bright yellow blooms on slumping stems and turned them toward the morning sun like eager little faces in a classroom.

Before I started walking along this field, I could have named hardly any of these plants. But seeing them daily, close-up, and watching the seasonal changes made me wonder what they were, and many days I'd go back home and pore over field guides and wildflower books, trying to identify what I'd seen. Figuring out even the commonest weeds has often been frustratingly difficult, but gradually I'm becoming familiar with the plants and more confident of their identities. Now I don't see just a "harsh little white star-shaped flower growing on a mean-looking plant." I see the bloom of horse nettle, a member of the nightshade family. The more names I learn, the more fully I appreciate the living community that makes up this field. An anonymous plant or place remains abstract - just a "wildflower" or a "field," and I think that has more than a little to do with our failure to see any value in places like this. We're more likely to care about people, places and things we know than about those we don't know, and most of us who live in the South probably know less about the wildlife of an old field like this, a common part of our own landscape, than we know about tropical rainforests or the penguins of Antarctica.

Early on, I became familiar with bright green bitterweed, one of the commonest plants along the roadside. Topped with sad-looking, drooping, deep gold flowers, it's often accompanied by a few discarded hamburger wrappers or beer bottles or a crumpled cigarette package or two, because it grows in the roughest, poorest places of all, even pushing up its silky, fringe-like leaves through cracks in the pavement.

Except for the birds, my knowledge of the old field's animal life is still sketchy. In early summer, grasshoppers buzzed and flew, and the songs of cicadas had just begun. There were bumblebees, black wasps, an occasional dragonfly, and a few butterflies, like sleepy orange and eastern tailed blue. Honeybees foraged in the roadside wildflowers and seemed especially to like the skimpy greenish-white blooms of the English plantain. Whenever I took the time to look, I could find a well-camouflaged green anole hunting in the shabby jungle of weeds. Many mornings one or two Eastern cotton-tailed rabbits would hop slowly from one side to the other, sometimes stopping at the edge of the grass and waiting, watching me come closer.

The sounds of the old field on a summer morning were as varied and interwoven as the patterns of vegetation - the faint hum, buzz and whine of insects; the twitter of chimney swifts from overhead, the towhees' warbled drink your tea, the blue-gray gnatcatchers' energetic speee-speee-speee, the rolling wichity wichity wichity of a common yellowthroat, the mew of a catbird, the coo of mourning doves, the peep of cardinals, the harsh call note of a brown thrasher, the chatter of Carolina wrens. Against the smoky, droning background of speeding trucks, cars and SUVs on the highway below, the thin, rising notes of a prairie warbler's song seemed lit with exceptional beauty. I often heard the hoarse cry of a red-tailed hawk as it soared, and occasionally - not often - heard the clear, strong, emphatic Bob-White of a quail.

One morning I watched as a female prairie warbler pursued a frantically buzzing cicada through the air, caught it, and landed on the road to struggle with it for two or three minutes before finally subduing it and flying off back into the grass and weeds. Another day, an apparently furious hummingbird chased a mockingbird across the field and out of sight.

But my favorite birds of the summer field, the ones that always brought a smile to my face, were the dowdy little field sparrows, small birds with brown-streaked wings, rusty caps and pink bills, whose airy, cheerful songs - beginning with a series of sweet, slurred whistles and accelerating into a tumble of notes - bounced over the weeds and grasses and wildflowers like seeds blowing in the wind.

As the summer wore on, the blooms of most of the thistles faded, and the dusky flowers of Queen Anne's lace turned brown and curled into husks. The fragrance of honeysuckle and the sweet smell of grass warmed by the sun freshened the highway-polluted air. The showy cups of bigroot morning glories began to appear. Large white flowers with deep burgundy centers, they bloom from vines that grow from a tuberous root that sometimes weighs as much as 30 pounds.

The old field transformed itself subtly every week, every month, with gradually changing mixes of flowers, berries, birds, insects, colors, textures, shapes and sounds. In midsummer, the prickly leaves and yellow blooms of sow thistles became abundant along the roadsides, and for three or four weeks, a young red-tailed hawk sat on a pole in the power cut and screamed over and over, almost every morning.

Toward the end of summer, the purple blooms of common morning glories and the tiny spiky orange-red blooms of red morning glories touched the field like splashes of bright paint. Sunlit foxtails began to wave among the blades of roadside grass. The indigo buntings and field sparrows fell silent, and a half dozen or more young mockingbirds sat on the wires and chased each other among the bushes under the clear, deep, impossible blue of September skies. A trio of blue grosbeaks perched in the ragged stems of the pokeweed. The small, dew-wet webs of funnel weaver spiders littered the roadside grasses in early mornings, scattered like filmy handkerchiefs. Carolina wrens chattered, trilled, sang and fussed. Streaks of red and burnt orange and saffron singed the leaves and grasses. Yellow, orange and brown butterflies drifted from flower to flower, and the field snapped with grasshoppers. One evening in very late summer, a large flock of nighthawks swarmed like mosquitoes in early twilight.

Then, with the fall, came the profusion of blooming ragweed, goldenrod and camphorweed. Their yellow flowers settled like a thick dusting of dirty golden snow across the fading grasses and vines. Blackberry leaves on withering canes began to turn wine-red. White and pale lavender asters sprinkled the field and roadsides, along with the silvery stems and small yellow-white flowers of rabbit tobacco, also known as sweet everlasting. Sulphur butterflies, gulf fritillaries, buckeyes and monarchs flashed wings of lemon-yellow, burning orange, and black and silver stained-glass patterns, and seeds of every description began to drift, fall, float, fly or cling.

By December, the wildflowers were gone and the field had become a study in brown, like an old photograph, faded and curling, the absence of color turning thoughts to the past and to the shadows. Cardinals peeped and towhees called from deep in the tangled gray remains of summer's vines, and the cautious light of chilled afternoons streamed through the broomsedge and lit the field in a lovely rose-brown.

White throated sparrows, song sparrows and juncos, here for the winter, scattered as I approached, diving into the gray-brown bushes and weeds with papery sounds, as if the birds were as dry and light and insubstantial as dead leaves. Large, funereal flocks of black and turkey vultures soared in colorless skies.

This old field is only a scrap of weedy, much abused land. In another few years, at best, the wildflowers and field sparrows and pokeweed will be replaced by gas stations and convenience stores. So my feelings as I walk here every day are colored by the knowledge of how temporary this landscape is. In this pause, this moment in between the old highway and the new shopping strip, this land didn't waste any time. Given only the slightest of breaks, it immediately burst forth with life, making the most of what it had, which was only the poorest soil in difficult conditions, and disreputable, but willing and prolific inhabitants.

Of course, even if no human development interrupted its life, the old field wouldn't stay the same. An old field by nature is a transient place. Left to itself, it would gradually become a woodland - a fact that sounds more like a fantasy because it's so unlikely to happen here.

An old field like this doesn't harbor the rare and obvious treasures of a wilderness area, but it has its place in our landscape and in our lives. It and other places like it are small oases of natural life, right in the middle of the most urbanized and ravaged landscapes. In some ways, their persistence and irrepressible imagination may have as much or even more to tell us about the secrets of life as a pristine place. We can't save every old field, I know, but I hope one day we'll learn to recognize their value and at least think about it first, instead of destroying them as casually as almost certainly will be done here.

Until then, the least and maybe the best that I can do for the old field, I think, is to celebrate its beauty and spirit, to join with it in celebrating life every day, and to miss it when it's gone.

© 2002 Sigrid Sanders